Straightening trees, opening voids

My previous post showed the Sunburst honey locusts in my Brooklyn garden bent over into a mass of drooping foliage at the center of the garden.


When Kerry Hand, who planted the same trees on his land in New Zealand, commented “Don’t think I would like that,” that really got under my skin. So late Wednesday I tied the trees back, anchoring them by thin cords to the fence. It makes quite a difference, and unfortunately opened the unattractive view to the houses opposite us.

Here’s the view before the tie back.


I trimmed the canopies a bit and, once they adjust to the upright orientation, I think they’ll quickly fill the space and allow me to feel less exposed.

I’ve been so busy with the Federal Twist garden, I’ve tried to ignore these problems. But when others comment, I feel I have to take at least minimal action.

Another comment from Thomas Rainer–“moody”–drew my attention to the contrast of the side borders with the back border. The sides have large foliage with a lot of darkness in the voids beneath the leaves. Here, the left …


… and here the right side.


But the back border is flat, with almost none of that dark mystery. It’s all surface. Crowded too. Crowded might be okay if there were more void space visible, but the overall look is cluttered, and lacking in composition.


I’ll work on this later in the season, or perhaps in the fall  planting season. Some of these plants can find homes at Federal Twist.

Suggestions welcome, of course.

To complete the garden survey, a view back to the house.


I can’t afford the bulky seating Susan Cohan suggests I need, so I’ll eventually stain these chairs black and add bright cushions, perhaps chartreuse or orange. (That spot of bright color in the net I use to clean the pool is revealing. Blue? No, not here.)

Yes, the box need pruning too.

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22 thoughts on “Straightening trees, opening voids

  1. Well done, James. Patience is all that is required to remove the unattractive view of the neighbors AC unit. Getting the trees growing properly is certainly a worthwhile trade off in the short run and having things overcrowd in the perennial layer is exciting now. Editing out at year 3-4 is a more pleasant task than having it be sparse for the first several years. Also by experimenting with so many plants, you will be able to see which ones are the keepers in the big picture. I continue to be impressed by (and perhaps envious of) the way in a which you solicit, receive and incorporate suggestions.

    1. Thanks, Michael. The side borders were easy and I’m pleased with them for the most part. The back will filled with temporary plants, some of which I’ve become quite fond of. Now the hard part of separating the wheat from the chaff. I hope I have the leisure of three or four years to do it.

  2. This garden is gorgeous. Do not fall in to my trap: as a gardener, I started to notice I was looking at my gardens each day with an eye to “what’s missing” and “what do I need to do to edit or enhance.” I was forgetting to look at my gardens and go “ahhhh, how beautiful.” Your garden is beautiful, lush and healthy.Rejoice for each and every plant.

  3. Ahhh…those trees DO look a lot happier, now. I’ve been thinking about your comment about the voids–I think I could use that insight to improve my garden.

    1. I’ve been thinking about the much larger garden in the country. The planting makes an undulating landscape that is all surface. The voids are above the plantings, and between the plantings and the woods. There are also several voids incorporated where garden meets woods, sitting areas with high ceilings of trees, partially hidden and partially open areas. The same thing is going on as in Brooklyn, but on a much larger scale and in a much more complex way. I hadn’t thought about this until I read your comment. Thanks.

  4. Hi James,

    I’m new to commenting on your blog but not to reading it. I liked the droopy locusts! In fact I had studied your photo carefully to see if you had used those thin supporting canes especially to hold the trees into that inward slide and droop position. The weeping attitude of the trees seem to compensate for the irregularity and soft weeping habits of so many of the grasses that you can’t have in this garden. Upright trees are so very… regular and do you really have the means in that small space to create enough dissonance to undo that regularity?

    1. I liked the feeling of the bent locusts too, but they are not practical. You can’t walk in the garden without bending down. So the trees have to be straightened. I think you may like it once the tree canopies grow large enough to fill the area now so open. I do have one large Panicum ‘Cloud Nine’ in the sunny border, and two large plantings of Carex muskingumensis. And one of the characteristics of the Sunburst honey locust is the highly irregular growth in the canopy. It can be quite lopsided.

  5. there was going to be a focal point on the back fence?

    In our garden a battle rages between the little Swiss soldiers who have been to Baumschule, and my preference for letting them grow as they choose. Disconcerting to have the leafy canopy yanked aside and all revealed. It is amazing what a satisfying illusion just a few leaves can create.

  6. What a difference with the Gleditsa James. I always imagined they would grow and form a canopy over the garden on relatively slender poles. It’s going to be fantastic. Aside from the effect on on other plants, is that level of shade what New Yorkers need for comfort. I am not familiar with the realities of your seasons.
    I’m around Manhatten (High Line) in the first week of August so I will see. Very hot and humid I think, not sure if to expect sun.
    We do have clear dry air with unrelenting sun that will take your skin off. I could plant several with high standard trunks. (say 9 or 16) On a grid at say two meter centres. With maybe a frame support. And make an ‘arbour’ with continuous shade as a canopy overhead. mmmh

    1. I experienced the New Zealand summer last February, though it was quite mild I have to say. Nothing compared to the heat of Australia. I want the shade for privacy more than cooling, though it gets very hot and humid. You’ll likely experience it if you come in August.

    1. I intend to do that. But probably in late autumn or early spring. Too much trouble to paint under all the plants. And I’m much too busy if the country garden right now. I think I’ll try to approximate the gravel color rather than the bark fence.

  7. Hi James.

    I agree with HB. I think painting the raised beds the same or similar colour to the fence would be a bonne idée.

    The honey locusts are much better for a straightening. Surely in a couple of the years the trunks would have thickened up enough to be self supporting?

    I think when the fennel shoots up with it’s mustardy unbels the garden will take on a different feel altogether. Smell nice too, wafts of gentle aniseed. Actually, being an enclosed space, scent could be something to experiment with. It could almost be perfumed on a hot, humid New York evening.

    1. Scent, a fantasy. We have many feral cats who poop in the garden. I do have scented shrubs, though it’s hard to detect their scent. Perhaps in another year or two. And maybe the homen locusts will be able to stand alone by then.

  8. Scent – ah. Not many things actually scent the air, most things you have to stick your nose into.

    Wondering – your dialogue with people about your gardens has led always to changes. I’d say the same for Veddw, and I’m grateful for it, but you mention the tension that realising something needs to be changed creates. Would you say that engaging with and inviting criticism pays off, or does it cost you?

    And I told you it was too cluttered…… (runs away…….)


    1. Regarding scent, in the Federal Twist garden there are several things that send scent great distances. It depends on air currents and is always a pleasant surprise. Hesperis matronalis, lonicera (that damned Japanese invasive), Viburnum carlesii.

      But to answer your question, inviting criticism does pay off (if the criticism is on point). I don’t necessarily want to do the work required though. I agree with you about the Brooklyn garden. It is too stuffed with plants, but my much larger country garden is taking all my time, so I will not even think of dealing with Brooklyn for a while. I have the excuse that an American July (August too) is a very bad time to be moving plants.

      So taking advice does pay off, and it does cost me. First, accepting that I didn’t do it right the first time, then the stress of wondering how to correct the problem, then the dread of the work involved (since I share your lack of joy in doing garden labor).

    1. I know. Perhaps I shouldn’t have two gardens. I neglect Brooklyn. I am removing some of the very tall perennials at Federal Twist to open more space and create a more varied experience with views across, not confined by walls of Silphium. Where is that quoted sentence from?

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