No visitors allowed: plant communities emerging

Disporum cantoniense ‘Night Heron’

Most of the garden is missing.

I have to say “No” when people want to visit Federal Twist at this time of year.  Though some interesting things are happening, my garden depends on the structure of large plants for much of its effect. By late June–when it’s open for the Garden Conservancy Open Days–it’s ready to be seen.

But not now.

Here’s why … looking across the main area of the garden, the plant layer is low and, from a distance, lacking in interest. Many of these plants will grow to five or ten feet, creating a completely different landscape in a few more weeks.


One thing you may be able to see is this:  the plants are growing in a thick mat. Over the years, they have formed plant communities and, though there is constant change, the overall planting is self-sustaining–with some input from me, editing here and there, and engaging in occasional battle against annual weeds such as Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegeum vimenium).

But to find interest at this time of year, you need to observe details, get close up. Here, a cutleaf Japanese maple, and two plants endemic to this site, Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and a small Horsetail (Equisetum arvense). The Equisetum looks like a problem, but it isn’t. It doesn’t seem to have much effect at all on the other garden plants, it forms a very effective ground cover layer, and it makes a beautiful textured background. A winner in my book.


More Sensitive fern and Lady’s Mantle (Alchemilla mollis), an introduced plant, along the long stone wall.


Persicaria bistorta ‘Superba’, often reviled by British gardeners as unacceptably invasive. In my soil, it’s really tame. It’s taken five or six years to get it to cover this small four-foot circle. This import has become a favorite. Regardless of place of origin, its made for the conditions in my garden.


Here is another favorite, Ligularia japonica, an extraordinarily beautiful plant (I have several). The background is an expanse of Equisetum, dotted with rapidly growing self-seeded Filipendula ulmaria, Sanguisorba canadensis (which I encouraged by spreading seed), and two large clumps of self-seeded Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum), a classic prairie native, at the back.


At a path edge, more Sensitive fern, a native iris, and self-seeded Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) and the large-leaved Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’. Both the Ironweed and Inula will shoot up to great heights by summer’s end, totally dominating this little plant community. Change here will be rapid. I’ll keep watch and intervene if necessary.


An edge-on view of a massive grouping of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’, which was planted in one forty-foot-long swath about six years ago. It’s now developed into four or five masses, living in successful competition with the tall Joe Pye Weed, asters, Rudbeckia maxima, and many other plants. The change has been rather dramatic as stable plant communities have formed, but the effect when the Filipendula is mature and in bloom still reads as a single mass. I  much prefer the structural form and foliage of this plant to the rather garish blossom, which fortunately quickly fades to a beautiful bronze seed head. This plant community is a real success story. After my initial placement, the plants have worked out their own living arrangements through competition and mutual adjustment, and altered their distribution to grow most successfully.


And here another edge-on view showing an Astilbe ‘Purple Lance’ at front and a Euphorbia palustris beside Marc Rosenquist’s bronze sculpture, which serves as the metaphorical center of the garden.


Another area where competitive plants are doing a slow battle dance. Within a matrix of Equisetum, Sensitive fern, Iris pseudacorus, Sanguisorba, seedling Filipendula ulmaria, a Miscanthus yet to fully emerge, and even a couple of Sagittaria, which I must pull out. Now that is a plant I consider too invasive–at least in my difficult soil–to allow free rein. I’ll eventually intervene here, after I see what the plants want to do on their own. Maybe the winners will take care of themselves, maybe not.


Darmera peltata, below, isn’t the most vigorous plant in my garden, but manages to hold its own against the more competitive Petasites. Here it’s just fine beside the pond. I may eventually have to bring in more if it succumbs to the competition, but I like it enough to do that.


Two native invaders–Spartina pectinata ‘Aureomarginata’ (Prairie cord grass) and Equisetum–are coexisting easily. The Spartina has such tough rhizomes, it’s difficult to control without wholesale digging, but so far I’ve kept it in aesthetic balance.


One of many Sanguisorbas that have seeded around the pond. This is the common Sanguisorba canadensis. I encourage it for the white candles of bloom in autumn.


Also beside the pond, a self-seeded Penstemon digitalis, also indigenous to this place.


Smilacina just coming into bloom on the bank near the pond. I went to Paxson Hill Farm to get more this afternoon only to learn that David Culp had just stopped by and purchased two of the three in stock. I should have grabbed them last week.




One of the first irises to bloom, an unidentified Siberian.


But the native irises are more interesting for the long term. The flowering is brief, but their spiky foliage adds a lot of visual interest, and it lasts all season. All of the irises settle well into whatever community of plants they are placed in, unless totally overwhelmed by height and broad foliage. They certainly would not make successful companions with the giant Inula racemosa.


This native Geranium maculatum isn’t exactly a spring ephemeral, but it has only a brief early season. It returns reliably year after year, and seems to move around almost imperceptibly. A quiet, inconspicuous plant compared to most of the highly structured plants in the garden. It lives well in community with the other plants, and fades into the background after flowering.


Here in the woodland garden, I’m using shade tolerant plants to create a community, and it’s happening piecemeal.  Most visible now is Golden ragwort (Packera aurea), with various ferns, grasses and carex. The Japanese maples are in elevated stone beds, where I’ve added a variety of shade plants that can’t tolerate the totally saturated ground in this area–Darmera peltata, Rodgersia, Disporum, Dicentra, Polygonatum, and other things–a mess of plants I’ll have to sort out later this year.


The transition to the sunlit part of the garden–from the Packera to a small sea of Petasites in broken sunlight. The composition of the plant communities changes in the foreground where there is much more light.


I’ve made no mention of the topmost layers of the garden, the upper layers that are woody and therefore present in all seasons, unlike the as yet unrealized potential of the big herbaceous perennials. Looking across the width of the garden, from the Viburnum plicatum ‘Mariesii’ to a Sunburst honey locust, a hanging mobile in red, then the forest edge, you see the boundaries and signposts that define the garden as a forest-edge community. The camera foreshortens distance, making a depth of over 200 feet appear to be flat.


A long view gives a better approximation of relative distance and height and also shows, again, that the garden’s detail, its life, disappears on such a large scale. So I await the maturing of the characterful large perennials to fill out the scene.


Next up, after this month-long interregnum in blog posting, will be a meditation on Thomas Rainer’s March lecture at the New York Botanical Garden. The subject? Designed plant communities.

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30 thoughts on “No visitors allowed: plant communities emerging

  1. I think it’s beautiful, but green is my favorite color. It’s going to look amazing once everything is farther along. This is an interesting approach to garden design. In contrast, if you make sure that something is flowering all the time, I imagine the peak is less impressive.

    1. Leah, Thank you. I actually appreciate the plant shape, structure, contrasting and complementary forms, textures much more that flower color. The peak flowering season isn’t at all my favorite time in the garden. Mood, atmosphere, the ineffable processes of life are what interest me. The peak is actually in autumn, and the color comes from the foliage mostly, not from flowers. One of my main points, which my title unfortunately didn’t highlight, is the need to grow the plants in vibrant communities, multilayered communities that form a kind of “green mulch” so actual mulch, which retards natural plant growth and community formation, isn’t needed. Except in some exceptional circumstances.

      1. How long did it take you to go from bare dirt to a multilayered community that covers the ground? I just put in a rain garden and mulched it because the directions said to, but I’m hoping that as the plants grow and the mulch decays, they will fill in everywhere.

        1. Leah, my garden is in its eight year. When I started planting, I kept any vegetation, no matter what, to keep the ground covered, gradually removing less desirable plants as the more desirable ones grew and spread. I also seeded new plants (just by rather random broadcasting of seed) to achieve more coverage and diversity. It’s helpful it you think of planting in layers: a groundcover layer, a middle-level layer, and a top layer, which will usually be taller plants with spikes and smaller foliage to let light through to lower levels. Sometimes mulch is helpful, but the downside is that it prevents the spread of plants and prevents things from seeding in. It’s very helpful to plant many more plants, even if they are small plugs and seeds, that will give you pretty good coverage of the groups in one or two seasons, and simply hand weed as necessary. One reason for many garden failures is use of far too few plants, and far too much mulch. Layering is also important, and the groundcover layer is very important.

          1. Thanks for the tips. In my new rain garden, I planted all the appropriate plants that I had on hand, but there’s still a lot of empty space. The garden size is bigger than initially planned so I was unprepared. I’ve started sprouting more, and in the fall I can collect seeds to scatter in there and/or to sprout in pots. Hopefully it’ll look great eight years from now. I’ll give some more thought to groundcover layers, since nothing is currently filling that niche.

  2. I have to agree with you James that the overall scope of Federal Twist doesn’t have, right now, the impact a garden-to-visit must have, but I’m amazed by all the beautiful minutiae, by all that goes on behind the garden visitor’s back…that’s a joy that only the garden owner has.

    1. Yes, Faisal, later, when the tall spiky perennials have grown up, the masses perennials have transformed into actual masses, and the grasses have formed large mounds, no one can miss the point of the garden. It’s lovely now, but requires a subtle eye to appreciate the “minutiae.”

  3. I’ve vistited your blog for about a year now and really appreciate your beautiful garden and thoughtful writing.
    This post really presents the main problem with this kind of garden. You’re waiting too long every year again for it to be the garden it’s meant to be.
    I do believe a garden has to be fit to be visited all year round. It has to offer enough interest in all seasons.
    At this point of the year it doesn’t necessarily has to about blooming plants but about shape and structure which is very difficult to achieve with mainly this kind of perennials.
    I have the same problem of course in my own garden in Germany which is on a little island surrounded by trees.
    If I’m not careful there is a big unshapely mass of green in the middle sharpely surrounded by tall dark trees.

    1. Rainer, I appreciate your following my blog. I’m very interested in German gardening. My title overstates my case. The garden is actually quite beautiful at this early stage, but it requires an educated eye to appreciate the details, to see what is to be seen. I wouldn’t open for a tour at this early date because I think most people, coming from more traditional garden backgrounds, might not appreciate it. Distinguishing the many plant shapes and forms is easy for me, but for a person who doesn’t know the plants well, I think perhaps he or she would not see more than a green sheet of vegetation. Perhaps I underestimate. Some groups are very sophisticated in their garden knowledge, some are not, so I take the safer path.

      1. James, I now feel I was very critical and too harsh in my first comment. I hope it didn’t come across that way.
        I guees it all comes down to personal liking.
        Your garden seems – from what I can see in the pictures – a lot about the passing of time and the changes in the plants. Much like Piet Oudolf who has said peope have accused him of being ‘too interested in dead plants’.
        You go in that direction I guess. I on the other hand tend sightly more to a style like Dan Pearson’s who includes more traditional elements like climbers and roses etc. and whose gardens are leaning more towards all seasons.
        Your post last year called Atmosphere was one of the most beautiful writings about gardening I have ever read, certainly in a blog. And your garden reflects that, too.

        1. Rainer, I certainly didn’t take offense. And thank you for the compliment on Atmosphere. I had forgotten it.

          Dan Pearson is a garden designer I admire very much, in fact. My garden, for better or worse, is designed within the severe constraints of my site, which is very wet and heavy clay. I’d love to have evergreen hedges playing off the wild, naturalistic look of the perennials, but I can’t grow them here. Nor can I grow many of the vines traditionally used in gardens. No clematis, for example. When we bought this house, I knew many of the constraints I would face, and tried to choose a natural habitat closely resembling the conditions here. The result was what I call a wet prairie, and my choice of plants is a result of the attempt to create a simulacrum of a wet prairie, using any plants that suit my habitat, regardless of their place of origin. I can grow only one evergreen successfully: Thuja orientalis, which is native to wet areas of the eastern seacoast of North American. It thrives in the wet clay, but it does not make good hedge material. I am trying to create a hornbeam hedge in one corner of the garden. It’s coming along, but slowly. I also am gradually adding more shrubs to the garden as I discover those that look good here and can tolerate my conditions. Last year I added five Lindera angustifolia Glauca, which is ravishing in autumn.

  4. Why not see what is absolutely beautiful and springlike instead? The awakening of a garden is part of its allure, not just the WOW factor of its high season. I think your garden is actually almost more lovely in this stage of subtly and emergent details. It’s the kind of contemplative space that makes you observe and wonder. It is anything but a blank green mat.

    1. Susan, I think you caught me speaking out of both sides of my mouth. Yes, I love the garden now, but I don’t trust it to be seen now, except by experienced gardeners with an appreciation for the fine details. Perhaps I should have more faith in potential viewers. My title is misleading, and I should have pointed to the theme of plant communities, which come partially from design, and partially from the responses of the plants themselves to their surroundings.

  5. What I find interesting is that all the greens are the same! I find this really strange and unusual unless it is because the plants that suit your conditions have many other similarities so therefore are the same colour. It could of course just been the lighting conditions when you took the photographs. My garden also depends more on texture and form especially during the drought period in summer. I would enjoy visiting your garden at anytime, however, so perhaps you could say ‘yes’ to some people!

    1. Christina, there are really many different greens and golds. I think the bright light makes it difficult to show that with a photographic image. Much the same is true of the overall view of the garden. With the human eye, you can differentiate very subtle differences in the undulating surface of the plants, but in the photograph you see only a monochorme green mass with no differentiation of plant form and structure. Seeing in three dimensions and with the human brain and eye, you see a totally different garden from what the photo shows. I certainly hope to visit your garden next time I’m in Italy.

  6. altho the quiet green layer lets the Japanese maple and red mobile sing out clear and true – instead of being lost in busyness. A more thoughtful garden, rewarding quiet introspection. Disconcerted to see inulin, the fibre in my yoghurt, as a growing plant in your garden.

    1. Though I didn’t touch on other aspects of the garden, I do see it as a place for thought and introspection, and the textured greenness helps to make it that. I was surprised to learn from you that inulin was first isolated from the root of an Inula!

  7. To me your garden is a work of art, alluring and stunning all times of the year. I, too, love the softness of spring. The play of textures is so subtle that it begs one to stop, look, contemplate, and wait. Your garden, in all seasons, is transformative. It takes me into deep and quiet places within myself and to me that is the true gift of a great garden. In these photos I see a community slowly waking up from a long rest, whispering to one another. What they say is anyone’s guess, but I love that they stop me in my tracks and slow me down. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes by May Sarton. “Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.” Your garden is an instrument of grace.

    1. Maude, your “comment” takes my breath away. Thank you. Actually, as I look at the garden in the sunlight and dappled shade this Sunday morning, I almost want to retract my most recent post. Today’s garden is not the peak garden of autumn, but it’s quite beautiful. We’ll see. Someone from PHS is coming tomorrow to see it for a PHS tour later this season. I love the revelatory May Sarton quote. I could only hope the garden could be an instrument of grace. Looking forward to seeing you and your garden in August.

      1. I look forward to seeing you in August! So glad you are coming up this way. And your garden already is an instrument of grace! Every day there is beauty to be found and that is part of the grace!

  8. Hi James, I continue to enjoy your blog. What your garden has at this time of year is anticipation, the promise of things to come… I went to the Gardens Illustrated lecture last week in London – Dan Pearson and Fergus Garrett spoke – it was an excellent evening, very inspiring!

  9. Oh heck, it’s gorgeous. To witness and be included in the daily and annual evolution is an honor. I think you SHOULD let people visit now so they get the whole story. Seeing the garden like this lets people know how and why to celebrate every stage of it — we have this fight to make for fall and winter gardens for sure. Too often we think “Oh, it’s spring, it’s warm, praise be, need flower flowers flowers.” Don’t buy into that, James — I know you don’t.

    1. Flowers are okay when they happen, but not the main show at all. I guess I was speaking a little tongue in cheek with that title. I’d let anyone who wants to visit come. No problem. Actually, the garden is quite pretty, just very different from the garden four weeks from now. And photographed from any distance, looks like nothing. You said you might visit on your Millersville trip. Let me know if you can. I’m spending Thursday night there, then hearing you speak and shopping that fabulous native plant sale, then heading straight back home.

  10. Thanks for the excellent tour of what I think looks stunning…and those green, stunning, springy woods! Especially since you saved me from “dropping by”, only to be turned away:-) The woodland garden and stone wall is especially inviting…yes, even I can get too much sun and dryness, at times!

  11. Hi James
    Thanks a lot for these marvelous photos and your always thinkable posts.
    When I visit your site I use to spend hours here, because there are so much to see and so much to read. And I see your point having no visitors in your garden at this time of year – it might be like throwing pearls to pigs and too few can see and enjoy the qualities. If they can see at all?
    This is the first time I´ve heard of a garden and a gardener spek out that Horsetail are accepted. And it´s really a beauty in your garden.

    Kind regards

    1. Kjeld, I thank you for the compliment. Since I made that post, the garden has grown rapidly, amazingly fast. I hope I don’t come to regret what I said about the horsetail being innocuous. It does spread a lot. But since I can’t stop it without something like nuclear warfare, I just have to enjoy its beauty.

  12. I love this kind of planting and the building up of plant communities and personally would hate to see it “tarted” up with more traditional gardenesque stuff like hedges and roses. I suppose some would want to build berms and drains and find ways to fight the damp — but I love that you’ve worked with the conditions you have and not imposed a decorative fantasy contrary to the spirit and place that is Federal Twist. Personally I’d love to see it at just this time, so amazingly fresh and verdant. What a balm it is to my drought-struck eyes.

  13. If it weren’t raining (it hasn’t rained much the last few weeks) I’d do another post to show changes. Many plants have doubled in size. Week by week the garden changes dramatically. And that’s all a result of going with the spirit of the place–a woodland clearing, high-nutrient clay, lots of available water, plenty of light, and plants that like those conditions. Come by when you’re in the east again.

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