Saturday, January 26, 2013

View from Federal Twist has moved

View from Federal Twist has moved from Blogger to WordPress. To reach the new View from Federal Twist, click on the following link:

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Early burn, stone wall redo, resilience

I burned the garden last weekend. With the mild winter, I thought the plants were waking far, far too early, so I burned before too much growth emerged. I usually do this early to late March. This was the earliest burn ever.

This post feels like self-flagellation. I thought several times about whether or not to show some of these photos. But here they are, in all their unpleasantness, the garden in half-burned disarray.

In another week or two the view will be much better. Empty, at least. The plants that didn't burn I'll chop down next weekend.

We also finished much of the work reconstructing the bed for the new pool; the way forward seems clear.

First, we rebuilt the low stone wall around the pool area, making it rectangular rather than curved. It now acts as a visual extension of the existing stone wall around the base of the house, relating the new pool surroundings to the house--using visually connecting rectangles as shown below. The paver path on the left is temporary; I just threw them down so I could walk across the mud. That's work for another day.

Another view below, showing how the pool area links to the house and its argillite stone chimney.

Details below show how the two stone wall segments look together ...

And three more views of the rectangular structure holding the pool ...

From a distance, the pool area almost disappears. When closely planted, as I intend, it will be private, almost invisible. This view is from a partially burned center area of the garden. Yes, ugly.

Below is an existing path. I may use something similar for the approach to the pool area. I want it to be narrow, so visitors enter one at a time. But this is only one option.

I burned this area too. Miscanthus giganteus (left) does not burn even when extremely dry. Some of the smaller Miscanthus behind burned incompletely. Too much moisture.

My preference would be to have waited another month or two, so I'd have some garden left to see. But spring seemed to be coming much too early.

I jumped the gun. I'd hoped for cold weather and I got it. It's 9 degrees tonight.

I think I should have waited to burn ... but the garden is resilient.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Moving to WordPress

After six years with Blogger, I'm having serious technical problems and I'm no techie. Perhaps Blogger bogs down after several years of use?

I've decided to move View from Federal Twist to WordPress.

I'll provide a new address within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, posts will continue here, and the old blog will remain accessible.

Now, a poem on imaginary gardens with real toads in them:


     I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
       Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in
       it after all, a place for the genuine.
         Hands that can grasp, eyes
           that can dilate, hair that can rise
           if it must, these things are important not because a
     high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
         useful. When they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
         the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
               do not admire what
            we cannot understand: the bat
               holding on upside down or in quest of something to

     eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
       a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base-
          ball fan, the statistician --
         nor is it valid
             to discriminate against 'business documents and school-books';
     all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
       however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the result is not poetry,
           nor till the poets among us can be
         'literalists of the imagination'-- above
           insolence and triviality and can present

     for inspection, 'imaginary gardens with real toads in them,' shall we have
       it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
       the raw material of poetry in
         all its rawness and
         that which is on the other hand
           genuine, you are interested in poetry.

 - Marianne Moore

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Ready for fire, but ice instead

Just reread Tom Stuart-Smith's The Barn Garden about his own garden in Hertfordshire--an intriguing book, a beautiful book, with several surprises. I mention it because Tom, in passing, tells of the damage done to perennials and grasses by voles one mild winter, damage that prompted him to start cutting back many plants much earlier than usual. That struck a resonant cord. Last spring I found the roots of many plants in the garden had been eaten, leaving plants dead or severely damaged. I really regret the loss of a large Baptisia australis that had several years of growth, and I even noticed serious damage to several grasses.

We're now having a second mild winter so I want to start cutting and burning early. Unfortunately, we've had icy rain and continuing wet. So instead of clearing the garden, I took a few photos of the ice cover yesterday morning. Growth is thin following last fall's hurricane, but it's astonishing what visual delights remain if you have a weather surprise.

Acer palmatum in ice with background grasses

Small pond brimming full with rain

Salix alba 'Britzensis' being trained as a pollarded specimen

Three large Salix sachalinensis 'Sekka' covered in ice behind grasses and bedraggled Filipendula remains

Marc Rosenquist's bronze amid the ruins

View across the desolation toward the house and new reflecting pool
And speaking of the reflecting pool, I find being away for a week has helped me put the many conflicting comments I've solicited in perspective. In my loose, serendipitous garden, so reliant on chance as much as planning, the structural detailing and geometry of the pool area simply do not matter that much in the larger scheme of things (not saying they don't matter at all). I still want to "get it right" (whatever form that takes), but the garden is about much more than this little piece. And I have other fish to fry.

Betula nigra 'Heritage' (River birch) beside the long garden walk

Salix sachalinensis 'Sekka' pruned high to show sculptural trunks

This willow has a striking characteristic. When pruned, some stems develop a flattened, fasciated form much desirable among flower arrangers, very beautiful detailing. Here are two close-up views taken last week on my mobile phone.

Here again is the River birch, which is just beginning to develop the white, peeling bark so distinctive of this cultivar--another ornament of winter.

River birch looking toward woodland garden

That Acer again

I still hope for dry weather by Sunday, so I can begin to cut and burn.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Rectilinear ripples (thanks, Calvin)

Argillite chimney
Another round of navel gazing ...

In response to many helpful comments on my problematic reflecting pool design, I'm working on a solution suggested by Jill Nooney (, a New Hampshire garden designer, in a comment on a recent post. She asked, "Is there any structure within sight that would reinforce an orthogonal theme"? That started me thinking about rectangles and squares, and how I could use existing geometry at the site to integrate the square pool into a rambling garden full of curves.

One of the notable features of my garden is the use of local stone, a very hard sedimentary stone called argillite. It is colored a dark blue-black, black, and many tones of grayish brown, is rather glass-like, and tends to shatter when hit hard or cut. It also makes a ringing sound when struck by another stone. This phenomenon is so notable argillite was called "blue jingle" and "blue jingler" in past times. I have plenty of argillite, piled into long stone rows by the people who farmed this land in the nineteenth century. I'm not sure what kind of farming they did, but there is evidence they had orchards, probably peach orchards. This was a large peach growing area back then, railroads were built to carry the produce to New York City, but a blight killed all the orchards, ending a thriving industry.

At present there are two prominent and highly visible uses of argillite in the Garden at Federal Twist:  a rectilinear dry-laid stone wall (see below) around the base of the raised hillock on which the house sits--effectively a plinth for the house--and a large, tall chimney (above) that rises probably ten feet above the roof peak, topped by an unusual curved, wing-like steel ornament, which is original to the 1965 house, the point being that the ornament draws attention to the chimney, making it more prominent than it would otherwise be.

Argillite dry stone wall, like a plinth supporting the house
Looking at the new pool area with the house in view (below) you can see how the chimney, the house (also a rectangle, though not of stone) and the "plinth" stone wall create a multilevel orthogonal construct, defining three descending parallel plains in the abstract.

Now imagine a similar low stone wall of argillite to support the gravel bed, built parallel to and located four or five feet out from the existing stone wall. There you have it, an orthogonal base for the new reflecting pool, made of the same stone as the existing wall and house chimney. The rectilinearity, similar materials, colors and textures of the chimney, the house, the plinth wall, and the new gravel containment wall will reinforce each other and create a multilevel series of rectangular structures that provides a solid grounding for the square reflecting pool.

Imagine a new, lower stone wall surrounding the gravel bed, extending the rectangular shapes out from the house base.
Last weekend we brought in a huge amount of argillite (below) to support the gravel bed. Unfortunately, I had it laid in curves. So imagine this stone relaid in straight lines to form a low rectangular support wall around the gravel bed. Parts of the new wall, the end at the left in the photo below, for example, need to be well laid in a neat pattern, emulating the existing wall behind, so they look essentially the same and visually reinforce each other.

This new low wall will form a rectangle, or group of intersecting rectangles, extending out from the point at which the two parts of the plinth wall meet. No, I don't intend to move the pool, but I do want to adjust the gravel bed to shape it into rectangles and more closely align it with the pool. I plan to move out the concrete pavers, to level the surface of the gravel bed, and to work out a way to add planting pockets at the edges of the new low stone wall, creating small, better drained planting areas, and increasing my options for close planting around the pool area.

Below is a distant view of the pool area, showing the chimney, house, and plinth wall last spring after I burned and cut the garden. The new rectangular structure supporting the reflecting pool will appear to be an extension of the house and its associated geometries. I think it shows this "orthogonal design approach" may be the solution I'm seeking.

I'm reluctant to ask for further opinions, but I can't resist.

Just a reminder (below) of what you actually see from this distance earlier in the fall.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Moving to WordPress

After six years with Blogger, I'm having serious technical problems and I'm no techie. Perhaps Blogger bogs down after several years of use?

I've decided to move View from Federal Twist to WordPress.

I'll provide a new address within the next few weeks. Meanwhile, posts will continue here, and the old blog will remain accessible.

Now for some diversion:

Anecdote of the Jar

I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.

The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air. 

It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

  - Wallace Stevens

From Wikipedia:  'This famous, much-anthologized poem succinctly accommodates a remarkable number of different and plausible interpretations ... Helen Vendler ... asserts that the poem is incomprehensible except as understood as a commentary on Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn", alluding to it as a way of discussing the predicament of the American artist, "who cannot feel confidently the possessor, as Keats felt, of the Western cultural tradition." Shall he use language imported from Europe ("of a port in air", "to give of"), or "plain American that cats and dogs can read" (as Marianne Moore put it), like "The jar was round upon the ground"? [He vows] "to stop imitating Keats and seek a native American language that will not take the wild out of the wilderness."'

Has American gardening also been in the same predicament? Should we continue to use models "imported from Europe" (oh, how many times have I read that Americans want English gardens!), or "seek a native American [garden] that will not take the wild out of the wilderness"? 

Noel Kingsbury and many others have noted that many American gardens are surrounded by woodlands, and this is one distinguishing characteristic.

I don't mean to be abstruse (though I'm doing just that) but when I stumbled upon Helen Vendler's comments on this old favorite poem, I was struck by a parallel concern in American gardening.

Friday, January 04, 2013


The garden seems to be evaporating before my eyes; the very substance of the grasses and herbaceous perennials, most of what's left, seems thinner, more fragile, week by week. As the garden reveals more and more of its underlying structure--largely invisible in the high season of growth--this is a good time to take stock, to look for underlying problems, if "problems" is the right word. Perhaps better to think of opportunities, to evaluate, to fine tune.

So I'll continue to mull over the newest part of the garden--the reflecting pool, which does indeed present a "challenge." It doesn't seem to fit where I put it!

Snow last weekend, four inches of light fluff, just enough to cover the garden in a clean sheet, showed the pool in a new way, laid out in splendid isolation from its previously messy environment. In snow, the pool fits better, but only temporarily.

Judy Mann, a friend, was visiting and took these photos in the morning light while I was away at the gym (one of my few disciplines in life). As I look at them, they confirm, but by contrast, the approach I've decided to take to better integrate the pool into the garden.

Here (above and below) the snow erases the gravel bed, the blue stone coping around the water, other extraneous details. Truth be told I'm tempted to try for a similar effect without the snow, to take a minimal approach, though that would be very difficult since, without great expense, I can't level the surrounding area to make an ample, smooth surface for the pool to rest in luxurious isolation. 

So of the two possible directions I could take in this part of the garden--toward openness, cleanness, simplicity, or toward enclosure, height, romantic fuzziness--I take the latter, which can be implemented incrementally, making it easier to manage cost.

And to be honest, a minimal landscape feature would likely be out of character with the blousy naturalism of the rest of the garden. So perhaps my pocketbook and my aesthetics agree.

Below you can see the snowy outline of concrete pavers I've laid out in a trial pattern. I like this curve and the way it frames one side of the pool. The curve is an encompassing, welcoming gesture ...

... that focuses attention on the pool and on the garden beyond ... and begins a circular pattern that will be completed by the new plantings I plan around the pool area.

The key will be in the planting ... shrub spires, box balls, tall perennials like Joe Pye Weed and Inula, urn-shaped Miscanthus ... all forming diaphanous, three-dimensional screens that make the pool area like a circular room, a room with transparent walls through which you can catch glimpses in and out, as described in the previous post.

The Miscanthus giganteus, standing high and quite distant from the pool, illustrates how the interplay of vertical and horizontal will work. As with the tall, ragged Miscanthus and the flat, clean-edged pool, my plan to juxtapose verticals of Thuja occidentalis and grassy spires with the flat, two-dimensionality of the pool will create a sense of a secret place nestled amid dense plantings. The interplay of circular patterns, square pool, height, depth, sharp edges and soft, round shapes will make a pleasant place for contemplating reflections in the pool and appreciating the forms and colors of the surrounding plants.

The contrast of flatness and height will also emulate, in smaller scale, the contrast between the garden clearing and the tall trees of the bordering forest, more fully integrating the garden with its surrounding landscape.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Garden Diary: Reflections

Barring some brief, miraculous frosty transmogrification, the garden is gone for the year. I'm ready to burn what I can and cut the rest. Winter's barely here and I want to move on. 

I have projects, changes to make, things to do. I was recently notified, you see, that the garden will be on the Garden Conservancy Open Days next year. Nothing like a deadline for motivation. Right now, unfortunately, this feels like work. Where's that delight in gentle, impulsive garden making? I want play and pleasure--not work. For years toiling in the corporate coal mines I kept as my mantra (or complaint) Robert Frost's words in Two Tramps in Mud Time:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

It seems I never accomplished that goal, so as next best, I've semiretired to garden play, or so I thought. Could it be the competitive instinct is inborn, so deeply ingrained, I can't stop it? So to prepare for next summer, I've started on a series of changes, "improvements" as they were fond of calling them in 18th century English landscape culture, more I'm sure than I'll have time or money for. Down the road, I hope I'll be able to remember this is play too.

The first project is this one ...

We just finished the new reflecting pool. Much work remains--building a low stone retaining wall for the gravel bed, deciding what pattern to use for the paving, entirely replanting the area around the pool. I want a touch of formality, probably mostly shaped box wood and Thuja spires, contrasting with the wildness and informality, especially here near the house and pool, where straight lines and right angles lend a greater sense of geometric order.

Hidden under the bank going up to the house, I hardly see this new pool area from above. But from down in the garden, it's been an annoyance. The garden is young--barely seven years--and I just hadn't had time to deal with it.  I planted a Salix 'Hakuro-nishiki', which grew fast and helped cover up the inattention, but it was time to fix this.

View coming down the stairs from the house.

My initial thought was to create a simple path and paved area, and new plantings, to add strolling options and a more engaging experience in the garden. Then it occurred to me I could make room to add a reflecting pool. (I've been exceedingly happy with the new pool in the small Brooklyn garden, so the thought of adding a reflective element at Federal Twist caught my interest.) The ideas started morphing and I realized I could also take this opportunity to remove a gravel path I've always disliked, reuse the gravel in the new pool area, and turn the unsuccessful path into a new planting area, even mound new soil on the path, creating a kind of irregular berm, with the hope the improvement in drainage will allow me to grow some plants that don't thrive in heavy wetness.

Once the pool was finished, however, I wasn't satisfied. I wish it were larger, but topography prevents that. Much more importantly, it doesn't look like it belongs. So instead of using this new area as open negative space, which I had planned to do, I'll enclose and partially hide the pool within close plantings of shrubs, grasses and perennials. It can be glimpsed through the plantings, but will remain an enticing, seemingly out-of-reach mirage from many parts of the garden. The photo below shows something of the veiled, partial glimpses I'd like to create.

When the area around the pool is fully planted, it will be partially hidden, veiled by vegetation.

I made these mark-ups with a simple program called Skitch to better envision how massing might work to make the reflecting pool a private area for contemplation. First, the view from the south, shown below. Small paths will allow entry from the left, the right, and the back. The green shapes may be shrubs such as box wood and spires of Thuja occidentalis (Arborvitae), which does very well in my wet soil, and is an extraordinarily beautiful, native evergreen in spite of what you might think! The yellows and blues show how various mounding and vertical grasses and perennials might be used to create privacy and screen views into and out of the area--and to hide the unsightly deer exclusion fence at the back (another problem solved).

Below is a view from the opposite (north) side. Another aspect of the new plantings--apart from screening and visual pleasure they can give--is controlling reflections in the pool. To some extent I can experiment by moving plants around in containers, but intuition will certainly play an important role. I can already see that distant trees will probably dominate the reflected view, and am pleased with that. Again, apart from the green lines, which indicate Thuja and box, the other colors represent general concepts for massing of grasses and perennials, and perhaps other shrubs such as Lindera angustifolia (if I can find it), viburnums, or coppiced willows (I'm particularly interested in finding Rosemary willow, Salix elaeagnos 'Angustifolia'.)

This final view shows the area from behind the path I'm removing. This will become a messy, sprawling (read "naturalistic") berm  planted with shrubs and perennials, giving some added height. Though I will order a few "prize" plants from remote sources, I need large, well established specimens from local nurseries to get a finished effect in time for next summer. That means using what's available locally and remaining open to improvisation.

I think using Skitch has awakened my sense of play. We'll see.


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