Garden is a verb

“Garden is a verb,” he said to me.

Indeed. A garden is only finished when the gardener dies, or so the saying goes. Mine seems to be less finished with every passing day. Too many projects started over the winter, too much planting to be done.

You can see above the new reflecting pool area surrounded by a low berm for planting. The berm covers a prominent path I’ve long wanted to erase from the garden. It resembles a lava flow, and suggests the flow of water across the garden in heavy rain, a wash of soil waiting for nature (or a gardener) to populate it with plants. (This “flow” metaphor is an underlying design motif of this garden.)

The area still looks a mess but time has come to plant and deal with finish details. Will it look grown in by the June 29 garden tour deadline? I think so, at least enough to show the process of this garden. Once the weather warms, the grasses and perennials will grow quickly. What can’t happen for several years is complexity, the interweaving of mixed growth that only comes from self seeding, natural spreading of perennials, and yet-to-be-conceived human interventions.


I’ll continue to use mixed planting (methodically described in the new book by Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf, Planting:  a New Perspective), but my garden presents difficult constraints–that being heavy, compacted clay. Designing a planting for this garden is hit or miss. I certainly can’t start with a design on paper that considers only physical appearance and characteristics of the plants over time. I’m no Oudolf and, if I were, it wouldn’t do much good. Of the venue of extraordinary plants I know thanks to these two, many just can’t grow here. (My garden offers a rapid death to any Echinacea, as one example.) Finding the plants that will grow takes trial, experimentation. Oh, I can follow some basic principles–use moisture-loving plants, avoid those that require “well drained” soil, favor those with long tap roots, not fibrous root systems, favor vigorous, competitive plants that spread rapidly–but only success over several years can prove a plant’s ability to merely survive, or thrive, here.

Now I’m at the planting stage and realizing just to what extent garden is a verb.

To help get a more finished look quickly, I’m using large plants when I can get them: Rudbeckia maxima (five) in a group, several new and recycled Miscanthus, Panicums, two amazingly mature Baptisias I found at Paxson Hill Farm, and Pycnantheum muticum, which may eventually function as a matrix plant. I may even try to transplant some Inula racemosa seedlings for an immediate “mature” effect. Once the large plants are in, I have a mixture of other plants chosen for the dryer soil of the berm–20 Baptisia lactea, 10 Liatris ligustylis, several Angelica gigas, and a number of things to seed in:  Prunella grandifolia as a ground cover, Bronze fennel, Verbena bonariensis, of course.


The frogs have even taken up residence in the new pool.


The rough grassy area in the foreground of the pool is being planted with Miscanthus, which copes very well with the wet and the compacted soil, and will be a ground cover. I’ll scatter various Sanguisorbas among the Miscanthus mounds, and other things as I find what can thrive in this very damaged area (lots of tromping on the muddy clay last winter).


In addition to this new reflecting pool and planting berm on the east end of the house, we also added two stone-walled planting areas in the slowing evolving woodland garden on the west end.

Here is the view up the path to the western woodland area.


Lots of work left to do here. I moved Rodgersia to these elevated beds and planted Darmera peltata (roots, not plants), so it may be a while before the large foliage has impact.


This is a very wet area; the small scattered stepping stones don’t work, visually or practically. I can’t afford real stone, so I’m searching for alternatives.


The surrounding area I’m trying to turn into a shady meadow. It’s about half covered with Golden ragwort (Senecio aureus), as well as scattered ferns, Siberian irises, various carex and shade tolerent grasses, Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum) and Pulmonaria.


I’ve struggled with this wet, root infested end of the garden for years. The final solution may be a sea of Petasites.

Success. Failure. Chance. Change.

Garden is a verb.


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22 thoughts on “Garden is a verb

  1. As a substitute for those little square stepping stones, could you cut some flat rounds from big logs (maybe from your fallen trees), with wire mesh stapled on top (for traction)? Not permanent, but probably cheap and would blend in until you can afford something better.

    What a lot of work you’ve done. I can’t wait to see it in late summer.

    1. Good suggestion. Thanks. But this afternoon I found oddly shaped concrete stepping stones in a darker color. They will at least make it possible to get across the wet ground.

  2. Ah yes, I am very familiar with the constant changes…and that quote is so true, no matter how many times I hear it. I watch with intense interest, the continuing evolution of your garden fascinates me to no end!

    1. And I watch you, Scott, wishing I could use your bursting full garden as a source of plants for mine. You have access to such great plants in the Portland area.

    1. I know you said to ditch the comment, but I want to explain. Since moving to WordPress, I haven’t had time to add all the blog links from my old blog. It’s a very tedious process, but one I’ll get to once I get through this flurry of gardening activity.

      1. O, I am a nag! But I’ve only very recently started trying to post regularly – was really thinking you might not have noticed, though I know you have visited..

        Web work is comparatively tedious – apart from the writing bit…!

        Off to read the Oudolf piece…but like comment below about you being a Golden Gardener!

        1. Michael is a supportive blogging friend. When we walked the High Line hast January, we ran into Tom Stuart-Smith and his wife on their very first visit there.

  3. It doesn’t work in Italian, the verb and nown are completely different words maybe that’s why people don’t ‘garden’! You have a lot to do, but then if a garden like life is a process that’s good, you don’t want it to be done, to be over. I enjoy your thoughts as much as seeing the development of our garden. Christina

    1. I have no desire for it ever to be finished. My only wish is that I had taken on new projects more slowly. On the other hand, the deadline pressure gets more done. I can slow down after that and take a more contemplative approach, which is my ideal for time in the garden. Contemplation, yes.

  4. Garden on, James!! The new pool and the paths look terrific. Nothing like some visitors to make you ambitious! I played around with some martix/Oufolf plantings last autumn. The new book is an inspiration. You are right, you’re no Oudolf, you’re Golden! Keep on gardening!!!

    1. Michael,
      We finished planting the new area today and mulched it. It looks great (in a “newly planted” way). There was a Tom Stuart-Smith article in the Telegraph on Oudolf and the new book with Noel Kingsbury. Tom talks about visiting the High Line on a January day (the day we met him and his wife on the High Line). Interesting. I know you’ll find it interesting. This is the long version of the url:

        1. Thanks for that link to Robin Lane Fox’s column. I’m not a fan of the much overused, latinate, lifeless word “sustainability” either, but I think he goes a bit far. I detect a spiteful, condescending tone. Too bad. I find his writing entertaining and, at times, enlightening. There is certainly far more to gardening that the “new wave.” No one is proposing more traditional approaches gardening are bad or are a dead end.

      1. James,
        Thanks for the reference to the TSS article. Fun to hear him comment on the HIgh Line in January. I will try to get some good photos and blog on his work near the Glasshouse and the Oudolf borders at Wisley next week.

  5. James, there’s no such thing as a completed garden, is there? You can only see a garden in its various states or guises. I find as soon as one thing goes well, another goes badly. ‘A work in progress’ is about the best you can get! Yours has challenges that can’t be quickly remedied. If they could be, I guess you’d pack up and leave.

  6. it’s disconcerting to look back a few years, and remember what bits of my garden looked like ‘newly planted’. What I thought I was going to get, and what I see today. Good, and bad.

    1. I know what you mean. For example, my Tetrapanax ‘Steroidal Giant’ not only survived the winter (it’s borderline here) but it is spreading, so the north side of the garden could become a Tetrapanax forest. I’m inclined to let it try. Those huge exotic plants would be very dramatic. Of course, they may also spread to the neighbor’s so I need to think about a barrier.

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