Light in Autumn

Doublefile viburnum in red overlooking reflecting pool

Low and warm, the autumnal light sculpts the landscape of plants into a deep, three-dimensional screen. Backlit grasses and foliage glow, and sparks of light reflected through long irregular interstices give the garden a power lost almost totally when the day turns glum and cloudy.

Red Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) and Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), both self-seeded

Even a mostly dead, decaying False Solomon’s Seal (Smilacina racemosa) with translucent red berries quickens with new life when brushed by the sun’s low yellow glaze.


This was the problem much of last Saturday, during the Garden Conservancy Open Days tour, when clouds predominated. The garden can be appreciated without the direct rays of the sun, but it’s something entirely different as you can see in the dull photo below. A jolt of sunlight would energize this Panicum ‘Cloud Nine’ and delineate its fine detail in gold.


Without sun, the garden is best in some extreme state of weather–fog or frost or ice–but that’s yet to come.

Here’s what light does.

Skeletons of Silphium perfoliatum, Rudbeckia maxima, still green Filipendula rubra, Miscanthus purpurescens

As Anne Wareham once wrote to me, “We garden with light.” This is what sunlight did not do during my Garden Conservancy Open Days tour last Saturday.





Looking through splayed Rudbeckia maxima, across the wet prairie space, toward the Salix sachalinensis ‘Sekka’


The mid-century, slightly Japanese house, dictates the naturalistic look of the garden


Wriggly Sanguisorba


Sanguisorba canadensis, dripping wet


Filipendula, browned Joe Pye Weed, Miscanthus purpurescens




Blackened Silphium perfoliatum, Cephalanthus occidentalis (Buttonbush)


Hydrangea ‘Limelight’, Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’


Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, a fabulous winter plant, strong and highly sculptural



Three views looking through plants backlit by sunlight … Here a view of Marc Rosenquist’s bronze through Filipendula rubra. I naturally prefer the complexity created looking through screens of plants, though I don’t know why. It emphasizes the abstract, sculptural quality of the garden. Perhaps it appeals to a sense of refuge.







The box caterpillar, Rudbeckia maxima, skeletons of Silphium perfoliatum, a small Doublefile viburnum at left


Yin and yang, light and dark, Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’ and black Silphium perfoliatum




Seed box (Ludwigia alternifolia), a lovely native


The long pond, masses of Sanguisorba canadensis



This winter I’ll build a small deck so guests can sit looking out across the length of the pond.



Reflecting pool in morning light


Seedling Silphium lanceolatum


The terrace and Adirondack chairs


Seed heads of Ligularia japonica


Woodland garden, potted Monkshood (Aconitum carmichaelii) waiting to be planted, red foliage of Nyssa sylvatica






Hosta and Helleborus foetidus


Hosta ‘Sum and Substance’



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14 thoughts on “Light in Autumn

  1. Today was on and off light/grey as a flock of little clouds passed over, driving home that truth about fall gardens. I’m sorry your visitors missed out on a lot of the magic. But your readers are drinking it in!

    And being brought up short by completely unheard-of wonders like that box seed plant… Off to read about it.

    1. The Seedbox is plant easy to miss unless you’re looking for it. I ignored it for years until I was it in a Rick Darke presentation. Now I’m telling visitors to take some seed. It’s easy.

  2. Hello James. Would you say autumn was the best time to see Federal Twist? I would – light depending, of course. Another thing: Federal Twist – however young it might be – seems to have aged in a most tender and graceful way, its newness shed. I too love the ‘screen’ effect ( like scenery on stage ) that allows the viewer to see back, middle and fore ground all at once. Bravo!

  3. James- Thanks to you and Phillip for being so welcoming on Saturday. It was wonderful to finally see your garden, bright sunshine or not. Thanks also for posting the picture of the seed box capsules. I took a photo of it when we visited and have been puzzling over it all week.

    1. Brian, thank you for coming. I wish you had taken some seed. The plant spreads itself around with ease, but it’s so transparent, you hardly notice it unless someone calls your attention to it.

    1. I don’t know what you mean by “shopped.” If you mean, is it for sale, I don’t think so. Mine arrived on the winds and spreads easily on its own. I’d send you seed, but I’m sure it’s illegal.

  4. I love these wonderful photographs, the screens of plants, the natural and wild compositions, the colours and the light. You have an intriguing garden, James.
    Greetings, Zem.

  5. Beautiful, especially the light on the grasses. I wish the berries on my Solomon’s Plume would last, someone eats them the second they become ripe.

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