After another Garden Conservancy Open Day on July 14, Chester Higgins sent me a few iPhone photos of the garden. Chester isn’t just any visitor with a camera; he’s a well known and accomplished photographer with a long career at the New York Times. He even has his own Wikipedia page.
During the Open Day, Chester showed me some of his photos in black and white. Later, he sent me some of his images in color. I’ve converted them back to black and white (because they were a revelation to me) and made some edits to fit them to my blog format.
Chester said he’s interested in apertures, so here are two variations on a theme.
Several Inulas, erect and bunched like models, overhung by a willow, with a dash of grass from the side. An interesting study in texture and form.
The stairway up to the house terrace – like a jungle – in two variations.
And the “canal” pond, low and long.
Garden people may find Chester’s portfolio of photographs of large, dried leaves – Apparitions – of special interest. Rather amazing.
Federal Twist will open for the Garden Conservancy Open Days on June 17 this year–earlier than ever before–and you are welcome to come. For information and driving directions, click on this link.
It’s been a rainy spring and I’m just back from almost a month in Spain and France. Over the next two weeks I’ll be busy “editing” the plants and pondering how to turn their profuse spring growth to best advantage.
The images in this post were taken on June 1 last year, so they are as close as I can come to showing what’s likely to be here on 17 June 2017 (a Saturday). I expect the daylilies will be in flower, the Japanese irises and Iris ‘Gerald Darby’, the Baptisias. Perhaps the Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ will be in bud. It all depends on the warmth of the coming days.
Come with an eye for detail. My garden is very much in the spirit of the layered plantings advocated so eloquently in Thomas Rainer’s and Claudia West’s book, Planting in a Post Wild World. Plant form and structure, and the interplay of shapes and textures, are the main thing in late spring and early summer here at Federal Twist.
Here is the Garden Conservancy description of the garden: ‘When we moved into a mid-century house overlooking the woods, I immediately knew only a naturalistic, informal garden would be appropriate to the place. The garden is hidden. You enter through the house, where you first glimpse the landscape, a sunny glade, through a wall of windows. Huge perennials and grasses evoke an “Alice in Wonderland” feeling (many plants are taller than you). The garden is in the New Perennial tradition: plants are massed in interwoven communities, and emphasize structure, shape, and form—which are long lasting—rather than flower.
Begun as an experiment to explore garden making in the challenging conditions of unimproved, heavy, wet clay, the garden is ecologically similar to a wet prairie, and is maintained by cutting and burning. Much of the garden peaks in mid-July, when plants reach mature height and flower, then a second peak occurs in October when low sunlight makes the grasses glow in yellows, russets, and golds.
Federal Twist will be open for the Garden Conservancy Open Day this coming Saturday, along with nearby gardens just across the river in Bucks County, PA: Paxson Hill Farm and Jericho Mountain Orchards. We’re happy to have as guests Broken Arrow Nursery, Atlock Farm, and Orchard Jewelry.
It was proof, yet again, that looking at photographs is an entirely different experience from actually seeing a garden. Michael Gordon’s garden in Peterborough, New Hampshire, is one I’ve admired for years in photographs but experienced for the first time only last August at the Garden Conservancy Open Days. The astonishing composition of textures, shapes, and colors above is a beauty I’d have been unable to appreciate if I hadn’t been there.
You’re welcome to stop by this Saturday, June 28, for the Garden Conservancy Open Days here at Federal Twist. We’ll be open 10 am to 4 pm, as will several nearby gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. My driving directions are here. The Bucks County gardens are here.
Diana Studer of Elephant’s Eye recently asked about the Brooklyn garden. Here it is, Diana.
With the Garden Conservancy Open Days coming up June 28, I’ve been focusing all my attention on the country garden. Brooklyn has had to get by with a few minutes each week. Here it is after a day of rain. The Sunburst honey locusts have gotten top heavy again and need trimming back. They also need stronger supports until their trunks gain strength.
Fortunately the garden is small and so jam packed with plants it can get by on its own for a while. I may have to pull plants out next year, but not now for sure. I did add some Hakonechloa macra to the back bed, though it’s not visible here. The bronze fennel is a surprise; last year’s small plants have inflated into small cloud trees. Maybe not what I want every year, but I take pleasure in them now.
Here’s the narrow, shady border. I haven’t shown the Tetrapanax papyrifera ‘Steroidal Giant’ on the sunny side; it was killed to the ground in last winter’s cold; now it’s coming up in several places and promises to become a monster. I’m hoping to put off dealing with it until next spring, when I have to dig most of it up and contain it within some kind of metal barrier.
Federal Twist will be open Saturday, June 28, for the Garden Conservancy Open Days, 10 am to 4 pm, along with several gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. More information and driving directions are at the Garden Conservancy web page here. You can find a direct link to the Bucks County gardens here.
I have to say “No” when people want to visit Federal Twist at this time of year. Though some interesting things are happening, my garden depends on the structure of large plants for much of its effect. By late June–when it’s open for the Garden Conservancy Open Days–it’s ready to be seen.
But not now.
Here’s why … looking across the main area of the garden, the plant layer is low and, from a distance, lacking in interest. Many of these plants will grow to five or ten feet, creating a completely different landscape in a few more weeks.
One thing you may be able to see is this: the plants are growing in a thick mat. Over the years, they have formed plant communities and, though there is constant change, the overall planting is self-sustaining–with some input from me, editing here and there, and engaging in occasional battle against annual weeds such as Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegeum vimenium).
But to find interest at this time of year, you need to observe details, get close up. Here, a cutleaf Japanese maple, and two plants endemic to this site, Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and a small Horsetail (Equisetum arvense). The Equisetum looks like a problem, but it isn’t. It doesn’t seem to have much effect at all on the other garden plants, it forms a very effective ground cover layer, and it makes a beautiful textured background. A winner in my book.
More Sensitive fern and Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), an introduced plant, along the long stone wall.
Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’, often reviled by British gardeners as unacceptably invasive. In my soil, it’s really tame. It’s taken five or six years to get it to cover this small four-foot circle. This import has become a favorite. Regardless of place of origin, its made for the conditions in my garden.
Here is another favorite, Ligularia japonica, an extraordinarily beautiful plant (I have several). The background is an expanse of Equisetum, dotted with rapidly growing self-seeded Filipendula ulmaria, Sanguisorba canadensis (which I encouraged by spreading seed), and two large clumps of self-seeded Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), a classic prairie native, at the back.
At a path edge, more Sensitive fern, a native iris, and self-seeded Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and the large-leaved Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’. Both the Ironweed and Inula will shoot up to great heights by summer’s end, totally dominating this little plant community. Change here will be rapid. I’ll keep watch and intervene if necessary.
An edge-on view of a massive grouping of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’, which was planted in one forty-foot-long swath about six years ago. It’s now developed into four or five masses, living in successful competition with the tall Joe Pye Weed, asters, Rudbeckia maxima, and many other plants. The change has been rather dramatic as stable plant communities have formed, but the effect when the Filipendula is mature and in bloom still reads as a single mass. I much prefer the structural form and foliage of this plant to the rather garish blossom, which fortunately quickly fades to a beautiful bronze seed head. This plant community is a real success story. After my initial placement, the plants have worked out their own living arrangements through competition and mutual adjustment, and altered their distribution to grow most successfully.
And here another edge-on view showing an Astilbe ‘Purple Lance’ at front and a Euphorbia palustris beside Marc Rosenquist’s bronze sculpture, which serves as the metaphorical center of the garden.
Another area where competitive plants are doing a slow battle dance. Within a matrix of Equisetum, Sensitive fern, Iris pseudacorus, Sanguisorba, seedling Filipendula ulmaria, a Miscanthus yet to fully emerge, and even a couple of Sagittaria, which I must pull out. Now that is a plant I consider too invasive–at least in my difficult soil–to allow free rein. I’ll eventually intervene here, after I see what the plants want to do on their own. Maybe the winners will take care of themselves, maybe not.
Darmera peltata, below, isn’t the most vigorous plant in my garden, but manages to hold its own against the more competitive Petasites. Here it’s just fine beside the pond. I may eventually have to bring in more if it succumbs to the competition, but I like it enough to do that.
Two native invaders–Spartina pectinata ‘Aureomarginata’ (Prairie cord grass) and Equisetum–are coexisting easily. The Spartina has such tough rhizomes, it’s difficult to control without wholesale digging, but so far I’ve kept it in aesthetic balance.
One of many Sanguisorbas that have seeded around the pond. This is the common Sanguisorba canadensis. I encourage it for the white candles of bloom in autumn.
Also beside the pond, a self-seeded Penstemon digitalis, also indigenous to this place.
Smilacina just coming into bloom on the bank near the pond. I went to Paxson Hill Farm to get more this afternoon only to learn that David Culp had just stopped by and purchased two of the three in stock. I should have grabbed them last week.
One of the first irises to bloom, an unidentified Siberian.
But the native irises are more interesting for the long term. The flowering is brief, but their spiky foliage adds a lot of visual interest, and it lasts all season. All of the irises settle well into whatever community of plants they are placed in, unless totally overwhelmed by height and broad foliage. They certainly would not make successful companions with the giant Inula racemosa.
This native Geranium maculatum isn’t exactly a spring ephemeral, but it has only a brief early season. It returns reliably year after year, and seems to move around almost imperceptibly. A quiet, inconspicuous plant compared to most of the highly structured plants in the garden. It lives well in community with the other plants, and fades into the background after flowering.
Here in the woodland garden, I’m using shade tolerant plants to create a community, and it’s happening piecemeal. Most visible now is Golden ragwort (Packera aurea), with various ferns, grasses and carex. The Japanese maples are in elevated stone beds, where I’ve added a variety of shade plants that can’t tolerate the totally saturated ground in this area–Darmera peltata, Rodgersia, Disporum, Dicentra, Polygonatum, and other things–a mess of plants I’ll have to sort out later this year.
The transition to the sunlit part of the garden–from the Packera to a small sea of Petasites in broken sunlight. The composition of the plant communities changes in the foreground where there is much more light.
I’ve made no mention of the topmost layers of the garden, the upper layers that are woody and therefore present in all seasons, unlike the as yet unrealized potential of the big herbaceous perennials. Looking across the width of the garden, from the Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ to a Sunburst honey locust, a hanging mobile in red, then the forest edge, you see the boundaries and signposts that define the garden as a forest-edge community. The camera foreshortens distance, making a depth of over 200 feet appear to be flat.
A long view gives a better approximation of relative distance and height and also shows, again, that the garden’s detail, its life, disappears on such a large scale. So I await the maturing of the characterful large perennials to fill out the scene.
Next up, after this month-long interregnum in blog posting, will be a meditation on Thomas Rainer’s March lecture at the New York Botanical Garden. The subject? Designed plant communities.
Musing over the photos of last year’s garden, I realize I lost most of the late winter and spring. Constructing the new reflecting pool and surrounding area, then replanting the construction site took most of my attention and made a mess of the garden. Apart from the winter interest provided by an ice storm in early January, the 2013 garden year didn’t really start until well into May.
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.
Coverage in The New York Times… I admit it; I feel exposed in an uncomfortable way. But as a friend was kind enough to point out to me at dinner Monday night, “Jim, you’re not the center of the universe.” So click on this link and you’ll go to a story about me and my garden. I’d use The New York Times photo, but they might sue me.
The Garden at Federal Twist will be open as part of the Garden Conservancy Open Days program for a second time this year–on Saturday, October 19, from 10 am to 4 pm. Please come if you can. This garden is all about seasonal change; cool nights and recent rains have moved the garden well along the way to reds, oranges, and multihued browns of autumnal dissolution and decay. Click on the photo below to see a selection of photos over the past year.
For driving directions and other information on the Garden Conservancy web site, click here.
I’ve never successfully photographed this forty foot wide planting of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’. And that, I think, shows why being in the garden is different from looking at the photos in this post. This image isn’t real, it’s not even pretty, but it does show flowering has begun.
The garden has been a very busy place in recent months with my decision to create new structure and new plantings in preparation for the Garden Conservancy Open Days. Not much time for contemplation. Something William Martin said made me think whether I ever just sit down and take a moment’s pleasure in my garden. And yesterday morning I remember I did.
So the Garden Conservancy event is over … and I take up my camera the next day, June 30, to see what I missed, being totally distracted the day before. First, above, the entrance through the shade garden …
The women above are almost dwarfed by the plants; I show this image first to give you a sense of scale.
Over 200 visitors came, far more than I expected for my first Garden Conservancy Open Days tour. Neighboring garden owners tell me that’s the typical number in this area, so I’m pleased. Everyone entered through the house, which is how the garden is intended to be seen. I think that gave the visit a personal touch, and the house isn’t any worse for the wear.
My garden will be open this Saturday, June 29 from 10 am to 4 pm. If you anywhere live near Stockton, New Jersey, or feel up to a drive, please stop by. This is a Garden Conservancy Open Days event, so I’ll be joining several neighboring gardens in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, just across the Delaware. We’re all close to each other so you can easily visit all the gardens on the tour. For directions to my garden, click this link. For directions to the Bucks County gardens, click this link. For a preview of what my garden is likely to look like this weekend, go to my photo set on Flickr by clicking on the picture below.
To orient visitors, I prepared the following information sheet.
About the Garden at Federal Twist
When we moved to a mid-century house overlooking the woods, I knew only a naturalistic, informal garden would be appropriate to the place. Very much in the “new perennial” tradition of such garden designers as Piet Oudolf–though a localized variation very different visually from a typical Oudolf design–the plantings emphasize structure, shape and texture more than flower. I began the garden as an experiment, wanting to see what kind of garden I could make in unimproved, heavy, wet clay.
This garden is about ecology, and it exemplifies the precept that disturbance is a key driver of ecological change, increasing diversity and adaptation over time. As climate changes and planting zones shift northward, and as weather becomes more unpredictable, such experimental gardens may become increasingly popular. The garden celebrates seasonal change. It’s impossible to “see” it in one visit. It starts as an absolutely bare field in late March, quickly gains green texture and form as spring advances, morphs into a dreamscape of flowering spires and mounds in late summer, then takes on glorious reds, browns, russets, and oranges as the late grasses flower in fall. Most plants are highly structural and remain standing through winter to catch early morning hoar frosts and snow, making a long-lasting winter landscape. (You’re welcome to stop by for private visits at different times of the year.)
The garden had its birth in a major ecological disturbance—wholesale removal of trees. When we first came here, the land was covered with weedy junipers. We cut 60 or 70 trees to make a clearing in the woods, letting in more light and air, and making space to create a garden. These disturbances have continued over the eight years since the junipers were cut down, the most recent being the fall of 17 giant white pines during Hurricane Sandy last fall (you will see their trunks and upended roots just outside the garden—a rough scene now, but in ten years a whole new ecology will have replaced what Sandy destroyed). With the white pines gone, now the garden has a southern exposure, and that will initiate further changes inside the garden.
The garden is a created ecosystem, made up of plants suited to hard conditions. Because most of them like wet environments, they tend to be large. (They also mature late, so the garden peaks in the fall.) I call the garden a wet prairie … actually, an artificial wet prairie, because it is like a prairie; masses of herbaceous perennials are mixed with a matrix of grasses; its prairie-like state is maintained by wholesale cutting and limited burning in late winter. Many plants are native, many are not. Plants are selected for their appropriateness to the difficult environment, and for their visual attributes and character, not for their place of origin. As in a natural prairie, which forms a thick, interwoven carpet (often you will find hundreds of plants in a square yard of natural prairie), I use highly competitive plants, and encourage self-seeding, to achieve a similarly complex, interwoven planting. At the same time, I plant in masses, and repeat the same plants singly and in small groups to maintain “legibility” of shape, form, and texture.
Garden maintenance is more like farming than like traditional gardening. Because there are literally thousands of plants, gardening is extensive, not intensive. I rarely pay attention to individual plants but garden by managing large areas, or by selective editing (weeding) to keep the balance I want. The editing is very important. With such aggressive plants, one or two could get the upper hand and turn the garden into a monoculture. I’m keeping my eye on Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, the large plant with fuzzy, floppy leaves, which you may notice is spreading rapidly. I let the garden follow its nature, but I do keep watch and intervene when necessary.