Imaginary axis … garden structure at Federal Twist

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This is one end of the “spine” of the garden, really one of a series of episodes that draw you through space.

That curvy green line across the garden, roughly an S-curve with a bent tail, is the metaphorical spine of the garden, its axis.

The axial shape and location isn’t arbitrary. It follows the natural storm water pattern of flow.

The shape of the axis is not arbitrary. It follows the pattern of storm water flow around the house and across the garden to the long slope down to Lockatong Creek. This natural flow of water–the garden soil being predominantly wet to wetter–creates various ecological “patches,” and determines (along with light, aspect, elevation) the compositions and locations of the plant communities in the garden and thus, in large part, its look and character.

Some helpful phrases from The Free Online Dictionary definition of axis:  “line segment serving to orient a space or a geometric object … a reference line … a center line to which parts of a structure or body may be referred… an imaginary line to which elements of a work of art, such as a picture, are referred for measurement or symmetry.”

Except this axis is not straight. But it is a visual reference, an “imaginary line,” that helps define the various parts of the garden, gives the garden a kind of momentum with occasional side currents, swirls, diversions–a series of reference points from which to look back from, to, and across the space, helping define spatial relationships. Is it a structure? I suppose so … made up of a sitting area in the far corner of the garden, the wide, curvy path shown above, a long raised stone planting bed filled with box, and a long pond. Last weekend we completed two new linear stone beds that align with the curve of the pond, bringing that interrupted, curvy axis to completion.

Probably two years ago, my friend Peter Holt, a garden designer near Halifax, Nova Scotia suggested I add raised stone planting beds at the woodland end of the house, and plant them with Japanese maples (Acer palmatum). You can see them below, waiting to be filled with soil.


To use Peter’s words, the new stonework “echoes the boxwood stone caterpillar further along and reads as a part of the hill, a fragment of the hill that’s eroded off.” So I have some independent confirmation this may work, from the guy who gave me the idea in the first place.


The stone beds do reflect the low stone wall around the base of the house plinth and suggest geological features that broke off or eroded.



I intend to plant Japanese maples (small ones that will remain low and weep over the edges) and Rodgersia in the beds. I’m also thinking of other ground cover plants such as Helleborus foetidus and other low shade-loving plants.


But equally important will be planting around the base of the stone beds to integrate them visually. Ferns, certainly. I’ll need to experiment to see what grows well and looks appropriate to the acers and rodgersias. I want them to look old, moss and lichen encrusted is the idea.


Here you can see the raised planter curving around into the line of the pond (now full of winter-blown debris) and following the curve of the existing stone wall on the left.


In the next view, you can see how the new stone work complements and visually joins the existing spine of the garden, moving through the pond, then through the long stone planter of box (the boxwood stone caterpillar, as Peter calls it).


Beyond the box planter is another area of box I added last winter. This, in turn, links to the long, curving path across the middle of the garden (shown in the opening photo).

This photo from an icy day in December better shows how this all is intended to look once it’s given life by plantings.

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The spine of the garden terminates here, at this seat, which will be backed by a corner Hornbean hedge (the Hornbeams have been planted three or four years and should register as adolescent hedges this spring).


 Not a big event, but the view back from the bench is great …

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… especially in the green season.

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18 thoughts on “Imaginary axis … garden structure at Federal Twist

  1. I don’t know…I realize that you are using the term “axis” in an informal manner, but I think it isn’t useful to try to visualize your garden in this way. I’m not sure what I would call it, but I think of your garden as a strolling garden or a naturalistic garden even though more formal elements are present. To me, the theme of “axis” implies a static viewpoint, destination, and organizing element whereas, in your garden, I would think more along the lines of “unfolding vista”, “expansive vista”, “closed vista,” and of the ebb and flow of garden elements and textures at different points of the journey around the bigger picture. Moving–not static. Anyway…that’s my 2 cents. I really appreciate seeing these pictures, which help me to understand the layout…but am really ready for you to start posting Spring-green photos!


    1. Hmmm. I value your opinion so I’ve been thinking about your comment “I think it isn’t useful to try to visualize your garden in this way.” It’s hard to be clear. I don’t in any way intend to say that the curvy line I call the “axis” is the path of travel through the garden. It’s origin is in the attempt to make the garden embody the nature of the place. Because of our soil type (hard clay) and geology (layers of stone that prevent percolation of rain water into the ground, resulting in abundant flow of water across the surface of the land), storm water flow is very important in determining what grows where in the garden. So the axis is an attempt to call attention to that and to use that fact in a meaningful way. In fact, when the garden is in growth, this feature hardly registers. The parts are experienced as isolated and become part of the “unfolding vista,” “expansive vista,” “closed vista.” There’s nothing static about it. I think we may be in agreement but we’re using different words. Still, I’m disturbed and will think about this. (I already modified the post to explain the relation between the axis and the flow of water.)

  2. Oh no! I did not mean to bring unrest. Maybe I should try to better explain myself. I (*I*) feel about your garden somewhat as if it is a woodland garden–although it is NOT a woodland in terms of either aspect or plant selection. To me, woodland gardens feel really close to nature in that the paths and features wend around large trees and native topology. By necessity, garden organization is not a matter of formality and axis etc. Traveling the path in a woodland garden is to take the visual experiences as they come since the path usually climbs, or falls, or turns around the trees and such. Not to say that features and focal points (even manmade) do not exist, but they are definitely not of a formal/classical nature. Well, that’s an oversimplification, but I hope it gets some of the vision across.

    Many of the European gardens we both (I think) find visually appealing utilize formal structure combined with billowing prairie-style planting. I find discussion of axis appropriate in those cases because parterres etc. are quite a formal containment system for the billowy, natural plantings within. Because so much structure does not appear to be suitable to your property , I guess I feel like the idea of “axis” becomes potentially competitive with other ideas like the necklace path encircling your garden.

    Maybe you are right and I am simply over-sensitized to use of the word “axis” which has very formal and visually formal connotations in my lexicon.

  3. I get your explanation. I was using “axis” in an intentionally provocative way. Though this garden is very different from a more formal garden, for example a Tom Stuart-Smith garden with naturalistic plantings contained in a formal design, I think the experience of the garden isn’t entirely different. A much more dramatic distinction could be drawn with, say, Dan Kiley’s minimalist, highly structured Miller Garden in Indiana. I certainly agree with you that there are other ways to talk about gardens, mine in particular, since it’s the subject I chose for this post. I particularly like your words “unfolding vista” because it captures something about, not so much vista, of which there isn’t much in my garden, but about the experience of the garden unfolding and revealing itself as you walk around it.

    I’ll also mention that I suffer from Tom Stuart-Smith envy. I’d love a piece of land where a garden with straight lines and views into the distance could be possible, but I don’t think that’s to come to pass. My Brooklyn garden is as close to that as I will get, barring a win in the lottery.

  4. James,
    I love the idea of a “spine” to your country garden. It connotes a live, moving being. Your garden is constantly changing and in motion by the second, minute, hour, day and season. These new raised beds compliment the spine concept well. They also contrast the rectangular stonework you wrote about last autumn: the right structure in the right location of the garden. Take your time, your Brooklyn garden is a formal gem (with a straight axis) in the making. You will be able to do your urban interpretation of the TS-S thing on a small scale there. Winning the lottery isn’t necessarily a good thing. Insufficient funds necessitate thoughtfulness and restraint and in the final analysis that is a blessing, not a curse.

    1. Michael,
      Thanks you for bringing life and change into the picture. As I recall, you were a biology major. One of the risks of photos is the impression they give that “this is it,” because this is it only for one day or one hour or a few seconds when the wind is blowing or the setting sun sends a low light into just the right spot. Having to choose a day for the Garden Conservancy tour was an internal struggle because I know so well you need to see the garden at least several times each year to really have any idea of what it is. And my focus in this post on “structure” without the plants present also misrepresents it in a major way, as a static almost blank slate, unless one can take the trouble to fit various glimpses (through photos) together to see the garden in four dimensions. I used to talk about slow gardening. Thanks for the reminder.

      1. James,
        I think the end of June is a great time to see the garden. It will be at its first wave of full exuberance. I would love to see the garden then! The changes you are making will be very satisfying to both you and the visitor.

  5. Hello James,

    Questions of axis, of symmetry, of geometry, and view — when translated from the conceptual to the horticultural — recall a walk I took as a boy at Darwin’s Down House. It was Darwin’s daily walk as he puzzled out his Origin of the Species (as well as his lovely book on worms — do you know Adam Phillips’s essay Darwin and the Worms?). While, I dimly recall (I think I was eight at the time!) views of pastureland, the real insight in this meandering trail was into complexity, his tangled bank of evolution. A view (if you are to keep the visual metaphor) that takes one from the present to a deep past in which we are but a brief detail. This seems to me to be in keeping with your garden, which looks to detail, interaction, in which we have no point of observation (symmetry) but are a minute and momentary part of the experience.

    1. Ross,
      You teach me something new about my own garden, give voice to thoughts waiting in a kind of potentiality for words to give them form. Your recollection of your childhood visit to Down House has a cinematic intensity even though dimly recalled: only the possibility of observing parts, details; the impossibility of seeing or comprehending the whole in its vastness (speaking of more than my garden). Darwin’s worms (and barnacles, I suppose), a kind of firm ground on which to stand in the face of his terrifying vision (I did have a glimpse into Adam Phillips’s essay). Thanks for this.

  6. nature and movement. Spine is a good word for your concept – then the S-bend with tail, works perfectly.

    When the Ungardener was arranging chunks of urbanite, I wanted the 3 outcrops to appear as a vein of quartz, hard, cutting across the landscape and echoing the waterfall behind.

    1. Garden as organism? An interesting concept. I understand what you mean about arranging the rocks. The first rocks I tried were completely wrong; they didn’t work at all. Then I brought argillite from the country garden and that worked. Positioning them took time. I’m still thinking the space may be too small–that maybe I should remove them. Others tell me not.

      1. you are talking about the Brooklyn garden now? I’d say the country rocks are a homage to your Federal Twist garden. An echo of the great outdoors in the heart of the big city.

        1. And those rocks may be very important memories to me when I age out of the country garden and live only in the city. I don’t intend to do that soon, but out in the country a trip to the grocery to get a quart of milk is a 22 mile excursion. When I’m 90, that may become a little inconvenient.

  7. Your new curvy, long stone planting beds remind me of the several long, berm-like piles of field stone on my parent’s property in rural northern Virginia. They were made by early farmers clearing the fields and remain as testament to their work and lives.

    1. I have those too. The property is lined with immense stone rows created by farmers long ago. All my stone work comes from those stone rows, so it is my intent for the stone to refer to those historic artifacts. In fact, the stone rows extend far into the surrounding forest, clearly demonstrating that this area was all clear in the past, probably used as orchards for growing peaches. That was a big industry here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, until a blight ended it all.

      1. My parents turned their about 8-9 acre old cleared field into a Christmas tree farm for about 15 years. For the last ten or so years, they have been trying to return it to woodland by planting hardwood trees among the old pines, spruces, and firs. But the overabundant deer eat the little trees. There’s no going back, it seems, to any kind of “pure” old landscape.

        However, long grass grows around the old Christmas trees, which now tower overhead. My father mows paths through them, and the result is a very beautiful “garden design.”

        1. About the no going back to the old landscape, I highly recommend Travis Beck’s new book, Principles of Ecological Landscape Design, and Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden. There is no going back. Deer are destroying the forest around here. My hope is the disastrous fall of several huge white pines in Sandy will provide protection that will allow regeneration of occur. The large logs, positioned so close together, should create protected pockets in which shrubs and trees can take root and grow. I’m expecting to see Safrassas coming in early. It’s beginning to seed in the part of my garden surrounded by a deer fence, at least in the better drained areas.

          I like the mown paths approach to design.

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