Thursday, September 16, 2010

Rusty browns, spots of color, waving fans

"You should see his garden. Well, it’s not really a garden. There are all of these plants, and he’s built paths so you can walk around and see everything.” That’s what he said, or words to that effect.

This was a house guest last weekend, talking about my garden to his friends. At first I felt a little miffed …(yet another person who defines a garden in such a traditional way, he doesn’t see my garden as a garden), but I quickly got over that. Later that afternoon, I asked him about the remark, really out of simple curiosity. I don’t believe I ever succeeded in convincing him that I wasn’t offended, that I only wanted to know what he meant. After several starts and stops, I came to understand that he sees a garden as a clearly delineated space, usually not a very large space, with plantings that are regular, possibly patterned, certainly discernibly structured--a space existing in visible isolation from its surroundings, perhaps surrounded by a fence or a wall. Perhaps something with a more traditional, gardenesque selection of plants--dahlias, roses, mums, for example. He would probably be very comfortable in the Medieval garden, the hortus conclusus, at the Cloisters museum in upper Manhattan. I would too. I love that garden, but that’s not what would suit my modernist house in the woods of western New Jersey.

My garden’s lack of clearly demarcated boundaries, large size, and amorphous shape left him a little uncertain, perhaps uneasy too. After I pressed him, he told me my garden was more a “landscape” because it was so large, so naturalistic in contrast to his usual sense of garden. I can’t say I disagree, though I do think it’s still a garden. To use an analogy, mine is more a Richard Strauss tone poem than a J. S. Bach fugue.

There is pattern and order, order emerging from what could have been disorder, in my garden. In the photograph at the top of this post, particularly if you look at it as a two-dimensional picture, you can see repeated fan shapes, repeated patterns almost like layers of scenery on a stage. The Japanese fantail willow at the background sets the motive, a fan shape repeated by the massed grasses, Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and, in the foreground, Miscanthus and Lespedeza, all fan shapes in this two dimensional view ... Of course, the wind blows, the rain falls, and patterns disappear, others appear ...

Order too, in placement of plants, not at regular intervals, but to create groupings, communities of plants of the same kind, to echo shapes, to achieve an aesthetically pleasing distribution of forms, textures, colors.

So, as to what was visible last weekend ... here are two prominent natives in this area, Boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum) and Wool grass (Scirpus cyperinus) ...

... bold textures of  large, brassy foliage (below), Viburnum mariesii, Joe Pye Weed, Filipendula rubra, contrasting with whisps of Panicum 'Shenandoah' and more Boneset seeding around, the Boneset a reminder of the importance of chance in this garden; if it works, keep it, if not, move it or just pull it out.

I'm sure elizabethm at Welsh Hills Again would see this as a mess; I like her blog, but she doesn't like prairie gardens. At this small scale, not being able to focus in on the detail, I have to say it appears to be. But if you're in the garden, you can see more detail, and more subtle variations in texture and color, perceive movement, the force of air stirring emotion.

One way to sort it out visually:  look at detail and throw the background out of focus. Here Sanguisorba tenuifolia ...

 ... silken flowers of early blooming Miscanthus ...

... bruised blues and purples of Lespedeza thunbergii 'Gibraltar' planted last fall ...

... mounding miscanthus and Patrinia scabiosifolia on the terrace overlooking the garden, and purposely blocking the view ...

... I suppose this is that jumble time of year ... everything growing to the max ... with a few cones of Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) holding the line, so to speak ...

... then suddenly, looking at the ancient crab apple (it must be over 40 years old) I'm into fall. Clearly this is a sign the year is nearing its end.


  1. The trouble with gardens that are clearly demarcated, is they set up a polarity between the inside/acceptable and the outside/unacceptable. Nature uncontrolled is somehow thus relegated as inferior. To me, however, nature's a far superior gardener than I am. I'm with you James, a garden's better when it breathes easy than when it's gasping for breath.

  2. Hi James,

    I happened by chance and tiptoed on your blog, which I find really wonderful for pictures and descriptions.
    I also tried the option to put as a supporter, but I see that is not intended in that sense, so, to keep me updated I put the link on our blog.
    I admired the photos in previous post as in a dream, the dream of my ideal garden without borders and limits, which are free to interpret the various areas of the garden, creating wonderful borders as you did.
    You are very great and the story you do of your garden reflects the love and passion you have for gardening.
    You really kind of amazing and interesting, many others I have known for some time astonished. As the lespedeza thunbergii 'Gibraltar' which I enchanted at first sight and it was love at once. I absolutely look to be able to plant in my garden, hoping to look like a pinch to your artwork. Thanks for sharing pictures and thoughts with us! :)

  3. That is something I hear all too often, although not so much here, in Portland. I'm glad my neighborhood (and city) are pretty liberal about what people do in their yards and most just seem grateful that it isn't another lawn! I love your garden, but then again, it's totally my style. Maybe it was growing up in the Midwest, but I really love the prarie-style gardens...there is so much scope for the imagination with all those big, rambunctious plants. I think it is harder for some to appreciate their, at times, understated beauty. I think the praire-style garden is one of the hardest forms to pull off successfully, you have to really walk the line between totally out-of-control and too essence, you sort of have to encourage a "controlled chaos"! All that aside, your garden is beautiful and you should be proud.

  4. Faisal, may I quote you? "A garden's better when it breathes easy than when it's gasping for breath." I like your way with words.

  5. Tyziana,
    Thank you for your sweet and kind comments. I find it rather amazing that we gardeners can so easily communicate across oceans. I too love the Lespediza 'Gibraltar' which I first saw in full bloom in at Chanticleer, a beautiful garden near Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was totally covered in blossom. I hope some day mine will be like that. I wish I could read Italian so I could better understand your blog.

  6. Scott,
    I agree the prairie style is a difficult to acquire taste for some. For me, it was immediate love, starting with my discovery of plant photo books by Piet Oudolf, Henk Gerritsen, and Michael King (Designing with Plants, Dream Plants for the Natural Garden, Gardening with Grasses) back in the early 2000s, about ten years ago. Interesting that my interest in that style found its start with Europeans! But they have made so many of our wildflowers and grasses into proper garden plants, or rather given is the eyes to see them. I read on your blog about the heavy rain that flattened much of your garden. I'm afraid, with the lack of rain all summer, I'm in for the same when we finally get our first large "precipitation event." I appreciate your comments. Thanks.

  7. Maybe your garden needs a touch of whimsey, a gnome, a seahorse birdbath or perhaps one of those flags with pumpkins on it for the fall. Maybe then it will be more recognizable as a real garden.

    Or you could enjoy it as the fabulous garden you created, fitting so well into its setting and with the house, and don't think twice if some people "don't get it".

  8. Love this post. There's room enough in the world for gardens of all types: formal,informal, prairie, woodland, mountain, rock, seaside, farm...

  9. HAHA...Reminds me of the comments (in print) certain writers made about my place...Stuff like "At first glance it all looks somewhat untidy". I could only laugh at such 'perceptions'.... BUT it is quite correct in a certain way! I have endeavored to create a looseness within 'control'.The tension between 'formal und informal' is the name of the game..not as easy as it sounds! When I create a new planting or design element I like to put all the idea in place (the perfection) and then remove some of it (the imperfection). Its a lesson learnt from observing 'natural' (if that is at all possible) equations in the wild and also the almost always charming effect of abandoned old gardens..What was it Ian Hamilton Finlay wrote..."Todays order is tomorrows disorder" ..I have fast tracked tomorrow because I am too impatient!!

  10. Les,
    I do agree with you, BUT I do wish we lived in a culture more educated about gardens, far more than that really--a culture that valued gardens as more than ornament, entertainment, or a pleasant place for an outdoor barbecue--as made places imbued with significant value, as "spaces" for all kinds of things, from the ridiculous to the sublime. Gardens have in other places and other times had such importance. Excuse me; I'll get down from my soap box now.

    You are one of the few people who has remarked on this garden being appropriate to the house that overlooks it. That was, in fact, my starting point. It's always surprised me how few people notice that, or think it's important enough to mention. I guess I want to encourage conversation about my garden and gardens in general. We all tend to be too polite.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  11. Susan,
    I value your opinion on just about anything you write about, from woodworking to prairies, and especially your love of your unique landscape in that hot, dry part of Texas. Thanks.

  12. William Martin,
    Yes, I've read some of those comments, as well as lots of praise for your garden Wigandia. Interesting how similar motivations, on different sides of the earth, produce such vastly different gardens--interesting, but not surprising. Like you, I aspire to something of the atmosphere of the abandoned garden, as well as the feeling of the old cemeteries I grew up playing in as a boy in Mississippi.

  13. James,

    Great post and comments. What you have created is certainly a garden in my book. There are so many different ways we can interpret our own plots. I think what we end up doing in our gardens says a lot about each of us. Personally, I get a vicarious thrill watching and listening to you talk about your garden. It is a garden style that I am infatuated with but doesn't seem to be feel right in my "place". I appreciate your knowledge and understanding of all sorts of gardens. I also get frustrated by the general public's impression that gardening, in its best form, is anything less than I fine art.

  14. Michael,
    I certainly agree that our gardens say a lot about each of us. It has been pointed out that my garden is a dramatic contrast with my personality. I grew up as a painfully shy boy and, though I've learned to adapt to the social world, still remain a quite, reticent, still shy and retiring person. My garden, in contrast, is full of larger than life, exuberant plantings, full of drama and, at times fireworks. So I guess I can express some feelings there that I'm not comfortable with in the social world of interpersonal relations. It's much more than that, of course. I envy your garden, and wish there were time in life to have many different gardens. I'd love something more formal, working within the constraints of a more formal historic site, perhaps a pre-revolutionary stone house with 18th century landscape bones.

  15. The thousands of sunflowers my city mows down on highway edges and in cloverleaf ravines area garden to me, and the insects taht feast on them this time of year. But to passing motorists, I'm sure it's all weeds, and to NeDOT, it's a hazard--yeah, that sunflwoer 50 feet from the road may block that semi truck merging on.

  16. Fortunately, NYCDOT can't afford the level of maintenance needed to cut down the sunflowers, so many of our expressways have edges profusely sprouting big yellow daisy flowers.

  17. This is such an interesting discussion, since what visitors think of our gardens is something I bet we all spend time mulling over. Does it communicate something to anyone but me, or is it just a visual muddle? My take on your visitor's initial comment and the explanations you elicited from him was that to your visitor, "garden" was an inadequate word for what you've accomplished, and he lacked the vocabulary to describe what was probably a rare sight to him -- a garden illustrating a deep love of plants grown for their own sakes, not just as color blobs, not a heavily accessorized space. When nongardeners see a garden where plants have pride of place, they see a "landscape," not a garden.

  18. Denise, perhaps this is simply a matter of semantics. I think even though that may be so, this issue nevertheless points to a lack of mutually agreed upon language to discuss gardens. So we are left guessing and misunderstanding. I hope we will some day have the language to speak and talk knowledgeably to each other about gardens and gardening culture, values, and aesthetics. Until gardens become important enough to merit such attention, confusion will continue.

  19. It is a sad fact that gardens are at the bottom of the 'arts' heap. Perhaps because the 'art' world has not come up with smoke and mirrors jargon to fit the scape! My garden attracts a smattering of the arts set but not enough..One recently commented after viewing the place 'a long and beautiful poem' Now thats more like it!!
    Best Wishes
    Great Hack.

  20. Haven't you heard? Gardening is in the "lifestyle" category--not "art." Some classify it as "hobby." Try to find the gardening columns in any newspaper. That's where our culture sees it, for sure.

    Poetry? Check out this link to "ruminations from the distant hills" for some Keats:

  21. I came here from Les's post about your garden. I really enjoyed your thoughts about what makes a garden. Yours is lovely and well-suited to your home.

  22. LOVE the garden. As for My and Jamie's style... we buy plants we like and stick them where we have room. Sometimes it might be too short where it is and others it may be too tall. But we still enjoy it. --Randy

  23. Randy and Jamie,
    There's something to be said for an element of chance in planting the garden. I rely on some self-seeding and let things come up where they find conditions appropriate to their liking. Them I edit, removing some, moving others.



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