We left for over three weeks in Barcelona and southern France in early May last year and returned in early June. I entirely missed spring in the garden.
Then yesterday I got a text message from garden designer friend, Keith Gibialante, who lives across the Delaware in Pennsylvania.
It seems Keith came by to visit while I was away last spring, and finding I wasn’t at home, let himself into the garden and took some photos. (He has a standing invitation to visit, so long as he latches the gate on exit to keep the deer out.)
In yesterday’s text message Keith said he thought he forgot to let me know he’d visited, and he included a link to his photos.
It seems I just discovered last spring in the garden!
I liked the images so much (you should see the garden now, after cutting and burning, and a March with four nor’easters, and now rain; it’s beyond dreary), I asked Keith if I could use them in a brief blog post, to remind myself that … indeed … spring will eventually arrive.
Looking at Keith’s photos makes me feel a lot better.
The sitting area outside the house gets a lot of morning sun, as does the house, with its large floor-to-ceiling windows. The wide eaves cut off the direct sun inside by about 10 am and three large Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), planted when the house was built in 1965, shade the outside area all afternoon. I’m sure “sustainable design” wasn’t a term anyone had thought of back then, but the architect, William Hunt, was a fine one and he clearly took some useful lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright and from Japanese design.
Down in the garden, across from the house, are a paved pathway across the garden and a circle of stone, reminiscent of Jens Jensen, overlooked by three large Salix udensis ‘Sekka’ (Japanese fantail willows).
The chairs (from Dan Benarcik of Chanticleer) make a lovely structural contrast with the emergent wild look of the garden. By mid-summer, they will be invisible.
Below is the main path across the center of the meadowish garden.
A bronze sculpture at the back of the garden, made by Marc Rosenquist, emerges from a colony of Petasites japonicus.
The central path across the garden again. The white flowering shrub is a Viburnum mariesii, a small tree among the more than eighty Juniperus virginiana we cut down to make space for the garden. I cut the Viburnum to the ground but it clearly wants to come back. I think it was probably planted when the house was built, so keep it for historical and sentimental reasons.
You can just see the “head” of my long box “caterpillar” in the middle right surrounded by a sea of Inula, most of which were removed when I returned from vacation.
A small reflecting pool nestled up against the bank up to the house (above).
And the view from above. Thanks, Keith.
All photos courtesy of Keith Gibialante. All rights reserved.
It’s late July and I haven’t posted on the garden’s progress for over six weeks. So much for my garden diary … After a drought of several weeks, we’ve had a long period of frequent, often violent, thunderstorms with torrential rains, mostly lasting only 20 or 30 minutes, but certainly stressful for my structural perennials and grasses. So different from those light mists and showers I remember in England last summer. Another reason why American gardens are different from English gardens, I suppose.
One of the few disadvantages of a prairie-style garden is the mostly vacant stare it gives you until June.
I have a garden visitor coming in early May, when the garden has barely begun to turn green and most of the high summer’s 12-foot behemoths are only 6 to 10 inches high. It certainly won’t be in character, won’t have the sheer mass, the atmosphere, none of the magic of the big garden of summer. I looked through photos I took of the garden on May 8 of last year, just to remind myself what to expect. (And, yes, to set expectations.)
One can hope for a mysterious atmosphere, but the setting sun and cloudy sky are hard to deliver on cue.
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.
Indeed. A garden is only finished when the gardener dies, or so the saying goes. Mine seems to be less finished with every passing day. Too many projects started over the winter, too much planting to be done.
You can see above the new reflecting pool area surrounded by a low berm for planting. The berm covers a prominent path I’ve long wanted to erase from the garden. It resembles a lava flow, and suggests the flow of water across the garden in heavy rain, a wash of soil waiting for nature (or a gardener) to populate it with plants. (This “flow” metaphor is an underlying design motif of this garden.)
The area still looks a mess but time has come to plant and deal with finish details. Will it look grown in by the June 29 garden tour deadline? I think so, at least enough to show the process of this garden. Once the weather warms, the grasses and perennials will grow quickly. What can’t happen for several years is complexity, the interweaving of mixed growth that only comes from self seeding, natural spreading of perennials, and yet-to-be-conceived human interventions.
I’ll continue to use mixed planting (methodically described in the new book by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf, Planting: a New Perspective), but my garden presents difficult constraints–that being heavy, compacted clay. Designing a planting for this garden is hit or miss. I certainly can’t start with a design on paper that considers only physical appearance and characteristics of the plants over time. I’m no Oudolf and, if I were, it wouldn’t do much good. Of the venue of extraordinary plants I know thanks to these two, many just can’t grow here. (My garden offers a rapid death to any Echinacea, as one example.) Finding the plants that will grow takes trial, experimentation. Oh, I can follow some basic principles–use moisture-loving plants, avoid those that require “well drained” soil, favor those with long tap roots, not fibrous root systems, favor vigorous, competitive plants that spread rapidly–but only success over several years can prove a plant’s ability to merely survive, or thrive, here.
Now I’m at the planting stage and realizing just to what extent garden is a verb.
To help get a more finished look quickly, I’m using large plants when I can get them: Rudbeckia maxima (five) in a group, several new and recycled Miscanthus, Panicums, two amazingly mature Baptisias I found at Paxson Hill Farm, and Pycnantheum muticum, which may eventually function as a matrix plant. I may even try to transplant some Inula racemosa seedlings for an immediate “mature” effect. Once the large plants are in, I have a mixture of other plants chosen for the dryer soil of the berm–20 Baptisia lactea, 10 Liatris ligustylis, several Angelica gigas, and a number of things to seed in: Prunella grandifolia as a ground cover, Bronze fennel, Verbena bonariensis, of course.
The frogs have even taken up residence in the new pool.
The rough grassy area in the foreground of the pool is being planted with Miscanthus, which copes very well with the wet and the compacted soil, and will be a ground cover. I’ll scatter various Sanguisorbas among the Miscanthus mounds, and other things as I find what can thrive in this very damaged area (lots of tromping on the muddy clay last winter).
In addition to this new reflecting pool and planting berm on the east end of the house, we also added two stone-walled planting areas in the slowing evolving woodland garden on the west end.
Here is the view up the path to the western woodland area.
Lots of work left to do here. I moved Rodgersia to these elevated beds and planted Darmera peltata (roots, not plants), so it may be a while before the large foliage has impact.
This is a very wet area; the small scattered stepping stones don’t work, visually or practically. I can’t afford real stone, so I’m searching for alternatives.
The surrounding area I’m trying to turn into a shady meadow. It’s about half covered with Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus), as well as scattered ferns, Siberian irises, various carex and shade tolerent grasses, Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and Pulmonaria.
I’ve struggled with this wet, root infested end of the garden for years. The final solution may be a sea of Petasites.