End of year in a marginal garden

Autumn color, what little there was after a summer of rain, came late, then early snow ended the year much earlier than usual.

I’ve never written about marginal gardening–at least not using that specific term. But the concept has been background to my gardenmaking from the beginning. I first encountered the term, and some of its meanings, in a little-known book* by a Scottish scientist and poet, G.F. Dutton. The book’s title, Some Branch Against the Sky: The Practice and Principles of Marginal Gardening is “poetic” in the extreme, and the subject of the book, making a very personal garden in a wild and inhospitable part of Scotland, resonated in my consciousness for reasons I still don’t fully understand.

A bench on the leaf-strewn gravel terrace, with hidden steps down to the garden in the center. Even though there is a deer exclusion fence, it’s impossible to tell where garden ends and “wild” begins. The distinction is an imaginary one.

These images, taken last autumn in late October and November (our first snow), give me an opportunity to write a bit about marginal gardening. The physical disintegration of the late garden brings the surrounding wild woodland to the fore, transparently merging wild with human-managed territory.

Marginal gardening is a concept that exists in many guises, I think ( e.g., sense of place, right plant right place, ecological gardening, rewilding, creation of novel ecologies). The concept of marginality may have significant benefits for us as we change our world beyond recognition, complacently making it less able to support civilization and life. The practice of marginal gardening offers potential for bringing our gardens into tune with the ecology of their places, and, importantly, for bringing life back to the cookie-cutter American suburban lawnscape–by now essentially an ecological desert extending across vast stretches of the North American continent.

At this time of year the garden, though a relatively small clearing in the woods, appears to stretch to the horizon.

Here I’m writing about the applicability of a concept I’ve been practicing in a garden in the woods to large suburban areas; a bit ironic, no? But the concept of gardening margins is certainly not a new idea. Many garden writers, designers, ecologists, planners, landscape architects–indeed, anyone with an interest in saving our vanishing green world–have suggested similar approaches in suburban areas: planting more trees and shrubs to interrupt those vast lawns and provide diversity and habitat, using native plants to support wildlife and invertebrate populations, making hedgerow-like linkages along property lines to expand habitat and create wildlife corridors.

Marginal, in this context, can have several meanings, most with rather negative connotations, so it may be helpful to mention a few meanings of “marginal”:

  • Not of central importance/at the edge of significance
  • Outside the mainstream of thought or society
  • Barely or only partially viable or of little value
  • Meeting only minimal requirements

In my case, I like the term because it describes my inhospitable garden site, which is characterized by heavy clay, high nutrient levels, and extreme wet–marginal in the extreme. The word also has a direct horticultural application to describe plants growing at the margin of land and water, not entirely unsuitable to areas of my garden.

All such definitions point to a central concept: edge. And it is with edges that I am concerned because edges are ecologically active areas; they provide a rich environment for plants and plant mixing to occur. In the urban context, that concern would extend particularly to waste edges and the opportunities such waste areas provide for beneficial use.

An edge of my garden, where for practical and aesthetic reasons, I’ve chosen to block out the view (a septic system is on the other side) using a tall hedge of Miscanthus giganteus.

Edges can be complex or simple, open or closed. Above, the edge is visually closed, though quite open to movement of air, water, and vertebrates and invertebrates. It’s perhaps helpful to clarify edge composition here. The trees behind and the large Juniper trunk in the foreground are native to the site. The Miscanthus, a grass of Japanese origin, is of course a horticultural addition. The red-painted logs also are an artificial adornment, part of a circle of six logs I’ve made a feature of the garden, a symbol, and a red complement to the intense green of spring and summer. They rot, and I replace them periodically. Thus, marginal gardenmaking can involve complex mixtures of “natural” and human-made, even aesthetic, elements, though they must look appropriate to place.

Another aspect of marginal gardenmaking is the matching of plants to each other and to the site’s ecology. You will be unlikely to achieve a Piet Oudolf-style garden in marginal areas. The land and its ecology will govern in all cases, and you must know or discover what will grow, what will thrive, and what plant communities will evolve in the site as given. I experimented for many years to find plants that could thrive in my difficult conditions, and I continue to do so. (But more on that in other posts.)

In a sense, my entire garden is a margin. An open clearing of about an acre within several thousand acres of woodland hardly registers as anything more than a marginal break. Here the shapes of dead, dessicated Inulas in the foreground echo the defoliating trees in the background. In this case, the “edge” of the garden extends from the center of  the garden to the line of woods outside it.

Edges and margins are rich in opportunity because they are areas of change. New things can happen there. New seeds can find places to germinate. Plants from different places arrive and, if suited to conditions there, they cohabit and thrive. Plant communities may develop, or not. Marginal areas are like gateways, offering passage from one place to another, both literally and metaphorically. They give space to new mixtures of plants and to new combinations of thought, ideas, concepts, and new aesthetic and emotional opportunities.

These Inula plants are rich in emotional character, most so when they are dead, because of their sculptural, textured foliage, their extremely strong, red-brown stems, and their height and verticality.

This close-up view of Inula stems and the plant’s dead, dried foliage illustrates the emotional power of a thing as simple as a dead plant. Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’ is a plant rich in character. (This is the same plant seen from a distance in the previous image.) It’s easy to understand why Wolfgang Oehme was so fond of it. Though I’ve read its origin is somewhere near the Himalayas, it “works” visually, aesthetically, and emotionally in my western New Jersey woodland garden.

In 2018, we had our first snow in mid-November, starting as a light dusting before changing to a heavy, wet snow overnight. The light snow erases real and imagined garden boundaries. The marginal garden becomes completely integrated into the surrounding woodland.

This detailed view shows how muting of colors and the white ground plane carry garden into woods.

The snow also amplifies scale, and in this sense only, more clearly demarks the border of the garden and start of the woodland tree line (above and below).

More important, though, is the emotion conveyed, the transparency, of these images. Words seem a crude tool to describe the delicate visual qualities and romantic coloring, which speak for themselves. The stippled effect of the snowflakes gives the images the look of etchings.

Overnight the snow increased and by morning, the garden was a world of glistening ice. (I think the clichè is warranted.) The effect was transformative.

Morning sunlight streaming through the trees into the garden unifies the scene. There is no edge, no boundary. All is margin …

… except for the elevated plain where the house sits, with its own territory demarcated like an island, and a complex multi-stemmed snag (formerly a Japanese weeping cherry), unlike simpler snags in the woodland below but sharing much of their character, reigns like a beacon.

*(As a related aside, landscape architect Julian Raxworthy uses E.F. Dutton’s garden, as documented in One Branch Against the Sky, as one case study in his recent book, Overgrown: Practices between landscape architecture and gardening. Raxworthy’s publisher describes the book as “a call for landscape architects to leave the office and return to the garden.” This is a fascinating and potentially very influential book you may want to look into.)

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7 thoughts on “End of year in a marginal garden

  1. Interesting to see Inula – our yoghurt has a plant based stabiliser instead of gelatine. Inula!

    Delighted to see your garden again – it is a distinctive and uniquely beautiful space.

  2. I read this thought provoking post with great interest. Like you, I also enjoy the beauty of the late autumn garden, but am most moved when hoarfrost or the first dustings of snow transform the naturalistic into the sublime. It’s a photographer’s paradise!

    Your photographs document your ability see and appreciate the beauty that is nature, and your words provide food for thought. Thank you for sharing…Theresa

  3. Cohan Fulford left a comment while my blog comment security was malfunctioning. He was kind enough to email me his comment, so I’m posting it for him.

    Thanks for the thoughtful piece and beautiful illustrations. The term marginal gardening is relatively new to me, though the idea isn’t– in my case, it is a blending of the wild on my western Alberta acreage: a matter of degrees, from completely artificial beds (most of which have both self/bird sown natives and planted natives mixed with exotics, to wild patches that I may enhance through planting or selective removals, to wilder areas that may get a bit of raking or deadfall harvesting or ordering of branches or nothing at all .. There is a process of observing and allowing and deciding on which interventions are worthwhile. I’m just thinking about a post on the subject…

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