Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Is a change in the air?

October 24, 2013

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The new square reflecting pool and surrounding area, put in just last winter, is already visible on Google Earth.

Was I surprised! My late Garden Conservancy Open Day on October 19 was a rousing success. We had over 300 visitors, and judging by what I could see, most were enjoying it. I was so busy I didn’t take a single photo, so I’m using a Google Earth photo of the house and garden above, just to illustrate why the garden never felt crowded. Apparently we have ample space for large numbers of people, and the circulation patterns work.

Even with an article on my garden in the New York Times two days before, I feared no one would come. You know … Late in the season. Most traditional gardens have long gone over. People might not “get” such a late garden showing.

Which brings up a second concern, one that used to nag at me regardless of the time of year. The Garden at Federal Twist is highly naturalistic, totally lawnless, very unlike what I  imagine most Garden Conservancy gardens to be, much less traditional. I’ve been surprised again to see how popular such gardens can be. So have we perhaps reached a turning point in American appreciation of gardens? Is the message getting through? Are lawns getting smaller, less popular? Are people willing to take more risks, to be less conventional? One can hope so. 

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily October 24, 2013 at 6:13 pm

That Google Earth picture is pretty amazing! I know that I’m pretty fed-up with seeing gardens that are little more than over designed paver-scapes. If that’s what I wanted, I could just go to a home show. Give me an highly idiosyncratic or personal garden any day!

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James Golden October 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm

To me, it looks like a living organism. Which it is.

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michael B. Gordon October 26, 2013 at 7:15 am

I agree!

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Mike D. October 25, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Highly idiosyncratic paver-scapes are possible, too … that is, in the hands of one who sees potential possibilities of the common.

Would rather see a commonly grown plant grown well or a commonly used material used well, than an uncommon plant grown poorly or an uncommon material used poorly/insensitively.

Maestro Golden proves the concept. Am grateful and rejuvenated, as a landscape designer, to have discovered the online presence of Federal Twist.

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James Golden October 26, 2013 at 11:34 am

Thanks, Mike.

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Mark Phelan October 26, 2013 at 5:39 pm

A ‘garden’ is a creation. I agree with Mike that the standard of judgement should be how well the creation expresses the intent of the artist, rather than how well it complies with one particular venue.

Let’s all stretch our horizons and express ourselves through the landscapes we have.

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william martin October 26, 2013 at 7:01 pm

YUP

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Laurrie October 24, 2013 at 10:03 pm

People are learning to appreciate naturalistic, no-lawn gardens, but I think they are appealing as an escape from the norm and not as a translatable style that will become more widely planted. Most people live in suburban developments, many have homeowner associations that restrict styles, and it is hard to picture how the beautiful wild system you have can be done on a lot right next door to other identical lots. It can be done, but the traditional open lawn + trees + cottage garden look that dominates the suburbs is hard to upend.

Getting hundreds of people to tour and appreciate the beauty of plants as a whole living system and not as individual specimens surrounded by turf is a great start! How I would love to see what you are doing translated to a more densely built neighborhood in the suburbs.

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James Golden October 26, 2013 at 11:40 am

I think a lot could be done in traditional suburban neighborhoods. For example, more use of hedgerows would be helpful to wildlife and to creating a more landscaped environment with linkages to any existing woodlands. Groves of trees could be planted instead of a single tree here and there scattered over a lot. It would even be possible to add some meadow like areas to link to the hedgerows and woods. Of course those stupid covenants the dictate what kind of grass residents can use and how high the grass can be would have to be gotten rid of. I don’t think there are any aesthetic reasons that this could not happen fairly quickly. The only problem is with existing points of view and irrational landscaping requirements in suburbia. But that’s a big problem.

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william martin October 27, 2013 at 6:39 pm

Yup

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Elayne October 25, 2013 at 1:09 am

James, my husband and I were two of your garden visitors last weekend. I have been talking about your garden ever since I left it, to anyone who will listen. The garden is fabulous. Looking at it and being in it was a joy. There was a treat around every bend in the paths. I am tall and usually I am looking down at gardens but traveling through those giant grasses made me feel tiny in a giant cloud of life. Your garden is not only beautiful to look at, it is an experience of feelings as you drift through it. Your long driveway was nice because it gave us a chance to anticipate what was to come. The entrance garden to your front door was a small hint. I loved the textures. I was so glad there was a long line to get in because it gave us a chance to examine all the different plants and grasses. When we came out on your patio I thought your garden was “nice”, but when we started down the path and entered into the garden I was so impressed. The fall garden gave us a feel of being in a living sculpture gallery. There were so many beautiful dried plants and seed pods that looked so beautiful. The grasses, birds & bugs gave the gallery music. Moving through the grasses and coming into yet another space was amazing. The pool is perfect. The reflection of the trees and plants make it look like a moving mirror. You really should add a bench or chairs so you could watch the reflections as the winds make the image and colors float and change. We stopped and sat on one of your benches and just enjoyed the experience. It was also fun to listen to all the comments of other guests.
During the summer we live on the St. Lawrence River and our waterfront is divided by our boat dock. On one side is a beach my husband has built for our grandchildren and neighborhood children but on the other side is what we call “God’s Garden”. God’s Garden is what God has allowed to grow there along with plants we have added to give it summer and fall color…a natural garden enhanced with native flowers. There are a few grasses which have grown there naturally but my husband is always saying we should add more grasses I didn’t think I liked grasses until I experienced yours. Next summer we will be adding a few beautiful grasses to our natural garden so we can also enjoy the sounds and view. Thank you for sharing your garden. I learned a lot and we really enjoyed the experience.

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James Golden October 26, 2013 at 7:35 pm

Elayne, it’s a pleasure to read that you responded emotionally to the garden. It’s important to me to hear that. I’m also happy that you found something new you want to incorporate in your wild garden. I’d write more but I had shoulder surgery yesterday and using the keyboard is a challenge.

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Elayne October 26, 2013 at 11:46 pm

Thanks again so much for sharing your wonderful garden and I hope your shoulder is feeling better soon. You have a lot of work to do to make that carefree garden look so carefree and natural.
PS: My husband really liked the idea of burning your grasses in the snow so you don’t have to cart away all the dried foliage.

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Faisal Grant October 25, 2013 at 6:34 am

An obstinate idea of what a garden is is odd to me. Gardens are by their nature idiosyncratic and variable. Do we lack sufficient personality now to be able to express ourselves in our garden, or do we have to be authorized by what we think everyone else is doing?
Derek Jarman crafted a vastly different garden at Dungeness some time ago now, and you’d think HIS ideas, and those of other innovators, would have somehow trickled through to public awareness by now. I don’t even understand why anyone would think a garden has to have grass, or lawn. I don’t understand why a garden even has to have flower beds, or even flowers, to be blunt.
A garden can be anything. What has it got to that your garden must be the same as everyone else’s?
The heart of the problem may be that people are no longer engaged with their gardens but are utilizing them as evidence of their position in the world. They buy or install them accordingly. And so they buy whatever’s considered normal or right – disengaged entirely with the process of the making of a garden.
Gardening is going nowhere, except backwards, if those who have gardens can’t find their own belonging in them.

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william martin October 26, 2013 at 3:45 am

*****

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James Golden October 26, 2013 at 7:48 pm

I agree with everything you say, Faisal. But I have very mixed feelings about the wealthy and their trophy gardens. Some of these are very beautiful gardens designed by the top designers in the world (others are expensive failures). I have very mixed feelings about garden patrons, in the old sense of the word. I suppose it depends on one’s personal emotional investment in the garden, even if it’s designed by another. I’m taken by your way of saying it: “Gardening is going nowhere, except backwards, if those who have gardens can’t find their own belonging in them.”

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william martin October 25, 2013 at 6:52 am
James Golden October 26, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Yes.

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TexasDeb October 25, 2013 at 3:42 pm

It has been interesting to note the transition where I live and garden (zone 8b/Central Texas) from restrictive covenant subdivisions with HOAs requiring monoculture St. Augustine lawns towards more progressive regulations allowing for the use of native plants and grasses. The driving force? Water use. The monoculture lawns require much too much water to survive our increasingly hot/dry summer months. We are too many people sharing too little water to sustain that old standby. The change around here is not in the air but is rather running deep underneath the surface, in our shrinking aquifers.

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James Golden October 26, 2013 at 7:51 pm

Water shortages are among the likeliest drivers of change from lawn to native vegetation. Thanks for that reminder.

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Christina October 25, 2013 at 4:27 pm

I’m surprised you can see your reflecting pool on Google Earth, it must be larger than I imaged. I was surprised when I saw my own garden is readable from so high; although I do know the local helicopter training school uses my formal beds as a turning point when teaching young pilots!

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James Golden October 26, 2013 at 7:55 pm

Not really that large. I think about 7 by 7 feet.

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Kathryn Conroy October 28, 2013 at 1:13 pm

PLease add me to your email distribution list.
Thanks, Jim.
Kathryn

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JC October 29, 2013 at 3:28 pm

Just read the article about your garden in the NYTimes. Great! My gardens are here on the shores of Lake Michigan and my style, is so much like yours. Nice to see that others have the sense of space and a garden philosophy that I can “feel” within myself. If you ever have some time check out some of the posting in the archives. I think you might like them. http://www.gardensatwaterseast.blogspot.com I look forward to staying in touch and enjoying visits to your garden. Jack

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James Golden October 30, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Thanks, Jack.

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Noel Kingsbury October 29, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Glad to hear you had so many visitors. Fantastic in fact. And to hear that you think that perhaps people’s expectations of gardens are changing. No-one moaned about ‘weeds’? Or asked where the lawn was? But did you do teas? That’s what garden opening is really about – running a pop-up cafe.

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James Golden October 30, 2013 at 9:55 pm

No one asked about the missing lawn. They seemed enchanted by the large, dead plants. Seed box (Ludwigia alternifolia) was a big hit. Many asked for seed, which I shared only after giving clear warnings. I actually wanted to offer tea and cakes (and coffee, of course), but I’m glad I didn’t attempt it. As it was, I got to break for the bathroom only once during my six-hour hosting shift.

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Casa Mariposa November 3, 2013 at 8:51 pm

I think it all depends on where you’re at. In my suburb, very few people even have the most basic flower garden. Boring shrubs and miles of lawn rule supreme. I wonder if some people view gardens such as yours as places to visit but not replicate. My HOA would sh*t a brick if anyone ever removed their lawn. Big sigh…..

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