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.

Not long ago this was a muddy mess. So goes garden construction in late winter. But now that’s finished and spring planting is helping integrate this new part of the garden.

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Progress has been slow, with work limited mostly to one day each week. So goes the life of the long distance gardener, dividing time between city and country–on the country days, quickly using up the few available hours making rounds of nurseries, looking for appropriate plants even before the nurseries had plants on offer. I drove to Kurt Bluemel near Baltimore, to Fairweather Gardens in distant southern New Jersey, actually south of Wilmington, then around and around to the local places, asking, looking, hoping.

And settling for what I could get.

Not actually–I did get many special plants–20 Baptisia lactea, 25 Carex muskingumensis ‘Oehme’, 20 Aster tartaricus, two Baccharis halimifolia, assorted Sanguisorbas–but these are small and will make no impact until next year at best. The major screening plant is Miscanthus gracillimus, which serves both as a matrix for other plants and as a high, spreading ground cover. I used this largely because it’s pretty in all seasons and it thrives in my difficult conditions, thus is reliable and resilient. And, of course, it’s readily available.

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I want this to be a separate space, a refuge, both linked to and isolated from the rest of the garden. Screening the view in was important, to obscure the newness of the area, to blur the edges, to break up the hard lines, and to create privacy. Here Viburnum nudum ‘Winterthur’ remains where it has been planted for several years, but now it’s surrounded by what I might describe to a stranger as a Piet Oudolf-style planting–though it’s not at all like Piet Oudolf except in the most general way–in its emphasis on plant structure and form more than flower, use of lots of grasses, a love of seasonal change.

The area between the pool and the main garden path contains closely planted Miscanthus gracillimus, Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerester’, Pycnantheum muticum, and several large Sanguisorba tenuifolia. This is a wet, badly compacted area so, though I’d like to add other plants–other more delicate Sanguisorbas for example, and some very tall plants to emphasize separation of spaces–I’ll wait a while to see how things grow here. For the interim, until plants completely cover the ground, I’ll use bark mulch on the exposed surface. Only a temporary measure; I hate mulch as ground cover.

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To reinforce that feeling of refuge, I restricted access, so entry is by this narrow path that literally takes you out of the garden mainstream.

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You can glimpse this area from other parts of the garden, but you have to find the way in. Once there, access up to the house terrace via stairs is clear and, if you’re so inclined, there’s a mown pathway behind the plantings where you can meander through the wildness, wander back to the main garden path at a more distant point.

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The mown, unpaved secondary path is for explorers, and runs behind the new plantings above, from left to right, opening out here at the main path, a distance of, I’d guess, about 150 feet:

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No plants in or around the pool though. I’ve thought of a couple of planters with flowering annuals, but that seems inappropriate to the wildness of this place, too domesticated, too suburban. I think I need to wait to see how this feels once the background vegetation has matured.

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In the meantime, I may stick with minimal seating and a spot of color. Perhaps two or three low logs used as stools, painted a light blue, something like the blue of the net handle in the first photo. Or the blue of the sky reflected in the water.

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Or even the hints of blue sky reflected off the surfaces of the Rhus typhina leaves in the foreground above.

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23 thoughts on “Garden Diary: Integrating a new place

  1. Very interesting and very inspiring; I love the architectural elements in combination with your plant choices. I agree that I would give it a year or two before adding things to get the full feeling from the space. Great ideas, thank you.

  2. It’s funny — I have followed your design evolutions from the beginning and each time you start creating a space or adding sculpture or elements or digging out new areas I think huh? that’s just not gonna work — and then all of a sudden it comes together and is so pleasing. This pond is the perfect example.

    Because your garden is “wild” and meadowy rather than structured borders surrounded by lawn, I am always surprised when you add such formal elements as statues, chairs, paths and painted logs, a pond, etc. But then the tension between the wild and the created comes into balance and — wham! I am bowled over. It’s right.

    1. I think you’re right, Laurrie. It’s about a tension. Curves and irregularities contrasted with straight lines, wildness with structure. This still has a ways to go before it’s “there” I think, but I knew this was a long-term project when I started.

  3. I love the idea of glimpsing the pond throughout the garden, but not immediately knowing how to get to it — mystery and complexity. And the square, smooth shape of the pond is a necessary contrast to all the more “natural” rougher forms and materials and brings some of the house down into the garden.

    I think blue-painted log stools next to the pond would be perfect. Are there fish in the pond? It would be nice to sit on the stools for a while after working and watch them.

    1. I wish I could push the plantings along and create more of a sense of mystery but that will take some time. I’m happy to hear you agree the blue will work. I have misgivings, but I’ll try it out. No fish in the pond, but plenty of frogs, which I find even more interesting.

  4. Your secret garden is lovely.

    If you have a chance, would you let me know the name of the arborvitae in the mix? Or is it some other type of cypress? It looks nice.

    Thank you.

    1. It’s Thuja occidentalis ‘Smaragd’, also known as Arborvitae ‘Emerald Green’. Available in just about every Lowes and Home Depot. An overused, trite shrub, but quite beautiful looked at on its own. And it’s a native.

  5. I understand the position of the pond and like that you need to search to find how to reach it, but I still have difficulty with its scale. I can imagine just one solid plant rooting the pond to its place, contrasting with all te wonderful grasses, you’d know best what would grow well. Christina

    1. I understand your reservations about scale, but I think that will not be a problem as the plantings mature. I’m open to planting near the pond, but I want to wait and see how it looks next year.

  6. “No plants in or around the pool though. I’ve thought of a couple of planters with flowering annuals, but that seems inappropriate to the wildness of this place, too domesticated, too suburban. I think I need to wait to see how this feels once the background vegetation has matured.” Hurray!!! And yes re no planters!

    But log seats don’t seem very comfortable. I’d like to think you could sit and enjoy the reflections in peaceful comfort.

  7. I like the blue, too. I have shared your experience of going to nurseries and “settling” for what you can get but sometimes I am pleasantly surprised. At the end of the day, you have to start planting. It’s a neat project. I look forward to seeing it develop.

    1. In this case I also had a deadline, a garden tour at the end of the month. That’s enough to make one learn to settle. Fortunately, miscanthus works wonders in mud, it’s easy to move, and mixes well with other contrasting plants.

  8. Nice!
    I like the pond with nothing in it, it lets the reflection take center stage. It puts me in mind of some Escher’s prints actually, where the sky is reflected quite unexpectedly.

      1. now I’m happy. Tick tick tick. The square pond, no plants, is a mirror, a window to a thru the looking-glass world. In a greens and textures garden, like yours and mine, the right blue makes everything sing. I think of Wade blue, or periwinkle, ours draws the depth from our African Blue slate tiles. Somewhere comfortable and inviting to sit. But, but – the frogs! Now you tell me they have rocks for access – and it’s all good!

  9. I think the log stools will work for a while, Michael. And yes, I could see a few Stachys ‘Hummelo’ in the gravel, but that presents a technical problem. The gravel is about a foot deep, underlain by almost eternally wet clay. I’d have to create planting pockets in the gravel, large enough to retain moisture in the hot season. Not insurmountable with a little experimentation. Countdown, yes. I’m trying to let go and say this is what is. I’m sure that will happen soon.

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