Sunday, November 22, 2009

House and Garden in Delta

Making a garden "in tune with nature" means simply planting appropriate to place. But place can mean more than the physical environment. Consideration of metaphorical associations with history, geology, and culture add depth and richness to the experience of the garden. Place can be much broader than immediate physical surrounding; it can encompass a whole geographic region - even the entire earth - or the universe. Only consider the importance of astronomical observation among various cultures throughout history, or the many connections between gardens, theology, and spirituality.

This is my garden viewed from the narrow area at the side of the house where overland flow of storm water builds into a flood before opening into what I call the "delta." It's a metaphorical delta. The river of water flows down from above, gains speed and deepens as it rounds the house, then breaks out into the wide area of the garden, very much like a physical model of a river delta. Perhaps I push the metaphor a little too far, but there are physical similarities between the hydrology of my garden and a river delta.

Phil and I just returned from visiting my sister and her family in Mississippi for the Thanksgiving holidays. One day, we drove into the Mississippi Delta, a unique physiographic province of extraordinarily flat land that used to be annually flooded by Old Man River. The satellite photo below shows just how distinctive the Delta is from the surrounding land. Starting at the Mississippi River, the tangle of curves and curlicues on the left, the Mississippi Delta is clearly demarked by the light shade of green, which ends abruptly at the darker green mass on the right where the hills begin. In many areas, this change is quite abrupt and dramatic. As you move from the hills into the Delta, the roads drop quickly down sixty or seventy feet, into absolutely flat land for as far as the eye can see. This land was flooded annually for thousands of years, and that ancient sign is still easy to see from above.

Since the 1930s the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has decided it can control nature and hold the river in with levees. Everyone now knows that this process is doing irreparable environmental damage, causing the southern coast of Louisiana to disappear under the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and eliminating the wetlands that could help protect such cities as New Orleans from future weather-borne disasters. The river rises higher each year, the levees are built higher to contain it, and eventually the process will become unmanageable. The river will break through and all will be changed, at great cost - environmental, human, and financial.

Unlike the Mississippi Delta, my garden delta has no such grand implications for the future. Or does it? Water defines both, and its use or misuse is a subject of some interest, at least to me.

In my simulacrum of a delta, I garden in tune with nature. The plants that grow in the garden are well adapted to the saturated, heavy clay soil, frequent inundations during heavy rains, and standing water. Normally such conditions would create perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes, but the huge frog population eliminates that nuisance. There simply are no mosquitoes. Going with the flow, accepting existing environmental conditions, keeps nature in balance.

On a less practical, more aesthetic level, the garden complements the natural woodland environment surrounding it as well as the understated design of the house - its low profile, gray-brown tones, wooden construction, transparent glass, and massive native stone chimney towering into the trees. The house has low visual impact because the architect, William Hunt, designed his houses to blend into their environments, using natural materials and minimal ornament, and lots of glass to bring nature inside.

Out here, the sky is an important part of nature, and of the garden. Designed to complement its surroundings, the house is situated high, on a small man-made hill, where it is protected from the water and damp below, all the better to catch the light from the sky. In mornings and early evenings, it's flooded with natural light, as well as warmth from the direct rays of the sun.

Above, a piece of sky, with a Red Maple, and giant miscanthus (Miscanthus giganteus) in plumy splendor. Who is to say my garden ends at its physical borders or in this time? In my mind, it encompasses the distant Mississippi Delta, the farmers and millers who lived and worked these hills in the 18th century, the native Americans who looked up into this sky over thousands of years, the inexorable geological processes that formed these hills, these rocks, this clay.

(Delta photo courtesy Google Earth)


  1. I live quite close to the Sacramento Delta, which has all sorts of environmental issues comparable to the Mississippi. 'Delta' as a concept doesn't really seem to have much appeal to people around here in terms of their yards or gardens, even for the people who like to spend time out on the water. The neighborhoods generally don't do much to embrace their location and few of the plants are considered garden worthy, unfortunately. Not yet enough people calling their garden space a delta, I guess.

  2. ryan,
    I'd say most of residential America doesn't embrace location or landscape at all. Our housing developments focus only on the practical--cost per square foot, building houses that don't differ too much from the standard model, making lawns that waste water and pollute, in most cases lawns that are entirely inappropriate to the natural landscape, especially in the West.

  3. In our own backyards (so to speak)...I lived in the Delaware Water Gap inthe 70s when the Corps of Engineers was still trying to figure out how to dam the river and make a recreational lake out of the 55,000 acres they had just comandeered. If a single engineer had taken time to observe the river they would have come to the conclusion much sooner that its central current was so swift that any attempt to stop it would rapidly fill with silt. Likewise, the Hackensack River is now a brackish meadowland due to man's co-opting of the land for farming and later dumping. We have to learn once again to place value on the land instead of treating it like another consumer product to be used up and thrown away.

  4. Susan,
    Our institutions are developed with a purpose, but their roles often grow just because the institutions take on a life of their own and outgrow the scope of their original founding principals. The Corps of Engineers is one example. Locally, we have the Hunterdon County Department of Roads and Bridges. This arm of the County government appears to be dedicated to destroying all vestiges of the remaining rural character in parts of Hunterdon. Over the objections of residents of Sergeantsville, they widened the main road through the hamlet and cut down most of the trees lining the roadway. They want to do away with our 18th century stone arch bridges and replace them with modern structures, and they want to widen roadways to accommodate more and more traffic. I wonder if this is just capitalism at work, or something more insidious. Land, and everything else in our out-of-control capitalistic system, is just another commodity.

  5. I spend all my time thinking about how to garden on a steep valley side in a couple of acres surrounding a sixteenth century farmhouse which remains very close to the building as built. Half a mile away runs a ridge on which are bronze and iron age hillforts. It seems to me absolutely vital that anything I do fits the place, not just its thin and stony soil but the spirit of the place. Fascinating blog, thank you.

  6. elizabethm,
    What a good feeling to read this from you. Thank you. Though we garden in vastly different places, we care about similar things. And if you and I do, there are surely others who do too.

  7. I believe the Army Corps' attempts to tame and shape the Mississippi will be written into future history texts as one of man's greatest follies. I'd like to think that gardener's find it easier to keep the big picture in mind while they play in the dirt.

  8. Les,
    The way you say it - in your tight, aphoristic style - makes me want to think it's true. IThe way you put it, it just sounds true. The gardeners may keep the big picture in mind, but what about the home owners who spend billions on lawn chemicals, lawn "care" services, who support a huge industry devoted to creating what are essentially green deserts across the continent?

  9. I don't think most gardeners are green, or benign, gardeners. I've not been in this the long haul, but most gardeners are not serious / zealous gardeners. I'm talking in too many generalities I know. So, let's say "most" gardeners like to keep the shrub borders and roses looking nice, putz several times a week, add some petunias. What are they planting? Where? Example: most houses in my neighborhood have grass, and that's it. A few have some foundation beds. One across the street has some awful beds, along with some sickly looking things mulched with white rock going down the length of the driveway. They putz in this junk all the time. It looks worse than just lawn. And if I got close, I'd bet they are plants that native insects and birds ignore, and that are babied with fertilizer to stay alive. This is "most" gardeners in my mind, and that doesn't make them bad or evil like ChemLawn or whatever they are called now, but it doesn't make them any better than the Army Corps of Godgineers either. What's my point.... gardeners are not "gardeners," and are as flakey and fickle and perhaps narrow-minded as the large social organisms in our society.

  10. Benjamin,

    In the US certainly most aren't. But the only hope is that education and growth of right knowledge will change things. I too don't see many reasons to be optimistic.

  11. I agree with what you say. There's work to be done, on myself included.
    One of the native nurseries here sells leftover plants from their restoration work, and I have to say it takes me work to embrace their plants when they are doing marsh restoration and their plant list is mostly march plants. The native delta sunflower is the prettiest, but most of the of the common names have 'weed' in them, and they can be a bit scary to let loose in someone's yard. Beautiful when there's a big expanse to look out over, but tough to make 'pretty' without borrowed scenery. I find a lot the east coast clay/delta plants to be quite nice, but I'm still working on loving all the ones native to my area. I'm pessimistic about our clients ever embracing them, though I try not to blame for that.

  12. Ryan,
    I'm glad to hear from a "fellow traveler" so to speak. I don't know your environment or its native plants at all. I do use natives, but also many other plants from other parts of the world if they suit my conditions. Miscanthus, for example, adapts to my wet clay extraordinarily well.



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