Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Garden Diary: Battling Japanese Stilt Grass

Every summer an invasive grass fills my garden like a gently rising flood. Until mid-summer it's hardly noticeable, then suddenly it springs up to two or three feet, thick masses that lean over and flatten in rain, literally swamping smaller plants. The annual guerrilla action of Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegium vimineum) sends me into periods of depression and despair alternating with hope for its eventual eradication.

Most agricultural research in the U.S. offers limited measures for control of large areas of infestation. There are three methods for control: use of herbicides, hand pulling late in the season (late to limit time for regeneration from the seed bank), and mowing late in the season (early mowing seems to promote rapid regrowth and seed formation).

Fortunately this is an annual grass, so it should be controllable with a preemergent or some other herbicide applied later in the season. Since I rely on seeded plantings to be an important part of my garden, particularly for weed suppressing groundcover, I'm reluctant to use a preemergent. For the same reason, I'm reluctant to use herbicide later in the season.

Last summer I tried mowing in early fall, but not early enough I'm afraid, because seed formation already had begun. This summer, I'll try hand pulling, which is quite easy in wet ground but a real chore over an acre, followed by mowing. Yes, I'll also mow the first year seeded plants, but most of those will probably not be harmed and will return the following year with more vigor.

If anyone who reads this has had any success eradicating Japanese Stilt Grass, I'd appreciate hearing how you did it.

And that photo at the top? It's not my garden.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Gardening with a Legacy: A Talk at the Museum of Garden History

In North America, we certainly have no Sissinghurst or Stowe, and relatively few gardens notable enough to give great concern about how they will survive after the passing of their owners. Nevertheless, consideration of the challenges presented by such gardens can reveal much about what is of value, and worth preserving, in a garden, even a new one, and what isn't.

Gardens Illustrated has made available a new podcast of a talk by Sir Roy Strong, former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and Fergus Garrett of Great Dixter. Here is GI's summary: "Sir Roy Strong, who created his garden The Laskett together with his late wife, and Fergus Garrett, head gardener at Great Dixter in Sussex (home to the late Christopher Lloyd) talk about their experiences of gardening with a legacy. They consider whether a garden can be expected to live beyond the life of its owner, and how to move a garden forward while respecting its heritage."

To download the podcast, go directly to the GI website. This podcast is near the bottom of the page.

Friday, April 25, 2008

William Faulkner's Garden

I like the melancholy atmosphere of derelict gardens, even waste places like abandoned rail lines, old roadways, forgotten graveyards. Next to our house on Federal Twist Road clumps of daffodils, a huge deutzia, and tangles of white wisteria make it clear this was the site of someone's house many years ago. I haven't yet found physical evidence of the house, but an old well pump, probably in the front of the house, and a pond, likely at the back, suggest where it could have been. The whole area is so overgrown with multiflora rose it's difficult to explore. Nevertheless, it's a pleasant place to spend a few moments of contemplation.

Two springs ago, on a visit to see my ailing mother and my sister in Oxford, Mississippi, I stopped by to visit William Faulkner's house, Rowanoak. The house has been restored to the genteel shabbiness appropriate to the time of his residence there. The gardens around it haven't, which I'm grateful for. But they show someone's attention to a sort of formal design long ago, with old brick paths and brick lined beds, a double row of cedars along the path to the entrance, and rather gappy formal hedges of privet. Several outbuildings, most probably dating from the 19th century, add architectural interest.

The garden probably was never brought to a state of more than middling finish, but it has a peacefulness and charm, and offers a sense of privacy and security, hard to find in our 21st century world. Let's call it a strolling garden, a contemplative garden.

It's possible to make a circuit around the house, where you see remnants of old shrub plantings - hollies, hydrangea, hostas, but with no discernible plan, a simple maze-like arrangement of waist-high privet hedges in the back, a wisteria growing on a post, dogwoods (Cornus florida), red buds (Cercis canadensis), camellias.

Off one side of the house you can walk through open clearings surrounded by woods, where Faulkner kept his horses. These small fields are mowed and make a pleasant stroll to the edge of the woods where a massive grape vine (probably muscadine) writhes like a serpent in the Laocoon.

In more open space nearer the house, the cedars have been trimmed high, leaving irregular clouds of green at the tops of narrow soaring columns, dark against the blue spring sky.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spicebush (Lindera benzoin)

Early to mid April the woods all along Federal Twist Road are sparkling with hundreds of Lindera benzoin in bloom. These native shrubs have an attractive open structure, spicy fragrance on a warm day (thus the moniker 'Spice bush'), and a multitude of very small flowers that make a dramatic impression where they grow in sufficient numbers. Warm yellow foliage in fall, too. Fortunately, deer avoid them.

This is a great substitute for the overused and, in my opinion, garish forsythia.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Is anybody listening?

I'm curious. Am I the only person in the United States who listens to the Vista lecture series podcasts? I find them stimulating, even exciting. They are a window onto another world for me, and they continue to give more even on a second, third, fourth listening. Do Americans think about their gardens; I mean think about more than how to do this, how to do that, how to make a stunning outdoor garden room. Has gardening been ruined by our garden industry, our "design/build" garden contractors, the big nurseries that offer "garden design" as a sideline service to sell more plants and more hardscaping, the general striving after big bucks?

Do we have any gardens like Veddw House, where Anne Wareham and Charles Hawes ask visitors to criticize their garden, invite writers such as Noel Kingsbury to critically assess and publish their opinions? (The Veddw site has links to critical writing on a number of other gardens. If you've been admiring the stunning photos of the prairie and steppe gardens at Lady Farm in Somerset, read about Anne's and Stephen Anderton's visit on the Veddw site. You'll be surprised.)

Yes, all of us are excited watching the snow drops and crocuses bloom after a long, dreary winter, but do we need 20 million closeup digital photos of them on blogs around the world? Surely there's more to be written about than that.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Vista Lecture Series Podcasts from Gardens Illustrated: Rozsika Parker on Gender and Gardening

Gardens Illustrated has published the third podcast in the Vista lecture series, organized by Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury to complement publication of Vista: The Culture and Politics of Gardens, a collection of provocative essays on - yes, you guessed it! Gardening. It's available in the U.S. on

From the GI website: "Writer and psychotherapist Rozsika Parker joins hosts Noel Kingsbury and Tim Richardson to consider if men and women garden differently. This is a lively discussion with lots of contributions from the floor bringing up aspects of history, culture, genetics and economics both in terms of the amateur and professional gardener alike."

To download the podcast, go directly to the GI website. It's near the bottom of the page.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Memory in the Garden

I've cut down the trees and created a circular clearing in the woods. With views into the forest all around, my new garden has to be a close friend with 80-foot white pines, hickories, red maples, beech, cedar - deer, wild turkey, foxes, frogs - all kinds of flora and fauna. And it has to thrive in wet clay.
Wet Prairie
I've chosen to make a variation on a wet prairie, an ecological model appropriate to my site, and one that probably can sustain the visual and aesthetic interest I want. I'm not at all certain wet prairies have existed in New Jersey in historical times, but I do know prairies existed in the east of the North American continent. Peter Heus' admirable description of a wet prairie remnant in West Virginia is one well documented source.
Mine will be maintained by cutting and periodic burning, with no soil improvement other than what the plants, animals and insects do themselves. I'm using many natives, but also exotics if they grow well in my conditions, and taking a wait and see approach, letting the plants find their favored positions, and intervening only to keep harmony. It's to be a garden "in tune with nature." In regard to sense of place, that's my garden's story from a practical and ecological perspective.
Sense of Place
But sense of place is broader than environmental or ecological setting. The garden also exists in cultural and historic contexts, and I do want to consider those aspects of place, in a subtle way that does not shout for attention - and certainly not in a pedantic or dry academic fashion.
The word “historic” is freighted with negative connotations for many and can be off-putting. In a lecture on history in the garden, given as part of the Vista lecture series in London (see this link), noted UK landscape architect Kim Wilkie suggests that substituting the word "memory" for "history" makes it much easier to think about these issues in more personal terms: "I think what we need to do is understand what a landscape is about, the ghosts that are there, the feelings that are there, the memories that are there ... It is looking at the daubs and the tears and the hieroglyphs and allowing that, hopefully, just to give you the charge to continue the story..." Wilkie's analogy to an old manuscript is appropriate. Like a palimpsest, it carries virtually invisible messages from the past.
Blue Jingle
The rock around here is called "blue jingle." It has a bluish color and makes a metallic clink when you strike one stone against another. The scientific name is argillite, a sedimentary stone formed at the bottom of ancient lakes in the Triassic period, about 200 million years ago. (You can see it in the photo on the right, exposed in the bed of Lockatong Creek.) This stone does not fracture easily, and it is extensive in the geology of this area, making for water supply aquifers that yield comparatively little water. More important for gardeners, it slows percolation of water into the soil, keeping rainwater and snow melt near the surface, and creating a huge amount of runoff during storms. As a consequence of the qualities and distribution of blue jingle, we garden in shallow, wet soil on Federal Twist Road. Streams run full, like torrents, after heavy rain.
So the conditions under which I garden and my plants must grow are ordained by the geological history and the climate of this place. I accept this and work with it.
History and Culture
White Europeans have lived in these hills for over 350 years; they have left many artifacts. They cleared their fields of stones, making long, intersecting stone rows that separated the fields. These rows extend throughout the surrounding woods today. My property is bounded by long, capacious rows of argillite, which I'm using to build dried laid stone walls that are, in a real sense, monuments to the local geology, and to the European settlers who first cleared the land of rocks to make it farmable.
The aboriginal people of this area, the Lenni Lenape, lived here for many thousands of years, far longer than we of European descent, yet left hardly a trace. It's too easy to forget their long stewardship of the land, and their gradual loss of their place and way of life. The absence of signs of their existence speaks loudly of how they lived and passed from here. Their memory should be marked by some silent sign.
So too the newcomers, the builders of our house, the Howeths, who asked a notable local architect, William Hunt, to design it in 1964. I have 35mm slides of William Hunt surveying the site just a few days before JFK was assassinated, and many others showing open fields dotted with small junipers, and the original landscaping. Little is left of that but the images, several trees planted around the house, and a carpet of myrtle that remains from that time.
My Garden’s Story
This is the rough material for my garden's story. As I learn to read the land, watch the movement of water over its surface, observe the changes in vegetation with increased sunlight, imagine how the land has changed over historic as well as geologic time, and learn more about the human past, I also have begun to see a design, an abstract structure emerging - first the circular shape of the clearing that is the main feature of the garden, then the lines, circles and rounded forms that signaled life in the forest - curved trails, straight stone walls, meandering paths, and the circular blot of a dead fire.
Garden Design
When I first started this garden I was not aware of its past, only of the shapes that work naturally here. Taking the great circle of the clearing in the woods as a pattern, I repeated it at different scales to begin to create structure.
The simple plan shows the garden design emerging from repetition of lines, curves, and circles. The two circles shown in violet at the front of the house, one of gravel, the other of dry laid stone, screen the entrance and provide raised areas with relatively dry planting conditions.
These are reflected in the long curved path running from the front of the house around to the main garden area in the back.
The curved path is reflected, in turn, in the curve of another stone wall to the left, running around the end of the house and across the back, all of this at the base of a mound on which the house rests, to keep it above the surrounding wetness. As you walk the path to the back, this curved wall opens the view to reveal the main garden space, and creates a kind of momentum pulling you along from front to back.
Across the garden from the house, a second curved stone wall (shown below), much lower than the one at the base of the house, visually encloses the garden space and helps define it as separate from the forest behind. The large dotted arrow on the plan indicates the most distant view out through the forest wall surrounding the garden but, in fact, all views are into forest.
At the back of the garden, opposite the pond and balancing it visually, could be a final feature that exists only in concept and is still subject to change. It could be a circle about 25 feet in diameter, with a flat stone perimeter perhaps three to four feet wide. The center of the circle would be planted with native Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans). The stone would be argillite. This would be a visually prominent feature, and would acknowledge the people who originally inhabited this ridge above the Delaware.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Garden Pavilion?

Shot this porch from a moving car in Canton, Mississippi. Great columns. What an interesting idea for a garden pavilion. It might work in my garden in the woods. What about yours?

Thursday, April 10, 2008


The new pond was excavated to get soil to fill in behind the new dry laid stone wall. It's actually more a canal than a pond, about 40 feet long and 8 to 10 feet wide, with a slight S-shaped curve.

I thought this would be a sustainable gardening approach since I got a new, dryer planting area at the top of the wall, and a new pond to collect some of the water that flows around the southwest end of the house. The pond is still holding water after two weeks, with virtually no rain to refill it. I didn't use a liner, thinking my super clay would do the job. (There is an old pond a couple of hundred feet out in the woods that holds water perpetually, so I assumed this "natural liner" approach would work for me too.)

This certainly looks like a mess, but I'll be planting all around the pond in the coming months. We'll see how it looks later in the season.


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