Thursday, July 31, 2008

Pond redux

The garden was always about water even before there was the pond: wet through most of the year, flooded by water every time it rains, shaped literally (like a miniature river delta) and figuratively (the plants that thrive here, the wetland environment, the character of this place) by the flow of water over the land.

The pond has become the conceptual center of the garden, collecting water from the higher elevations of this ridge above the Delaware into a long, canal shape, then visually throwing the eye from the dark woodland edge into the sunny wet prairie beyond. That was its main purpose when I had it dug in March. The pond was an idea, a shape, not yet a place.

It all happened quite unexpectedly. Frogs, tadpoles, dragonflies, all sorts of insects, even garden snakes. I knew the pond would become home to frogs, perhaps even newts and salamanders, but had no notion of the delight it would bring. It's become the living center of the garden and from it hundreds of frogs and other creatures, known and not known, here and yet to be here, make their circuits out then back to the water. Hawks sometimes perch nearby; sightings of Great Blue Herons are more frequent.

The pond today contrasts dramatically with the barren hole of early April (above). Hard to believe in less than four months a water body about forty feet long and four to eight feet wide could bring so much change. (See pevious post.)

Sounds, too, and startling movements. The croaking of frogs unpredictably in the day and often late into the night, sudden splashes as they dive from their terrestrial watching places into the water, or silence as they wait at the edge of a water lily pad or lurk secretively just at the surface, fattening tadpoles popping up for a quick gulp of air (tiny black holes opening for an instant) then diving deep for protection.

The most airy ornaments, the dragon flies, carry the pond's influence upward and outward, spiraling in twos and threes, out and back, out and back, alighting briefly on dry seed heads of Carex muskingumensis or rushes.

Other ornaments - the water lilies (instant gratification) dropped in in tubs ...

... and the pond as arrow and mirror.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Garden Diary: July Exuberance

The weeks are flying by and the garden is changing quickly. Since I see it only on weekends, the change seems faster. About two weeks back the cotton candy plumes of Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' had peaked and Rudbeckia maxima was just coming into bloom. The Filipendula plumes have alchemized to coppery webs and the Rudbeckia is dropping its petals, its slim stems all askew since the long dry spell suddenly ended with heavy thundershowers and violent winds five days ago.

Above is the entry to the wet prairie garden, by way of the small pond. Below is a photo tour, moving roughly clockwise around the garden.

In the foreground is a very old Viburnum plicatum I cut to the ground when we moved in and had to clear about 60 cedars to open the land to light. A mistake - the viburnum had taken the form of a small tree. I wish I had kept it. It's nearing three feet, so I look forward to having it again as part of a middle layer.

The 1965 house has a wall of floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the prairie garden.

Moving clockwise ...

... further clockwise ...

... and again ...

Part of a rapidly growing colony of Physostegia virginiana. This end of the garden will be mostly white and green.

After two years, the first Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) to flower.

Joe Pye Weed through Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine' - a very popular panicum a few years back, but now hard to find in nurseries. So much clamour after "something new and improved," the old cultivars are forgotten.

And Rudbeckia maxima with Cloud Nine.

Ernst, at over 6 feet, illustrates my penchant for giant plants. I do have to put more work into the groundcover layer.

Still working on this planting of Pycnanthemum muticum, Miscanthus s. 'Silberfeder', and a hybrid Petasites japonicus. This is copied from an Oehme and Van Sweden design ("imitation is the sincerest ...")

Silphium laciniatum against Miscanthus purpurescens and Miscanthus gigantius.

The bridge carrying the cedar chip path to the back side, where the large planting of miscanthus-pycnanthemum-petasites marks the lower end of the prairie "circle."

Looking across the widest part of the prairie - about 250 feet - through a foreground screen of Spartina pectinata variegata (above) and through Salix alba Britzensis (below). The ribbon curls of the spartina are a nice contract to all the verticals; I should add more (but will divide and replant since it's rather invasive). The golden glow is Filipendula foliage.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pycnanthemum muticum: a plant for wet clay

One of my favorites - Pycnanthemum muticum, mountain mint. Soft silver foliage by early July, at least in western New Jersey, loads of insects, highly fragrant, mixes well with other perennials or grasses, particularly well in a meadow. No insect damage. Deer proof. Does well in heavy wet clay as well as drier situations. Good close up and at a distance.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Teasel Update

White teasel flowers - what a surprise!

I thought my seeds came from the plants in my Rosemont garden, but those had pale lavender flowers. Now I'll never know where these came from. That's okay. I like an element of randomness in the garden. I play a kind of seed planting roulette, broadcasting here and there with the knowledge seeds will grown where conditions are right for them. I may have found these on a roadside two years ago and forgotten. Or they may be a gift of the birds. Another garden mystery. This link shows the plants in late June.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Garden Diary: High Summer

We may be headed for drought. For the past six weeks occasional scattered sprinkles have left some corn fields in healthy, not thriving, growth, while others are stunted and very dry. So far, passing thunderstorms have been highly local, drenching some areas, leaving others parched.

Established plants in the garden are doing well. After several weeks of prelude, the Rudbeckia maxima and Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' are in full bloom across the "wet" prairie. I suppose this is proof of my high water table (at ground surface throughout winter and spring). This past weekend I did have to do some spot watering of new plants. The five-foot Almelanchier laevis looked close to expiration and some Kirengeshoma palmata in the woodland garden were in a state of continuous droop.

But the large, established plants are doing well and give me hope that in future summers I won't have to do any watering once root systems are well established.

Lesson learned this year: monarda does not thrive in this heavy, wet clay. Most of the Monarda d. 'Blaustrumpf' barely survived and only one M.d. 'Jacob Kline' came through winter in good shape. This will not be a plant I can rely on.

The good news. Silphium terebinthinaceum, which I planted as plugs three years ago, is finally mature enough to put up flower spikes (no blossom yet), and Silphium perfoliatum, which I planted as seed two years ago, has finally appeared and will be blossoming at about four feet. Vernonia noveboracensis, also seeded two years back, has appeared in profusion, promising a very colorful fall. And big, bulky roots of Inula racemosa 'Sonnenspeer' from Bluestem Nursery, planted only a month or two back, have taken root and appear to be well on the way to maturity and substantial bloom this summer.

A lot of yellow, I know. I didn't allow yellow in my former Rosemont garden. But in this garden in the woods, with a dark wall of trees all around, I need bright colors to contrast with the surrounding darkness.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Avant Gardners: 50 Visionaries of the Contemporary Landscape

This isn't a book for the cottage gardener or the complacent. It is certain to spark a powerful response in many readers – if it has many readers. Conceptual landscape design is not a subject of widespread interest in most gardening circles, certainly not in North America.

Avant Gardeners may delight you, annoy you, frustrate you, spark new insights about gardening and design. I have to confess my prejudice. I appreciate the work of some conceptual landscape designers. I’ve always liked Martha Schwartz’ playful park at Jacob Javits Plaza (we call it “the Federal Building”) in New York City – liked it years before I even knew it was designed by Martha Schwartz – even before I knew Martha Schwartz existed. But I dislike many of the conceptual landscapes in this book.

Admittedly, some are beautiful, or so appropriate to place, I can’t deny their relevance to the urban world: I’m remembering the first landscape in the book, designed by Atelier Big City, a small, mainly concrete park for hanging out and skateboarding under an elevated bridge approach in Montreal that seems a perfect solution for an almost-waste-space. While most conceptual landscapes are urban, some are not. Wigandia, for example, William Martin’s ecologically appropriate garden-cum-artwork on the side of a volcano in Australia is full of plants that thrive in drought, and it stands as a direct, even polemical, criticism of the prevalence of "British style" gardens so inappropriate to Australia, a land of sun, heat and scarce water resources.

Tim Richardson defines a conceptual garden as a landscape designed using a single overriding concept: "Conceptualist landscapes are predicated on ideas rather than plants or the architectural use of hard materials. Such spaces are underpinned by a single concept, or visual motif, which informs every aspect of the design." Many conceptual gardeners use no plants, some only artificial materials. Others design what appear to be more conventional gardens, with plants and hardscaping, but the design is controlled with strict intellectual discipline.

Mr. Richardson is a very good writer, and an agile and informed thinker about gardens. I come away from Avant Gardeners feeling disturbed, not quite able to see why many of the conceptual landscapes in this book are not more aptly called outdoor conceptual or installation art. Some choices seem to be arbitrary. Perhaps it doesn't matter and Mr. Richardson's point is just to stir things up.

I can't read his intent but, for me, this is the point of the book: to question the very meaning of the word "garden", to push the borders of our understanding of gardens, and to open up new possibilities. Whatever your reaction to this book, it will make you think about what a garden is. And that’s a service to the culture of gardening throughout the world.

Monday, July 07, 2008

Garden Diary: the long view

This view is down the length of the main wet prairie garden, on the level below the view shown in the previous post (5 July 2008). The main concept is garden as a continuation of the natural drainage pattern - a kind of metaphorical flood plain. The intent is to create a sense of sweeping movement around the end of the house, with the planting spreading out across the open clearing defined by the tree line, and flowing to the "outlet" in the distance.

The long pond is positioned in the direct path of water flow and so emphasizes the actual drainage pattern across the main garden area. I can see now how straight verticals of small willows (perhaps Salix 'Rubykins'), coppiced yearly, would provide vertical structure and an important part of the "middle layer" I'm still missing at this early stage. I would be imitating Ton ter Linden's similar use of willows in some of his wetland gardens.

My camera unfortunately lacks sufficient resolution to show detail in landscape images; the closer photo below shows Filipendula rubra 'Venusta', Rudbeckia maxima, and Salix alba 'Britzensis' serving as vertical accents in the distance.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Garden Diary: sunny morning

Gardening in a woodland makes opportunities for structure - I mean spatial structure in the broadest sense - hard to come by. Here the planes of plant material carry the eye away from the house toward the woodland, left balancing right, and trees climbing to loftier heights with increasing distance, creating a focal point centered by the Miscanthus 'Morning Light' in the foreground. I learn to take my garden structure where I find it, then work to strengthen it - a difficult thing to do in this wild garden. So much depends on where you stand, the time of day, the season ... and I should add, on the selective eye of the camera.

In a very real sense, this view is 'created' by the position of the camera, the backlighting of the dogwood and Miscanthus in the foreground in contrast to the dark foliage of the trees behind, the centered grass and, very importantly, the cropped edges of the photo. The real garden doesn't have this frame, so the 'focusing' effect of the grass is far less pronounced. But this example does show the possibilities in using structural elements to direct attention, create spatial contrasts, and connote meaning (Miscanthus 'Morning Lignt' = radiance?). I am reminded of a poem by Wallace Stevens.

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

The wilderness rose upon 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 everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.

Gardens Illustrated

I've been a subscriber to Gardens Illustrated for years. I find it a much more substantial and informative publication - for example, its focus on people and places, little on 'how to' - than gardening periodicals I know in the U.S. GI's large, rather lavish format makes it a rarity in this world of rising paper and production costs, and it provides access to a larger world of gardening and horticulture than you normally find in U.S. publications. The magazine makes an effort to appeal to a worldwide audience, so you'll read about gardens in the U.S. and many other countries, not just the UK. It's not cheap, but worth the price.

This month's issue features Piet Oudolf's redesign of the garden at his home in Hummelo in The Netherlands in an article written by Noel Kingsbury, who has collaborated on several books with Oudolf. If you're an admirer of Oudolf's work, get this issue.

I've added a link to the GI website (top right), which makes available podcasts you can find nowhere else, as well as previews of upcoming features and events. I drive long distances twice a week, from our house in Brooklyn to our country house in the Delaware River Valley where my garden is, and the GI-posted podcasts fill the hours with pleasure (and learning - yes, this is a gardening nerd). The content is very different from any garden-related radio or TV programming in the U.S.

On the GI website, you can look forward to podcasts on two recent Vista lecture series discussions about the works of Ian Hamilton Finlay (April) and Ambiguity in the Garden with David Cooper (June). (For postings on other Vista lectures, look up 'Vista' in the Content Labels sidebar on this page.) GI has also recorded a Museum of Garden History lecture with Richard Reynolds about Guerrilla Gardening, which will soon be available, and will also be recording Tim Richardson's symposium about 'The New Conceptualist Garden' at the Tate Modern next week (9 July 2008).

Get out your iPod or MP3 player, and start listening to more than music. You can download directly from the GI website or from iTunes.


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