Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

Stone circles

December 23, 2014


I’d been thinking about making more open space in my garden for a long time … a significant feature, somewhere in the middle. Then Carrie Preston visited from The Netherlands last summer and said, “Why don’t you use more stone. You have so much. Use what you have.” Or something to that effect. I eventually would have done it, but Carrie’s push moved me into action.

I settled on a location on the opposite side of the largest planted area in the garden, nestled against three tall Japanese Fantail willows (Salix sachalinensis ‘Sekka’). Once this large circle is complete (fourteen feet across, inside the stone wall), I’ll add a much smaller circle (to the right in the photo above, left below), as a kind of antechamber, with a lower wall.


Looking back toward the house, from under the Fantail willows (above). This is a shady area I’ll probably fill with ferns–certainly many Matteuccia struthiopteris as well as other plants that can work in competition with the tree roots.


Renovation of plantings around the circles will be on the garden list for this spring since there will be a lot of damage to repair. But I have  no doubt all will be well by mid-June. (Above you see the crushed remains after snow and ice fell Thanksgiving week, ending much of the garden early this year. The grasses mostly still stand but many perennials were flattened.)


I haven’t decided on what paving to use over the gravel base layer. If I can’t find affordable flat stone to make a kind of Japanese paving, I may use concrete squares, quickly aged with mud from the pond.

Though the circle looks very prominent now, it will quickly blend in when growth starts in late spring. Below is a veiled view of the work area through still standing Inula racemosa ‘S0nnenspeer’ and Miscanthus purpurascens.


The incomplete circle is already having an effect, giving the eye–and the body–a place to rest. A sign and promise of tranquility and repose.


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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Lorna Domke December 23, 2014 at 11:29 am

I just started reading “Heaven is a Garden: Designing Serene Outdoor Spaces for Inspiration and Reflection by Jan Johnsen and was struck by sections on circles in the landscape, use of stone, and providing some open areas. And suddenly there you are doing all three!


James Golden December 23, 2014 at 9:48 pm

I haven’t met Jan Johnsen but I think I’ll like her when I do. Thanks for pointing this out.


Carolyn Mullet December 23, 2014 at 12:22 pm

This is wonderful news, James, and I love your choice of materials and the configuration. Open spaces allow gardens to breath, makes room for people, and contrary to what some people think, make plantings even more important. It’s that mass vs. void thing that is so important in all 3-D design. Looking forward to more photos as the spaces develop. Happy holidays!


James Golden December 23, 2014 at 9:50 pm

Thanks, Carolyn. I’m excited about finishing the circles and getting ready to replant around them in early spring.


Naomi Brooks December 23, 2014 at 12:43 pm

I love me a stone circle. Wonderful! Another visit is in order!


James Golden December 23, 2014 at 9:51 pm


Let me know if you want to come for the burning of the grasses (the ones not too near shrubs).


Pat Webster December 23, 2014 at 7:34 pm

The stone circles are a wonderful addition, James. They will add enormously to the sense of restfulness and serenity that I think you are aiming for. Good plan — I like forward to watching it develop.


James Golden December 23, 2014 at 9:52 pm

Thank you, Pat. We’re at a temporary standstill until the holiday season is over. I hope the snows wait for a few weeks.


kate December 24, 2014 at 7:48 am

I’m sure this will be a contrarian view but I rather like the unfinished stone circle. It feels dynamic, like everything around it, while still giving structure. It allows one in, and suggests things to come. It takes control, and then yields it. (And I’m sure I’ll find your finished circle to be wonderful, also.)


Scott Nickerson December 24, 2014 at 2:19 pm

I like it unfinished too, though of course it may look even better when it’s complete. I also like the gravel.


James Golden December 25, 2014 at 9:50 am

Scott, if I can help it, it won’t remain unfinished. I do appreciate the appeal of ruin, however.


Ross Hamilton December 24, 2014 at 3:53 pm

Hello James,

Lovely circles scattered through your garden, James. With your twisting paths and circle and ponds (this may sound mad) but visually and metaphorically rather like embryo fertilizations, where your visitors become sympathetic spermatozoa. Which is actually rather a nice idea for a garden. Random and pregnant.
P.S. you may have to add a second round pond. Ross


James Golden December 25, 2014 at 9:49 am

Ross, It’s certainly an engaging image, if somewhat metaphysical. A metaphor in labor? Another pond? I admit to wanting to make the larger of my ponds even larger and round, but not this year.


Diana Studer December 24, 2014 at 4:58 pm

we share that ‘problem’ in a garden with no lawn, we need somewhere else for the eye to rest.
My much smaller solution must be pond and paving. We’ve roughed out a path with the concrete squares we found here, and they are growing on me.


James Golden December 25, 2014 at 9:42 am

I had thought of the bronze sculpture near the new stone circle as a place for the eye to rest, a kind of center point that organized the garden visually. The circle makes a much more emphatic point.


Nell December 25, 2014 at 1:11 pm

Excellent plan, and attractive progress! Best wishes for finding the stone you want, though your backup plan sounds good too.

Circles are powerful and restful at the same time. Just this morning I was looking at one of my favorite garden pictures — Wm. Frederick’s stream garden, which is built from a series of stone circles in a creek that runs under his house near Philadelphia. There are pictures of it in his book The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand, but also in some Rick Darke books and probably in any number of magazine articles. You may even have visited it (not sure it’s open to the public very often).


James Golden December 25, 2014 at 10:14 pm

I’ve never visited that garden but thanks for telling me about it. I may recall seeing it in one of Rick Darke’s books. I’ll look out for it.


Nell December 25, 2014 at 5:16 pm

:: snow and ice fell Thanksgiving week, ending much of the garden early this year ::

We were gone when it happened, but the evidence was clear. Just came in from removing some of it, finally — the collapsed stems of Panicum ‘Cloud Nine’. It’s one of the glories of November when any light whatsoever is picked up and radiated by its airy seedheads. And then, at least half the time, that show’s run is cut short by an episode of sleet or early wet snow. Thanksgiving is the earliest it’s snowed here in decades.

The Joe Pye seedheads were demolished, but the stems are still in the same position as in August. Smaller, stiffer Panicums and the Miscanthus have made a nice recovery. Aromatic and calico asters stay upright through just about anything, it seems. {Please, forces of nature, do not take that as a challenge!}


James Golden December 25, 2014 at 10:18 pm

‘Cloud Nine’ is usually one grass that, though it looks delicate and fragile, lasts well into winter. But the Thanksgiving storms wiped that out too, also the Joe Pye Weed. We were out of town. I’ve rarely seen such destruction so early in the winter, but this may be what the future holds for us. Miscanthus is the winner by far. And Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’.


lindaB December 28, 2014 at 10:53 am

This is a wonderful post, Mr. Golden. I await developments with interest. Even if you finish the circle, will there be an entry point? I look forward to visiting your garden in Summer, ’15… finally! Thank you for sharing your garden’s evolution and ethos. Happy New Year!


James Golden December 29, 2014 at 10:57 pm

Linda, Yes there will be an entry point through a second, smaller circle. I’ll be glad to see you if you make it by next summer.


Anne Wareham December 28, 2014 at 12:27 pm

Yes yes yes and – I like it unfinished too!


James Golden December 29, 2014 at 10:58 pm

Several votes for unfinished … but I think I’ll try to make it finished, but I need a few weeks before heavy snow.


Les January 4, 2015 at 11:10 am

Other than adding more open space, I think a stone circle will also add a bit of a mystic element to your garden. However, if you find yourself adding sacrificial altars, you might want to step back a bit.


James Golden January 4, 2015 at 11:22 am

How right you are, Les. Mysticism is very much a part of my garden, and I mean that seriously. The circles will have a power of their own. But no, no sacrificial altars!


ryan January 4, 2015 at 4:28 pm

The circles are going to be great. I like the look of the gravel pretty well already, maybe a more ornamental gravel to top dress like you have in your other garden would be sufficient or you could do some smaller Richard Long type thing on the inside to only need a small amount of stone. Some of his stone circles are really striking while using rather inexpensive scrap stone.


James Golden January 5, 2015 at 11:39 am

Thanks for the encouragement, Ryan. I think I’ll probably follow your suggestion and finish the floor with pea gravel from the area. It’s a good color, is pleasant to walk on, and makes an evocative “sizzling” crunch when walked on.


Cindy at enclos*ure January 8, 2015 at 3:20 am

It’s beautiful. I’m in the gravel camp too, with maybe some tan pea gravel mixed in. I also like the almost unfinished — or finished and starting to fall down — look, particularly the way the piles of stones trail off across the gravel in the second from the last photo. It looks like a great addition, however you complete it.


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