Friday, April 23, 2010

Garden Diary: Greening, and plans for the season

Nearing the end of April green is becoming the predominant color in the garden, finally beginning to cover the stubble left from burning and cutting last year's growth. The benefit of leaving the dried detritus of winter will, eventually, be a higher organic content in this mineral, heavy clay soil. It's messy to look at, but once the greening begins, it gradually disappears.

The woodland entrance to the garden above has been waiting for five years now. I've been focusing on development of the wet prairie garden beyond, the stone walls, most recently replacing the wood chip paths with gravel (the one on the left will be graveled this weekend). Other than a few scattered ferns and carex around the edges, this area awaits its future. I still don't know what it wants to be. Should I block the view beyond with taller woodies--willows perhaps, for coppicing? I do intend to extend the mass planting of Petasites in the middle distance back into the grassy area in the foreground, and to add Senecio aureus to start an early spring community when the plants arrive over the next few days.

To the left are the rough stone steps (Argilite, native to the property) up to the raised terrace area at the back (front?) of the house. Perhaps I should explain. The back of our house is the front, fully windowed, opening to the garden. What Americans call the traditional front (facing the road) is a rather blank slate. The house turns its back to the public eye. The internal life of the house, and most of the garden is hidden.

Amazing that this crab apple was planted in the late 1960's. It remains healthy and blooms profusely each spring. Its semi-weeping habit makes a pleasing veil through which to view the more distant garden.

The sitting area on the old bluestone terrace is surrounded by casual plantings. I do intend to add a slightly formal element with simple lines of boxwood outlining a small part of the stone perimeter, and underplanted with Bergenia. The aim will be to emphasize the linearity of the terraced area seen from the distance, and to add a contrast to the informal plantings all around. As time permits, I'm also adding plantings to obscure the view of the garden below, to entice visitors to venture out, and to add a sense of mystery.

In the far left center, above, behind the large maple, I've planted a Hornbeam hedge. It went in only last weekend, so I don't expect to see my eight-foot barrier for quite a few years. When it matures it will screen an unattractive stretch of deer fencing, forming one of several offset "layers" of vegetation.

In the middle right of the photo is a linear stone planting area, which you can see in the closeup below, filled with box and Bergenia. This stone structure echos and visually extends a linear pond off to the right. Another project I hope to complete this year was the idea of my friend, garden designer Peter Holt. Peter suggested I extend the visual line created by long pond and long planter, by adding a second raised stone planter across the path, carrying the eye back toward the large maple and new Hornbeam hedge.

This structural feature is much more effective when the garden is flat, as it is now and in late winter, and will add considerably to the garden's central structure, which strongly echos the drainage pattern across this wet land. The flow of water across this land dictates much of the garden's shape, character, and plantings.

Said planter with box and Bergenia ...

and the infant Hornbeam hedge ...

Taking the path back across the garden, you can see what I mean about drainage. Note the very sharp slope of the land to the left. Immense amounts of water flow across this area during heavy rains, and for hours afterward.

And at the far side (below), a different kind of hedge, just planted, of Alder (Alnus gultinosa), which I will keep cut in a version of a Piet Oudolf-inspired camelback hedge, also to hide the unsightly deer fencing. But more importantly, to create a human-scale edging of shrubby materials that emotionally distance the tall surrounding forest and help familiarize the garden space.

Below, a sure sign of wetness:  Petasites hybridus x 'Dutch' in bloom across the path from the Alder.

And Darmera peltata in bloom, another lover of the wet ...


  1. What a beautiful property you have -- I enjoyed my stroll very much. I'd love to pause at the chairs on your bluestone terrace and just drink it all in. I enjoyed reading about your plans which are inspirational, to say the least.

  2. Fascinating to see it all in a different season.
    It strikes me as a challenging garden to maintain, but I am sensing your in-tuneness with the how to do it and also what the place asks of you design wise.
    Darmera I love and grow.
    Petasites: I have managed to exterminate hybridus and am on the way to that with fragrans!
    Loved heron post - magical creature.

  3. I love to see such large scale, long term plans. I have just started a few at my garden (my favourite a pleached linden hedge), and I admire you for taking these projects on.

  4. Nancy,
    I welcome you to stop by, sit and talk any time you're in this area. I like to hear others' ideas.

  5. Robert,
    It IS challenging now, but my expectation is that, once the hard structures are finished, the plantings will have a certain level of self-sustainability. My conditions are so challenging--heavy clay, high water table, actually at the surface part of the year--I must select plants carefully, usually plants known for growing in very damp, heavy soil--plants that are highly aggressive in other conditions. My garden tames them. I know the reputation of Petasites, but frankly it's not the monster here. It's spread is quite slow and easily controllable. And there are surprises. Rudbeckia maxima, for example, comes from relatively dry habitat in Arkansas and Texas, but thrives in my heavy, wet clay. Apart from my "construction" projects, maintenance is actually minimal. One selective cutting with a weed trimmer in late summer, mostly to eliminate the horrid Japanese stilt grass (Microstegium vimenium), in my attempt to stop its seeding and eventually eliminate it, and the late winter/early spring burn and clear cutting. That's about it.

  6. Deborah,
    Large-scale, long-term projects, indeed! I have to admit I want the large projects to be done. This started five years ago when my "garden" was a cedar forest. We cut down 60 or 70 large trees, mostly weed cedars, and it took two years before the garden began to emerge from the former wild woods. I didn't particularly want this challenge, but it was there, and I chose a naturalistic route appropriate to the modernistic house and wild site. My former garden was much more conventional, a version of the cottage garden.

  7. Your garden is really looking beautiful! I love the petasites and the darmera...those plants are both new to me.

  8. I am envious of your gardening opportunities. Here I am at the point of taking things out or moving.

  9. Phillip,
    Beware petasites. In most environments it's extremely invasive, almost uncontrollable. Not so in mine, fortunately.

  10. Les, I'm beginning to long for a small city garden, about 20 by 60 would do. The grass is always greener ...

  11. I look forward to seeing your plantings mature and your season progressing. The hornbeams in front of the deer fencing should make a big difference. When I was visiting Newport, RI a couple years ago I was struck by how many of the landmark coastal mansions had generic chain link or wire fencing, only the fence was obscured by hedgework of various forms.

  12. James,
    Yes, our deer cause all sorts of problems and the solutions to deer browsing are few, and usually unattractive. But I've learned something new by starting this project to gradually obscure the deer fencing. The woods come right up to the garden clearing, rather ominously looming over all. The dramatic change in vertical scale from woods to garden is disconcerting, creating rather powerful emotional resonances (often a feeling of threat). Adding this lower layer of vegetation around the perimeter of the garden clearing is creating a "home" feeling of enclosure and protection. These comments deserve more thought; it's difficult to articulate precisely the change that seems to be occurring.



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