Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener


April 27, 2015

Autumn light

The failed septic system in my garden represents the contingency we all live with, raising the question, in my case, of how to get the garden back. So it’s time to pause, look away from the present mess, and recollect the garden’s past–a long Flickr set of photos through the year.

Click on the photo. (When Flickr loads, the diagonal arrows, upper right, will fill your screen.)



Rot, decay, more life

April 20, 2015


Behind the house, a very old Japanese weeping cherry has reached the end of its life. Flowering has declined dramatically over the past few years and limbs have begun to rot and fall.

We’ve lost many trees over the almost ten years I’ve been gardening at Federal Twist. The soil is shallow and wet, with layered rock near the surface, so many simply fall over in heavy wind. Woodpeckers and sapsuckers drill thousands of  holes, causing direct damage to some trees, which weaken, then die. Rot is commonplace.

At the same time, life is everywhere. The rotting timber all around provides home and sustenance for many invertebrate life forms, homes for solitary bees and wasps and beetles. The woodpeckers that thrive on aging snags and dead limbs are emblematic of the processes silently at work here. This is not so much a place defined by decay, as it is a place in which the beginnings and endings of life are in closer acquaintance than elsewhere. Or so it seems.

A local tree care company proposed to do the work I needed. Top on the list was the almost dead weeping cherry planted in 1965 when the house was built.


I’m keeping the main trunk and limbs as a tree sculpture, for a while at least, until it’s so far gone I have to plant a replacement. Virginia creeper is growing up one side and I hope to get it to quickly cover the entire structure. For a few years, it will be glorious in the autumn, covered in brilliant red Parthenocissus quinquefolia fluttering in the sunlight.


And it will make the woodpeckers happy.

The other major problem was a large Blue Atlas Cedar near the front entrance to the house. (You can see it in the background of the photos above and below.) I attributed the dying crown and loss of foliage to the hundreds of holes drilled into the bark by sapsuckers. Now the dead leader has been cut (there’s a replacement leader) and soon the root zone will be treated with nutrient solution, as we try to revive it, or at least extend its life.


The tree specialists also removed dead limbs from the three massive Sycamores just outside the house. These are a singular garden feature. I’m pleased they show no signs of decay … yet.


They tower above everything else in the garden, shelter and cool the house in summer, offer the only shade for sitting outside on hot afternoons, and their mottled bark is a constant wabi-sabi pleasure in all seasons.


Looking out over the flat, clean plate of the garden, it’s hard to imagine the voluminous life that will rise from that dreary earth. But it will, fulfilling the promise hidden deeply in the paradox of life in death, death in life.

“April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing 

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.”

I’ve always felt conflict when I read the opening lines of Eliot’s The Wasteland. The words are about loss of faith and hopelessness, about endings, in the spring, a time that usually awakens other emotions, while the passage as a poetic object, with its precise language, powerfully emotional verbals (breeding, mixing, stirring), and cinematic imagery is a beautiful poetic object that awakes emotions of admiration and aesthetic pleasure, contradicting the very the sense of the passage. A paradox, then–like the landscape of my garden, giving both death and life.


Where not to put a garden

April 15, 2015


The best I can say is that it happened in the early spring. The plants aren’t up yet, and though a great deal of damage has been done, and much more may come, I can at least imagine the damage can be repaired. But in time?

The septic system has been operating with no problem for many decades, but it is old. I knew it would fail someday. Last Sunday, while out broadcasting seed, I noticed the holding tank was overflowing. So I called in someone to pump it out and plumbers to investigate. After failing with minimal exploratory television probes and other less intrusive methods, they cut my 8-foot deer fence and brought in the backhoe.


They started moving from the tank across the end of the garden. I assume many plants will never recover, but still hold out hope some will survive. It happened much too quickly to even think of moving anything. I won’t go into the possible complications. It’s too anxiety provoking.


There’s a six-foot-deep trench across about forty feet of the garden now. Tomorrow? I can only imagine.

The moral of the story is clear.



First salamander

April 12, 2015


One of the guys here to do some tree work last Thursday told me he had seen the largest salamander he’d ever set eyes on in my small reflecting pool. This is a spotted salamander, apparently common, but rarely seen, throughout the eastern US. When I found it the next day, it dove under water, then surfaced in the middle of the pool and just floated motionless. It’s about seven inches long.

This small reflecting pool (as seen last autumn), only about 7 by 7 feet and 8 inches deep, is its home, for how long, I don’t know. It seems very vulnerable to our many raptors and carnivorous mammals.


I saw a baby salamander last year, about 1.5 inches long and a quarter inch wide. I’d like to think this is the one from last year, but that’s wild speculation.

I watched it again yesterday in the late afternoon, which is the time it seems most comfortable floating on the surface. It seemed to be playing, swimming upside down, bending its body this way and that, for longer than I wanted to stay and watch.

My wild style garden is proving itself to be still wild.

Here is the salamander “dancing.”













One of the few disadvantages of a prairie-style garden is the mostly vacant stare it gives you until June.

I have a garden visitor coming in early May, when the garden has barely begun to turn green and most of the high summer’s 12-foot behemoths are only 6 to 10 inches high. It certainly won’t be in character, won’t have the sheer mass, the atmosphere, none of the magic of the big garden of summer. I looked through photos I took of the garden on May 8 of last year, just to remind myself what to expect. (And, yes, to set expectations.)

One can hope for a mysterious atmosphere, but the setting sun and cloudy sky are hard to deliver on cue.


So a better approach might be to focus on process, on the experimental garden, on the emergence of the prairie planting–what Noel Kingsbury calls the “rabbit’s-eye point of view”–to show how the plants grow in interwoven communities covering the ground and create a kind of dynamic stability. This is easy to see at this time of year, especially if you look close up, at or near ground level. Here, Petasites is in flower with native Equisetum arvense filling in the gaps. This is a hybrid called “X Dutch,” which makes a dense, thick carpet only powerful emergents can penetrate.


The pond edge is one of the few happening things now, an intriguing mixture of emerging forms. Camassia can pierce the ground layer, as can Matteuccia struthiopteris. Behind them are several mounds of Sanguisorba canadensis, which vigorously grows up through the mess later in the season. (I think of mess as a positive term. My gardening process is a series of interventions to control mess, refine line and legibility, sculpt mass from mess.)


At the other end of the pond, Darmera peltata is in flower. The Japanese maples add a bit of red in the distance. Equisetum carpets the ground; I’ve grown quite fond of its ancient geometric structure, and its ability to cover the ground without inhibiting the growth of other plants. It gives a pleasant green finish to everything–more or less my “lawn”–at least in this part of the garden, even carpeting the bank, where Hydrangea arborescens and other shrubs will be visible in a few more weeks. (It’s ubiquitous; I do have to pull it out of the gravel path.)




The boundary trees are especially beautiful in very early spring, giving a sense of height and openness. They define the top layer of an increasingly layered garden, as the season advances, and the middle layers fill in.


The bank up to the house and the area below, which lead to a small reflecting pool in the distance, will be a mass of swirling grassy mounds in mid-June. But now, after the cutting and burning, much of the detritus of winter remains though it will soon be hidden under mounds of Miscanthus, and begin to decompose and add to the organic matter in the highly mineral clay soil.


Several communities of competitive plants are on the move in the center of the garden. Two large colonies of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ are visible on the left and right, Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’ has held its own wine-red space for almost 9 years. The spear-shaped leaves are Iris pseudacorus, which I have to pull out every few years, and move to a wet seep in the woodland edge. Several colonies of Joe Pye Weed are here too, but it’s very late to emerge, as are other still invisible plants–Aster laevis ‘Blue Bird’, Sanguisorbas, Aster tartaricus ‘Jin Dai’, Liatris spicata, Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, many Silphium perfoliatum, even a few daylilies for surprise color.


You can see the close growth allows for little weediness. As a continuing experiment, I broadcast seed each year, sort of like throwing the dice, to see what might emerge and find a place to its liking. I have high hopes for two ounces of dust-like seed of Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) I spread about a couple of months back.


Below, an unexpected mixture of Filipendula on the left, Astilbe taquetii ‘Purple Lance’ at lower left, native Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) interweaving among everything, Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’, Iris versicolor, Equisetum arvense, of course, even an Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’ seedling, which I later pulled out. Though all of uniform height now, this will become a multilayered display by mid-summer.


Groundcover is essential to maintaining control in this garden. Here Golden groundsel (Packera aurea) meets Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), and Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus).


Down in the woodland garden is more Packera aurea and Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris).  I encourage both to spread.


A colony of native Bracken has colonized this part of the garden. I used to read this plant is horribly invasive, to be avoided at all costs. But in my heavy clay, it’s easily controlled. It’s become one of my favorite plantings–a great mass of geometric form and texture, becoming like an ocean swell of angular fronds in summer, and gold in autumn.


The old crab apple, planted in 1965, is still going strong. It’s one of the earliest plants to flower in the garden.






Nearing sunset, the garden edge becomes invisible and blends into the woods. This is a transitory garden; it would quickly disappear with a few years of neglect.


 …… so ……

A glimpse of July …












































Thanks to Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry, my garden makes a brief appearance in the April issue of Elle Decor.  I know Nancy and Susan from their recent book, Gardens of the Garden State, where they featured Federal Twist among the astonishing variety of gardens in New Jersey. Only one small caveat; I don’t agree with Elle Decor’s editor saying I “dispensed with a traditional garden all together, filling the area around the house with a meadow.” I see it most definitely as a garden, not a just a meadow. But that’s just a quibble. I understand a magazine needs to tell a compelling story in very few words.

I’m happy to be paired with Sigrid Gray, who formerly managed Piet Oudolf’s Battery Bosque in Manhattan. I met Sigrid once, in the early days of that garden on Manhattan’s Battery.

Yes, to those of you who’ve seen this on facebook, I’m double posting, just for the record.

If you click on the image below, it should expand.

Elle Decor-2



An artist

February 26, 2015

I recently saw an exhibit of the work of Judith Scott at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit runs through March 29. Some of the work is beautiful. Some is deeply emotional, especially once you know her story.

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Paley Park

February 2, 2015

I stopped by Paley Park after visiting the Museum of Modern Art a couple of weeks ago. This is one of my favorite places in Manhattan. Probably one of the most tranquil places in Manhattan too, especially when it’s empty in early evening.

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MOMA Garden (yes, on iPhone)

January 28, 2015

Went to see Matisse cutout exhibition. Of course, I stopped to visit the garden.

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The Circle: Finished

January 26, 2015

We finished the stone circle last Friday, the day of my self-imposed deadline. Fortunate, because about five inches of snow fell Friday night.

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The Circle: Progress

January 21, 2015

One more day of work and it will be finished, just before a possible snow storm this weekend.

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In praise of weather (again)

January 7, 2015

I look at photos of Dutch and British gardens and am a little envious to see how long and gentle their autumns seem to be.  Our climate in the Northeast US is vastly different; our foul and stormy weather often comes much sooner. The garden was decimated by snow and freezing rain Thanksgiving week, two months earlier than last year. […]

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Stone circles

December 23, 2014

I’d been thinking about making more open space in my garden for a long time … a significant feature, somewhere in the middle. Then Carrie Preston visited from The Netherlands last summer and said, “Why don’t you use more stone. You have so much. Use what you have.” Or something to that effect. I eventually would […]

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December 21, 2014

Flaxmere, a garden near Christchurch, on the South Island of New Zealand, is a quiet beauty. We visited in February 2014, in the height of summer there. The country has such extraordinary growing conditions, some New Zealand gardens

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Weather traces … funny moods

December 1, 2014

First snow, November 13, one-half inch, but heavy and wet. Though the snow flattened much of the garden, it recovered in a day.

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Apocynum cannabinum – Dogbane

November 30, 2014

From Wikipedia Apocynum cannabinum (Dogbane, Amy Root, Hemp Dogbane, Prairie Dogbane, Indian Hemp, Rheumatism Root, or Wild Cotton) is a perennial herbaceous plant that grows throughout much of North America – in the southern half of Canada and throughout the United States. It is a poisonous plant: Apocynum means “poisonous to dogs”. All parts of the plant are poisonous and can cause cardiac arrest if ingested. The cannabinum in the […]

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Atmosphere in the dying garden

November 20, 2014

Last photos, taken November 13, before a small snow and plunging temperatures. Winter arrives in another month, but the last few days have felt like February. I’ve been reading about atmosphere and mood, but I’m not sure it’s possible to put a name to what I feel in the garden. Perhaps it’s too personal, perhaps it […]

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November 15, 2014

My friend Marc has been in Finland the past few weeks. It was very cold and rainy. These photos have a magical atmosphere that almost makes me want to go there. He traveled alone.

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Light in Autumn

October 22, 2014

Low and warm, the autumnal light sculpts the landscape of plants into a deep, three-dimensional screen. Backlit grasses and foliage glow, and sparks of light reflected through long irregular interstices give the garden a power lost almost totally when the day turns glum and cloudy.

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New Book: Gardens of the Garden State

October 20, 2014

You might question why anyone would make a book on the gardens of New Jersey. In fact, that’s a question the authors asked themselves before they started the research for this book.

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“Everyone was incredibly enthusiastic”

October 16, 2014

Well, that’s what Noel said. It seemed to ring true. Everyone was lively and happy and interested.

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Hillside Garden of Rooms

October 12, 2014

It was proof, yet again, that looking at photographs is an entirely different experience from actually seeing a garden. Michael Gordon’s garden in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is one I’ve admired for years in photographs but experienced for the first time only last August at the Garden Conservancy Open Days. The astonishing composition of textures, shapes, and colors above is a […]

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Garden Conservancy Open Days – Oct. 18 – Please Come

October 2, 2014

Click photo for information and directions. Featuring a plant sale by Broken Arrow nursery.

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Federal Twist in Sept./Oct. issue of Horticulture

September 15, 2014
Thumbnail image for Federal Twist in Sept./Oct. issue of Horticulture

Tovah Martin wrote a superb on-point article on my garden for the September/October issue of Horticulture magazine. Rob Cardillo took great photos. You can read Tovah’s words in the most recent issue of Horticulture (I’m not so sure you can easily read her text in the scans in this post). Rob’s photos were extraordinary, but printing on […]

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PHS Garden Tour a Great Success

September 9, 2014

Federal Twist was on the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society’s Bucks County Garden tour last Sunday. (Okay, I’m in New Jersey. But Bucks County is only three miles away!) We had a great turnout–far more visitors than I expected at this time of year. The garden is in one of those “in between” times so I set up […]

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