I’ve never written about marginal gardening–at least not using that specific term. But the concept has been background to my gardenmaking from the beginning. I first encountered the term, and some of its meanings, in a little-known book* by a Scottish scientist and poet, G.F. Dutton. The book’s title, Some Branch Against the Sky: The Practice and Principles of Marginal Gardening is “poetic” in the extreme, and the subject of the book, making a very personal garden in a wild and inhospitable part of Scotland, resonated in my consciousness for reasons I still don’t fully understand.
These images, taken last autumn in late October and November (our first snow), give me an opportunity to write a bit about marginal gardening. The physical disintegration of the late garden brings the surrounding wild woodland to the fore, transparently merging wild with human-managed territory.
Marginal gardening is a concept that exists in many guises, I think ( e.g., sense of place, right plant right place, ecological gardening, rewilding, creation of novel ecologies). The concept of marginality may have significant benefits for us as we change our world beyond recognition, complacently making it less able to support civilization and life. The practice of marginal gardening offers potential for bringing our gardens into tune with the ecology of their places, and, importantly, for bringing life back to the cookie-cutter American suburban lawnscape–by now essentially an ecological desert extending across vast stretches of the North American continent.
Here I’m writing about the applicability of a concept I’ve been practicing in a garden in the woods to large suburban areas; a bit ironic, no? But the concept of gardening margins is certainly not a new idea. Many garden writers, designers, ecologists, planners, landscape architects–indeed, anyone with an interest in saving our vanishing green world–have suggested similar approaches in suburban areas: planting more trees and shrubs to interrupt those vast lawns and provide diversity and habitat, using native plants to support wildlife and invertebrate populations, making hedgerow-like linkages along property lines to expand habitat and create wildlife corridors.
Marginal, in this context, can have several meanings, most with rather negative connotations, so it may be helpful to mention a few meanings of “marginal”:
Not of central importance/at the edge of significance
Outside the mainstream of thought or society
Barely or only partially viable or of little value
Meeting only minimal requirements
In my case, I like the term because it describes my inhospitable garden site, which is characterized by heavy clay, high nutrient levels, and extreme wet–marginal in the extreme. The word also has a direct horticultural application to describe plants growing at the margin of land and water, not entirely unsuitable to areas of my garden.
All such definitions point to a central concept: edge. And it is with edges that I am concerned because edges are ecologically active areas; they provide a rich environment for plants and plant mixing to occur. In the urban context, that concern would extend particularly to waste edges and the opportunities such waste areas provide for beneficial use.
Edges can be complex or simple, open or closed. Above, the edge is visually closed, though quite open to movement of air, water, and vertebrates and invertebrates. It’s perhaps helpful to clarify edge composition here. The trees behind and the large Juniper trunk in the foreground are native to the site. The Miscanthus, a grass of Japanese origin, is of course a horticultural addition. The red-painted logs also are an artificial adornment, part of a circle of six logs I’ve made a feature of the garden, a symbol, and a red complement to the intense green of spring and summer. They rot, and I replace them periodically. Thus, marginal gardenmaking can involve complex mixtures of “natural” and human-made, even aesthetic, elements, though they must look appropriate to place.
Another aspect of marginal gardenmaking is the matching of plants to each other and to the site’s ecology. You will be unlikely to achieve a Piet Oudolf-style garden in marginal areas. The land and its ecology will govern in all cases, and you must know or discover what will grow, what will thrive, and what plant communities will evolve in the site as given. I experimented for many years to find plants that could thrive in my difficult conditions, and I continue to do so. (But more on that in other posts.)
Edges and margins are rich in opportunity because they are areas of change. New things can happen there. New seeds can find places to germinate. Plants from different places arrive and, if suited to conditions there, they cohabit and thrive. Plant communities may develop, or not. Marginal areas are like gateways, offering passage from one place to another, both literally and metaphorically. They give space to new mixtures of plants and to new combinations of thought, ideas, concepts, and new aesthetic and emotional opportunities.
This close-up view of Inula stems and the plant’s dead, dried foliage illustrates the emotional power of a thing as simple as a dead plant. Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’ is a plant rich in character. (This is the same plant seen from a distance in the previous image.) It’s easy to understand why Wolfgang Oehme was so fond of it. Though I’ve read its origin is somewhere near the Himalayas, it “works” visually, aesthetically, and emotionally in my western New Jersey woodland garden.
In 2018, we had our first snow in mid-November, starting as a light dusting before changing to a heavy, wet snow overnight. The light snow erases real and imagined garden boundaries. The marginal garden becomes completely integrated into the surrounding woodland.
The snow also amplifies scale, and in this sense only, more clearly demarks the border of the garden and start of the woodland tree line (above and below).
More important, though, is the emotion conveyed, the transparency, of these images. Words seem a crude tool to describe the delicate visual qualities and romantic coloring, which speak for themselves. The stippled effect of the snowflakes gives the images the look of etchings.
Overnight the snow increased and by morning, the garden was a world of glistening ice. (I think the clichè is warranted.) The effect was transformative.
Morning sunlight streaming through the trees into the garden unifies the scene. There is no edge, no boundary. All is margin …
… except for the elevated plain where the house sits, with its own territory demarcated like an island, and a complex multi-stemmed snag (formerly a Japanese weeping cherry), unlike simpler snags in the woodland below but sharing much of their character, reigns like a beacon.
*(As a related aside, landscape architect Julian Raxworthy uses E.F. Dutton’s garden, as documented in One Branch Against the Sky, as one case study in his recent book, Overgrown: Practices between landscape architecture and gardening. Raxworthy’s publisher describes the book as “a call for landscape architects to leave the office and return to the garden.” This is a fascinating and potentially very influential book you may want to look into.)
“Lust?” As in passion? sex? craving? sensuality? longing? fervor? desire?
The subject of Christopher Woods’ new book Gardenlust is the unquenchable impulse of humankind to create gardens, an impulse expressed in diverse and multitudinous ways. It is “the force that through the green fuse drives the flower,” but to my mind it is more about the force than about the flower. In a very real sense, the book is about what happens before the garden is, before the garden becomes. And about what keeps the gardenmaker making gardens. It’s about human nature.
Gardenlust is a big book—big both physically and conceptually. Woods spent several years traveling the world visiting an astonishing variety of gardens. Don’t ask what kind of gardens. Its aim is broader than any single garden school or design movement. It’s a breath of fresh air, and it’s completely open-ended—not about design principals, new planting theory, the history of garden ideas. I can’t even begin to guess why Woods chose the gardens in Gardenlust. But the lust particular to gardenmakers abounds: Peter Korn in Sweden, a current hot ticket gardener and designer and experimenter known widely among the cognoscenti of the gardening world but virtually unknown to the vast gardening unwashed, Luciano Giubbilei, a “star” designer and Chelsea winner whose garden in Marrakech he designed for a very wealthy South African family who lives part time in London …
…, a new “feel good” botanic garden in Oman dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of this part of the Arabian Peninsula, the new Pha Tad Ke Botanical Garden in Laos, which can be reached only by boat, Gibbs Farm, a sculpture garden of a fabulously successful businessman in New Zealand dotted with art works by some of the most well known artists in the world, even my own small prairie simulacrum on wet clay in western New Jersey where an imaginary prairie grows dreams of a prairie that never was.
Don’t look for thematic connections among the many gardens in the book, or really any common thread.
As Woods writes, “I continue to fall in love with this extraordinary world and its botanical marvels … I am a romantic fool … I want everyone to fall in love with our world too, and with gardening’s potential for adding beauty to the world … After a life spent in public horticulture, I began traveling the world in search of gardens … I moved from conformity to chaos, only to find out it wasn’t chaos at all.”
Woods’ book takes a mostly nonjudgmental look at the creative ferment that drives the creation of new gardens. To document what is happening now, he limited his search to gardens created in the past twenty years. It doesn’t matter whether the garden is the personal work of one individual, a corporate landscape, or a large botanical garden made by institutions, committees, and talented experts, or a public landscape.
To keep this wide ranging book within a corral of understanding, Woods has organized it by culture and continent; he covers all of them except for Antarctica. You may, perhaps, think some of the “gardens” are not gardens at all, but Woods makes no attempt to define “garden” or to limit what a garden can be so keeps himself in pretty safe territory. This kind of openness is something new, at least in my experience and you too may find it, as I did, liberating.
I read the book from front to back to make sure I didn’t miss a garden, but I think the best approach for most readers is to keep Gardenlust in a convenient place—you’ll like to have it out and visible because it has one of the most beautiful and arresting dust jackets I’ve seen in years—and pick it up to read about one or two gardens at a time. Dip into the book at random, or pick a continent and read about a garden in Singapore, or Oman, or Florida or Europe. Chances are you will encounter few gardens you already know.
If the book has a message, I think it is this. See as many gardens as you can see. And remember, always, to keep an open mind.
I agree. We need to think anew about gardens in this disrupted world of mass extinctions, and possibly worse to come. The impulse to garden may be one of the keys to our own survival.
Confusion seems to reign in the naming of an increasingly popular, and to my eye, very beautiful, resilient, and easy shrub. Many of us have seen different variations of the name and wondered what is correct. Are there different species, or are the names simply confused?
Taxonomist Julian Shaw of the Royal Horticultural Society has at last provided the correct nomenclature. Here’s how I found out.
My friend Giacomo Guzzon, a landscape architect in London, is visiting this week. We’ve been looking at several of my own Lindera shrubs, at many others used on the Princeton University campus by Michael Van Valkenburgh, and at even others at Chanticleer Garden.
Giacomo sent a message off to the affable and extremely knowledgeable Jared Barnes, PhD, assistant professor of horticulture at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. We remembered Jared had just posted on Lindera naming.
Jared sent Giacomo a link to the Friends of the JC Raulston Arboretum (JCRA) Newsletter, Spring 2015 – Vol. 18, No. 1. You can find the details at this link.
It appears that the names Lindera sacilifolia and glauca are not valid names. In fact, there are two varieties of Lindera angustifolia. The Lindera growing in mainland China, which has soft hairs, is Lindera angustifolia var. angustifolia, and the Lindera growing in western Korea is Lindera angustifolia var. glabra, with smooth leaves.
At last I know what I have in my garden (I hope). Lindera angustifolia var. glabra.
All photos by Giacomo Guzzon (except the one he’s in!).
Claire Takacs’ Dreamscapes: Inspiration and Beauty in Gardens Near and Far is a welcome addition to the canon of photographic garden books. This book of notable gardens, some very well known, some less so, is far more than another pretty coffee table book. Takacs (pronounced “Ta-kahsh” with a long “a” and accent on the second syllable) values light above all else, and she shoots her images in the light of early morning and at the end of day, in fog and mist, or in other singular lighting conditions. Her techniques create images that are gripping and compelling. (Her work is frequently seen in the best garden magazines.) As this new book shows, Takacs gives us a new way of seeing gardens.
Takacs’ unique perspective makes looking through her book a tireless adventure, even after multiple viewings, and its generosity of spirit gives you plenty to see and think on. You’ll always find something you missed. The book is a valuable resource for designers, garden aficionados, or simply anyone with an interest in gardens. I’ve read reviews that see a message in the book about naturalistic gardens, but I’m hard put to decipher one myself–other than delight in exploration of design, plants, lighting, moods, space, in fact any of the innumerable elements that can go into the making of a garden.
Takacs presents gardens in a new light. Her photographs of two extremely famous gardens–for example, Piet Oudolf’s Hummelo in The Netherlands and Le Jardin Plume in Normandy–show her unique approach. Takacs concentrates on the play of early morning and late-day light in the gardens she photographs. And this technique often brings out an entirely new feeling, so that gardens we are used to seeing endlessly photographed almost look like different gardens. Take this photograph of Piet Oudolf’s Hummelo, for example.
Takacs aims for a feeling, and a new understanding, of an extraordinarily well known garden. Whereas most photographs of an Oudolf garden give close attention to the structures, textures, and colors of individual perennials and perennial masses, Takacs presents an overall mood, indeed a moodiness, that shows the garden in an entirely new way. Most importantly, she presents the garden as a part of a larger landscape.
This photograph is unlike any other I’ve seen of this extraordinarily well known garden–in fact, a garden that has become a virtual “requirement” for anyone with an interest in Oudolf and the New Perennial style. Takacs, by catching the surrounding agricultural fields in the morning light and throwing the garden proper into shade, behind a great camel-backed hedge, makes context the most important element in the image. I find this photograph extremely provocative, and it makes me think of Oudolf’s work in new ways.
Similarly, her photographs of Patrick and Sylvie Quibel’s Le Jardin Plume in Normandy glorify the light of the sun …
… while thrusting the viewer’s eye down to the hard, brick paving and out toward the landscape, deemphasizing planting detail, a detail that is by far the most well known and recognized aspect of this garden. Landscape, atmospheric effects, mood are Takacs’ hallmarks, and she gives us a new way of seeing gardens we’ve become familiar with—or think we have.
Or take this garden by Fernando Martos in Spain. She beautifully captures mood in the sidelighting of the trees, the spots of light and dark in the meadowish planting, contrasting it with the dark plain of the background trees.
Dividing my time between my garden in far western New Jersey and city life in Brooklyn, it’s hard to know what individual garden makers are up to around the world. Sure, I read the garden magazines, socialize in an Internet way via Facebook and Instagram, attend conferences, follow blogs. I know the trends—the loose, herbaceous perennial nebulae and galaxies of gardens in the meadowish style, along with the tremendous influence of Piet Oudolf both on design and plant selection across much of the world, the more traditional Anglophile traditions of Rousham and Sissinghurst and Great Dixter and other icons of gardening, the rigid symmetries of Versailles and the Italian Renaissance gardens, the Char Bag gardens of India and paradise gardens of Iran, and the gardens of Asia, particularly Japan.
But beyond all this are innumerable lesser known and unknown gardens—at least to the general public. Many gardens that I, for example, have failed to find, even when traveling with an eye to seeing gardens.
So much depends on chance contacts, a bit read here or there, the word of a person one trusts, access to local knowledge. So Claire Takacs’ new book is a welcome addition, providing a useful resource for those seeking new gardens to visit.
Though based in Australia, Takacs travels the world every year seeking out the best subjects for her photography.
She asks about gardens, seeks them out, and uses her highly personal techniques to make extraordinary photographs. Wave Hill (above) is one such garden I suggested she add to her list when she was on a photography trip to the Northeast US several years ago. She has many sources and is constantly planning visits to photograph gardens throughout the world from her home base in Melbourne, Australia.
Takacs’ new book is a valuable guide to those seeking gardens to visit, and a stunning book of photographic documentation worth a thorough study. I recommend it to you.
In the interest of being totally candid, my garden is in this book (and is certainly one of the lesser known gardens in it).
After another Garden Conservancy Open Day on July 14, Chester Higgins sent me a few iPhone photos of the garden. Chester isn’t just any visitor with a camera; he’s a well known and accomplished photographer with a long career at the New York Times. He even has his own Wikipedia page.
During the Open Day, Chester showed me some of his photos in black and white. Later, he sent me some of his images in color. I’ve converted them back to black and white (because they were a revelation to me) and made some edits to fit them to my blog format.
Chester said he’s interested in apertures, so here are two variations on a theme.
Several Inulas, erect and bunched like models, overhung by a willow, with a dash of grass from the side. An interesting study in texture and form.
The stairway up to the house terrace – like a jungle – in two variations.
And the “canal” pond, low and long.
Garden people may find Chester’s portfolio of photographs of large, dried leaves – Apparitions – of special interest. Rather amazing.
This guest post is the second in a series on planting design by Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect working in central London for Gillespies, a large, international landscape design firm. Unlike most landscape architects, Giacomo has an extensive knowledge of plants not common in the profession. He believes landscape architects need to be much more knowledgeable in planting design so that they are able to create characterful, living landscapes that meet the needs of users and reflect existing ecological conditions and sense of place. He is a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer in planting design at Greenwich University School of Landscape Architecture in London. He travels widely to meet designers from all over the world, observe planting projects in different climates and environments and share his passion with other professionals.
While a movement toward a more naturalistic look in planting design has been widely adopted in many parts of the world over the past several decades, garden designers in the Mediterranean region have mostly kept to clipped evergreens and a limited range of plants naturally adapted to a hot, dry climate and lean soil. Seeking to broaden the palettes in which they work, some Spanish designers are breaking new ground and beginning to use grasses and herbaceous perennials with light, delicate structures, the ability to sway and move in the wind, to “perform” in all seasons, and to evoke a wider range of emotional responses throughout the year. It is surprising how resilient and sustainable such designs are proving to be, largely owing to the willingness of some designers to experiment with plants from other parts of the world as well as plants usually associated with more northerly latitudes.
A few years ago while reading Gardens Illustrated, I by chance came across an article featuring a residential project by Fernando Martos. At the time I didn’t know much about Fernando’s work but I was immediately drawn to the beauty of his design and surprised by how well his experimental planting fit the Spanish countryside. The plantings looked different and unusual, but at the same time appropriate to their context. I think this was the first time I’d seen such a light and airy herbaceous planting in a Mediterranean climate.
I was curious to find out what perennials and grasses, many of which are commonly used in Northern Europe, were thriving in Spain. I eventually contacted him and asked to visit some of his projects.
Fernando kindly agreed and last summer I flew to Madrid and spent a weekend with him visiting gardens. My timing wasn’t good (or perhaps it was perfect); I managed to visit Madrid during one of the worst heat waves of the summer; temperatures were around 36C (97F). So armed with big water bottles, we started the tour.
Finca las Tendas
The first garden we visited after my arrival in Madrid was Finca las Tendas. This project is in a rural area with vineyards north of the capital, designed around several newly refurbished one-story buildings used as a venue for weddings and events.
The building layout creates a central rectangular space, surrounded by the venue on three sides and open to the carpark on one side. Fernando divided this large central space and created two main garden rooms by planting tall evergreen hedges, which also separate the garden from the carpark.
The larger garden room has a central area, which lies lower than the surrounding buildings and is planted with Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Skyline’ trees. These light canopy trees are evenly spaced and planted on a grid, to filter the light and provide some shade while still maintaining an open character. This place, surfaced with self-binding gravel, is used for gatherings and buffets.
The geometrical pattern of trees is completely appropriate to its utilitarian uses, and visually links it with rows of grape vines planted in the fields outside.
Between the central area and the venue, generous planting beds wrap around the open area, creating a transparent buffer. These beds are planted with Salix purpurea pruned in cloud forms and intermingled with colourful perennials. Salix purpurea is a very robust shrub that thrives in exposed and coastal sites, and it responds very well to regular pruning. While Fernando uses some elements typical of Mediterranean gardens, like the pruned shrubs, he puts them to a new use, for example by juxtaposing topiary with perennials and grasses unexpected in a Spanish setting.
The perennial plant species Fernando uses are unusual for the area. He selects species that can cope with the heat and the challenging growing conditions. These species, although not typical or indigenous to central Spain, give a pleasantly fresh, airy and colourful feeling to the composition and surprisingly don’t conflict visually with the surrounding landscapes. A plant like Panicum virgatum, an American native, is a very drought tolerant species (in fact, I have seen it growing in pure sand in a very hot valley within the Walking Dunes on the east end of Long Island in New York). Verbena bonariensis, Calamagrostis, Hemerocallis spp., Iris barbata, Veronicastrum, Sedum, Agapanthus, Stipa tenuissima, Calamintha nepeta and Echinacea can all cope with the hot temperatures and were thriving with the help of some irrigation during the hottest months. All these exotic perennials, combined with native plants, such as Laurus nobilis, Quercus ilex, Morus alba and Olea europea, create a new and unexpected atmosphere and help to connect this project with its rural Spanish location.
The two rectangular pools, one in each garden, mirror the sky and the adjacent planting and at the same time unconsciously convey to the visitors a feeling of freshness, a much welcomed illusion in the torrid summer. Moreover, the shapes of the pools recall the long irrigation ditches that one can see in the countryside, another subtle element that anchors this garden in the wider landscape.
The second garden we visited near Guadalajara had a more rural setting; it is immersed in gently sloping hills planted with olive trees located roughly 60 km north-east of Madrid. The garden is surrounded by a rolling landscape, and the approach drive from the main road to the house on a country road creates a feeling of anticipation as you near the house and garden.
The private house, a weekend retreat of a couple from Madrid, is a modern white finca, or country home. The entrance garden at the top of the driveway echoes the building’s linear, low, simple character. Fernando decided that this area needed a simple and formal approach to feel appropriate next to the modern house. The entrance landscape features a large block of Miscanthus sinensis ‘Ferner Osten’ and another one of Escallonia spp. gently pruned into a rectangular form.
After arriving we quickly walked around the corner of the house where we encountered a completely different atmosphere. The back garden has a central lawn area for the children’s activities, surrounded by large planting beds that frame the garden and blend it with the surrounding landscapes.
The planting is colourful and lively, and gives a varied, exciting character to the place.
To the right of the main house and in front of the guest house, a large perennial meadow stretches into the surrounding fields and blurs the garden’s boundary. Fernando here designed a plant community that is able to withstand dry soils and torrid heat. Lavandula is intermingled with Perovskia, Stachys byzantina, Iris germanica, Stipa tenuissima, Phlomis russeliana, Achillea and some evergreen shrubs pruned in cloud form. These shrubs link this meadow with the other part of the garden around the pool.
An essential element of the planting is the use of dark blocks of clipped Escallonia whose mass and stillness contrast dramatically with the lively, light-filled wands of Stipa gigantea. “For me,” Fernando said, “that effect is very important and a key of the project.”
Fernando’s remark is certainly revealing. It clearly tells us that he is seeking subtle effects that are something new in Mediterranean planting design. He is experimenting and pushing the boundaries to find plants that can thrive in his local conditions.
The pool area lies below the grade of the surrounding garden and it is planted almost exclusively with evergreen shrubs, though, as noted above, given a lively sparkle by interplanted Stipa. These shrubs resemble the native vegetation that can be seen all around the property, helping integrate the garden with the wider landscape.
Because the pool has no edge and no fence is visible, it seems to be immersed in the Mediterranean vegetation.
Fernando Martos’ work represents an important part of a new movement in Mediterranean landscape design, especially in the Madrid area. It combines the botanical richness, eclecticism and abundance of plants from other parts of the world with the evergreen forms and prominent structural plants typically present in Mediterranean gardens.
It will be interesting to see how these new design approaches develop in Spain, and how they evolve and influence planting design in other parts of the Mediterranean region.
We left for over three weeks in Barcelona and southern France in early May last year and returned in early June. I entirely missed spring in the garden.
Then yesterday I got a text message from garden designer friend, Keith Gibialante, who lives across the Delaware in Pennsylvania.
It seems Keith came by to visit while I was away last spring, and finding I wasn’t at home, let himself into the garden and took some photos. (He has a standing invitation to visit, so long as he latches the gate on exit to keep the deer out.)
In yesterday’s text message Keith said he thought he forgot to let me know he’d visited, and he included a link to his photos.
It seems I just discovered last spring in the garden!
I liked the images so much (you should see the garden now, after cutting and burning, and a March with four nor’easters, and now rain; it’s beyond dreary), I asked Keith if I could use them in a brief blog post, to remind myself that … indeed … spring will eventually arrive.
Looking at Keith’s photos makes me feel a lot better.
The sitting area outside the house gets a lot of morning sun, as does the house, with its large floor-to-ceiling windows. The wide eaves cut off the direct sun inside by about 10 am and three large Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), planted when the house was built in 1965, shade the outside area all afternoon. I’m sure “sustainable design” wasn’t a term anyone had thought of back then, but the architect, William Hunt, was a fine one and he clearly took some useful lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright and from Japanese design.
Down in the garden, across from the house, are a paved pathway across the garden and a circle of stone, reminiscent of Jens Jensen, overlooked by three large Salix udensis ‘Sekka’ (Japanese fantail willows).
The chairs (from Dan Benarcik of Chanticleer) make a lovely structural contrast with the emergent wild look of the garden. By mid-summer, they will be invisible.
Below is the main path across the center of the meadowish garden.
A bronze sculpture at the back of the garden, made by Marc Rosenquist, emerges from a colony of Petasites japonicus.
The central path across the garden again. The white flowering shrub is a Viburnum mariesii, a small tree among the more than eighty Juniperus virginiana we cut down to make space for the garden. I cut the Viburnum to the ground but it clearly wants to come back. I think it was probably planted when the house was built, so keep it for historical and sentimental reasons.
You can just see the “head” of my long box “caterpillar” in the middle right surrounded by a sea of Inula, most of which were removed when I returned from vacation.
A small reflecting pool nestled up against the bank up to the house (above).
And the view from above. Thanks, Keith.
All photos courtesy of Keith Gibialante. All rights reserved.
Resilient and sustainable planting design has become a subject of major interest in the world of landscape architecture, particularly for urban parks and public horticulture. Significantly, Marc Treib has organized a major symposium on the importance of planting design in landscape architecture at the University of California at Berkeley for February 2018 (The Aesthetics of Planting Design). Such a major international conference devoted to this subject is rather epochal in the world of landscape architecture, particularly in the United States, where landscape architects are assumed to care and know little about plants, though this seems to be changing. One who clearly does is Michael Van Valkenburgh, whose work I have had the opportunity to see a lot of, living in New York City. In 2013 Van Valkenburgh said in Landscape Architecture magazine:
“When I first taught at Harvard in the early 1980s, a colleague … told me that landscape architects need to know only 10 species of trees, 10 of ground covers, and 10 of shrubs—the super-hardy ones. This is like telling writers they can use only 30 words. There is no possibility for subtlety, precision, and richness, but plenty for uniformity and boredom. When the vocabulary of landscape architecture is chosen based only on the need for easy and economical plant survival, it is impoverished.”
This guest post is the first in a series by Giacomo Guzzon, an Italian landscape architect, and a close friend, working in central London for Gillespies, a large, international landscape design firm. Unlike most landscape architects, Giacomo has an extensive knowledge of plants not common in the profession. He is also a visiting tutor in planting design at Sheffield University and a visiting lecturer in planting design at Greenwich University School of Landscape Architecture in London.
Over the summer Giacomo arranged for a tour of plantings designed by Ton Muller, a Dutch landscape architect in Amsterdam who works for the city design office. Ton has developed a reputation for sustainable and visually appealing plantings in public urban spaces. On that summer day, they were accompanied by Ton’s co-worker Joost de Wit, a landscape architect who formerly worked with Giacomo at Gillespies, and Alessandro Solci, another landscape architect and co-worker in Amsterdam.
Here is Giacomo’s report on what Ton is doing across the Channel.
As a landscape architect working for a large firm in London I’m fortunate to be able to meet designers from all over the world. I strongly believe in the importance of sharing ideas and knowledge and, being a part of such an international environment, I’m able to explore how other landscape architects are using planting design, and to observe best practices in other countries and other climates. To help sensitize other landscape architects to the importance of planting design, I organise garden visits and planting walks with my colleagues, and I also often travel and meet designers from other parts of the world. Sharing a common interest and passion is a great way to meet other professionals, learn from their experience, and spread the word.
I’ve admired the work of Ton Muller for a long time, having first discovered it on Instagram. When I learned that my former Dutch colleague, Joost, was working in the same office in Amsterdam, I immediately told Joost of my wish to meet him. Ton kindly agreed to show me a few projects around the city, so back in June I travelled to the Netherlands to meet him. I was particularly interested in his work because, among his other interests as a landscape architect, he is designing planting projects in public spaces–an area of particular interest to me.
A few years before, while on a tour with other horticulturally inclined friends, I had the opportunity to see one of his projects, the Orlyplein square in front of Sloterdijk Station, and I was extremely impressed with his work. The planting was lively and full of colour, but at the same time robust and sustainable. And it felt appropriate in its context, using a wide, mixed herbaceous planting to separate the rail station and commercial area from a large bicycle park opposite it.
Ton was trained as a landscape architect and has many years of experience designing public spaces for the city of Amsterdam. He told me that he has been interested in plants since he was a kid. Interestingly, he prefers to design plantings for public spaces rather than gardens. Ton sees urban planting as one of the important elements of the wider cityscape; therefore resiliency, biodiversity, beauty, and toughness have the highest priority.
On our first stop, we visited a series of plantings within larger lawn areas along a busy street (Van Leijenberghlaan) not too far from the Amsterdam South Station. These beds were planted several years ago and since then have been maintained by the city.
Maintenance is minimal and only involves cutting the plants down in spring. It’s interesting to observe how this planting is developing considering that, after the establishment period of only a few months after planting, no additional irrigation has been provided. This is an experimental planting; some plants are growing better than others, and some species are clearly dominating such as Molinia, Salvia and Helianthus. Phlomis russeliana and Coreopsis tripteris have also self-seeded among the beds. Here plants were planted singly and in small groups within a Molinia matrix.
This rather simple planting is more easily cared for by city staff who don’t have the time to tailor a sophisticated maintenance regime. They will simply mow the planting.
We then moved to a smaller residential street planted in the centre with a double row of trees. In the buffer area between the buildings and the pavement, Ton designed a planting to withstand drought and shade while looking good throughout the year. Here some plants were installed in much larger groups than in the previous project. Liriope muscari and Brunnera macrophylla are used to cover large areas and within this green carpet smaller groups of more characterful perennials, such as Rodgersia aesculifolia, Aruncus dioicus, Bergenia ‘Eroica’, Polystichum setiferum, Anemone and Kirengeshoma palmata, were used to add variation and interest.
This scheme is very successful and plants are thriving happily in the dappled shade of the existing trees. Along the buildings’ boundary line Hydrangea aspera macrophylla was planted to soften the edge between the planting and the apartment blocks.
The Rodgersia aesculifolia was looking particularly healthy and happy in this dry, shady area, even without irrigation. I was quite surprised because I’d always thought Rodgersia was a far more moisture dependant species. This planting shows how a sustainable scheme with low inputs can be achieved when the right plants are chosen. Ton selected only species that are resilient and robust and do not demand any special maintenance, especially considering that the city will take care of these beds.
Another thing this planting taught me was that plants often respond to environments in ways very different from what is taught in books. Actual experience growing the plants is absolutely essential to learning how they respond to different growing conditions.
The tour continued through the Mahlerplein on the top of a bike garage Ton designed. This planting was different from all the others; it did not use any herbaceous perennials.
The square features a series of lawns retained by a continuous stone bench/wall and offers the perfect spill-out area for people working in the surrounding buildings during lunchtime. Only Gleditsia and Robinia trees (six different cultivars) were planted, all very resilient and drought resistant species, with a rather light canopy allowing light to reach the ground and creating a comfortable open environment. The city of Amsterdam is paying a lot of attention to the selection of trees for new projects in order to diversify the tree stock with more resilient and stress tolerant species. This example shows how a successful planting design responds to the function and character of a place. In this case, maximizing useable space was more important than creating an ornamental environment.
We then continued the tour in the neighbourhood close to the South Station, which is undergoing a major redevelopment. This planting was particularly interesting because it showed perennials used in groups and scattered in random matrices. One simple but effective mix was designed for a very dry and challenging site, a narrow bed in the rain shadow of a cantilevered building, using Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokovo’, Liriope muscari ‘Moneymaker’ and Carex morrowii planted in random layout among groups of Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae and Phlomis russeliana.
On the other side of the street, an area below large existing canopy trees was planted with a woodland mix. Here the shrub layer is composed of large existing shrubs and some new groups of Hydrangea quercifolia ‘Sikes Dwarf’ dotted among the perennials. The groundcover layer is composed of tough, robust species such as Euphorbia amygdaloides, Geranium x cantabrigiense ‘Biokova’, Dryopteris affinis, Liriope muscari ‘Moneymaker’, Brunnera macrophylla, and Anemone x hybrida ‘Honorine Jobert’. This planting is young now, but it promises to be very effective.
Around the corner, we saw another planting in a more open location. Here the shrub layer was composed of large, approximately 1.8-m high-multi-stem Amelanchier trees placed among the perennials. The perennial mix features Luzula sylvatica, Bergenia ‘Eroica’, Geranium x cantabrigense ‘St. Ola’, Liriope muscari ‘Moneymaker’, Phlomis russeliana and Anemone x hybrida. All these simple plantings were composed of few but very robust species that will thrive in the city and enrich the cityscape with flowers and varied textures and leaf forms over a long period.
Before ending the tour at the Sloterdijk station we visited a planting within an asymmetrical square surrounded by new buildings on the Beethovenstraat. Because this planting is more mature and all plants are intermingling, it is more difficult to spot the different groupings. The planting is divided into a shade and sun area, unified by multi-stem Koelreuteria paniculata trees used throughout.
The shaded area on the south side of the square is planted with Carex morrowii, Liriope ‘Moneymaker’, Dryopteris setiferum ‘Dahlem’, Polystichum polyblepharum, Euphorbia amygdaloides and Hydrangea petiolaris.
The sunny area is covered with many different flowering perennials. At the time of my visit some in flower were Salvia nemorosa ‘Amethyst’, Echinacea pallida, Phlomis russeliana, Festuca mairei, Euphorbia characias ‘Black Pearl’ and Asphodeline lutea.
We ended our tour at the Sloterdjik Station, which is the only project I had visited before meeting Ton. The area I knew was the square in front of the station but we arrived at the site from the back of the station and Ton showed me an area of planting that I hadn’t seen before.
I was amazed by the large planting along the tracks—basically a matrix of Sesleria autumnalis with blocks of Salvia nemorosa ‘Blauhügel’, Euphorbia waldsteinii ‘Betten’, Limonium latifolium, Stachys officinalis ‘Hummelo’ and groups of Phlomis russeliana and Amsonia hubrichtii.
The simple but bold mix works very well in juxtaposition with the cityscape and the large dots of salvia create a real wow factor. The planting is beautiful, fresh and contemporary, turning an essentially dull infrastructure area into a visually compelling place.
We then moved to the square in front of the station, which is essentially a green roof over the top of the submerged part of the station. The design features a series of planted and hardscape areas providing seating opportunities and refuge for commuters.
The structural layer here, the framework of the planting, is composed of multi-stem trees such as Crataegus coccinea, Amelanchier, and some botanical roses, and by tall perennials such as Veronicastrum and taller grasses.
The seasonal theme layer, the flowers of the composition, is composed of Symphyotrichum, Amsonia, Hemerocallis citrina, Anemone x hybrida ‘Richard Ahrens’, Sedum and Phlomis russeliana.
The groundcover layer, the filler in the scheme, is Sesleria autumnalis and Geraniums. Another layer of interest through the seasons is provided by bulbous plants, such as Alliums, Narcissus, Camassia and Crocosmia, which will slowly disappear within the other perennials after flowering.
I have admired this planting scheme from the moment I saw it. Not only is it robust, resilient and able to withstand the harsh urban environment, it also beautiful and diverse. It radiates joy and creates a welcoming environment in this very utilitarian setting—an important message to send to users in what otherwise could be sterile, unattractive, dull urban areas.
Ton’s method is to use mixed planting schemes to bring the feeling of nature into the city. He selects plants according to their needs and habitats, creating designed plant communities in which plants intermingle and create a complex environmental system able to withstand urban stresses such as drought or extreme weather. According to the character and function of a place, and using various natural habitats such as woodlands, woodland-edge or grassland as inspirational models, he selects from a pallet of both native and exotic plants. Shrubs and trees also play an important role in his compositions; they create the framework, giving structure and stature to a planting.
When designing a plant community, Ton first chooses the matrix species to hold together the planting and look good throughout the year. These need to be well-behaved, long living, sturdy and clump forming species. In sunny conditions, these could be, for example, Molina, Sesleria or Calamagrostis and in the shade, Carex, Liriope, or Heuchera. He then chooses plants that will add character, distinctive form and colour during a particular time of the year. Borrowing a term from the book ‘Planting in a Post-Wild World’ by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, he selects the seasonal theme layer.
Some of the species Ton uses for this purpose are Hemerocallis, Salvia, Amsonia, Aster, Rudbeckia, Limonium, Stachys, Iris sibirica, or Geranium for sunny areas, or Tiarella, Rodgersia, Brunnera, Bergenia, Luzula, Blechnum spicant, Dryopteris or Euphorbia amygdaloides for shade.
Ton’s work in public spaces is exemplary of the kinds of plantings needed in urban landscapes. They are functional, resilient, beautiful and habitat-specific. His work demonstrates that alternatives to the uniformity and blandness that we often encounter in less prominent urban areas can be created by designing the plant palette to meet functional requirements and by selecting plants appropriate to environmental conditions, while giving attention to the character and genius loci of each site.
I met Tim Richardson, almost accidentally, last September in London. I’m republishing a review of his still very relevant The New English Garden. Take a look if you haven’t read it.
Tim Richardson’s new book, The New English Garden, is a beautifully photographed, sensuously appealing volume slathered with full-page photographs and huge double-page spreads so large you feel you could fall into them. The book is a hedonistic delight and a source of many hour’s diversion and, if you’re so inclined, a pleasant opportunity for learning. Having my own recent experience with photographers who don’t know how to photograph gardens, the impressive work of photographers Andrew Lawson, Jane Sabire, and Rachel Warne is executed with knowledge and skill. One could hardly do better than study the photographs in this book to learn something about how to do it right.
What can I say? I’ve neglected to document the garden’s progress this summer. By way of comparison, you may want to see my last post on the garden in the early days of summer, way back on June 2.
You’ll see quite a difference. In fact you will not see some things from the earlier post at all. The plants are now so tall much of the garden has to be explored step by step. Now when you walk the garden, it’s an immersive process, a journey; you almost feel your way through.
Now is the time of gardening by subtraction. The diagonals and acute angles the giant Silphiums fall into are appealing in their quixotic way. They create a structural tension I find even more interesting than the flowers. But when they lean across paths and block the way, it’s time to pull them out. So these weeks of high summer, when the tall yellow Silphium, Eutrochium and Inula are peaking, weekly removals are essential.
This is a time of blue sky days. To see out, you have to look up. The dark woods circling the garden, and the tall plants reaching upward, naturally carry your eyes to the sky. It’s almost as if the garden is a golden bowl open only at the top.
So take a wander …
Parts of the garden incorporate the forest edge, so even at high noon you find a chiaroscuro of light and dark …
… a great relief from the brilliance of the more open garden.
The forest edge encroaches in several places along the garden’s circumference. This is the largest such incursion; I call it the woodland garden … and a pleasant place it is to sit, even on hot days.
Last summer I visited gardens in The Netherlands as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour to see the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely created … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. My experience on this tour convinced me this is the best way to see gardens in distant places. The itinerary is well organized and packed with engaging destinations, and all the logistics of travel and lodging are taken care of for you. I’ve traveled on my own to see gardens but I find traveling alone, making multiple arrangements for transportation and lodging, even finding the gardens, very stressful and time-consuming. If you want to see gardens, this is the way to go. Click on carexTours for more information, and for a special price available until July 8.
Clouds and misty rain only amplify colors, form and atmosphere in gardens. On the day we visited Lianne’s Siergrassen, the subdued light and wet conditions actually deepened the colors of the plants in Lianne’s vast demonstration gardens. A phlox shining out from the darkness within grass heavy with moisture …
… or a fading Rudbeckia standing tall against a multicolored background of beautiful perennials, in fact everything, was saturated with subdued, evocative color .
The gauzy effects of the light heightened the diaphanous quality of some grasses, as here where grass makes an ornamental screen against the blurred background.
Because these are demonstration gardens, Lianne shows many ways to combine the plants she offers, sometimes growing them in large monocultural blocks, as with Hakonechola shown here …
… and in smaller, discrete blocks …
In other parts of the garden she uses mixed plantings to highlight similarities and contrasts in shape, texture, and color …
Nic and Sally, dressed for wet weather, but all smiles as they explore the riches of a nursery like few others.
Such beautiful combinations as this–do they come about through chance or careful forethought? I imagine the former, but sometimes you just have to let the plants do what they do, and appreciate the result.
Here a sea of mixed grasses, carex and sedum.
And Althea cannabina, a plant I first saw in the summer of 2015 in London, a miniature-flowered hollyhock, which has become rather commonplace in Europe, though I have yet to see it in the US (except on the High Line) seen here at full height …
… and here in close-up.
Here a matrix of grasses (Little bluestem) and perennials (Liatris and other things) patterning the ground surface …
… another mixed planting of a Solidago, Pycnanthemum, and grasses …
… and the bold foliage of a Miscanthus contrasted with a cloud of Sporobolus heterolepis in flower.
The combinations of grasses and perennials work at different scales. Below, the gauzy Sporobolus setting off the dark seedheads of what appears to be a Penstemon digitalis.
And Guara lindheimeri, its sharp white flowers ornamenting the soft grasses behind.
The bold seedheads of Veronicastrum offer a dramatic contrast with the background of grasses (and with the dark foliage of trees).
If you look closely, you’ll see Carolyn almost buried among the grasses.
Lianne’s Siergrassen is only one of many destinations on the Dutch Wave tour. You can also visit the iconoclastic Jac. P. Thijssepark, the Piet Oudolf-designed Vlinderhof, gardens of Noël van Mierlo, John Schoolmeester’s work at Kasteel Geldrop, Van Nature, Piet Oudolf’s own private garden Hummelo, Peter Janke’s Hortvs nearby in Germany, the historic Het Loo Palace, the Kröller-Müller Museum, Henk Gerritsen’s Priona garden, the gardens of Mien Ruys, Jaap de Vries’ Jakobstuin, and many other gardens, special nurseries, and other sites. For details, go to carexTours.
Federal Twist will open for the Garden Conservancy Open Days on June 17 this year–earlier than ever before–and you are welcome to come. For information and driving directions, click on this link.
It’s been a rainy spring and I’m just back from almost a month in Spain and France. Over the next two weeks I’ll be busy “editing” the plants and pondering how to turn their profuse spring growth to best advantage.
The images in this post were taken on June 1 last year, so they are as close as I can come to showing what’s likely to be here on 17 June 2017 (a Saturday). I expect the daylilies will be in flower, the Japanese irises and Iris ‘Gerald Darby’, the Baptisias. Perhaps the Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ will be in bud. It all depends on the warmth of the coming days.
Come with an eye for detail. My garden is very much in the spirit of the layered plantings advocated so eloquently in Thomas Rainer’s and Claudia West’s book, Planting in a Post Wild World. Plant form and structure, and the interplay of shapes and textures, are the main thing in late spring and early summer here at Federal Twist.
Here is the Garden Conservancy description of the garden: ‘When we moved into a mid-century house overlooking the woods, I immediately knew only a naturalistic, informal garden would be appropriate to the place. The garden is hidden. You enter through the house, where you first glimpse the landscape, a sunny glade, through a wall of windows. Huge perennials and grasses evoke an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling (many plants are taller than you). The garden is in the New Perennial tradition: plants are massed in interwoven communities, and emphasize structure, shape, and form—which are long lasting—rather than flower.
Begun as an experiment to explore garden making in the challenging conditions of unimproved, heavy, wet clay, the garden is ecologically similar to a wet prairie, and is maintained by cutting and burning. Much of the garden peaks in mid-July, when plants reach mature height and flower, then a second peak occurs in October when low sunlight makes the grasses glow in yellows, russets, and golds.
(I visited the Chelsea Flower Show for the first time in 2015, as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Chelsea Garden Tour, given by CarexTours. Carolyn is now offering a special price on this year’s tour, but the offer expires March 15th. You can check it out here. This year’s line up of gardens looks really exciting. I’ve been on two of Carolyn’s tours and I recommend them highly.)
It may have been with intentional irony that Dan Pearson chose the most problematic site at Chelsea for his 2015 Chatsworth garden–a roughly triangular plot surrounded on all sides by broad, paved walkways and completely open to its surroundings. The image above shows the garden as I first saw it, in the midst of a moving crowd. There was so much visual distraction, at first I couldn’t see it. That is …
… until I got up close.
Quite a debate was sparked by Dan’s Chatsworth garden at the time. Media coverage focused on the the actual transport of a piece of the Chatsworth estate’s landscape, including trees and huge boulders, from the north of England to London. (This hyped media story “had legs,” at least in the British media.) Some said this wasn’t a garden at all, that it was simply a natural piece of landscape moved to a new and novel place. Others said it certainly was a garden, not just a page torn from nature. In fact, it was both, and it was most definitely a designed garden.
In recently re-reading Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West, I came across this passage, which set me thinking about Dan Pearson’s garden again:
“The irony of creating plantings that evince a sense of nature is that it requires a high degree of artifice. Literally transposing thirty square meters of a forest into an urban courtyard may not create the feeling of a forest at all … Exaggeration is at the heart of this process. Natural landscapes have impact because of their massive scale and the repetition of key patterns and processes over hundreds of acres. By comparison, our urban and suburban sites lack the size and context of their wild counterparts. In the wild, all of the details— sky, rock, soil, water, and plant— work together to create a rich sense of place. In contrast, buildings, roads, and cars often surround our designed landscapes. Our towns and cities are visually complex. In fact, our gardens are more likely to be surrounded by streetlights and power lines than waterfalls or boulder outcroppings. So in order to immerse a visitor in the feeling of a forest or grassland, we have to turn up the volume, creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.” *
So in this “visually complex” site full of crowds and movement and distraction, I found perhaps one of the most peaceful gardens ever made. Once I focused my attention on the details of the garden, though the crowd didn’t fade away, I felt I was a participant in another world. Dan is noted for his sensitivity to sense of place, and here, in the turmoil of a busy day at Chelsea, his garden existed as a separate place, “creating designed plantings even more intense than their natural counterparts.”
Dan created pools of water, silent streams, miniature vignettes that, though they look entirely natural, combined plants from at least three continents. The plant selections were most definitely “exaggerated” in the sense that they intensified the experience of Chatsworth’s “nature.” Below, at left a Mahonia, a native of North America (‘Soft Caress” I believe) and at right a delicate Disporum, a native of China.
One might call this a garden of extreme artfulness, or exaggerated subtlety (irony abounds). Specially planted wildflower turf was grown on a thin substrate, brought to the site, and carefully adhered to the natural rocks. Below you can see the edge of the wildflower turf exposed slightly by the beating rain on the day I visited.
And here, American camassias with native British plants.
Creation of this artificial stream took great skill and knowledge.
This intriguing walkway, which goes nowhere, evokes many associations with the British past (some religious, some cultural).
I’ve read that some wept seeing this garden.
I was trying to take photos in the rain, with crowds buffeting against me; conditions could have been better.
If you want to see some fabulous images, just look at the main page of the Dan Pearson Studio website, where you will see a selection of full-screen images (without the crowds).
Of course the garden won “Best in Show.”
*Rainer, Thomas; West, Claudia (2016-02-04). Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes (p. 146). Timber Press. Kindle Edition.
This was the front garden on January 23. It lasted well into winter.
But old growth must make way for the new, so last week my garden helper and I began cutting and burning in the back, and largest, part of the garden. This week we started with the front garden.
Cutting and burning takes careful planning. Grasses must be cut and moved if too near shrubs, under tree canopies, or too near the property line, so the two of us do a kind of dance–cutting, moving, mounding, and burning.
The largest, highest flames last only 15 or 20 seconds, then quickly die down to a more controlled burn.
A full-flowing hose is always ready to extinguish any errant flame, which likes to creep outward, burning the leaf cover.
After an area is burned, I wet it thoroughly with water, rest, and move on to another part of the garden.
Later we’ll use a weed trimmer to chop any remaining large pieces, sweep the paths and paved areas, then wait for the rains of spring to wash the charred matter into the soil. The fire opens the earth a bit, so I often do some seeding now (in addition to seed I broadcast in the autumn).
The black remnants of fire absorb heat from the sun and stimulate new growth as the weather warms.
One part of the cleanup, cutting the tall perennials that won’t burn, is usually the last task.
New growth will begin to show almost immediately if we don’t have freezing cold for long periods. By April the ground cover layers will have emerged, and by mid-May the garden will be green again.
Perhaps I should title this post “In defense of melancholy.”
Attracted by the mist and the sun rising behind the trees this morning, I opened a living room door, leaned out and took this photo of the garden. I posted it on Instagram. Several people commented, a rather rare occurrence on Instagram, so I interpreted this to mean they found this image particularly appealing or moving in some way. One of the comments was, “heartbreaking,” another, “haunting.” I compared it to a painting of the Hudson River School. Someone else said, Caspar David Friedrich, the German Romantic painter (and a favorite of mine).
What do these comments have in common? I think they point to melancholy … to my sensibility one of the most powerful emotions experienced in the garden, and in the landscape. And it’s a much richer and fuller emotion than most people–today–believe.
I’m reading Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape, by Jacky Bowring, published by Routledge in 2017. Here are two brief quotations:
“Melancholy is at once complex and contradictory. For some it is an emotion, for others a mental illness, or even a mood, a disposition, an affect, an effect. Melancholy’s extensive history ranges across everything from cures for something considered a disease, to paeans to its poignant beauty. While in the Dark Ages the ‘melancholy of monks’ –also called acedia –necessitated a redoubling of prayer and an extra dose of courage, by the Romantic era melancholy was a source of inspiration for the poetry of Milton, Coleridge and Keats. Melancholy imbues artworks from Dürer’s Melancolia I (1514) to Anselm Kiefer’s Melancholia (1989), literature from Shakespeare to Sebald, and music from the medieval mystic Hildegard of Bingen to Nick Cave. But it is to the landscape that this book turns.”
“The overcoming of a single-minded pursuit of happiness needs to be yoked to an inclusive re-engagement with the breadth of emotions. Melancholy’s marginalisation results not only from a fear of sadness, but from the pervasive hesitancy about showing emotion that characterises the modern Western world. Even the Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley revealed how his fear of displaying emotion limited his full appreciation of an evocative landscape, something which he later regretted. In a letter to ‘T.P. Esq.’ (Thomas Peacock), describing journeying through Switzerland, Shelley explained how, The hay was making under the trees; the trees themselves were aged, but vigorous, and interspersed with younger ones, which are destined to be their successors, and in future years, when we are dead, to afford a shade to future worshippers of nature, who love the memory of that tenderness and peace of which this was the imaginary abode. We walked forward among the vineyards, whose narrow terraces overlook this affecting scene. Why did the cold maxims of the world compel me at this moment to repress the tears of melancholy transport which it would have been so sweet to indulge, immeasurably, even until the darkness of night had swallowed up the objects which excited them? (Shelley, 1845, p.96)”
I don’t know if anyone will read this, so I leave it as a reminder to myself to return to this subject at greater length in the future.
For anyone interested, I highly recommend Jacky Bowring’s intriguing and fascinating exploration of melancholy in the landscape.
As a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour in August 2016, I joined a simpatico group of international garden travelers with a special interest in the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely founded … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. The carexTours itinerary gave us an intense overview of Piet Oudolf’s work and Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers–including two gardens by one designer very atypical of the Dutch Wave, Noël van Mierlo, the subject of this post. Seeing the two van Mierlo gardens was a revelatory experience, making us think about what a garden is, and giving greater insight into the distinguishing characteristics of the Dutch Wave.
For more information on future tours, just click on carexTours.
I didn’t know what to expect the morning we started out on our visit to two Noël van Mierlo gardens. My Dutch-American friend Carrie Preston, who has lived in The Netherlands for many years, had told me a bit about him, that his gardens has received several national awards … but coming after a visit to Piet Oudolf’s very different Vlinderhof only the day before, I certainly didn’t expect the architectural, highly choreographed gardens we were to see. Van Mierlo’s stunning gardens are a dramatic break from the Dutch Wave style that has been flourishing in The Netherlands for the past two decades.
Why are van Mierlo’s gardens so different? Dutch Wave gardens emulate the look of nature … rather, they take their inspiration from the look of nature and intensify that look. They are about display of perennials and grasses, and an intensely emotional response to those plants, about the biological entities, the plants themselves, in all their glorious variety and multivariate forms through all seasons. They seem to work on some primal emotional level. Trees, structure, stone, water are not necessary, or even representative of the Dutch Wave–the focus is on the herbaceous perennials and grasses–though they may be present, and important parts of, individual gardens.
Japanese Water Garden
Noël van Mierlo’s Japanese water garden, in marked contrast, is about structure, texture, line, shape, about complexity (a complexity made to look simple), not about an emotional response to plants. It is a cool, meditative garden, a garden for musing. (It is also very much a continuation of the house, a series of outdoor rooms well suited to private enjoyment or social occasions.)
The garden is quiet, contemplative, observant of small details, almost opposite to the delight, exhilaration, and high-pitch of feelings often evoked by Dutch Wave plantings. It subtly juxtaposes natural and manmade morphologies to create a unified experience.
Van Mierlo conceives the garden as a series of rooms and frequently refers to its floor, walls, ceiling. When I asked him for names of designers he admires, he mentioned Lake Flato and Tom Kundig–both architects–architects known for designing structures that sit easily in a natural, often wild, landscape, and for artfully crafted structures. You see architecture in the impressive use of the huge wooden bollards that form the entrance portal, in the refined lines of the modernist, yet sensuous, tea house, in the carefully selected and positioned rocks used to anchor the garden in the landscape, in the sensitive selection of trees with great character (trees too are part of the architecture of this garden) …
…in the thick steel plates that gracefully bridge the pond, appearing to be suspended just above the water’s surface (quite a structural engineering challenge), designed in collaboration with noted Dutch metal artist Xander Spronken …
… and in attention to appropriateness of materials and to the smallest details, as in this carefully crafted transition from gravel to lawn.
All through the design and construction process, he strives to find and use the finest craftsmen available for garden pavements, finishes, lighting–and planting.
Because this garden is a dramatic departure from plant-centric Dutch Wave gardens, it was a powerful reminder to those of us on Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour that gardens take many, and vastly different, forms.
So did carexTours add the van Mierlo gardens as a “palate cleanser,” perhaps, served between courses of Dutch Wave gardens? I don’t think so. Carolyn wanted to make us think.
Strangely, although it is certainly an architectural garden, full of complicated structural challenges, a garden difficult and costly to create, requiring heavy equipment, expensive materials, and precision in construction …
… it is a garden about ecology, far more so than most Dutch Wave gardens are … a garden that, in fact, creates habitat.
Opportunities for Novel Ecologies
Among its many other attributes, this is a garden for a connoisseur of plants and ecological design though, ironically, van Mierlo does not select the perennials in his gardens. That’s not really such a strange concept if you compare garden making to other art forms. Think of him as the director of a theatrical performance or a film. He is the artist, the director, as well as the curator of expertise, and he has a talent for working with others. As with all garden challenges–architectural, structural, construction, Van Mierlo knows and uses experts and highly skilled craftsmen. In this case, his expert is an extremely talented plantsman, Ruurd van Donkelaar. (Van Mierlo does take a direct role in selection and placement of distinctive trees, the “walls” of the garden and the pillars holding up the sky, the ceiling of the garden.)
Look at the care van Donkelaar used in designing this water’s edge habitat. The rocks, gravel and plants are composed to create a “natural” transition from the water to the land, with a finely graduated differentiation of novel habitats to cover the pond liner and create a natural-looking transition, over a distance of only about three feet, of plants selected for suitability to their positions in water or on the drier edges; note the attention to scale in the planting, with miniature plants growing even between the small pieces of gravel. The design is elegant, restrained, possibly more natural than natural (a “created natural”).
Only compare this to the crude transition below, one I recently photographed elsewhere …
… which, I think, makes the artfulness of the van Mierlo garden clear.
The plantings demonstrate deep knowledge of ecology-based planting as well as plant sociology (plants’ preferences for growing in large or small groups, solitary plants, and so on). Anyone familiar with the German habitat-influenced perennial movement will recognize such groupings as these, which consider both plant ecology and sociology: “solitary plants along the water’s edge in moist gravel,” “bog and pond plants,” “plants for moist conditions in small groups,” “solitary grasses and ferns,” “backyard bulbs in small groups between groundcovers,” “solitary plants under trees,” and plants for use in various depths of water. (These are my rough translations of the Dutch labels on the planting plans.)
Some of the plants are so unusual (to me) that I misidentified them. What do you think the red-leafed plants in this photo are?
I thought I was seeing a new Heuchera with a ground cover of green Tiarella cordifolia. I was wrong. It’s a Saxifrage (Saxifraga cortusifolia ‘Rubrifolia’). And look at this miniature bit of nature between stones and a steel bridge plate. Viola, moss, baby ferns, seedling Saxifrages …
… these plants aren’t just surviving, they are reproducing and creating habitat in a garden less than two years old.
The Garden Entrance
The entrance to the Japanese water garden is subtle and understated. We might call it an example of Wabi Sabi, appreciation for the beauty in the lowly and humble.
From the entry passage, used wooden bollards block the view into the garden, then gradually break apart into an abstracted series of verticals, giving glimpses in.
These solid, bulky forms (they are seven or eight feet tall) are given an elegance and visual interest by plantings of carex and low shrubs at ground level and red berried Euonymous europaea (Spindle tree) that catches the eye and carries it upward. A very Japanese characteristic–the display of subtle variations of color and texture across the worn surface of the wood, the play of light and shadow, is another Wabi Sabi touch.
From the other side, the Euonymous are even more colorful, and beautifully offset by a few low grasses.
Van Mierlo works to achieve a balance (he uses the word “unity”) between the many different elements of garden composition …
… the floor of the garden (paving, water, ground covers, pathways, bridges, rocks, turf), the walls and furniture of the garden (structures, plants, seating, sculpture, trees), and the garden’s roof (tree canopies and sky). This striving for unity of effect is visible, too, in his placement of such “added” elements as the client’s sculpture–for example, this mysterious piece, seen above and more closely below …
… the black figure has been positioned before the water, in an emotionally meaningful context of grasses and shrubs that suggest a figure in hiding, waiting, musing …
… and so too, with this grouping of small tree trunks sloping in the shade, van Mierlo captures the eye with a subtle effect achieved as part of many elements in balance. Walking the garden is a richly sensory experience. Note (below) how gracefully the garden moves from a naturalistic path to a more formal passageway, which is necessary to accommodate space limitations at the border of the residential property …
… bringing the garden visitor around to this lawn, and then the house and its outside entertainment areas.
Even on the utility, or entertainment, side of the garden, artful plantings and simple appointments continue the contemplative atmosphere.
The Japanese water garden is very much a journey. Movement from the entrance is choreographed by landscape and structural elements to carry the visitor into the garden, across the bridge of steel plates to the tea house, then around the far side of the pond on a simple path embellished by ecological plantings, around the back of the property, onto the lawn and entertainment precinct of the house …
… that journey can continue across the pond again, with resting places in the tea house, and around the lawn. It is a compact journey, but it offers compelling transitions in mood.
To see a video showing how the garden was built, click here.
The other garden we visited, the Stream garden, contains many of the same elements, and it too uses water and rock as principal elements of composition.
The Stream Garden
The other van Mierlo garden we saw was newly constructed and very recently planted. The Stream garden is located in front of the owner’s house in the polders (low land rescued from the sea), and it is surrounded, at a distance, by high dykes. It appeared to be a difficult site for a garden, offering little of interest.
Since such land is intrinsically lacking in interest, though it does has its own sense of place, van Mierlo’s client specifically requested a landscape that would bring him to another place …
… one that reminded him of his many summers walking rocky streams in the mountains of Austria. When questioned about that, the client said, “Have you seen Lord of the Rings?” That was enough of a clue.
This is largely a linear garden built along a very natural-looking artificial stream, with wider areas encompassing the residence and associated buildings and a pond at one end, and a play area outside a terminus marked by great wooden bollards, at the far end. The trees used here are, like those in the Japanese water garden, selected for unique form and character.
Stone, which is not normally present in The Netherlands, is a prominent feature in both the Japanese water garden and the Stream garden, but more so here, and its artful use is an essential element in the success of this garden. It is used to …
… create sense of place in a site that is essentially a blank canvas. But the stone does more. It makes the gardens “belong” in the landscape by virtue of its sheer physicality. Stones are selected with great care for shape, for how well they work in groups, for color, texture, size. And the stone helps to unify all the elements of the garden floor–gravel, wood, plants, paths, water.
Stone adds an element of mystery too, a primal sense of presence, much as we experience in ancient sites such as Stonehenge, or at many lesser ancient sites.
They also suggest (as above) the natural geologic processes of nature (here an artful illusion), processes that work over millennia, and thus introduce a sense of the immense time scales of geologic processes (hints of Lord of the Rings here?). Strewn across the landscape, they suggest they might have had a glacial origin. It’s all sleight of hand, of course, but a very effective magic show. The rough, worn surface of the wooden walkway continues the color of the stone in an alternative material, an organic material, that again suggests the concept of Wabi Sabi.
The stonescaping, and the intentional irregularity of the wooden walkway, create a strong sense of place, which will “mature” as the rocks and wood age in place.
The log wall (above) will age to a color that approximates the grey of the stone and of the three vertical wooden bollards. This wall is essential; on the other side, is an active marina, operated by the owner of the garden.
A line of wooden bollards, a common sight along waterfronts in The Netherlands, demarks the far end of the garden, separating a children’s play area from the garden proper. Even here van Mierlo uses mounded sand, rock, and grass to suggest a feeling of seaside play.
One of our tour members couldn’t resist this swing.
Van Mierlo says his gardens are about making connections. Just as his design approach is one of collaboration, a bringing together of parts, making many creative talents work in unison for a single goal, so too he aims for all the parts of the garden–stones, trees, structures, paving, water, plants–to achieve a unity of effect and feeling. I think he certainly achieves that end. These are extraordinary gardens.
* Photographs 1, 2, 10, 27 and 28 of the Japanese water garden were provided by Noël van Mierlo.
As a member of Carolyn Mullet’s Dutch Wave tour in August 2016, I joined an extraordinary group of international garden travelers with a special interest in the work of Piet Oudolf and many practitioners of the garden design movement he largely founded … the Dutch Wave, often called the New Perennial movement. The carexTours itinerary gave us a superb overview of Piet Oudolf’s work and Dutch Wave design, as well as glimpses into work of several other major garden designers, all packed into a week of two garden visits (sometimes three) each day. We also visited a couple of magnificent nurseries, a museum, a garden tool maker, and a palace. Over the next few months, I’ll be telling you about my own experience on this great tour.
I’ve been in love with Piet Oudolf’s gardens since I came across a copy of Designing with Plants by Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury while browsing in Barnes & Noble in 1999. I’d never before seen the kinds of startlingly romantic, lush, naturalistic, absolutely stunning plantings I found in that book. I was smitten, and I haven’t gotten over it since. So when Carolyn Mullet, a well known garden designer from the DC area, gave me the opportunity to join her carexTours‘ Dutch Wave tour last August, I jumped at the chance.
Federal Twist will be open for the Garden Conservancy Open Day this coming Saturday, along with nearby gardens just across the river in Bucks County, PA: Paxson Hill Farm and Jericho Mountain Orchards. We’re happy to have as guests Broken Arrow Nursery, Atlock Farm, and Orchard Jewelry.
An article on Federal Twist is in the September Gardens Illustrated. This issue won’t reach the US until sometime near the end of September. So here, forthwith, a scan, which I realize may be difficult to read (click images to enlarge them, click again to enlarge more).
The line comes from W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues, composed by the man called the father of the blues. I think the power of this lyric comes from the sheer poetry of words and image. Why did Handy say “hate to see”? The image of the lowering sun is an evocative one, but it contains a hint of the dark to come, one William Faulkner recognized when he named a short story about a husband lying in wait to kill his wife ‘That Evening Sun’.
It’s late July and I haven’t posted on the garden’s progress for over six weeks. So much for my garden diary … After a drought of several weeks, we’ve had a long period of frequent, often violent, thunderstorms with torrential rains, mostly lasting only 20 or 30 minutes, but certainly stressful for my structural perennials and grasses. So different from those light mists and showers I remember in England last summer. Another reason why American gardens are different from English gardens, I suppose.