What if a visitor arrives before the garden’s up to snuff?

One of the few disadvantages of a prairie-style garden is the mostly vacant stare it gives you until June.

I have a garden visitor coming in early May, when the garden has barely begun to turn green and most of the high summer’s 12-foot behemoths are only 6 to 10 inches high. It certainly won’t be in character, won’t have the sheer mass, the atmosphere, none of the magic of the big garden of summer. I looked through photos I took of the garden on May 8 of last year, just to remind myself what to expect. (And, yes, to set expectations.)

One can hope for a mysterious atmosphere, but the setting sun and cloudy sky are hard to deliver on cue.


So a better approach might be to focus on process, on the experimental garden, on the emergence of the prairie planting–what Noel Kingsbury calls the “rabbit’s-eye point of view”–to show how the plants grow in interwoven communities covering the ground and create a kind of dynamic stability. This is easy to see at this time of year, especially if you look close up, at or near ground level. Here, Petasites is in flower with native Equisetum arvense filling in the gaps. This is a hybrid called “X Dutch,” which makes a dense, thick carpet only powerful emergents can penetrate.


The pond edge is one of the few happening things now, an intriguing mixture of emerging forms. Camassia can pierce the ground layer, as can Matteuccia struthiopteris. Behind them are several mounds of Sanguisorba canadensis, which vigorously grows up through the mess later in the season. (I think of mess as a positive term. My gardening process is a series of interventions to control mess, refine line and legibility, sculpt mass from mess.)


At the other end of the pond, Darmera peltata is in flower. The Japanese maples add a bit of red in the distance. Equisetum carpets the ground; I’ve grown quite fond of its ancient geometric structure, and its ability to cover the ground without inhibiting the growth of other plants. It gives a pleasant green finish to everything–more or less my “lawn”–at least in this part of the garden, even carpeting the bank, where Hydrangea arborescens and other shrubs will be visible in a few more weeks. (It’s ubiquitous; I do have to pull it out of the gravel path.)




The boundary trees are especially beautiful in very early spring, giving a sense of height and openness. They define the top layer of an increasingly layered garden, as the season advances, and the middle layers fill in.


The bank up to the house and the area below, which lead to a small reflecting pool in the distance, will be a mass of swirling grassy mounds in mid-June. But now, after the cutting and burning, much of the detritus of winter remains though it will soon be hidden under mounds of Miscanthus, and begin to decompose and add to the organic matter in the highly mineral clay soil.


Several communities of competitive plants are on the move in the center of the garden. Two large colonies of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ are visible on the left and right, Lysimachia ciliata ‘Firecracker’ has held its own wine-red space for almost 9 years. The spear-shaped leaves are Iris pseudacorus, which I have to pull out every few years, and move to a wet seep in the woodland edge. Several colonies of Joe Pye Weed are here too, but it’s very late to emerge, as are other still invisible plants–Aster laevis ‘Blue Bird’, Sanguisorbas, Aster tartaricus ‘Jin Dai’, Liatris spicata, Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’, many Silphium perfoliatum, even a few daylilies for surprise color.


You can see the close growth allows for little weediness. As a continuing experiment, I broadcast seed each year, sort of like throwing the dice, to see what might emerge and find a place to its liking. I have high hopes for two ounces of dust-like seed of Bottle gentian (Gentiana andrewsii) I spread about a couple of months back.


Below, an unexpected mixture of Filipendula on the left, Astilbe taquetii ‘Purple Lance’ at lower left, native Sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) interweaving among everything, Sedum ‘Herbstfreude’, Iris versicolor, Equisetum arvense, of course, even an Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer’ seedling, which I later pulled out. Though all of uniform height now, this will become a multilayered display by mid-summer.


Groundcover is essential to maintaining control in this garden. Here Golden groundsel (Packera aurea) meets Sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum), Siberian bugloss (Brunnera macrophylla), and Stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus).


Down in the woodland garden is more Packera aurea and Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris).  I encourage both to spread.


A colony of native Bracken has colonized this part of the garden. I used to read this plant is horribly invasive, to be avoided at all costs. But in my heavy clay, it’s easily controlled. It’s become one of my favorite plantings–a great mass of geometric form and texture, becoming like an ocean swell of angular fronds in summer, and gold in autumn.


The old crab apple, planted in 1965, is still going strong. It’s one of the earliest plants to flower in the garden.






Nearing sunset, the garden edge becomes invisible and blends into the woods. This is a transitory garden; it would quickly disappear with a few years of neglect.


 …… so ……

A glimpse of July …











































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40 thoughts on “What if a visitor arrives before the garden’s up to snuff?

  1. This is something that I really struggle with about the New Perennial style (or whatever we are going to call it). Despite all the talk about beauty in all seasons and plants which die gracefully, there is a time during early spring when the garden has got to be cleared and it probably looks a lot worse than do gardens that focus on succession planting. Having good structure and hardscaping helps, but I’m not entirely at peace with what this gardening style gives us at this time of year. That’s just a general comment, though, and based on my gardening situation. Your garden definitely offers a lot of interest in close-up and through the inclusion of art.

    1. Emily, I think it’s a matter of expectation, and I imagine the visitor I’m speaking of will well understand why the garden is “missing” in early May. We’ve been clearing the garden following the late winter burn and cutting, and after a couple of days with a weed strimmer, the flat expanse of the garden is quite pleasing to me. The palate has been cleansed and we are waiting for the meal to begin. However, many people, lacking knowledge of what a prairie garden or New Perennial planting is, and how it develops, would probably be very disappointed. You’re in an urban area, so I can see why you’d not want this fallow period. But I’m in the middle of the woods, and the garden is hidden by the house, so only invited visitors see it. I should add that the views into the surrounding woods are amazing now and, with most of the garden still underground, it merges into the surrounding woods in refreshing, almost cleansing, way.

        1. I’m not so sure about that. Perhaps I should cultivate my ability to focus on different goals with each season. I wouldn’t want to limit “the audience” to only people who like the garden. Perhaps some would start to see differently.

  2. The early season garden may not have the mass and atmosphere of July and onwards, but the photos from May offer a different kind of interest, and one I find very appealing. James, have you written about the early years of this garden, or about how and why you determined to take this approach? I would very much like to know. Because, as you write, it is a garden that would disappear within a few years if neglected. And while it may appear to be a carefree space, it seems as labour intensive as many more formal ones.

    1. Yes, Pat, I wrote about it in my book, which was just rejected by the first publisher I chose to peddle the idea to. Seriously, I’d been reading a lot of Noel Kingsbury’s work when we moved here (well, Noel and Piet Oudolf). The nature of the heavy clay here, and the almost eternal wetness, made a conventional garden out of the question. So I went in the direction of a habitat garden. I hesitate to use the term “habitat garden” because that is not at all my main purpose in gardening. I’m much more interested in atmosphere, beauty, emotion, though I do like having lots of frogs, insect life, and other wildlife. The spark was reading in Kingsbury’s The New Perennial Garden about planting perennials directly into existing grass matrix. At least that was the starting point. Someone authoritatively wrote that I could do it, so I did. I had to work with the technique, and modify it as I learned. I soon realized I needed large competitive grasses and perennials capable of surviving the competition, and gradually dominating the land surface. I also used randomly broadcast seeding (random but controlled) to add to the complexity of the planting, and to develop a mat of vegetative growth to control weeds (an ambiguous term for me) and to manage plant growth. I consider this garden an experiment that will last the rest of my life.

    1. Yes, Anne – I’ll be in your territory at the height of my garden’s summer season. I’m a little worried about that, but I have confidence I can take corrective action on my return. I hope I answered your questions in the response to Pat. Oh, I failed to mention labor. I find my garden is quite labor intensive, and I can’t do all the work myself. The biomass of the grasses and perennials must amount to several tons. I burn largely to reduce the amount of mass that must be removed each year. I’m sure if I left the garden untended for only one year, it would be a real mess, well along the way to total chaos and dissolution, though it could be rescued. Which brings me to thoughts of how I wind the garden down when I get too old to maintain it (surely, that’s not possible!). I’m thinking about letting the surrounding woods retake it, in a controlled way, so that I take a hand in planting more trees, and making it into a woodland garden.

  3. Thank you for posting an interesting column and your photos. My initial thought was to go out and be shocked (shocked!) that things weren’t fully grown and filled in, but then I realized your guest may not see the humor in that….. You know, your garden is a beautiful example of process – and it’s like doing anything that doesn’t immediately fit in to an easily defined category – it’s going to be challenging for some people. A lot of people want an easy, pretty garden – nothing wrong with that – but that’s not what your garden is. And my guess is that your guest already knows that and may be very happy to see it at the beginning of the growing season when things are emerging but not filled out.

    Actually, I think it would be really interesting to see it then because the structure of the plantings is more visible. And I cast my vote with others on reading about the early years. Karen

    1. Thank you, Karen. I know you are quite familiar with the garden in summer. This post really is about process, a process largely out of my control and within my control at the same time. I think any gardener probably would understand what going on here, though particular gardeners may not care for it. I have added structure to the garden, but the real show, until things grow large, is the surrounding woods, I think, including the dead tree snags full of woodpecker holes, some with those large, square pileated woodpecker holes. Last night peepers were peeping for the first time this season.

      1. Oh, the first peepers; isn’t that the most exciting and reassuring sound? It means spring is irreversible.
        [Okay, irreversible with *brief* backslides — it went down to 17 one night not too long ago, and our peepers have been going since mid-March.]

        This is just the kind of post I’ve been hoping for, to see and hear more about your garden at non-peak time — very helpful in seeing how the plantings interweave. I’m slowly converting a bed in the back of my garden that got out of control to a “meadow-ette”, because such a high proportion of what’s established itself there is native (Joe Pyes, milkweed, switchgrass, and late-season asters that I have yet to ID firmly). Adding baptisia, mountain mint, Echinacea, and helenium, with a “matrix” of plugs of sideoats grama. Am in the process of killing the tall fescue that is the current, very much unwanted matrix.

        1. Nell, I was cleaning out the pond last weekend and found many frogs and masses of eggs. So the season’s on its way. We have rain predicted this weekend, and the frogs always take that opportunity to move over land, so I expect rapid developments on that front. Your meadow sounds interesting. I does sound like you’re putting a lot into a limited space though. I’d recommend more of fewer things (I know you didn’t ask for advice). I’ve always wanted to try sideoats grama but have hesitated because I fear it won’t like my conditions.

          1. I’m wondering how the sideoats grama will do, myself. The rear third of the area is themost like your place — clay that stays wetter than the rest of the garden because of a long gentle slope behind it draining into it. But the nearer two-thirds is more mounded-up and friable. Thinking that planting plugs somewhat evenly through the space might result in a visible “map” of soil conditions…

            You’re probably right about fewer different plants and more of them; I realize that since my initial inspiration to let the area be a “meadow”, I’ve slipped into treating it as a sort of nursery for the many native perennials I want to grow.

  4. Realistic expectations are key and it sounds as though you covered that. While your garden peaks at other times of year, I don’t think it’s fair to imply it has significantly less merit during an off peak time. If you had an opportunity to see the early brush strokes of a Vermeer, would you choose instead to only ever see the finished piece? To understand an art form, I think you need to have at least some feel for its beginning. I find enormous joy in watching things emerge. For me, Fall is about splendor and sweet decline while spring is full of hope – different but just as sweet. Given the chance, I’d happily visit your garden any day of the year.

    1. Paul, I don’t know that we’ve ever talked about the garden as art. We should discuss that some day. That’s quite a debate and, I think, one that will never come to a satisfactory conclusion. I certainly think it is. Like you, I do find joy in walking about and watching things emerge. I even find my mystical leanings awakened by these things.

  5. This garden is intensely rich from May until January/February though, with the autumnal and early winter period being more atmospheric than any other garden I’ve seen so far. That’s eight or nine months of full garden interest, at least. Is there a reason you don’t have an abundance of highly visible spring bulbs to please the spring lovers too James? Is it because of wildlife eating them?

    1. Jason, I’ve never been extremely excited by bulbs. Actually, I’ve been trying to add more camassias each year, which I do like a lot, but they are only just breaking ground now. The people who built the house planted a white Narcissus that has grown into congested colonies, and I do like those. I know a few thousand bulbs would really be a good thing, but for some reason, I can’t motivate myself to deal with the planting during autumn. It’s my favorite time in the garden, and I don’t want to stir it up with all that planting. I know, I make excuses. Maybe next autumn I’ll add a few hundred. Of course, only wet tolerant things will grow here.

      1. The last two springs I have taken Dan Pearson’s advice and it’s working well. Buy bulbs in hundreds or thousands in autumn and pot them up in 9cm pots. When you’ve done your spring cleaning and all perennials have emerged and you have a better idea of where their foliage is going to spread to, you can artfully plant huge drifts while the bulbs are in flower and you still just about have access to the soil. That way you can plant them where you know they will be seen between other plants. It works even in established and complex plantings. If you can get someone to help, then all the better. I don’t even water them – just pot them up and leave them outside making sure to cover them with some wire mesh to keep the critters off and they all come up without fail. I have done this with Nectaroscordums, Narcissus and Alliums. It’s fun.

  6. Utterly inspiring photos as ever by the way. I should’ve said, personally the images of the garden as it is now fill me with extreme excitement and joy – the whole process from soil to skyscraping vegetation being one of life’s wonders to behold. I hope the next publisher gets it.

    1. I don’t think the publisher failed to get the idea. They hesitate to publish a book about only one garden or one building. I can see the point. So I have some rethinking to do.

  7. This is very interesting to me, seeing the crowded low growth and trying to identify everything, which I can’t. It would be very educational and entertaining to tour it with you. I know what you mean about thinking when you can no longer do it, I’ve reached the point of not saying “someday” I want to plant…etc. At 80 you can’t count on. someday anymore. So this year it is “what can I do NOW to make a lasting improvement? I always enjoy your posts, thanks for sharing.

    1. Martha, I’m 69 and realizing I no longer can look forward to some vague number of future years, so many I don’t need to count them. That’s a shock. It’s for this reason I’m growing more willows. They like my wet conditions, and they grow quickly. If you’re in this area, you’re welcome to visit.

  8. I guess if the lack of mid-spring interest bothered you enough, you would make changes in the garden, but I am not saying your garden is lacking. I wouldn’t change anything about it. You do have the luxury of two gardens, so what you might miss from one, could be compensated for in another.

    For my own small patch of soil, I determined several years ago to seek out plants that bloom at odd times or add multi-season interest. When available real estate is precious, plants must do double duty.

    1. I am finding these comments are helping me see the need to add early flowering, moisture tolerant, very early flowering bulbs. So I hope I can keep a promise to myself to go all out planting bulbs this fall. And I thought this garden would be low maintenance. No such luck.

  9. The “rabbit’s eye view” is a good way to see it in early May…makes sense, even though not in full glory. IU wonder if the structure in the pond and other spots are things to emphasize for early season impact?

    The July shots are amazing…maybe I’ve missed those before?

    1. By early May the pond will be an interesting feature, but it’s still mainly of interest only in close-up. But I have stone walls, the long (about 40 ft x9 ft) pond, the reflecting pool (7 x 7 feet) and a new stone circle. Jason Carty asks why I don’t plant lots of bulbs. And I think he’s right. I could use the early bulbs to focus attention on the more structural features and create early spring interest, probably by mid-April. Of course, my clay is so wet, I need to select carefully. I’ve been surprised the “legacy” colonies of a white narcissus planted by the people who built the house in 1965 return every year, so I could try many many more of those. Actually, I should dig them and spread them around. And many more camassias would be a nice addition. Those July shots have been on the blog before, you you must have just missed them.

  10. These are wonderful photos, amazing to see the underlying dynamics and intricate layering of the plantings from the “rabbit’s eye view”. The approach reminds me of Dan Pearson’s Millenium Forest project, documented in “Planting: A New Perspective” and the January issue of Gardens Illustrated. Put together plants with equally competitive natures and let them get on with it!

    James, as a side note to your comment above about getting too old to maintain the garden, a few years ago there was an article in the ASLA’s Landscape Architecture Magazine profiling the late James van Sweden at his home garden. It was written after van Sweden had been confined to a wheelchair and it featured some incredible before/after photos showing how the garden had transformed with a less intensive maintenance regime. van Sweden commented that physical limitations had meant he had become much more comfortable with wildness and letting things reclaim the garden, as you mentioned about your woodland. Both the before and after photos of his garden were beautiful and I couldn’t decide which I liked more, which goes to show that relinquishing some control later in life can have very beautiful outcomes when done intelligently. Aging gracefully I suppose.

    1. Thanks, Ben. As I wrote this post and looked at the photos, I actually was thinking about Dan Pearson’s approach to the planting at the Millenium Forest and how different it was from mine. He developed several patterns of plants (almost like genetic sequences) that were combined using a random number generator (I think), so though the result looks rather wild, but there’s a subtle internal consistency. My approach involved using random planting in an ordered (or carefully considered) way, but it lacks the precision of Pearson’s planting technique. I suppose, over several years, as things change, the result might be much the same. I believe I did read that article on James Van Sweden. I’ll see if I can find it. I never saw his house or garden, but I loved the photos I saw.

  11. When the garden is as interesting as yours, any season is worth a look. Your point, or Noel Kingsbury’s point, that an early viewing of a garden reveals how the garden is interplanted is a good point. I visited Piet Oudolf’s garden in April – Anja warned us it was very early. It was, but because it was so early, we were the only visitors in the garden, we had the whole garden to ourselves, we could really examine what was planted, and we got to meet Piet himself. I’ll have to get down to see your garden. Of course, one can’t always arrange a visit in optimal bloom time, but then it is never a bad time to visit a garden.

    1. I agree, Amy, it’s easiest to see how a garden like mine is put together early in spring as the plants emerge. The plants are quickly breaking ground as the weather warms. I hope we got all the previous season’s growth removed without doing too much damage to the buds about to break the surface. I hope you can get down this year.

  12. To be honest this view speaks to me twice.
    First the sweeping wide open view with the bones on display.
    Then down to the delicate details.

    (The summer exuberance smothers and overwhelms me a little) but the great changes are wonderful to observe thru the seasons!

    1. Diana, I don’t think you’ll have a panic attack if you visit in mid-summer. The photos don’t show it, but there is open space, enough that you don’t feel smothered. But you do live in a very different climate, so perhaps you’re used to an entirely different experience in the garden.

    1. No. I didn’t plant horsetail. It was already well established and for all I know has been resident for decades. It is actually quite beautiful, makes a great groundcover, and in my garden does not inhibit the growth of other plants. It’s existing as part of a dynamic plant community. The whole point, for me, is that one can adapt to almost any condition if you keep an open mind to new possibilities, and pay attention to what happens.

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