Early summer


Early July and the flowering has begun. It’s a pleasant diversion, but flowers aren’t my primary interest in the garden. What really gets my attention are the sculptural forms of the plants and the complex patterns they make growing in community. Most of the garden is very tightly planted, by intention, so the patterning becomes quite complex. I push it to the max. Some might say it’s messy, but I like it. It’s edgy certainly, aesthetically risky, a delicate balance between chaos and order.

Why do I so enjoy this? I don’t really have an answer. Just a speculation. Do the plants mirror something inside me, some emotional parts? Because these garden tableaux do evoke powerful emotion. So does it come from some inborn disposition of the mind, as T.S. Eliot suggested when he used the term ‘objective correlative’:

“The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”

Am I observing such a “set of objects” and more or less reacting automatically with emotion? Maybe. I’m not sure. It may be a form of nostalgia, a result of that warmth and longing we have for remembered things. I can recall a time when I was about six years old, sitting in a field of vetch, in full bloom with those comb-like purple flowers. It was such a powerful emotional experience (I can’t tell you why) that I’ve never forgotten it. Likely my emotional response to the garden stems from such early experience.

What I’m talking about in practical terms is layering of plants–in this case, horizontal layering.

Notice the patterns below from left to right–Rudbeckia maxima, floppy leaved Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, tall Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ just coming into bloom, Astilbe taquetii ‘Purple Lance’, budded Liatris spicata, below it a weed I can’t identify, but a weed with beautiful leaves that resemble miniature Filipendula foliage and white flowers that transform into stippled green balls, Onoclea sensibilis, trailing off into verticals of a small Vernonia.

Behind that are more layers, to rise and fall with the season’s passing, and behind that, Salix udensis ‘Sekka’, the Japanese Fantail willow. It’s too busy, I admit, and I need to pull out the large leaved Inula. I’ll do that this week. (Such editing is a regular part of my garden maintenance. “Weeding like a cow,” to quote that creative Dutch plantsman, Henk Gerritsen.)


There’s a lot going on visually, but in a three-dimensional view the plants sort themselves out nicely. And I do enjoy the complexity; it’s a kind of visual feast.




Another view of layering, with the Filipendula, the Fantail willow, and the tall tree canopy at the edge of the garden.


And another view showing the mounding effect as the willow and forest trees rise in the background.


In the flat photo view below, Miscanthus giganteus with Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) in front, Silphium perfoliatum at the lower edge, Rudbeckia maxima, Silphium laciniatum, Cercis ‘Hearts of Gold’, then more Rudbeckia maxima and Silphium perfoliatum. It’s helpful to imagine walking and seeing the plants move in relationship to one another.


Below, Silphium laciniatum, backed by Salix udensis ‘Sekka’, with a Joe Pye Weed, seemingly at its foot (an illusion). This Silphium, one of the most ornamental to my eye, has finally found its pace and is self-seeding regularly, but politely, around the garden. The foliage is so extraordinary I can’t think of pulling it out.


Is there a purpose to all this complex layering?  No practical purpose I can think of. I don’t think I’m a typical gardener, and I anticipate this will annoy some of you. I don’t care at all for the usual utilitarian uses of a garden. It exists purely for, how should I put it? Aesthetic delight? A field for contemplation of the meaning of it all? The wonder that plants evolved such intricate structures, shapes, textures, forms, and purposes? An appreciation of mundane reality as a miracle of being? A glimpse into that amazing process whereby plants turn sunlight into food for bees, butterflies, moths, caterpillars, birds, frogs, all manner of bugs and other forms of animal life (humans too)?

Yes. Those are some of my reasons. Others may add their own. I think my penchant for seeing the garden as a transcendent place may put me in a minority in 21st century American culture, but I may be wrong. I hope so.

What do you think?

Here’s a wilder, more abstract bit. The large paddle-like leaves are Silphium terebinthinaceum rising up through a wild grass, which I’d like to think is native but probably isn’t, with mounting, wobbly spires of Liatris pycnostachya still yet to bloom. This Silphium, another favorite for its extraordinary leaves and its intricate and delicate flowers, which droop slightly at the ends of tall, gracefully curving stalks, calls to mind some giant, over-scale jewelry. This one is self-seeded but has such large leaves I expect it may put up flower stalks this year.


At the opposite side of the garden, another example, but here is layering of light and shade, of living plants and dead trees. There is also obvious vertical layering, with the Salix hanging over the gravel path, nodding to the long pile of logs on the other side–the space between them strewn with the beautifully textured and notoriously self-seeding Inula racemosa. A long drift of yellow daylilies on the right will add color in another week or so.


I’ve been reading Rick Darke’s and Doug Tallamy’s The Living Landscape:  Designing for beauty and biodiversity in the home garden. Layering is a principal focus of this important new book, and now that I’m reading it I see layering everywhere I look.

Here is layering of wildlife and plant life, a bumble bee on a Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis). Insects, frogs, snakes, birds, many forms of animal life add yet another layer of meaning.


Another kind of layering, with color, as well as temporal layering; the red daylilies will fade away within a week or two, becoming essentially invisible.




Observing the garden in close-up is another kind of layering, an experiential layering. This is Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccafolium), which I’m very happy to find is spreading itself around freely. I look forward to having masses of this beautiful, and exotic looking, native plant in years to come.




I do tend to blather on far too long, so here are some more images to look at in slience.


































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17 thoughts on “Early summer

  1. I’m still thinking about what you wrote…but the square pond is really settling in. I can’t believe how much the new plantings have grown up around it.

  2. The text of this post so poetically, suggestively expresses how I’ve always felt about the appeal of a garden that it moves me nearly to tears. I feel that my inchoate desires and tangle of emotions regarding gardens finally and unexpectedly have an accurate articulation. I’m going to print this out and keep it above my desk, to always remind me of what my nascent gardening efforts are for. Nothing I’ve ever read has captured it so beautifully.

  3. I find myself looking forward to photos of your large garden, and particularly enjoyed your shared ramblings today. I do not know how you will feel about your garden in five years. Will the dense plantings have become too tedious to enjoy the required editing? What are your plants in mind for you five years hence? While ones will win the battle of place? Which little gems will have been choked out, because they simply could not have be protected in time?

    I wonder if the density of the plantings is preventing you from wandering through the plants. I can imagine being overcome by the plants on a particularly lovely night and wanting to roll down the hill of them….are they too robust and upright to allow that type of contact? Perhaps you don’t desire that kind of contact.

    My money is on the fact that you might have wished your water feature were bigger. While you are protecting that space, during this time of the year it seems to me to be losing ground to the plant that is around it. One woman’s opinion. Overall a delicious mishmash of beautifully grown life. Thank you for sharing your journey. I wish you were my neighbor and I lived uphill from your property and had the pleasure of looking down on your creation.

    1. Thanks, Marlene. Actually, there are so many paths, it’s easy to walk as much as you want among the plantings. In that respect, the garden is quite park like. The dense planting is an intentional effort to imitate the closely woven growth in a natural prairie. In fact, I often say my garden is an artificial wet prairie. Yes, the plantings will change year by year, but I’m not afraid of losing control. I’ve already had the experience of pulling apart an area and replanting, so that’s no problem. I cleaned around the pond last fall and lined the bottom to prevent growth in the water. As you noticed, the growth of plants at the side is hiding much of the water’s edge. The solution to that is putting on waders and cutting out a lot of growth, which I’m not inclined to do until fall. I’d like to widen the pond, but I’m not yet up to the effort. I think that’s in the future, but not sure when.

  4. Blather on and on, James. The pool looks lovely-perfect. I am surprised Eryngium yuccafolium is so happy in what I think of as a moist garden. I have tried it without success but will try it again at Teixeira Park in Peterborough. I just got The Living Landscape and am enjoying it and learning a lot. Thanks for prompting me to get it.

  5. Michael,

    I never would have guessed the Eryngium would start self-seeding. I do hope it continues. Enjoy The Living Landscape. It’s so full of Rick Darke’s pictures it’s a rather quick read. It’s changed the way I think about my garden.

  6. It may be that a minority that see a garden as a transcendent place (hopefully not!), but I think many people want gardens and spaces easy -for lack of a better word – without requiring time to slow down and observe. Sort of like seeking the familiar so as to not have ideas challenged. And to escape the ordinary, and be willing to change our views takes time, which many believe they don’t have. I think your gardens require or ask us to slow down and be still, which may not be comfortable for everyone. So here’s to creating more gardens where we can transcend the ordinary!

    1. Thank you for that insight. Gardens, as you suggest, should ask the visitor to slow down, linger, think, perhaps to meditate or at least still the mind and free it of quotidian busyness. As you say, “transcend the ordinary.” I also think you’re right in saying most people want things easy. It’s built into our culture. (I’m thinking of the awful waffles I saw in plastic bags at the supermarket this afternoon.) Though I understand millions of people attend churches regularly, it’s my personal opinion that the vast majority do so for other than deeply spiritual reasons. We like our spiritual life on the “lite” side too. (I realize I’m going out on a limb and may regret saying this.)

  7. a garden that ask us to slow down and look? Yes, please. Mine too!
    I had someone here the other day. Shall we go the long way, or the short way? Oh, the long way, it’s so beautiful!

  8. A cool and damp morning in tropical thailand …slowing down and looking is a national sport in this neck of the woods! I slowed down and looked in my garden too much and before long I felt the need to weed myself out of the equation!
    A few years ago a wonderful fellow by the name of Trevor Nottle wrote my book and that saved me no end of grief with publishers etc…now you write my thoughts .. For that many thanks! Now I can really slow down and look…or is it gongoozle?
    Splendid post JG

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