Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Garden’s end

January 4, 2014

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The winter garden–my winter garden in far western New Jersey–usually lasts into January or February, but when the garden interest diminishes sufficiently I look forward to the annual burning and cutting–firmly ending the year and preparing a clean palette for spring. Its lifespan, like ours, is unpredictable. Three days after I took these photos we had freezing rain and snow; that left most of the grasses looking like white humps in the landscape. Then it snowed again, and again, and again.

What you see here no longer exists …

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All artifacts become like tombs, markers for something not present, the group of logs suggesting some kind of memorial, a place for gathering and remembering. Even the red mobile, a talisman with some undefined purpose.

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Does the view up to the house make you feel small, isolated, powerless, childlike?

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A garden’s death takes many forms. Sunlight gives this dead Miscanthus a transient glamor …

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… a glamor balanced by the black sentinels of Inula gathered at its side. About to do what? Standing, waiting?

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Now I look forward to wiping the field clean, a purifying ritual of fire and destruction. I’ll walk the garden, once dry, with a torch, burning, then cutting.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Charlie@Seattle Trekker January 4, 2014 at 9:06 pm

The tall grasses create wonderful colors and textures in your fall garden.

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James Golden January 4, 2014 at 9:56 pm

That’s the reason I put up with them all year (just joking). Thanks, Charlie.

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wm January 4, 2014 at 9:21 pm

Umm I rather like the big flop! Have you ever considered NOT cutting back and burning?….Go on give it a try!

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James Golden January 4, 2014 at 9:54 pm

Not a chance. I want that annual No. 1 buzz cut.

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the third Noel January 4, 2014 at 10:17 pm

Join the army!

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James Golden January 4, 2014 at 10:38 pm

I actually do get a No. 1 buzz cut (on my head) every two weeks. From an Uzbeki barber.

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Cindy at enclos*ure January 5, 2014 at 5:10 am

I was just wondering how your red mobile looked in winter. Then, the word ‘talisman’ sent me to Wikipedia:

A talisman (Arabic: طلسم‎; transliterated: tilasim) is an object which is believed to contain certain magical or sacramental properties which would provide good luck for the possessor or possibly offer protection from evil or harm. The word comes from the Arabic word طلسم (Tilasm), from an alteration of late Greek telesma (τέλεσμα), “completion, religious rite”, itself from the word teleō (τελέω) which means “I complete, perform a rite”. Amulets and talismans are often considered interchangeable despite their differences. For example, the amulet is an object with natural magical properties, whereas a talisman must be charged with magical powers by a creator; it is this act of consecration or “charging” that gives the talisman its alleged magical powers. The talisman is always made for a definite reason whilst an amulet can be used for generic purposes such as averting evil or attracting good luck.

How have you “charged” your floating red spots?

Stay warm and safe!

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James Golden January 5, 2014 at 9:33 am

Thanks for the explanation of the origin of the word. I have no such specific intention. I think the few man-made objects in the garden, with their sharp edges or clearly intentional arrangements, help bring the “fuzziness” of the naturalistic planting into focus. They also suggest something of the general meaning as defined by your Wikipedia excerpt, but only suggest other meanings or purposes, “layering” the experience of the garden with suggested meanings beyond what is actually physically present. In that way, they prepare the visitor to the garden for an experience on a more subtle and thoughtful level, suggesting thought but not directing it. With the snow cover we have now, the red spots really stand out, floating against the vertical background of the trees in the woods beyond.

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Rob (OurFrenchGarden) January 6, 2014 at 4:36 am

All things must pass.

Anyway, you need to get out while you can. The Polar Vortex is coming. Shit, the aliens are landing.
How is the weather James? I’ve been reading about it.

Grow your hair.

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James Golden January 6, 2014 at 7:34 am

The high will be 50F today, Rob, then the high tomorrow will be 13F! We’re having a two-day respite before that polar vortex arrives. The temp dropped to zero Saturday night. I hope some of the snow remains to protect the plants. I think my Zone 8 Edgeworthia crysantha ‘Nanking Gold’ may be a goner. We’ll see.

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Kathie January 6, 2014 at 8:04 am

Thank you for this post. Although it is the end of your garden for this season, it is not the end of your garden by a long shot. I love your photos and am anticipating spring in the garden along with you. These photos make spring all the more spectacular.

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James Golden January 6, 2014 at 10:25 pm

Thanks, Kathie. Looks like we’re headed into a real deep freeze tonight and tomorrow. Spring may be a long time coming. But it will come.

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Christina January 6, 2014 at 10:10 am

I cut back later than you, usually the beginning of March (sometimes later but by then I fear cutting into new growth. Here it is less cold and less wet so the grasses look good right until I cut them. The garden would seem very bare without them. Your garden is wonderful!

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James Golden January 6, 2014 at 10:28 pm

I usually wait until early March, but it depends on the snow cover and when the plants get dry enough to but and burn. I’m thinking first half of March this year, weather permitting. I’ve become fond of a bare, empty garden for a while each spring. It’s like a palate cleanser between courses.

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Sarah January 6, 2014 at 3:09 pm

I hope you’re wrong about the Edgeworthia. I’m in zone 7 in Arlington, VA and theyusually do fine here. (I wouldn’t call it a zone 8 plant, I think I’ve seen it listed as 7b) .) However, mine — the straight species– has been sitting in a large pot for the last 8 months due to construction. You’ve just made me realize I should go out and dump some leaves on/ around it! They do sucker quite a bit so even if gets knocked back, I bet it will resprout. Fingers crossed.

Do you have to get a permit to burn? Do you do it yourself ? Txs Sarah

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James Golden January 6, 2014 at 10:33 pm

I saw beautiful Edgeworthias in bloom at the end of last January at both the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden. That’s what encourage me to buy one this spring. It would probably be fine in my Brooklyn garden, but I don’t have room for it there. I’m zone 6 at Federal Twist, so I do think I’ve lost the bloom if not the entire plant. If it survives, I’ll cover it in burlap next winter. As to burning, I don’t burn large areas. I spot burn with a propane torch, just one grass at a time, and I don’t burn near the woods. I also keep a hose running very close by. I’ve added so many shrubs, I think I easily cut 60 to 70 percent of the dead growth now. Burning is too difficult near shrubs.

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Jay January 6, 2014 at 6:06 pm

Great garden. Very inspiring. I’ve been planting more and more grasses at my house and at clients’ houses and was wondering about the burning you do. How controlled is the burning? Aren’t you afraid of the burning getting out of hand? I usually cut back my grasses in March but with a property like yours that would take forever. Curious about the maintenance aspect of a garden such as yours. Have you ever mowed the grasses with a mulching mower?

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James Golden January 6, 2014 at 10:38 pm

The burning is very limited and controlled. As I noted in the answer to Sarah, I burn one grass at a time, and do mostly cutting now that I’ve added lots of shrubs to the mix. For most of the cutting, I use a powerful weed trimmer. A few very strong plants like the Inula and Miscanthus giganteus have to be cut with electric hedge trimmers or manually. I think the clearing process takes about three days now, but that’s because I take it easy and don’t try to rush the work.

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Jay January 7, 2014 at 7:16 pm

Thanks James. Sorry I didn’t see your answer to Sarah’s comment. I end up using my hedge trimmers or hand trimmers on the thicker grasses like miscanthus. The weed trimmer for the softer grasses sounds like a quicker method. What kind of weed trimmer do you use? I may have to invest in a new one.

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James Golden January 11, 2014 at 10:30 am

Jay, I’m able to use electric hedge trimmers on tough grasses like Miscanthus giganteus. I use the weed trimmer to break up the smaller and softer stuff like matted Filipendula, asters, etc. I wish I could advise you on good grands, but I just get something offered by the big box stores and hope it lasts two or three years. I do use hand shears on really hard stuff like Inula racemosa, which is almost as tough as wood.

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Of Gardens January 7, 2014 at 7:58 pm

The garden is as beautiful at the end as it is during it’s peak.

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James Golden January 11, 2014 at 10:50 am

Thanks for the compliment.

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Zem January 8, 2014 at 3:22 pm

I really love the beauty of the dead grasses and other plants. The wonderful light in it.
You have a wonderful garden.
Greetings, Zem.

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James Golden January 11, 2014 at 10:51 am

Thank you, Zem.

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Les January 11, 2014 at 7:21 am

I have come to appreciate this subtle season, wedged between all the shouting color of fall and the more brutal winter.

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James Golden January 11, 2014 at 10:53 am

Les, yes, I’ve seen it in your photographs.

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