A Garden in Movement



I just received the pdf of the January article on Federal Twist in Garden Design Journal, published by the Society of Garden Designers (UK). Be forewarned, it’s readable if you click two times, but really a hassle to get through unless you have a large screen.


This was my first opportunity, in a public forum, to write about Federal Twist in my own words–about the garden in movement. Not the rapid, visible movement of plants in response to winds and to insects dropping down heavily to take pollen and nectar, but the oh-so-slow autonomous movement of plants over the ground surface, making their own kinds of changes that the gardener will or will not control.

Design is not irrelevant. It is the original plan of response, the ground on which the action occurs. In a small way, every day is a step into the unknown, into somewhat predictable but never certain change. It keeps the mystery alive.


Isn’t this what all gardening has been since gardens first came into being? All one story? No. It becomes a multitude of stories with an infinite array of potential outcomes. And the storytellers are many.


One story, several gardens:

“My life is the gardener of my body. The brain–a hothouse closed tight
with its flowers and plants, alien and odd
in their sensitivity, their terror of becoming extinct.
The face—a formal French garden of symmetrical contours
and circular paths of marble with statues and places to rest,
places to touch and smell, to look out from, to lose yourself
in a green maze, and Keep Off and Don’t Pick the Flowers.
The upper body above the navel—an English park
pretending to be free, no angles, no paving stones, naturelike,
humanlike, in our image, after our likeness,
its arms linking up with the big night all around.
And my lower body, beneath the navel—sometimes a nature preserve,
wild, frightening, amazing, an unpreserved preserve,
and sometimes a Japanese garden, concentrated, full of
forethought. And the penis and testes are smooth
polished stones with dark vegetation between them,
precise paths fraught with meaning
and calm reflection.”

– from Yehuda Amachi


Thanks to Andrea Jones, the noted Scottish garden photographer, for making this happen, and to Carl Molter, a local friend and landscape architect, who came to my rescue and made a drawing of the garden when GDI asked for one (he should have been credited in the article).

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16 thoughts on “A Garden in Movement

  1. James – thank you for sharing this. I connect with your philosophy. It brings a kind of release – it opens my eyes to what the plants are actually doing themselves – how the garden wants to develop. I am so encouraged because this can be applied even in a small space like mine. I’m looking forward to next year !

  2. I’m totally in agreement on the sea oats. I have plenty and want more too. Thanks for sharing the article. You’ve given me plenty to think about and wonderfully evoked your garden through your descriptions as well.

  3. James, I spent this afternoon reading Henk Gerritsen’s Essay on Gardening. To read (part of — too long to finish in a day) his book and then to read your words is like seeing a reflection in water, where the object is made more beautiful by the reflection. I know Gerritsen’s Essay came first but your words gave new and brighter life to his approach to gardening. I’m so glad you shared this piece. Thank you.

  4. James: such a beautiful capture of your garden. I love your poetic approach to the garden and have to thank you for the introduction to Amachi. Naturally, I can’t wait to come and visit 🙂 I love your acknowledgement of the difference between trendy appearance and material that works for Oudolf, but won’t work in your own garden. That acknowledgment of the personal, immediate nature of any planting is something that’s pretty much ignored in much of contemporary commercial planting design – so I appreciate your exploration of it as something special rather than something to be ignored.

    1. Thank you, Caleb, for making your way through the cumbersome pdf. Please do come and visit (in warmer weather). I think I recall you live in Arkansas. Let me know when you’re coming to this area.

  5. I enjoyed reading your well crafted article, although I did encounter a couple of new words. One of which I had to look up, the other, Oudolfian, was clear to me immediately. Most of your Top 10 plants were those I admired on my last visit.

    1. Les, I use the dictionary a lot, and I seem to pick up “favorite” words in my reading that help me say what I hope I mean. As to favorite plants, magazines always seem to want that. I wish they had had a photo of Seedbox (Ludwigia alternifolia), a real favorite I first learned about in a Rick Darke presentation.

  6. Nice feature on an interesting and very personal garden tailored to your circumstances. At the same time, such a different approach to an existing site than one I have ever used in approaching a garden design here in northern California conditions. While I share an enthusiasm for selecting plants which will work with site conditions, I could never contemplate planting into the given matrix of vegetation on an ungardened or unmaintained site. I can’t think of any other designers/gardeners who also take that approach here on the West Coast. I suspect it also has much to do with smaller typical lot sizes here locally, and stylistic garden influences that reflect the vastly different summer dry/winter wet climate here in California. Mediterranean garden cultures of Spain and Portugal via the Moors and Mexico, in combination with pan-Pacific cultural and horticultural influences seem more appropriate here thsn English or northern European ones. Perhaps just a reflexion of my own biases and experiences, rather than a reactionary response.

    In any case, I can see this approach as more useful in less urban site designs, with a Californian/Mediterranean Climate site situations here in California, such as along the Mendocino or Big Sur Coast, or a garden being created in the mountains of the Sierra Nevada. Occasionally I’ve also had to deal with sites that alternate between seasonal flooding and summer baking; which makes for a shortened plant list of successful taxons which deal with both conditions. I wonder what Oudolf would design with our summer dry/winter wet climate?

    1. I don’t disagree with anything you say, David. And lacking knowledge of the plants you use and the conditions in which you make gardens, it seems it would be difficult if not impossible to make a garden in the existing vegetation matrix. You are right in saying mine is a very personal garden. Your comments do bring to mind a glorious garden in Australia, William Martin’s Wigandia, which I visited two years ago. I have a post on it somewhere on this blog. I’ve always felt a close affinity with that garden even though our plants and conditions couldn’t be more different. When we visited, I didn’t discuss the point of planting specifically in existing vegetation with Billy Martin, but the garden looked as if it might have been begun in that way. If it was, it probably succeeded because he gardens in a very dry climate where there appears to be little existing vegetation visible in the summer, which is very long and very hot. I do think the stress of the difficult climate may be an important factor in the success of Wigandia, as it is with my garden. I remember seeing various succulent plants, pieces just left on the Martian looking soil surface, where they took root and grew. Tall furcarias (I believe that was the plant I saw) were allowed to grow to 10 or 12 feet, when they fell over and were left as dead-looking “highly textural trees”, and in time, they began to put out new growth from within the dead foliage. It was a stunningly beautiful garden. Billy referred to what he did as “the art of not gardening.”

      I agree that my approach to gardening works better in non-urban places. It would be perceived as far to “messy” in a city, though perhaps not in certain situations where the contrast of built environment with wildess might be appropriate and desired.

  7. Great article, James! Having just visited your garden before finding your blog and now this GDI article, your straightforward recap of a thoughful, measured process is proven by the splendid results of your relatively young garden. And what a joy to recall the precise locations of (8 of) your 10 plant picks! And seeing the plan, also quite helpful for locking in a deeper understanding of an IMPORTANT American garden.

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