Thursday, September 23, 2010


This first day of autumn the tall trees surrounding the garden cast deep shadows. A morning walk is a study in dark and light, a good time for looking about. It's virtually impossible to capture these extremes of lighting in photographs, but just sitting in the shade looking out into the sunlit garden can be quite pleasant, as can strolling through dappled shade.The contrast of dark and light is what makes the garden special at this time of day. So this is the compromise--slightly overexposed photos with bleached colors. You, dear reader, will have to use your imagination.

Here, the first picture shows the space and broad view of the garden. This is hard to do successfully, as you've probably noticed if you spend much time reading garden blogs. Most only give you small pictures of single plantings, or limited vignettes, rarely the big picture.So take a look at the dramatic contrast between light and dark. Yes, I'm striving for a kind of drama in the garden, a stage set with creative lighting (supplied by the sun alone) and theatrical scrims made of vegetable matter.

Landscape or garden? Both, really. These views show the lay of the land, or rather the undulations of the vegetative growth of this season, as the perennials have reached their peak and begun the time of slow decline, losing chlorophyll, just starting to show their flashes of color. We aren't there yet, but the fading greens and shift toward yellow, red and gold is beginning to be apparent.

It's a good time, too, to see how shapes work in the landscape. The spear-like foliage in the foreground below starts a rhythm echoed by the finer grasses behind, the Arborvitae, and in the distance the tall Junipers and a single Blue spruce. Next year I'll add more Japanese and Siberian irises, which hold their form well, and late, and give thought to ways to repeat these patterns across the garden.

As has been done here, in the offset line of Arborvitae ...

Hard to tell in the view below, but the bank rising to the house remains a problem, still unfinished after five years. The right end in almost full sun is planted mainly with Miscanthus gracillimus (some are the real thing; others seed-grown unknowns sold as gracillimus; caveat emptor!), which have done well and make a pleasing cloud-like picture. The opposite end, in the dry shade of three large sycamores immediately adjacent to the house, is less amenable to easy solutions. I want a mass of hydrangeas, and will continue to attempt that next year. A rainy spring and summer would help.Those I've put in are languishing.

For late color and longer interest, I've added several Lespedezas; these are in their first year, and I expect them to grow much larger and flower more profusely in years to come. I'll probably add one or two more, scattered among the Miscanthus, to get a bank of September color. I stole this plant idea from Bruce's garden at Paxson Hill Farm (thanks, Bruce) and from a magnificent specimen at Chanticleer.

Here they make a channel of color running up to the four Adirondack chairs on the terrace.

Details out in the garden--here, Sanguisorbas on the long path across the garden ... 

 ... Pycnanthemum muticum (Mountain mint) in its late summer silver with Arborvitae ...

Vernonia altissima 'Jonesboro Giant' in flower (though not as tall as last year because of drought), Rudbeckia maxima seed heads and foliage at its feet, and just a glimpse of Miscanthus purpurescens on the left ...

Here the Miscanthus purpurescens with species Veronicastrum  and increasingly  ubiquitous Rudbeckia maxima (it's become a theme plant) ...

Massed Miscanthus 'Silberfeder' and Pycnanthemum muticum in shade on the left, and on the right the new back area under development. The newly planted Hornbeam hedge will form a right angle behind the bench in the distance ...

... and that same planting of Miscanthus 'Silberfeder', Pycnanthemum muticum, and Petasites seen from the back of the garden, looking in the direction of the house (which is obscured by the plants) ...

After several tries, asters are establishing. I want more, and have several in a holding bed beside the house. If we have a break in the heat, I'll plant them out in the garden later in the fall ...

That same community of Miscanthus purpurescens shown above, here from the opposite side, where it adjoins the newly paved sitting area; this is one of my favorite grasses. I hope to find a way to darken the concrete pavers and gravel quickly, perhaps using a nutrient solution to encourage algae growth in the cooling days of fall. Or maybe I'll just smear them with mud over winter.

Another Miscanthus purpurescens surrounded by asters and Pycnanthemum muticum ...

... and a second view in the same direction, showing the circle of red walnut logs marking the eastern limit of the garden ...

... a fortuitous combination of Pycnanthemum and Siberian iris ...

... and Calico aster (Aster longifolius), a native, which grows everywhere I don't pull it out ...

... a view from the bench, which was shown above, toward the circle of logs ... more hydrangeas are going in here. So far 'Limelight' appears to be the most successful in this difficult area. The view of the unattractive fence in the back left will be blocked by Japanese Fantail willow (Salix sachalinensis 'Sekka') and Miscanthus giganteus.

Looking back into the garden from the easternmost path--asters, Miscanthus purpurescens again, Rudbeckia maxima, drying Joe Pye Weed, bracken ... from this direction, the plants are backlit, glowing with refracted light of the sun.

Marc Rosenquist's sculpture surrounded by various asters, Eupatorium coelestinum, Chelone 'Hot Lips' and big leaved Rudbeckia maxima, Silphium perfoliatum, and Inula 'Sonnenspeer' in the background, all backlit by sunlight in a striking way.

Here the colors of fall have really begun. Two bunches of Panicum 'Shenandoah', another of my favorites, showing streaks of red, to either side of a Viburnum plicatum (a small tree I cut down when we cleared the land; now I recognize its beauty and utility as it's coming back). The red plant at the front is Seedbox (Ludwigia alternatolia), a native I'm encouraging wherever it chooses to grow.

Behind in the darkening shadows are many Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' in their subtle autumn colors and spires of (you should have guessed it) Rudbeckia maxima.

So the decrescendo of summer, as the flowers lessen and colors fade, becomes a crescendo to an autumn to be closely watched, if I can judge from the past three years. I have to remember this was a summer of severe drought. I don't know what will happen. The uncertainty of the garden year remains, and that's not bad.


  1. I love this post...such a great pictorial opener to the Autumn Season. I'm in love with your Miscanthus Purpurescens...I hope to have a nice clump of them someday :-) Everything is looking wonderful, so full and vibrant. The vernonia, the rudbeckia, the sanguisorbia, all look great. I really dig that sculpture, it fits so well in the garden. I'm envious of all your could literally take a picture of my ENTIRE garden in one shot ;-) Keep up the amazing job, it's an inspiration to the rest of us!

  2. James, have you thought of incorporating Cotoneaster lucidus as a feature shrub into your landscape? I thought of it as a counter-point to the plants you have chosen with a more diaphanous presence, most obviously the grasses and other finely textured perennials. It has such clean, dark green foliage with drop-dead gorgeous fall colour. As you know, most people grow it as a hedge but I've always thought if I had a large property, I'd allow it to be a specimen and grow naturally.

    Also, since the Sweet Autumn clematis is now in glorious flower, I wondered if you might plant one of these and allow it to tumble over your beautiful stone wall? I saw it planted as more of a groundcover years ago at the NYBG and it was stunning!

    Sorry to be such an armchair designer! Despite the bright light, your pictures remain glorious. Those Lespedezas are indeed striking in the fall landscape.

  3. Scott, my first garden was a 16 by 20 foot postage stamp behind our first brownstone in Brooklyn. Let's see--that was my only garden for 20 years, when we finally bought a house in the country. When I look at this post, I feel almost blinded by the overexposed photos. Really wish I could master a way to better capture the experience of the garden. Thanks for the compliments. I'll try to see it from your perspective.

  4. James,
    You are way to critical of your photography! As always, you did a wonderful job of capturing the overall feel of your garden/landscape with nice close up shots of some interesting plants. You use Pycnantheum muticum a lot. I have been experimenting with it ever since I saw it in an upstate garden influenced by Wolfgang Oehme. Thomas as Grounded Design ( a well done blog by the way) says that Mountain Mint is his "go to" plant for difficult situations. I am planting in all my tough places in the public gardens here in Peterborough. Did it handle this years drought well? He seems to think it will do well in full sun and part shade situations. What has been your experience? Thanks!

  5. It is nice to see that your garden is settling into autumn so well. I notice that some of the trees are getting a little burnishment. I hope that is due to the season and not the drought, perhaps some of each. I think the Lespedeza will be a perfect fit for your garden and wish I had room for some. I give my parents plants I have no room for, but really want to grow, so they have it.

  6. Ailsa, I thank you for your suggestions. I love the idea of using Cotoneaster lucidus, but what I read about it says it wants loose, well drained soil, something I can't give it. However, at your suggestion, I'll be on the lookout for a specimen. I may have a few more well drained areas (above the septic drainage field) where it might survive. I love the idea of growing Sweet Autumn Clematis on a stone wall, so much, in fact, that I'll even attempt to adjust the soil and drainage. Unfortunately, I've already tried it on the deer exclusion fence, where it died in the first year (I have very wet, saturated heavy clay, especially through winter). But some of the stone walls are in areas with better drainage, do I'll give that a try. Thanks for that suggestion. I've also thought of using Clematis x jouiniana 'Praecox' as a groundcover on the bank. Piet Oudolf used it very successfully as groundcover in the Battery Bosque Garden in Manhattan.

  7. Michael, Pycnanthemum muticum is a wonderful, beautiful, easy, and very adaptable plant. I grow it in areas that are totally saturated through winter, in full sun, in partial shade, and even on an extremely well drained bank. It thrives everywhere. It's at its best planted en masse, so you get a broad swath of that striking silver color in late summer. It spreads easily, as you'd think since it's in the mint family but, at least in my environment, it hasn't been at all invasive. If it is, you can use Henk Gerritsen's "weeding like a cow" technique to easily keep it within bounds. I have a lot, and I want more. And, yes, it handled the drought very well, with hardly any signs of stress.

  8. Les,
    Some of the trees in the surrounding landscape have all dead, brown leaves, so the drought has gotten them. There will be much lessened fall color. But the trees around my garden seem to be doing better. The stress of drought has caused some to turn early, but I think everything will recover if we get substantial rain this fall. Fingers crossed. I don't know if you remember Bruce's garden at Paxson Hill Farm. His Lespedezas have gotten huge.

  9. Your garden is my inspiration, James. You are growing the plants I wish to grow, in the proper space and conditions, which I don't have but cheat as best as possible. I love seeing the R. maxima with the tall Vernonia, a perfect combination. Thanks! :-)

  10. Fall in your garden... how totally, Golden! I'll be back at this entry for days like it's a watering hole in a desert (being a designer but not an owner of a garden at the moment). I'm going to head over to Blodel Reserve this weekend to satisfy a craving that you've helped to kick into effect here. Big spaces and long walks... This blog is delicious food for thought James.

  11. Frances,
    Thanks so much for the kind compliments. But do remember this is not a "proper place" at all. Nine months of the year it's heavy, wet clay, with a water table at or near the surface, cold early in fall and late in spring. But I go with the flow.

  12. Sara,
    Glad you visited. I've never been to the Blodel Reserve, and wish I could go with you. Last time I was in Seattle was just after 9/11--we were stranded there for a few days as a matter of fact, but I still love the Pacific Northwest.

  13. This must be the sixth or seventh time I've re-visited this post. I guess your garden's peaking now. Just wonderful. It's the Miscanthus that really floats my boat.

    Enjoy your piece of paradise James, I know I am

  14. Rob,
    I feel honored by your return visits. I, of course, am extremely envious of your beautiful place in the Dordogne. Miscanthus floats my boat too. Such a beautiful vase shape (some of them), and with the fireworks at the end of the season.



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