Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

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).



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As with any magazine article, space is limited and words are counted dearly. There’s a larger story here, but I’ll tell it elsewhere … and say thank you to Noël Kingsbury, Claire Takacs, and Gardens Illustrated.




That evening sun go down

August 10, 2016


‘I hate to see that evening sun go down.’

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’.

These garden photos–so shot through with light and creeping darkness–are extraordinarily suggestive of endings, all kinds of endings, but their melancholy tone isn’t one of unpleasantness or fear, rather a kind of melancholy comfort.


Aren’t gardens in some sense contemplations on life and death, light and darkness, beginnings and endings?


Or am I reading my own psychology as a template for all gardens?


I remind myself gardens have other functions …


… ecological functions, supporting myriad kinds of life from frogs to birds to praying mantises, multitudes of bees, innumerable invertebrates. Making a place for plant life to thrive and reproduce, a place where plant communities can evolve, where intricate webs of energy transfer can occur, a place where the processes of life and death in the garden actually change the physical surface of the earth.


And therapeutic functions. Horticultural therapy of a sort was a chief concern of Frederick Law Olmsted in creating Central Park, and the view of nature as a place for relaxation and recharge, or withdrawal and renewal, has permeated our culture at least since the Romantic period, but certainly much, much longer.


So what exactly is our encounter with the garden, with the landscape? What does it mean, and what can it mean? It has to be more than prettiness, than mere decoration, than simple utility, or why bother?

I attended a landscape architecture conference at the University of Pennsylvania earlier this summer. In the lobby, where many books were on sale, my eyes were quickly drawn to a small volume titled ‘A Field Guide to Melancholy’ by Jacky Bowring. But getting that book only led me to Bowring’s much more ambitious, and complex, ‘Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape’.


I quote her first on landscape, then on melancholy:

‘Across its vast compass, landscape in its expansive incorporation of gardens, environmental design, architecture, agriculture, infrastructure, and everything between and beyond, is the embodiment of identity. Points of reference are found as much in the representations of landscape – paintings, films, texts – as in the experiential, sensory, phenomenological realm. Whether landscape is a mirror, a theatre, a text or a seamless continuity with its inhabitants, it is the place from which we draw meaning, feeling; it is the armature for existence, the realm in which place and culture co-exist, and where the self dwells.’


‘Within this expansive and meaning-imbued terrain the landscape holds within it the natural habitat for melancholy, as the locus of places of contemplation, memory, death, sadness. Yet, the place of melancholy within the landscape is one which is often resisted, marginalised and edited out. As part of the salvaging of the idea of melancholy as a dimension of existence, this book also offers a critique of the impoverishment of the emotional content of the contemporary designed environment.’*


Haven’t we lost something in this ‘editing out’ and emphasis on ‘happiness’ above all? In a ‘happy’ garden designed for play, for cooking and for entertaining, for dining out, have we failed to make a place for those feelings evoked by Handy’s line, ‘I hate to see that evening sun go down’?


I’m reminded of the roots of our present-day Romantic notions of nature and the role of melancholy contributed by such seminal and defining works as Goethe’s ‘Sorrows of Young Werther’ …


… or of Keats’ sensitivity to the physical manifestations of nature and the feelings it evokes, as in his Ode to Melancholy …


‘Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil’d Melancholy has her sovran shrine …’


Cynical as we may have become in the twenty-first century, our emotions are still stirred in an almost stereotypical way by an image of a fallen flower, or a garden bower wrapped within a wall of woodland trees (even the word ‘bower’ has stereotypically romantic connotations).


Wordsworth’s transcendental thoughts suggest another aspect of romantic melancholy that has been ‘edited out’ in our cultural landscapes, as in Lines Written a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey


‘For I have learned
To look on nature, not as in the hour
Of thoughtless youth; but hearing oftentimes
The still, sad music of humanity …
And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living air,
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man;
A motion and a spirit, that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.’

These lines reveal far more than a simple feeling of melancholy. Here melancholic feelings spur Wordsworth on to a profound vision of meaning, albeit still romantically vague and ineffable. My concern here isn’t so much with Wordsworth’s meaning or its validity, but with a landscape that makes a place for such feelings and thoughts, that doesn’t ‘edit them out’.


We see the tradition of melancholic contemplation continued in the ‘Americanized’ Romanticism of William Cullen Bryant, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

And the garden makers among us, I think, will also see it in the design movement we call ‘New Perennials’, ‘New Wave’, ‘Dutch Wave’, or more generally, simply meadow and prairie design. From an article on Piet Oudolf in the New York Times:  ‘Allowing the garden to decompose, he added, meets an emotional need in people. “You accept death. You don’t take the plants out, because they still look good. And brown is also a color.”’ (January 31, 2008, by Sally McGrane)


How far apart are Wordsworth’s words from those of Handy’s line–‘I hate to see that evening sun go down’?


Even ecological approaches to gardening have at their heart a seeking after a lost world that was better, more pure–a most romantic notion. Are we always reaching back to a better time?


My garden is at its peak now, now at the moment of its first decline, sidelit by the sun dropping toward the horizon …


… revealing detail and ways of seeing not possible earlier in the year …


… creating a chiaroscuro of light and dark …


… highlighting fine detail, and piercing into the depths of layered plantings …


… and differentiating form and shape, while evoking feelings not possible in the bright light of mid-day …


… waking emotions no one would call happiness, but emotions nonetheless that are a kind of comfort and refuge.


I like to think the sideways light of the setting sun must have become a part of the human genetic heritage …


… that this melancholy, pleasant light has become a part of us.


So we can take sensual delight in the warm light limning the leaves of this tall Vernonia …


… or feel safety in walking this shadowed path back to the house …




… climbing the gentle slope with a sense of return …


… almost bathing in the plants …


… glimpsing the darkening woods …


… on the final approach to the house.


‘I hate to see that evening sun go down.’



*Bowring, Jacky (2016-07-07). Melancholy and the Landscape: Locating Sadness, Memory and Reflection in the Landscape (Routledge Research in Landscape and Environmental Design) (Kindle Locations 150-153). Taylor and Francis. Kindle Edition.


Water from the sky

August 2, 2016


So our brief, but heavy, thunder showers last week changed their duration. Instead of 20 minutes of heavy, deluge like, rain, it came for hours, over and over again.

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High Summer

July 29, 2016


The soft, undulating surface of the Miscanthus bank opening toward the sky contrasts with the mixed textures in the rest of the garden.

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.

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Once warmth arrives, the garden luxuriates in planty fleshiness, growth proliferates, detonates in slow motion.


Thick planting, no ground visible. Iris virginica, Onoclea sensibilis, Calamagrostis acutiflora x ‘Karl Foerester’, Hemerocallis, Silphium perfoliatum, Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’, Equisetum arvensis, some bits of low grass or carex.


The relationships and relative sizes of the plants will change dramatically over the next four weeks as the Silphiums and other large plants approach their mature size. The Euphorbia palustris (left) has done its spring gold thing and now will fade into the background until its autumn colors come. The Ligularia japonica (right) is budding and will soon reach its seasonal peak. The ornate foliage will remain a pleasure–and it’s a seedhead star.


View of the low, mid-century house from the stone circle. Several colonies of Filipendula rubra, and many other plants, are rising in the foreground. This is a thriving community no weeds can penetrate–except for Multiflora rose and various wild Solidagos.


The stone circle under a canopy of Salix udensis ‘Sekka’, Japanese fantail willow.


Wave Hill chairs (made by Dan Benarcik) in a mid-garden sitting place.


Strolling the main path across the garden …


Behind Iris pseudacorus, Petasites and Silphium perfoliatum mounded in battle.


Near a curve in the main garden path, the circle of red logs emerges from the dark edge of the woods … Who needs flowers?


Late sunlight on Baptisia; I wish I could remember which one …


Another path–into the woodland garden …


Reflecting pool …


… and beside it Baptisia alba. In one more year it should attain enough bulk to give a good show.



‘”I started collaging as an escape from making meaning. I got tired of writing poems, of trying to make sense – verbal sense. It is a relief to make a different kind of sense – visual sense. One must think, of course, but it is an entirely different kind of thinking, one in which language does not intrude.”‘

 – from Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, quoting poet Mark Strand


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Holding pattern

April 21, 2016

Until summer arrives to ripen the garden, I’ll be looking back to last summer. Click on the photo to enter the time machine.

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Which way, please?

April 7, 2016

The garden in early April is mostly invisible. This is its skeleton. By mid-June the rapidly growing perennials and grasses will make most pathways disappear, creating a new landscape, a virtual new topography.

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Clean slate

March 14, 2016

The burning and cutting is done. Within a month, with warmer temperatures,  thousands of grasses and perennials will break the surface, and a textured plain of green will emerge.

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A review of “The Art of Gardening: Design Inspiration and Innovative Planting Techniques from Chanticleer” by R. William Thomas and the Chanticleer gardeners

February 5, 2016

“The entrance to the Chanticleer garden, in a wooded countryside just outside Philadelphia, could be described as a portal into a horticultural parallel universe … The brief is simple: innovate, innovate, innovate. There are more ideas at Chanticleer than any one garden could reasonably be expected to accommodate, and visiting is an intense experience for […]

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Re-imagining nature – a review of Planting in a Post-Wild World by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West

January 24, 2016

(This review originally appeared on the Thinkingardens website.) “The founding fathers of modern environmentalism, Henry David Thoreau and John Muir, promised that ‘in wildness is the preservation of the world.’ The presumption was that the wilderness was out there, somewhere … and that it would be the antidote for the poisons of industrial society. But […]

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A Garden in Movement

January 18, 2016

  I just received the pdf of the January article on Federal Twist in Garden Design Journal, published by the Society of Garden Designers (UK). Be forewarned, it’s readable if you click two times, but really a hassle to get through unless you have a large screen.

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Gravetye Manor

January 16, 2016

The following article by Gillian Vine is from the Otago Daily Times online edition – 17 January 2016 – on the history of Gravetye Manor, home of William Robinson, one of the early progenitors of the naturalistic tradition in gardening. (Thanks to Facebook gardening friend Scott Nickerson of Queenstown, New Zealand, for posting it there.)

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Federal Twist in Garden Design Journal

January 5, 2016

Federal Twist is featured in the January 2016 issue of the Garden Design Journal, a publication of the Society of Garden Designers (SGD) in the UK. Photos by Andrea Jones, noted garden photographer, and words by me. I can’t recommend you get a copy. It’s seems not to be available in the US, except among the […]

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Garden diary: remembering winter

December 27, 2015

We had a taste of it. On December 5, a little frost, a thin crust of ice on the pond. Later, a sunny day, the temperature moderated and it’s been warm ever since. Now we’re past the winter solstice, and still no winter.

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Landscape architects in the making

November 18, 2015

Not until after the fact–during it, really–did I realize how gratifying it would be to have a bunch of landscape architecture students come for a visit.

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Ending the season at Chanticleer

October 30, 2015

Autumn is a glorious season in the garden. I took this photo in the gravel garden at Chanticleer last weekend. I like complexity (not chaos; there is a difference). This teeters on the edge, but I think the striking forms of the Yucca rostrata and Agaves and trailing blue-gray ground cover make a strong, legible statement […]

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Pictures vs. words

October 27, 2015

Recently I discovered an intriguing blog, The Brown Advisor, in this case referring to “the great landscape gardener, or place-maker, Lancelot ‘Capability Brown’.” I quote this from the blog, quoting Joseph Addison: “‘Words, when well chosen, have so great a Force in them, that a Description often gives us more lively Ideas than the Sight […]

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Garden Diary: The garden in between …

October 3, 2015

I call this the Edgar Allan Poe season in my garden …

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The Old Rectory at Naunton

September 23, 2015

“I’ve always been drawn to plants which are on the wild side, drawn to gardens which are on the wild side, which feel like they might just be tumbling into something quite primitive and unmuddled with. The way I garden is to let things go almost to the brink of being lost, and that’s often […]

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Green, green

August 23, 2015

Green, green grass of home

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Catch as catch can

July 7, 2015

I’m leaving for England for a month tomorrow. Last weekend, I realized I hadn’t documented the garden’s summer progress, so I made the rounds.

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Hidcote – a Garden of Rooms

July 1, 2015

Hidcote is generally considered to be the apogee of the English Arts and Crafts garden, though it was made by a wealthy American, Lawrence Johnston. It is very much a garden of rooms, and in that way very typical of Arts and Crafts gardens of the period. I visited in May as a member of Carolyn […]

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Open Garden – Saturday, June 27

June 21, 2015

It’s time for another Garden Conservancy Open Day at Federal Twist, next Saturday, June 27, from 10 to 4. Everyone’s welcome. Click on the photo for a selection of views.  

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First seeing Rousham

June 18, 2015

Rousham was the last of many gardens I visited in May as a member of Carolyn Mullet’s spring tour of English gardens and the Chelsea Flower Show. Rousham was the only eighteenth century landscape garden on the tour. In that sense, it appeared to be an outlier, but it turned out to be a key to […]

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