Sunday, December 28, 2008

Garden Diary: Stripped Bare

Entrance path to future woodland garden

The path meanders through trees toward the main garden

After a major ice storm and rain, the garden is stripped bare of all except hardscape, battered grasses, and mud. Yesterday a heavy fog, brought by a warm front that ended the snow cover, gave the opportunity to measure this year's progress toward creating a sense of mystery, a journey, a narrative - mostly independent of the plantings so prominent in other seasons. The photos in this post were taken yesterday, and you'll see snow and fog in them, and this morning, where you see no snow and no fog. To see detail, you'll need to click on the photos to enlarge them.

Entering through the Woodland Path
To get a sense of narrative, of some as yet untold story, it's best to enter the garden by way of the woodland path. This starts at a gate on the right end of the house and circles around through the woodland garden to the main garden at back. This is a wood chip path shown in the two photos above, and below, where you can see the path meeting a long curving stone wall that carries the view deep into the garden.

The stone walls added this year, and a long, narrow, canal like pond have created structure that controls the movement of both the eye and the body, giving the woodland entrance to the garden a firm direction and flow. Curves do it all... the curving path and wall through the woods, around the end of the house, into the large garden at back (below)...

the curves of two stone walls that enclose the view on the left and right...

the curve of the pond (below) directing the eye along the natural drainage flow across the garden and into the woods beyond...

and the curve of the wall lining the long path (below) as it begins its circle of travel around the entire garden...

... all moving a visitor forward while restraining movement to the limited space between the two curving walls. The fog enhances the sense of mystery, but the structure itself is beginning to suggest a journey.

These views show me I need evergreens to achieve better screening both in summer and especially in winter. I've been reluctant to try anything evergreen in my wet clay (I don't want to spend scarce money on expensive shrubs likely to die, or worse, live long, lingering, ugly deaths). But looking at these photos, I'm convinced it's time to take the risk.

A Second Entrance: Steps
During the the short transit through the woodland garden, a second entrance, from the terrace behind the house, reveals itself (okay, it's only a start).

Built of local stone, these low steps will give access directly from the back of the house onto a soft wood chip path, circling immediately around the stone wall directly to the pond, then continuing out into the middle of the garden.

The rather barren area at the foot of the steps has been planted with a variety of groundcover plugs (tiarella, phlox stolonifera), bunches of Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris), and legacy daffodils, but it needs winter color. I'm considering willows (maybe Salix alba 'Britzensis') and some form of red twig dogwood, in bunches. You get the idea.

Continuing into the garden (below), glancing to the right, you see the space opening up, looking back over to the pond and the wall at the base of the house ...

... and further right, a small bridged drainage channel to carry off excess water and provide habitat for more bog plants ...

... such as the three Salix alba 'Britzensis' below. I've rooted cuttings of these and should have a virtual wall of them here next year.

And at the end of the wall, the dried remains of a flower of Ligularia japonica (from Plant Delights, where else?).

Next, a Corylopsis spicata and a colony of Lobelia cardinalis (no pictures, nothing to look at now), then my log pile, the remains of a few of the many trees we cut to open a space for the garden, and now a valuable wildlife habitat.

And at the very end of the path, a view of the slope going up to the house, blousy with miscanthus.

This "story" may never be told, not in a finished way. I'm just trying to ask the right questions, to set the stage.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Sustainable Garden Design

Two presentations on sustainable garden design - one frightening, one practical - are available on podcast at the Gardens Illustrated podcast site.

As part of a Masterclass in Sustainable Garden Design sponsored by the Sustainable Design Advice Committee of the UK's Society of Garden Designers, these two talks by Mark Laurence and Nigel Dunnet address sustainable design from two dramatically different perspectives.

Mark Laurence presents a virtual end-time scenario in which the decline of fossil fuels will lead to the necessity of a total change in our way of living if we are to survive. It's a rather depressing talk, but one we all should hear. On the lighter side, Nigel Dunnet talks about water gardening and stormwater management. Nigel's point is that our houses and gardens should be designed to reuse all stormwater that falls on our particular piece of the world, preventing the cost of infrastructure to carry it away (a growing problem with development) and eliminating the pollution, erosion, flooding, and other negative consequences of ignoring the fact that stormwater can't be engineered away. Eventually, the cost is prohibitive. Interestingly, due to strong stormwater management regulations, America is far ahead of Britain in sustainable stormwater management.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Garden Diary: Curves

Snow on Friday followed by all day freezing rain flattened most of the garden. Too bad so early in the winter.

But there's a positive result. This gives me a better idea of structure - what there is, what might be. The formerly short stone wall was extended far to the right in early fall. Only now, with the grasses and perennials buried beneath layers of ice, do I see the complementary curve of the pond, whose curve is held within the opposite curve of the stone wall.

Food for thought... one hand held within another, child in womb, the protection of the cave, a seed within the earth... Now I can see other opportunities for shaping the raised stone planting area - at the left end of the pond - I posted on last Wednesday. Perhaps something curved, not a rigid trapezoid, that evokes symbols linked to this place.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Solstice Greetings from Fort Greene

A weekend in the city, where my garden isn't.

Here is the Prison Ship Martyr's Monument, designed by McKim, Meade and White, and constructed in 1908 at the top of Fort Greene Park. The monument marks the remains of over 12,000 who died aboard British prison ships anchored below this hill, in Wallabout Bay, during the American Revolution.

At the time of the Revolution, General Nathaniel Greene took charge of the building Fort Putnam here to defend George Washington's retreat after the Battle of Long Island. The name was changed to Fort Greene at the time of the War of 1812.

As editor of The Brooklyn Eagle, Walt Whitman long supported the building of the park for the rapidly growing new city of Brooklyn. Washington Park was opened in 1847 as Brooklyn's first public park. Olmsted and Vaux were retained in 1864 to redesign the park as we see it today.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Christopher Lloyd: his Guardian columns

If you're a fan of Christopher Lloyd, several years of his columns for the Guardian are on tap at this link. I stumbled on this mine of Lloydiana via a link on Jane Perrone's Horticultural blog. The kind of labor-intensive gardening practiced by Christo, and now by Fergus Garrett and the crew at Great Dixter, isn't exactly my cup of tea, but I've greatly enjoyed Lloyd's writing for almost 40 years (hard for me to believe it's been that long!). Don't get me wrong. I love the garden at Great Dixter - just don't want (can't) garden in that way.

You may also want to take a look at the wealth of gardening writing at the Guardian's Lifestyle link. You may as well go to the Guardian; rarely will you find a gardening column in the New York Times or most other American newspapers.


Thursday, December 18, 2008

Garden Diary: Sound

Last week, after about three inches of rain, the Lockatong Creek below the garden was flowing at full white water pitch. At such times, the roar of the water, from a distance of about a quarter mile, is a distinctive part of the garden.

In the 18th and 19th centuries the power of the stream was harnessed to run mills. Hard to think of this rather pristine rural environment as one of the nurseries of the industrial revolution, but it's so.

Here the water totally obscures an old mill dam at the bridge I cross to get home.

By the next day, the flow had declined dramatically.

Except in the driest times, the sound of the Lockatong is a constant in the garden. At times almost imperceptible, at times fading into the background of consciousness.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Garden Diary: Structure

Much of the structure of my garden is native stone (argillite, known by old timers as "blue jingle" or "blue jingler") made into dry laid walls. So far we've built 300 to 400 feet of low wall at the base of the little manmade hill that raises the house above the wet landscape and along a curving path on the west side of the garden. Now I want to use the stone to build a raised linear planting area.

This will be at the far end of the little pond (shown above), which is about 40 feet long. Picture first a stone wall, 8 to 10 feet long, cutting diagonally across the end of the pond - a full visual stop, perhaps with a slanting top, rising from left to right (I haven't decided about that yet). On the other side of that transverse wall will be a raised planting area, trapezoidal in shape, at least 4 feet wide and probably 20 or 25 feet long. This stone planter will echo the shape of the pond, but will "bend" to the left. It will be about 18 inches high.

My garden is so wild I need to add more structured, formal elements for contrast. This new feature will make it possible to grow plants that can't survive in my wet clay soil. I'm thinking the new planting may be as simple as a row of boxwood balls - a formal, repetitive pattern as counterpoint to the naturalistic background planting. But that's still to be decided too.

The next photo shows the same area from another perspective. I have to move quite a few plants - winterberry hollies, a button bush, several aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai', assorted water irises... But that may be the easiest part.

The black and white photo highlights the roughly rectangular area in the center where the new stone planter will be. Here is the rough shape of the new stone feature, in plan view.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Atmosphere and Mood in the Garden

This is something I've taken a while to admit to myself. The atmosphere of my garden isn't an entirely comforting one.

The winter view is dominated by natural woods on all sides. There are pleasant attributes - at this time of year, I can just make out the outline of the ridge across the small Lockatong valley, which gives a sense of expansiveness; as the sun rises early morning light pierces the woods horizontally, enflaming the tan foliage of the beeches; flowering panicles of grasses catch the changing light in a sensuously enticing way; ice and snowflakes on the pond make a pretty scene - nevertheless, in my garden I often feel a slight discomfort, a frisson of unease, as if there were some one or some thing watching.

I understand the fears of early American pioneers, who needed to clear the land around their houses for safety - a deeply ingrained habit that has merged with other influences, ranging from the writings of Andrew Jackson Downing to the American desire to conform, to be accepted, to "fit in" - resulting in the safe, boring, uniform suburban landscapes of empty lawn the vast majority of our population seek out, even enforce by covenant and law. (What hidden fears and desires lie beneath this "pursuit of happiness"?)

What I'm saying is that engagement with one's garden is not always a "happy" thing. Dealing with feelings of unease, failure, fear, however slight, or perhaps more troubling emotions, is part of the gardening experience. All is not sweetness and light. Melancholy, regret, sense of loss may even be intrinsic to certain places.

I've been reading David E. Cooper's A Philosophy of Gardens, in which he argues that the atmosphere of a garden isn't attributable to its natural and manmade features, but to what certain phenomenologists call a "field of presence." Call it mood.

The mood of my garden is not a reflection of the psychological and historical influences in the world at large. The economic disaster we are in, the anxiety we all share about the future, the rise of extremism and terrorism certainly affect my psychological state. But the mood of the garden is a different matter, affected by, but not entirely attributable to, the state of the world or "the human condition."

The opening photo is of the decaying home in which my mother and her large family lived in the early 20th century. She was born there in 1916. My sister and I recently found the remains of the house just off a dirt road near Singleton, Mississippi. It's hard to imagine a happy family life in such a place, but of course this was a country home that teemed with life. I heard the stories from my mother before she died. The feeling this ruin evokes is what I'm getting at.

This sagging house brings to mind the poverty-haunted settlers that must have struggled to farm this rocky, wet, sloping land I now call my garden. I believe something of that spirit from the past still lingers here in the abandoned stone rows that are mute testimony to long days of hard labor, in the abandoned fields long ago returned to forest, and in the derelict dams and millworks in the ancient creek below the garden.

When we visited the decaying house in Mississippi, I found a large trifoliate orange (Poncirus trifoliata) in the front yard, with recently fallen orange fruit scattered on the ground and several small seedlings rising through the leaf mould. I brought seed back to my garden in New Jersey, where I hope to plant them in the spring.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

What the Germans are Doing: Peter Janke

One of the outstanding new German garden designers, Peter Janke, has made his new garden amid a wood of oak, beech and hornbeam in an urban area near Dusseldorf. Noel Kingsbury's article on Janke in the latest issue of Gardens Illustrated magazine shows several garden plantings adjacent to mature woodland. This gives me hope since I garden in a clearing in the woods of western New Jersey, and I sometimes think the limitations of my woodland-edged site are almost too restrictive. About his own site, Janke says, "I'm happy about the shade it casts, which has so much planting potential." Lesson taken...

You can see photos of Janke's garden by clicking on the photo (above) from his website. Although the site is in German, the link will take you directly to his garden photo gallery, which needs no words.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Garden Diary: Reminders for Spring

Days shorten and nights get colder. By late winter, I'll be in a fever ordering new plants, or at least regretting what I can't afford, and those practical changes I see so clearly now will fade into the background. So ... start a to do list for next spring:

1. Move the big miscanthus away from the garden path. It flops too much in the fall. A great touseled look, but it blocks the path. Replace with something more vertical: panicum, calamagrostis, a shrub?

2. Move several big Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai' from the front garden to the back, along the transverse path to join the ones already there. They will create a corridor of late fall color against the browns and russets of the grasses. They don't get enough sun in the front to bloom.

3. Pull out the so-called Miscanthus 'Gracillimus' from the front garden. I bought these cheap at a big box store and they are impostors - at least they don't behave like the other Gracillimus I have. They're seeding themselves everywhere. Destroy all seedlings. Fortunately they're easy to recognize.

4. Remove the Miscanthus 'Gracillimus' and 'Yaku Jima' that are blocking the front entry walk and replace them with either a smaller miscanthus (Adagio?) or vertical grasses.

5. Add small bunches of low grasses (Deschampsia cepitosa, Sesleria autumnalis, carex?) and big leaved perennials (bergenia, ligularia?) along the new stone wall. For early color, perhaps some bulbs that can take the wet conditions? These will look good from the house, and interrupt the bare linearity of the wall.

New stone wall

6. Move the Carex grayi from north side to the woodland garden on the west. Replace with pennisetum variety.

7. Finish this list before spring.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Battery Bosque: a follow-up from the Director of Horticulture

Following up my two posts on the Piet Oudolf's planting design for the Battery Bosque in New York City's Battery Park, Sigrid Gray, Director of Horticulture for the Battery Conservancy, sent me several clarifications about the design intent and maintenance practices at the garden. I had presented the Gardens of Remembrance (GOR) and Bosque Garden as essentially different parts of the same garden. Ms. Gray pointed out that "the Gardens of Remembrance are really not a waterside extension of the Bosque. The GOR, a sun garden, was planted in May 2003. The Bosque, a shade garden, was planted in May 2005. To further separate his first 2 gardens at the Battery, Piet requested a dividing wall, thus the curvy black granite stone wall between them.

Variety and distinct qualities between each project are the standard Piet requires of himself. Species are only repeated when the physical characteristics of the site are similar, even then hybrids often differ."

At the time of my visit in August, the London Planes in the Bosque had lost some of their foliage and the day was windy, even stormy, so the difference in the shade and sun gardens was less apparent. I need to visit the gardens more frequently and under different weather conditions to see these distinctions. Best to do that in the height of summer, when the plantings can more easily be compared.

I had made the obvious point that these, like other Oudolf gardens, look naturalistic but they are far from natural gardens. Ms. Gray explained a little about the maintenance practices required for this kind of garden.

"The gardens, as is typical of Oudolf designs, require a great deal of care because they are formal gardens of naturalistic style, not natural. Points of control are different from more traditional or uniform posing of plants by staking, deadheading, deadleafing. Mood in a naturalistic garden is very dependent on weather effects: the weight of rain, direction of wind, frost, snow, less time goes into counteracting nature and other work such as species-sustaining propagation and seedling selection during weeding becomes key. Species are relocated or removed if the site is hostile rather than forced to stay as per design. For example: Carex muskingumensis, a water-loving sedge, is not tricked with extra watering into remaining where tree root competition [creates] a hostile environment, but moved to a new location in the garden. A minimum of autumn leaves or cut chaff is removed, but excess is removed in some places. The gardens stand during the winter, but mechanical damage is removed if it looks unnatural.

Common wisdom in this type of garden is that it requires fewer gardeners with more knowledge."

Probably in response to my mention of Piet Oudolf alone, and neglecting to credit the many planners, landscape architects, architects, lighting designers and others involved in developing the concepts and designs for the Battery, Ms. Gray concludes by describing the work that has been accomplished and the work remaining to be done.

"Renovations are only 50% complete at Battery. The Battery Conservancy and NYC Parks began rebuilding the park 14 years ago using a 1986 renovation master plan by Philip Winslow. That plan continues to be built. $80 million of work has been completed. The Gardens of Remembrance project and Bosque project were created by a team that included architects, landscape architects, lighting designers, and landscape designer Piet. Projects in development: the Bikeway that will be designed by Quenell Rothschild & Partners landscape architects, architects, lighting designers, and landscape designer Piet; a glass carousel by George Tyspin surrounded by blue gardens funded by Tiffany and designed by Piet; a park playground renovation designed by Frank Gehry with landscape architects, local architects, and landscape designer Piet; main lawn renovation and Oval green (part of Bikeway project) funded by MTA mitigating park damage during 4 years of subway construction; and the Castle Clinton renovation."

If you've visiting New York City or live there, try to get to the Battery. The gardens will have much to offer even during winter. Since the Battery is the main site for viewing the Statue of Liberty and the Harbor, it's probably on most visitors' itineraries.


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