Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Different gardens

August 3, 2013

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Patterns of use, or nonuse, are beginning to clarify the nature of the Brooklyn garden. I was reminded of that yesterday when we made our first visit to the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia, the new building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway where Albert Barnes’ extraordinary art collection is now on display. In the lower lobby, and extending up through two levels to the roof opening, is a striking glass-enclosed garden planted with ferns and several tall Ginkgos and Sweet Gums rising through the building. Most definitely a garden to be looked at. There’s no way to enter it.

Brooklyn Garden late after workday 001 a

A second summer with the Brooklyn garden confirms what I’ve been thinking. It’s a garden to be looked at through the wide glass wall of the living room. It’s possible to go outside to see the garden more closely, to see the sky, to sit, but patterns of life (and perhaps having a large walking garden in the country) mean we appreciate it as an object of contemplation, isolated behind a wall of glass, just as some Japanese gardens are to be seen, not used.

Practical considerations–the rising grade toward the back of the garden left by a giant Mulberry that fell–resulted in a design of low, but gently rising terraces necessary to give plantings sufficient depth of soil to grow in. So the garden in effect displays itself to the viewer inside the house, almost like a stage set. There’s a theatricality about it. A chance circumstance entirely changed the nature of the garden. (I’d been planning a garden that would very much be a refuge, a place to sit outside.)

The dark reflecting pool, really the heart of the Brooklyn garden, led me to make a similar pool in the country garden on Federal Twist Road. The very different landscape, patterns of use, and eventually close plantings that give a sense of security and protection will make this a place for sitting out, for feeling the breath of moving air, watching the changing light.

FT Sony IntellAutoSharp 084

I want to spend more time exploring the differences in these two gardens.

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

michael B. Gordon August 3, 2013 at 9:10 am

James,
Both gardens look so lush and full right now. The benefit of the endless rain this year. I need to figure out a more effective water feature for my own garden one day. I have been to the original Barnes Foundation in Merion but not the relocated one in Philadelphia. I didn’t know about the new garden, another reason to visit. You probably know that Mrs. Barnes ran horticulture classes at the arboretum on the grounds in Merion. I love the idea that they both were art collectors: one of plants, the other of paintings.

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James Golden August 3, 2013 at 10:04 am

Michael,
The “garden” inside the Barnes Foundation isn’t worth a visit. The trees actually are not in good health. The ferns do look good. However, the landscaping outside was done by Laurie Olin, and I think it’s quite beautiful (and appropriate) to the site and the building. It has a simple elegance that reminds me of many important places in Europe, with another large reflecting pool, off center, in the front, and gravel and stone paving. I loved the building too, though they virtually recreated each room in the original Merion gallery, and all paintings and objects are in the exact relations to each other as they were in the original gallery (I think they said to within 1/8th inch). The reflecting pool at the building entrance is magnificent. I’m sorry I never got to the original Barnes. Am I right in thinking the horticultural school still exists in some form?

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michael B. Gordon August 3, 2013 at 11:11 am

James,
I am pretty sure the Horticulture school still exists. As you know there was controversy about moving the Barnes Foundation to Philadelphia. I think recreating the exact rooms as Albert Barnes laboriously arranged them was a thoughtful compromise.

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Anne Wareham August 3, 2013 at 6:23 pm

This is reminiscent of Christopher Bradley-Hole’s Chelsea garden – which he also described as Japanese: a garden to be looked at and contemplated. A Chelsea garden can hardly be anything else, so it was like a freedom, at last, from pretence.

I would add a plea for gardens which you can be in and go to a contemplative looking at place within. We have many, but strangely many people ask if we actually sit on our seats. And of course we do – to contemplate. Different from the journey through, isn’t it?

So – what are gardens for??? (again)

I think of how we don’t really know what stone circles were for. Perhaps someone made one,- then – they just were. People went on making, them, looking at them, doing things in them – and occasionally wondering what they were actually for.
XXXXXX

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James Golden August 4, 2013 at 9:07 am

I love this question, “What are gardens for?” It opens the door to so many things. This little garden may be like those stone circles. I made it, and now I can decide what it’s for and I can change my mind. Like several commentators, I do believe a higher tree canopy will make sitting outside more pleasant by opening up the space and providing a feeling of protection. I do have four chairs near the house, but they are on a paved area that really feels more like a separate space from the garden, a place to view it from outside. I’ve thought I might work to integrate that space into the garden by planting carefully selected, and few, screening plants at the edge between the garden proper and the paved sitting area. That may give more of a feeling of being “in” the garden. But the main thing, I think, is a higher and more complete tree canopy to give a sense of privacy and protection from prying eyes above.

And I have failed to mention the killer mosquitoes in Brooklyn, I believe Asian Tiger mosquitoes, recently introduced and a horrible nuisance active all day long. Ironically, we have no mosquitoes in the country garden (I believe because we have hundreds of thousands of frogs for miles around). So perhaps sitting out and contemplation in Brooklyn may be seasonal, in spring and fall when the insects are less active. Sad to say the mosquitoes are a major determinant of use of the garden.

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Laurrie August 3, 2013 at 10:27 pm

In the pictures, at least, I am drawn to want to go out into your Brooklyn garden and sit in it and walk around the pool. I see what you are saying about it being stage-like and interesting to look at through the window, but I definitely see a garden I would want to be in, and even more so once the honeylocusts get large enough to sit under and feel sheltered. It’s not big enough to wander in, but it does make me want to go out there. Maybe a bench at the far end would signal a place to stop and look back.

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James Golden August 5, 2013 at 7:04 am

Perhaps I wasn’t entirely truthful. I do go into the garden to see what the plants are doing, but usually when I’m doing my minimal maintenance. I agree that once the tree canopy is higher, I’m likely to want to sit in the garden more. Space is tight, however. I’ve used it for social occasions with numbers of people in the garden, and that works well, like an extra small room. A small stone bench at the far end would be a pleasant place to sit for contemplation, but it will take very careful space planning to work. Something to think about as the trees grow higher. These trees put out a tremendous amount of growth, mostly growth that wants to hang, so I prune, prune, prune to try to get leaders that want to go up.

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Charlie@Seattle Trekker August 4, 2013 at 12:21 am

I have loved looking at the photos that demonstrated the progression of your Brooklyn garden…I love the structure of your garden and the thought you put in to it; mostly I really enjoy the feeling it gives you. Very well done.

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James Golden August 5, 2013 at 7:05 am

Thanks, Charlie. I’m glad you like it.

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Kerry Hand August 4, 2013 at 1:37 am

Seized upon the photos because I wanted to see how your four Gleditsia (Honeylocust) were matching up to my three. As far as I could see. Just the same. Remarkably so. Of course here in the southern Hemisphere there are no leaves just now.
Pity you don’t get out there. I imagine summer would make it where you would want to be. Winter, down between high building maybe not. And getting back to the Gleditsia, it’s one of the great trees to be under on a sunny day.

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James Golden August 5, 2013 at 7:08 am

I was in Manhattan touring yesterday and I paid a lot of attention to much older honey locusts. They have beautiful forms, and cast a light shade. I do wish I could get mine to 15 or 20 feet quickly, but I have to wait.

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Christina August 4, 2013 at 2:23 am

Maybe when the Brooklyn garden’s trees increase the privacy of the garden you will feel more drawn out into it. There is nothing wrong with the ‘garden as picture’, and it must make the space within the house feel larger and more peaceful. I wonder what the views from your windows at Federal Twist are. Are they ‘pictures’ or are there paths that invite you out (almost impossible to achieve in a small city garden) to discover things you can’t quite see without moving through space. Late 16th century Mannerist gardens were about movement through the space ‘a truth hidden behind another truth’; English Landscape gardens also led the visitor (viewer) through a prescribed route; I imagine Federal Twist to be defined in this way.

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James Golden August 5, 2013 at 7:13 am

The garden at Federal Twist is very much a “picture” from the house. In the growing season, it’s hard to see any paths. The garden seems much smaller than it is looking just from the house; however, when you go down into the garden is expands, and the paths do direct you, though there are so many, you are faced with choices. From the garden looking back at the house, the distances seem much longer. The garden seems to expand, creating an entirely different experience from just looking out from the house above. It’s both a garden to explore and make discoveries, and a garden to find a place to sit quietly. What is a garden for? This one seems to present different faces at different times.

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Cindy at enclos*ure August 4, 2013 at 4:13 am

Since you mention a stage, I will tell you that my first response was mental clapping when I saw how good everything looks. What a great view to contemplate over coffee every morning.

Although I have a larger garden, I have recently also realized that it is mostly for looking at from the terrace. Somehow, I envisioned strolling and lounging — and I do (well, actually it’s more inspection, work, collapse), but no one else does. Obvious now, but I guess we’re always casting off the “It/I should be’s.” And beyond patterns of use, gardens are also about the work itself: the act of creating.

It occurs to me that as your trees grow and frame out the garden and the back of the house from above, the outdoor space may seem more like an extension of the living room and you may find yourselves using that way more often.

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James Golden August 5, 2013 at 7:18 am

I agree. Patterns of use can seem to determine what a garden is. But many kinds of uses and purposes may be possible, from walking out to weed the Japanese Stilt Grass, to a morning exercise in mindfulness. One reason I loved Rory Stuart’s book What are Gardens For? is that it opens the experience of the garden. Reminds me it can be many things, many different kinds of experience. It opens a door.

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Ross Hamilton August 4, 2013 at 5:19 am

Your city garden is lovely James. I particularly appreciate the sinuous shape of gleditsia trunks, like dancers. I take Anne and Laurrie’s thought about seating, and agree that a stone bench centered at the back might be a delightful place to sit, and make a viewer part of the scene. Ross

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James Golden August 5, 2013 at 7:20 am

Thanks, Ross. I’m giving that stone bench a lot of thought. Space is a challenging constraint and I may have to make some changes. Perhaps a small stone bench at each end of the pool.

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Denise August 14, 2013 at 10:26 am

Having watched the creation of your city garden, the picture is very satisfying to me. It’s a garden that directs you where to look, that can be absorbed all in once glance, so different from FT. So until I read your comments about the mosquitoes and lack of privacy, I assumed this was a deliberate design response to what you’ve created at FT — a small urban sanctuary, a resting place for the mind and eye especially since it’s organized formally on the axis of the large house window. You didn’t go the trendy route of breaking it up into “rooms,” so it does have a Japanese feel. The play of foliage is wonderful. The maturity of the tree canopy will hopefully bring not only privacy but some mosquito-eating birds!

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James Golden August 16, 2013 at 9:18 pm

Denise, it certainly is ironic that we have hordes of mosquitoes in the city garden and none in the country garden. The planting in the Brooklyn garden is quite complex, but I think (one of) the things that gives it a Japanese feel (apart from the two long stones) is that the plants “read” as simple green smears. Only on closer inspection do you differentiate all the different shapes and forms. I think I’ve pruned those trees four or five times this summer, and they keep putting out three- and four-foot limbs that droop downward. Eventually I’ll get them to make a high canopy.

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Diana Studer August 27, 2013 at 6:20 am

The view from each window – is something I plan to work on very deliberately in the new garden. Here it has ‘just happened’ that the garden is both inviting as a picture thru the window, and enticing to go and get lost in. You can sit quietly unseen, lost, and quite alone. Not so easy in the much smaller town garden, but I’ll play with hedges and screens and garden rooms.
The garden as stage set you have achieved ALREADY, is something I would aspire to over years.

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