Sunday, April 04, 2010

Garden Diary: The prairie garden in black & white

This is the garden in early spring, after all the herbaceous plants have been burned or cut down. I rendered several photographs in black and white to emphasize the underlying structure of this wet prairie garden, and to help decide what to do to add meaningful structure at such bare times of the year.

The photo above shows a  large network of intersecting lines that make the underlying structure of the garden:  three stone walls on the right and left, as well as one at the base of the bank from which the photo was taken, another major diagonal formed by the narrow pond and its visual extension in a long stone planter filled with 'cloud' box woods and Bergenia, a diagonal line of Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) along the path on the right, and an evolving 'screen' of deciduous woody shrubs at the back.

Above in close-up you can better see the screen of the shrubs. Three high-pruned Salix sachalinensis sekka (Japanese Fantail willows) appear to be small blooming trees on the right (they are not). The lack of color, even without fine resolution, clearly reveals the varied structures, shapes and textures of the shrubs. Further to the left, in the center of the photo, are two thin twigged willows (Salix koriyanagi 'Rubikins'), all verticals, with a structure that waves gracefully in the wind. Yesterday, I took long cuttings and planted them further to the left to create a screen of five evenly spaced willows. These will stand immediately in front of a line of five Arborvitae. My intention is to extend the screen with a hedge of European hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) starting a few feet beyond the Rubikins willows and continuing for ten or twelve feet. After a further space, there will be a smaller hedge perpendicular to the longer hedge.

In the photo above you can see how the hornbeam hedges will form a corner that will visually terminate the garden at the far side, creating an enclosed space that I want to enhance with a 'forest' of various hydrangeas.

Above, a view of the far 'corner' taken from a position slightly to the right reveals how the right angle of hornbeam hedges will extend the line of the distant stone wall, then turn to the right to join with the rows of shrubby greenery across the back side of the garden.

Another shift in point of view to the right, above, almost shows another focal point--one not visible in the photo: a circle of dark red painted logs. The red, unfortunately, shows as black in these photos. And below, the main path, newly paved in gravel, has become a prominent geometric feature, far more so than when covered in wood chips.

A color photo, taken in July of last summer, just to show the dramatic difference when the herbaceous vegetation is at its full.

And next two more photos ... one in black and white taken today, contrasting with a color photo from last summer, taken from approximately the same position. Here you can clearly make out the dark red circle of logs in the distance.

Here is a photo taken from the opposite end of the garden, just inside the enclosure that will be formed by the hornbeam hedges. You can clearly see on the left the slant of the land, which becomes rapidly steeper as you near the Lockatong Creek about 1200 feet below the house. The rough, stubble field will soon be invisible beneath the wet prairie of the summer of 2011.

Below the three Japanese Fantail willows clearly show their high pruning. They require rather frequent pruning down below, where new growth continues to emerge throughout the season.

A view toward the house from the far end of the garden shows the need for embellishment of the view, particularly the wooden fence leading up to the house (made necessary to prevent deer from entering the garden). Cutleaf sumac on the bank will provide some interest. I've already dug holes for two new groups of Japanese Fantail willows, which will add visual interest as well as a feeling of intimate enclosure to that garden entry point.

Note the circle of red logs on the right above, and in the center below. This metaphorical feature will be a focal point of the 'private' space that will be formed by the hornbeam hedges and the 'forest' of hydrangeas between this viewpoint and the path.


  1. James,
    I really like what you are doing. The black and white photographs illustrate your points well and the placement of your structural elements is very pleasing to the eye and will compliment your perennials as the emerge and nmature. Thanks for showing us the structure of your garden and explaining your thought process in its placement.

  2. How intriguing other people's gardens are compared to one's own patch! Thanks for explaining. What amazes me is how much you have done and yet it still feels like part of the forest. It has a fascinating atmosphere and I love the shape of that path.
    Best Wishes

  3. Michael,
    Thanks for your comment. I greatly increased the contrast in the photos (they aren't pretty pictures, for sure) to emphasize shape, structure and texture, and to minimize distractions. I get a much clearer view of what I need to do by reducing the visual elements to the minimum.

  4. Robert,
    I think to "keep out" the woods, yet to keep them "in the picture" I need to create some kind of low visual screen all around--stone walls, willows (kept relatively small by coppicing), any other living or otherwise structure that marks the garden boundary at a low level (say, to six or eight feet), yet lets the woods be what they are. Regardless, they will loom above all, but the low boundary gives a feeling of enclosure and some comfort against the unknown.

  5. I quite like the sound of these hedge plans, James Golden. It sounds like it might feel a bit like the 'dragon back' hedge in Oudolf's Hummelo garden, yes? I've been wanting to try out something similar for awhile but haven't found the right space or opportunity yet. But now I can experiment vicariously. Thanks much.

    Can I make an annoying and somewhat expensive suggestion? It seems to me that the raised boxwood/bergenia bed wants to be repeated somewhere - have you thought about making another one further along in a slightly different shape?

  6. Peter Holt -
    You are right, and I already have been thinking of repeating the raised boxwood/bergenia bed. But the labor involved (many plants will most probably have to be moved where the bed goes, and others to open the view so you can see it when the garden has grown up), and the cost have kept me from thinking much about it. I'm still working on the never-ending project to lay gravel on all the paths (only about half way through that). But it gives me hope that the same idea occurred to you, and I'll probably try to do it. Where would you suggest I put it. I assume in a place that continues the diagonal line across I've already started.

    The bergenias look great with the box this spring. Need more and they're hard to find around here. One of my favorite plants. I don't understand why they're not more popular.

    The hedges. Yes. I hope they live in my conditions. It will be many years before I have to think about the "dragon back" top. I do need to clean up those messy cedars behind so you'll be able to see them.

  7. Oh this is fascinating James. I love to see what you are thinking and what it looks like without the fountains of planting. I am trying to post a photo of various sections of my garden at the end of every month which I hope will help me similarly to see what is working and what is not. I like your willows. I don't think my soil is damp enough for them and wonder if I could get something of the same effect with some fairly tough dogwoods. I will have to investigate.

  8. I love the drive of gardeners to constantly analyze our work, always thinking of the next changes and improvements. I really like the Japanese Fantail willows, they look perfect for creating the type of partially enclosed feeling you describe. By the way, have you read Rick Darke's The American Woodland Garden?

  9. elizabethm,
    It takes a little courage to show the garden, full view so to speak, at this time of year, but it's certainly revealing of organization and structure. Your garden is in a high place, so I assume you have impeccable drainage. I have the opposite situation, areas so wet they turn anaerobic at times. So I use willows by necessity, though I was inspired by Ton ter Linden's use of willows in a wetland garden he designed. Interesting idea to do a post with photos as a record at the end of each month.

  10. Garden Wanderer,
    Yes. I've read Rick Darke's The American Woodland Garden, probably several times. He's a tremendous writer, very knowledgeable, a great photographer. One of the real stars among American garden writers, though I believe he would define his area of interest much more broadly than gardening alone. The Japanese Fantail willows have just come into their own this year, having gained enough height to make a statement. They have height, but with a lot of openness. I'm not sure how best to handle pruning to keep this effect, but I'll work it out over time.

  11. Did you ever use Havahart's Deer Off to keep the deer away? My neighbor says it works great. He says it doesn't smell at all once it dries and he hardly has to apply it. He said it’s more powerful than liquid fence.



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