Monthly Archives: June 2013

This Saturday – Garden Open

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.

The ever new

With some plants I’d really prefer species to hybrids. I’ve wanted to plant a shady bank with Hydrangea arborescens for several years, but the species isn’t available–at least not in local nurseries. Here is its natural habitat, or one of them … the shady hills above the Delaware River in Pennsylvania, as the crow flies, only about three miles from my garden.


All I can find is Incrediball or the “new” pink version, Invincebelle Spirit. Even the names turn me off. The (now) old fashioned hybrid Annabelle would do, but it’s become hard to find too.


So I settled for Incrediball and planted ten. Fortunately, my soil is such a challenge the flowers don’t even approach half their advertised size. Mine don’t look as natural as this bank on Paxson Hill Road, but in a couple of years they may come close.



Garden Diary: Integrating a new place

Perhaps a pool net isn’t the ideal focal point for the newest part of the garden, but it does catch the eye and gives a sense of scale. And there’s something about that blue I like.

Continue reading Garden Diary: Integrating a new place

In the garden as night comes on

A poem by James Richardson …

One of the Evenings

After so many years, we know them.
This is one of the older Evenings — its patience,
settling in, its warmth that wants nothing in return.
Once on a balcony among trees, once by a slipping river,
so many Augusts sitting out through sunset —
first a dimness in the undergrowth like smoke,
and then like someone you hadn’t noticed
has been in the room a long time. . . .

It has seen everything that can be done in the dark.
It has seen two rifles swing around
to train on each other, it has seen lovers meet and revolve,
it has seen wounds grayscale in low light.
It has come equally for those who prayed for it
and those who turned on lamp after lamp
until they could not see. It deals evenhandedly
with the one skimming downstairs rapidly as typing,
the one washing plates too loudly,
the one who thinks there’s something more important,
since it does not believe in protagonists,
since it knows anyone could be anyone else.

It has heard what they said aloud to the moon to the stars
and what they could not say,
walking alone and together. It has gotten over
I cannot live through this, it has gotten over This did not have to happen
and This is experience one day I will be glad for.
It has gotten over How even for a moment
could I have forgotten? though it never forgets,
leaves nothing behind, does not believe in stories,
since nothing is over, only beginning somewhere else.

It could be anywhere but it is here
with the kids who play softball endlessly not keeping score,
though it’s getting late, way too late,
holding their drives in the air like invisible moons a little longer,
giving way before them so they feel like they’re running faster.
It likes trees, I think, it likes summer. It seems comfortable with us,
though it is here to help us be less ourselves.
It thinks of its darkening as listening harder and harder.