Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

‘”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


” An entirely different kind of thinking.”

This remark raises self-evident questions about how the human mind processes information and experience. Tom Stuart-Smith has spoken of Broughton Grange in words that take you to the very edge of language, then leave you there, waiting for the next step. As I see it, there isn’t a next step until you recognize the limits of language to express certain kinds of experience, and move on.

Of course we can write about the physical garden of things–its structure, its similarity to or difference from another garden, the success of its execution, its dimensions, its type, its planting style, its historical precedents, the ecology of the site, its value to wildlife and so on. But when one enters the realm of atmosphere, emotion, and other unnamed, perhaps unnamable, attributes, words won’t do.


The stone and water elements in the garden are clearly defined, though mostly out of physical reach. The visitor participates imaginatively–with the texture and warm color of the stone, the water reflecting sky, the contrast of stone with voluptuous plantings.

Tom Stuart-Smith has said of Broughton Grange, “it was remote from the house … so there was kind of no point to it. It wasn’t a setting for a house, somewhere you all spill out and have a cocktail party and enjoy the view … it was absolutely something you made a pilgrimage to … and you got there, and the garden was the thing. I was immensely lucky to have this opportunity to make this garden that had no point.” (Italics are mine.)


The visitor must find a way through the thick plantings.

What does “no point” mean here? I think simply that it exists as a garden, as a work of art exists, for silent observation and contemplation, as a field for the the free play of imagination, with absolutely no practical purpose or utility.

Thinking about my first visit to Broughton Grange has led me to consider two talks Stuart-Smith gave in 2014–one I attended at the New York Botanical Garden and another, a few months later, at the Garden Museum Literary Festival in the UK. Things he said at both events struck me in a remarkable way, with a meaning I find difficult to put into words, thus my reference to Mark Strand’s turn from one mode of “thinking” to another. In the case of Stuart-Smith, I don’t even suggest the garden need “make sense.” Rather, that it be like a door open to possibility and potential. (I should note here that Stuart-Smith’s words in double quotes are my own imperfect transcription of his spoken words, not direct quotations.)

North Oxfordshire

The Garden’s ‘Push Back’

As  shown in this top-of-the-wall photo from Tom Stuart-Smith’s web site (above), Broughton Grange is formally structured as three terraces that step gently down toward the landscape in the distance:  the top terrace with gritty, low nutrient soil and plantings more or less in the Mediterranean style, the middle terrace with a large square pool in the center and luxuriant prairie-like plantings, and the lower terrace (hardly visible here) with a very unusual box parterre. The distinctive verticals of the the columnar yew topiaries on the top terrace and the bobble-headed beech topiaries on the second terrace break up the space into a kind of relaxed grid that contrasts appealingly with the lavish perennial plantings, that anchors them and fixes them in space. They also suggest human forms looking out into the landscape, and suggest a sense of prior occupation of the garden space.


I’ve admired the walled garden at Broughton Grange for years, but visited it for the first time only last summer on a cloudy and intermittently rainy day in July. I was already familiar with some of the garden’s most characteristic features from photographs–the central pool, stone-framed runnels and stepping stones, the narrow yew columns and beech topiaries, the view off into the valley.

On first entering, although the beauty of the garden was immediately apparent and I could take delight in the open view across, it was so laid out and so closely planted, I also felt a moment of confusion as if there were nowhere to go. Obscured by the profuse plantings, the many potential routes into the garden, the generosity of opportunity there, became a kind of psychological barrier. These feelings of emotional constraint transpired within a few seconds, and I was soon making my way through the top terrace. But I had experienced something new. The garden had gently pushed back and, in doing that, set itself apart as a special place. My initial confusion, in a place I expected to feel at home, awakened me to the garden.


Yew columns and hornbeam topiaries suggest human forms present in the garden; the thick planting makes choosing a way through seem a bit difficult, but only until you realize there are many potential paths.

A Different Realm of Experience

Tom Stuart-Smith seeks to enable a kind of experience we in America–so accustomed to usefulness and utility in all things–rarely expect, or even think to consider, of a garden:  that a garden may have “no point,” meaning no purpose other than to be a garden. This is very different from the kinds of utilitarian gardens that have come down to us through the influence of such great American garden designers as Thomas Church through his book Gardens are for People, which essentially extended the house into the garden and filled it with utilitarian purposes.


“The garden was the thing.” “A garden that had no point.” These phrases resonate.

Speaking of gardens that influenced Broughton Grange, Stuart-Smith told a story of searching for a gardino segreto on the grounds of the Villa Farnese in Italy. He says, “One garden that remains a great inspiration to me is this extraordinary garden at Caprarola … it’s this complete fantasy garden made around a casino … It’s very possible to go to Caprarola and never discover this casino and its garden. We wandered through this pine grove, and I thought for a bit my garden-finding antennae had let me down, but then I saw this gleam of Carrara marble through the trees. You discover this extraordinary garden that has absolutely no reason to be there at all!”


At the Villa Farnese–“this extraordinary garden that has absolutely no reason to be there at all”

“We have to step back to Broughton,” he continues, “and these topiary figures in the garden and why they are there. For me, they’re about giving some other presence to the garden, so when it’s not occupied by people, there’s almost a sense of prior occupation. It has that same quality as Caprarola where, when you arrive on the lower parterre, there are these extraordinary herme figures around the parterre. You really do feel you’ve interrupted some sort of mythic going on where everyone’s been frozen to stone as you come up the stairs.”

I do wonder if many people don’t have similar experiences visiting gardens. That feeling of “prior occupation,” of having interrupted some “mythic going on”. I know that feeling of contingency, where the quotidian encounters the miraculous. I used to call it epiphany, but you might equally describe the feeling as a sense of immanence in the garden, or in the mind of the visitor.


“I always use topiary in a sort of semi-anthropomorphic way,” Stuart-Smith continues, “to encourage the quality that the garden has other occupants, others than yourself, sort of an entirety. And many of the most wonderful garden experiences are about coming into these extraordinary spaces where you feel something has been going on … It doesn’t have to be a garden space. It can be a natural space as well … when you’re in a field of cowslips or coppiced woodland, particularly if the place is occupied by other animals or birds. I’ve always wanted that sense that you are a visitor in the space and observing what is happening.”


Rükenfigur and Vertical Topiaries

When I first heard Stuart-Smith speak at NYBG two years ago, he flashed on the screen, just for a second, a Caspar David Friedrich painting showing two Rükenfigur:


He used this same painting again to illustrate this point in his Garden Museum talk several months later, so one can infer this concept is significant. We see the backs of two figures as they gaze off into the landscape. It’s not pretty, but it’s powerful. Stuart-Smith has stated that the vertical topiaries punctuating the space at Broughton Grange are suggestive of Rükenfigur (literally “back figure”)–a human figure, always mysterious, unidentified, facial features invisible, looking away toward a landscape or distant view. On one level, this is a metaphor for how a garden can relate to its landscape–an echo of the 18th century English landscape garden that is well illustrated at Broughton Grange. But there’s more to it than that. Recalling Mark Strand, I suggest you let your eyes linger on the painting above; it may say more about this garden experience than any of the words in this post. Words are only pointers; the painting is direct experience.

Entering the Garden – Choices

So we enter the garden (below) through a symmetrical entrance sequence styled to suggest weight, solidity, stability and stillness, in contrast to the energetic plantings the visitor will find on the other side of the wall.


The entry leaves no doubt you are entering a walled garden, but once you’re through the gates, the garden opens to the sky and the surrounding landscape.

Once inside the garden, decisions await you. The entry path runs straight through the garden and out the opposite side. On each terrace, a group of pleached trees offers a stopping place, and a side path into the garden plantings.


Below, the stairs of the entry pathway from the opposite end, show quite clearly the levels of the three main garden terraces.


Apart from this direct path, which is a separate structural element off to the far side of the main garden, the breadth of the garden proper offers a beckoning view across to the distant landscape but no easy path through. The yew columns are like signposts, pulling the eyes downward into the garden, where you gradually begin to see many potential routes through. But the initiative to begin exploration is entirely up to you. There is no particular place or feature that says “enter here.”


The top terrace level is punctuated by yew columns, a common motif in Stuart-Smith gardens, that evoke the mysterious associations of the Rükenfigur and serve as an informal grid that orders the wild style of the plantings.

As Stuart-Smith has said, the visitor to Broughton Grange is immediately confronted by the fact that he or she is not the center of things. “One of the most important things for me is that the middle of the garden is left empty. Because if the middle of the garden is empty, you can’t be there. It’s about the garden, and the processes of nature. The process of the garden takes primacy in the place. It’s about watching the descent down into the valley, and about watching the space which is the centrally defined emptiness framed by the garden.”


There are many pathways, and they force you to experience the garden to get to this center, which in a sense is both strikingly beautiful and a massive impediment. Once there, walking around it is difficult; there is too much in the way. Navigating a way around requires attention and thought, and full participation in the garden. Even those stepping stones across the water, though they look inviting, are difficult to use. They are unusually large, and not sized or positioned for easy walking across the water. I tried it and turned back. They seem intentionally sized to function more as barrier than walkway.

Complexity and Permeability

Stuart-Smith uses two words to make an important point about his understanding of garden experience:  complexity and permeability.

“For me, a garden that is too instructive, and says that there’s only one way to appreciate it, is a garden that I immediately bridle at. I think that if someone comes to visit any garden that I’ve made, and they turn to me and ask what is the way around the garden, I put up my hands and say I genuinely don’t know. You must set off and see what happens. I think that this idea, which I call permeability, the idea that you can thread your way through a place and discover it, relates very much to the idea of complexity.”


“I’ve always felt that some degree of complexity is almost a moral necessity in the garden. I’m not saying as an absolute, but gardens which are completely minimal seem to be running against the grain of nature.” What does he mean by complexity? I think, as he implies, he simply means a garden that reflects the complexity of the natural world. And there is an ecological component to complexity; the garden strives to emulate the complexity of nature in some way …


… and the complexity of human experience. Drawing a parallel with literature, Stuart-Smith refers to E.M  Forster’s book Aspects of the Novel in which Forster writes about the “incalculability” of a character …


He contrasts Dicken’s characters, “which are fully delineated and don’t have a kind of imaginative hinterland,” with Forster’s characters, which are “sort of partially drawn, … drawn as much from inside their character as they are from the objective eye of the author; they seem to live more in the imagination … I think that quality of not over describing things, not pinning things down too much, is quite important.”

Another telling phrase:  “imaginative hinterland.”


Stuart-Smith wants the garden “to live more in the imagination,” to offer more than a simple visual experience of pleasure, or at least to offer, always, the possibility of more.


Stuart-Smith lowered two sides of this walled garden, making it, in effect, a ha-ha, so that he could preserve views out into the landscape. Here above, he goes further, centering the gravel pathway on the curve of a path and a highly picturesque group of trees in the distance. This view is constructed with precision. In such scenes as this–yet another example of Stuart-Smith’s use of layered complexity–in this case historical layers–a visitor is asked to reach back to gardens made almost 300 years in the past, and to such remarkable elements as William Kent’s “eye-catchers” at Rousham.

The Garden as an Entirety

The third and lowest terrace, the box parterre, is visually very different from the complex plantings of the two upper terraces. The irregular pattern of the parterre is derived from the cell patterns of leaves (as seen through a microscope) of the surrounding trees …


… looking at the images, it’s clear this parterre, so different from traditional parterres, adds yet another layer of complexity with its unpredictably sinuous lines suggestive of waveforms, or worms, or framed by a strict edge geometry, like a huge abstract painting.


About the unusual method of obtaining the patterns for the parterre, he says, “for me it’s not important for people visiting the garden that they know this particular story … that idea of suggestion for me is an important one. I will construct a garden around an idea or a series of ideas but for the most part I’m happy to keep those ideas below the surface.


As soon as they pop out and announce themselves on the surface, then you’ve kind of lost it. I think the garden is this territory of freedom and liberty to construct your own pathway, your own narrative. A lot of the historic gardens that I find most interesting are the ones where the meaning has become lost in algae and time.”

I was attracted to this garden many years before I was able to visit it. From the start, the stark verticals of the yew columns, which I’ve heard others disparage, were one of the elements that most powerfully drew me to this garden. Those were familiar when I first visited. Other things were not. For example, finding that the “stepping stones” across the water are actually very difficult to use, that walking around the perimeter of the central pool is an intense exercise in navigation, were total surprises.


I’ve said little about how I liked or disliked this garden, other than indirectly. So I perhaps should add that I see this garden as a masterwork of garden art. And I agree so completely with Stuart-Smith’s own explanation of the garden, I’ve thought it most helpful to use his own words. You can find them here:


How to end? Stuart-Smith speaks about a garden “with no point,” a garden where you feel “you’ve interrupted some sort of mythic going on,” a garden that, like Forster’s characters, offers an “imaginative hinterland,” a garden that is “an entirety.” “The garden is the thing,” he says–and it is.

He almost always uses some underlying thought process, which a garden visitor need know nothing about, but the result of that approach to garden design opens it to imaginative observation and exploration by the garden visitor, a process that ideally can take place without the interference of more quotidian concerns. In my case, I was familiar with the concept of Rukenfigür before I ever heard Stuart-Smith speak and make reference to it. So my experience of the garden is strongly colored by that concept, and by aspects of German romanticism with which I’m familiar. But that knowledge is not necessary for a full appreciation of the garden, nor is knowledge of the influence of the hidden garden at Villa Farnese necessary. His aim is to give visitors freedom to fully exercise their own imaginations and to find their own meanings, if they want meaning, or simply to experience being in the garden. The visit is open-ended, an exercise in free imagination.

Below the box parterre is this informal area of topiary and groomed lawn, which makes a gradual transition from the more formally tiered, intensely planted garden above into the landscape as it falls away, providing the only easily walkable open space in the garden. The spatial change is subtle and emotionally powerful. The topiary shrubs in conversation remind me of the “conversation” among the instruments in Beethoven’s Late Quartets. But that is my imagination at work. Your’s will be different.



* Note all quotations are actually paraphrased passages, not direct quotations, that I transcribed from a video on Tom Stuart-Smith’s website. You can watch it by clicking here.


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.


Click on this woodland scene for five days later (you’ll notice a change).


This one, to go further back.



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.

When visitors arrive, particularly groups who think they need to be managed and guided, I feel unable to instruct them on what route to take. To do so isn’t true to the intent of the garden. There is no beginning or end. The garden is a thing unto itself, and is there to be walked and observed in whatever sequence a visitor chooses … as you can (or can’t) see in Andrea Jones’ photo below, taken in late October.



Clean slate

March 14, 2016

BG dwg

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.

BG dwg-3

I’ve come to look forward to this time of year, waiting in suspense, spotting the early comers among the leaf litter and debris. The frogs and peepers are already singing at night.

BG dwg-5

Natural mulch will shelter the plants as they emerge, adding another layer of organic matter to the heavy clay.

Rich clay, though, so this flat plain will spring to life in besotted splendor. In three month’s time, something like this–








Art of Gardening COVER 3D-1

“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 those with the ability and desire to ‘read’ these plantings.”

– Tim Richardson, Great Gardens of America


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(This review originally appeared on the Thinkingardens website.)

Planting in a Post-Wild World COVER 3D

“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 of course the healing wilderness was as much the product of culture’s craving and culture’s framing as any other imagined garden… The wilderness, after all, does not locate itself, does not name itself… Nor could the wilderness venerate itself. It needed hallowing visitations from New England preachers…, photographers…, painters in oil…, and painters in prose… to represent it as … holy …”

–from Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory

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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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Off to England … working with carexTours

April 29, 2015

Is good fortune a kind of grace, a gift of an inherently generous universe? I’d like to think so. But it may just be the luck of the draw.

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April 27, 2015

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

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Rot, decay, more life

April 20, 2015

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

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Where not to put a garden

April 15, 2015

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

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First salamander

April 12, 2015

One of the guys here to do some tree work last Thursday told me he had seen the largest salamander he’d ever set eyes on in my small reflecting pool. This is a spotted salamander, apparently common, but rarely seen, throughout the eastern US. When I found it the next day, it dove under water, […]

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