Ramblings of a "New American" Gardener

This Saturday – Garden Open

June 26, 2013

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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.

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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.

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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

Emily June 26, 2013 at 9:36 pm

Thanks for the pictorial tour! Are those recent photos? If so, your season is quite a bit ahead of ours. Visitors will DEFINITELY experience something unique from the other gardens on tour and I am quite jealous of their opportunity. –Emily

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Emily June 26, 2013 at 9:38 pm

Ahhh..wait…I answered my own question…

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James Golden June 26, 2013 at 9:57 pm

And the reason I used two-year-old photos is that I didn’t have any from this time last year. Interestingly, the garden isn’t as advanced as it was at this time in 2011. I’m hoping the heat and rain will advance things within the next two days.

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Michael B. Gordon June 27, 2013 at 4:40 am

James,
If Federal Twist is anything like NH this week, your plants will advance two weeks by Saturday! Have a great day.

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James Golden June 27, 2013 at 8:25 am

Michael,
It’s hot and humid here with rain and thunderstorms forcast for today and tomorrow, and possibly Saturday. The plants are growing rapidly, just not blooming. But the storms seem to be very localized. Rain in one place, no rain a few miles away. We’ll see.

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Rob (OurFrenchGarden) June 27, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Have a great weekend.

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James Golden June 27, 2013 at 8:39 pm

Thanks. Thunderstorms and heavy rain tonight. Chance of large hail. Hoping it bypasses me.

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Anne Wareham June 28, 2013 at 4:41 am

O James, I wish you good visitors. I do hope you get more from them than ‘lovely garden’. (and hopefully not ‘a lot of work’) My very best wishes for a successful opening and a happy time. XXXXX

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Emily June 28, 2013 at 11:07 pm

Today’s the day (EST, that is)–wishing you the best.

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Rob (OurFrenchGarden) June 29, 2013 at 3:40 pm

How’s it going?

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James Golden June 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Rob,

It went very well. We had over 200 visitors. Thanks for asking.

James

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Laurrie June 30, 2013 at 1:07 pm

James, I sent you an e-mail via your google+ profile, but am not sure how that works or if it would get to you. So in case not, I want to thank you for a fabulous tour and for your gracious time spent with me talking about plants and showing me what you are doing in your remarkable garden. What you have created is wild, controlled, and beautiful. I would say the tour was a success — especially for me.

And I have a tree ID for you. The large tree you thought might be a persimmon is a mature Nyssa sylvatica, or black gum (also called a tupelo). Jim’s photos showed the little stand up fruits and the leaves clearly, and the blocky bark. In google images type in nyssa sylvatica and I think you will see that’s what you have. Fall color can be very red, but not always.

Again, thanks for the guided tour and your warm welcome.

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James Golden June 30, 2013 at 9:26 pm

Thanks for coming, Laurrie. I did get your email via google+. I’d say our tree is more orange than red, but there certainly are red leaves. Thanks for the ID. I’ll be paying close attention this fall. It was great to meet you and Jim.

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