Spring recalled – via a text message

The woodland garden, with a thick ground cover of Packera aurea, Matteuccia struthiopteris, Onoclea sensibilis and many other plants. At this time of year, most garden interest is in the complex ground cover.

We left for over three weeks in Barcelona and southern France in early May last year and returned in early June. I entirely missed spring in the garden.

Then yesterday I got a text message from garden designer friend, Keith Gibialante, who lives across the Delaware in Pennsylvania.

Spectacular early foliage of Ligularia japonica emerging from a carpet of Petasites and Equisetum arvense, with the long canal pond in the background.

It seems Keith came by to visit while I was away last spring, and finding I wasn’t at home, let himself into the garden and took some photos. (He has a standing invitation to visit, so long as he latches the gate on exit to keep the deer out.)

Golden foliage of Gleditsia triacanthos ‘Sunburst’ magnifies the golden flowers of Euphorbia palustris scattered across the garden.

In yesterday’s text message Keith said he thought he forgot to let me know he’d visited, and he included a link to his photos.

It seems I just discovered last spring in the garden!

I liked the images so much (you should see the garden now, after cutting and burning, and a March with four nor’easters, and now rain; it’s beyond dreary), I asked Keith if I could use them in a brief blog post, to remind myself that … indeed … spring will eventually arrive.

The terrace outside the house, up high, looking across the garden, which is below. The ground layer needs to be cut back, but that had to wait until I returned in June.

Looking at Keith’s photos makes me feel a lot better.

I remove much of the Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, the plant with the big leaves (its mature height is six to eight feet). Fortunately it’s easy to remove at this stage.



The sitting area outside the house gets a lot of morning sun, as does the house, with its large floor-to-ceiling windows. The wide eaves cut off the direct sun inside by about 10 am and three large Sycamores (Platanus occidentalis), planted when the house was built in 1965, shade the outside area all afternoon. I’m sure “sustainable design” wasn’t a term anyone had thought of back then, but the architect, William Hunt, was a fine one and he clearly took some useful lessons from Frank Lloyd Wright and from Japanese design.

The living room is flooded with light (and passive heating in winter) until mid-morning, and the outside sitting area is shaded from late morning to the end of day.


Down in the garden, across from the house, are a paved pathway across the garden and a circle of stone, reminiscent of Jens Jensen, overlooked by three large Salix udensis ‘Sekka’ (Japanese fantail willows).

If you look closely, you’ll see many golden-flowered Euphorbia palustris scattered across the garden.

The chairs (from Dan Benarcik of Chanticleer) make a lovely structural contrast with the emergent wild look of the garden. By mid-summer, they will be invisible.


Below is the main path across the center of the meadowish garden.

A bronze sculpture at the back of the garden, made by Marc Rosenquist, emerges from a colony of Petasites japonicus.

The central path across the garden again. The white flowering shrub is a Viburnum mariesii, a small tree among the more than eighty Juniperus virginiana we cut down to make space for the garden. I cut the Viburnum to the ground but it clearly wants to come back. I think it was probably planted when the house was built, so keep it for historical and sentimental reasons.

You can just see the “head” of my long box “caterpillar” in the middle right surrounded by a sea of Inula, most of which were removed when I returned from vacation.

A small reflecting pool nestled up against the bank up to the house (above).

And the view from above. Thanks, Keith.


All photos courtesy of Keith Gibialante. All rights reserved.
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21 thoughts on “Spring recalled – via a text message

  1. It’s always a welcome reminder to know your garden persists, when so many things prove themselves to be ephemeral, fleeting, or already expired.

    Thanks to you, and Keith, both.

    1. Thank you, Saurs. Yes, indeed, it still exists. Though there is something provisional, even temporary about it. The garden is surrounded by woods and those woods want to take it and make it woodland too. I take that as a positive sign. We are destroying so much of the world’s forests that I take some comfort in seeing the woods continue to function as they always have. It’s good to know natural processes can still reassert themselves despite humankind’s destruction.

  2. Spectacular pictures and superb writing. What a wonderful treat on this rainy, chilly, April 3rd. Thank you so much!

  3. Hadn’t realized before that you have quite a few yellow-foliage trees. Are they all ‘Frisia’ black locusts? Do they get much greener late in the season? Maybe I’ve just been distracted by the drama of the tall perennials and grasses; the trees all stand out early in the season regardless of foliage color because of the sharp difference in scale.

    It’s a treat to see expanding foliage and so many colors… This is the slowest start to spring I can remember. Thanks to Keith!

    1. I have three Gleditsia ‘Sunburst’ and a smaller golden cercis (I may remove the cercis), but no Robinia ‘Frisia’. The honey locusts are just for spring color. They survive but don’t thrive in my heavy clay, so after a spring burst of gold that’s usually simultaneous with the gold of Euphorbia palustris, they fade into the background as they darken. (Cf. Robert Frost’s poem “Nature’s first green is gold”.) In the mass of the garden, you hardly notice them by mid-summer. I agree this is the slowest spring I can remember. The recurrent snow and rain, and low temperatures, have the water table literally at the surface. Can’t do any digging, can’t even walk in parts of the garden

  4. James, what a treat to see these photos. The richness of the plantings come through strongly. The foliage of the Ligularia japonica is spectacular… I have the perfect location for it so now will have to find a source for it.

    1. Thanks, Pat. I’m coming to really like the yearly “ground cover phase” of the garden. It’s a miraculous transformation compared to the bare, blackened earth I look out to at present. BTW, Ligularia japonica comes easily from seed. I’d send you some, but I’m out until next autumn. If you haven’t found it by then, let me know.

  5. What a gift – to have that ‘lost’ time returned to you, and us.
    And also for you to see your own garden thru fresh eyes, to regain a ‘first’ impression.

    It does look wonderful!

  6. The photos are stunning. Do you welcome visitors to come see in person? If yes, please point to details. Thanks muchly.

  7. Hi James,
    here the comment from Monty Don after he visited and filmed your garden:
    in the February 2020 issue in the article about his series on American gardens he wrote
    “So James Golden’s Federal Twist is one of the best gardens I have ever visited anywhere in the world.” And this from Monty Don means a lot!
    Congratulation! Angelika

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