Thursday, November 11, 2010

Garden Diary: October 24 - Coming Home

View of the garden at Federal Twist - just as the sunlight began to break through,
completely changing the mood of the garden

A certain level of disorientation is a good thing in a garden, at least at the start of a visit. A feeling of being a bit lost sets the stage for a new way of seeing, a receptivity to new perceptions, exploration and discovery.

On Sunday, October 24 I got up early enough to see the sun rise; once it was light, I went out to record the progress of autumn in the garden.

The cloud cover muted the colors. The garden appeared to be in a state of stasis. The clock had stopped. The slide toward winter was temporarily suspended, leaving me with an ominous feeling of disappointment, dissatisfaction, a wish for change.

For most of my life I've lived with the illusion that "emotions" are a mental state, all in the head, so to speak. But that's not true. Emotions are a bodily response. They arise in the body, and in a very real sense,  are physically "felt" before the conscious mind names them. This is the old saw about the head and the heart, the conscious and the unconscious.

Before an emotional impulse is named, before a label is applied, one experiences a state of unknowing, of being lost, and the start of a journey toward understanding--a journey that may last a millisecond or a lifetime.

I have difficulty naming emotions, and my own inclination is to seek meaning in metaphor, or in narrative--using images and stories to explore the world of feeling.

Look at the photo of the small pond below: on this dreary morning the reflective surface, largely obscured by dying growth, called to mind an eerie scene out of Edgar Allan Poe--the "dank tarn" in The Fall of the House of Usher--an image that carries associations of abandon, decay, withdrawal of life, a suggestion of some ominous potential.

Although I don't particularly care for the work of Poe, he's a part of my culture and the images and metaphors contained in his stories are ready to hand, so I saw the scenes below with a sense of the "dark and drear" Poe evokes so powerfully. Glistening wet, dark, perhaps even threatening. I was telling myself a story, though the story seemed to be telling itself, arising spontaneously as I simply observed. But I know that wasn't so; I was participating in the process.

Then things changed; the sun broke through the cloud cover (photo below), scattering light into the garden, and my mood lifted, my emotional response changed. All thought of Poe vanished.

Suddenly the garden was full of warm golds, reds, browns, tans, the backlighting dramatically silhouetting the individual plants, and reflective light revealing surface textures and color. I had been lost, musing on images from Poe, then I found what I didn't even know I was looking for. As the sun sparked the garden into life, my response was visceral, a sudden flood of anticipation, an aching tension in the body like a lover's response to the beloved.

This was more than appreciation of a pretty picture, more than painting with plants. The closest I can come to expressing my feelings is to say the change was like coming home.

My garden is clearly of a type, heavily influenced by the so-called New Wave or New Perennials style that grew out of a naturalistic garden movement in Europe, Germany and Holland in particular, and that began to influence gardening in the UK around the mid-1990s. It broke onto the American scene about ten years ago, prominently in books by Piet Oudolf, Noel Kingsbury, Michael King, and Henk Gerritsen, and was already making its mark in the work of our own Oehme and Van Sweden.

This new approach to garden design and planting is usually described as "Romantic," almost always with a capital "R". When I hear that word used, I hear a pejorative. It is too easy to dismiss this style as a nostalgic retreat from reality, as dreamy-eyed picture painting while our world seemingly tumbles into the chaos of terrorism and political fragmentation.

I think we've misnamed the look and the feel of these naturalistic gardens. "Romantic" isn't the right word;
it paints with too broad a brush, and it's been so overused it has little meaning.

Though it may look Romantic, my own garden was very much conceived as a rational, clearly thought-out response to the nature of this place, to difficult soil conditions, to poor drainage, to the surrounding wood that casts deep shadows, to the presence of a low mid-century house overlooking it all.

When I recall my feelings looking at this land six years ago, before the heavy growth of cedars and assorted brush was cut and removed, I think of Poe again. It was a dreary place, full of fallen trees and the detritus of decades of neglect.

But I brought with me five years of experience in my Rosemont garden, where I had first tried my hand with a garden in blatant imitation of the gardens I saw in the books of Oudolf, Kingsbury, Gerritsen, King, and, of course, our Americans Oehme (naturalized American from Germany) and Van Sweden, who himself was trained in Europe. The list could go on, but these are the bright lights in my memory.

So faced with this place I knew was not a good or easy place to make a garden, I approached the situation with the knowledge and tools I had learned from these men (why not women, an interesting question?).

I knew I also needed some very specific advice about the appropriateness of plants to my challenging habitat, so I got a copy of Hansen and Stahl's Perennials and their Garden Habitats (Die Stauden und Ihre Lebensbereiche), translated into English. Based on decades of research conducted in central Europe, this book contains exhaustive lists and descriptions of plants suited to various habitats. It was extremely helpful in selecting plants to match my garden conditions.

I don't see my garden as a result of plant painting to create a "Romantic" picture, not at all. It's the result of a very rationale process of design and planting, as well as a lot of practical experimentation to see what would die, what would only survive, and what would thrive. It is a very practical response to a difficult situation.

Certainly, for me, emotion is at the heart of my experience of this garden. And in a sense, any emphasis on the importance of emotional response might very well be called romantic. But what we have in the New Perennials movement isn't a retrograde or reactionary way of seeing the world, but is a synthesis of the rational and the feeling, a search for a way forward in a world that has experienced the degradation of overuse, pollution, and an out of control (human) population, and of course limited resources. Labor is expensive today, and most gardeners need to manage their gardens with minimal paid help (very practical).

But I do not mean a "return to nature" in any sense, and I have certainly not tried to create a native plant garden.

Note the liberal use of Miscanthus, a Japanese grass, not native, for sure, but one that looks right in this situation, and it thrives. Mixed in you will see several native plants: Pycnanthemum muticum (Mountain mint) in low silvery masses, scattered Physostegia virginiana (Obedient plant) in buttery yellow, dark seedheads of Rudbeckia maxima, and the almost black stems of Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum).

This is an American prairie--not a real prairie certainly, but a simulacrum of a wet prairie, adapted to my local conditions and to my personal preferences.

So where does emotion fit into this picture? That depends on the observer. To someone familiar with the New Perennials style, there is an immediate recognition and connection with an established palette of feelings associated with appreciation, or critical observation, of this style. To the less knowledgeable observer, the uninitiated, a state of confusion may result. Some simply see wild, uncultivated land. Some actually experience discomfort, possibly even fear, and want to quickly return to the high ground near the house, or even retreat inside the house.

I've observed this many times, and I don't see this reaction as bad. My garden has, in a sense, ambushed such visitors, attacked their preconceptions of what a garden should be, and this attack occurs at an emotional, possibly unconscious, level. Perhaps it will set off a longer term rethinking and future change in attitude.

Below, Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah', a native plant, but its attraction for me is a sensuous pleasure, not an intellectual satisfaction or an ethical statement on use of native plants.

Another merging of the native and the non-native into a naturalistic prairie planting--native Pycnantheum muticum surrounded by Miscanthus sinensis 'Silberfeder', a grass of Japanese origin, with a German cultivar name.

The "transparent" tall grass below is Molinia caerulea 'Transparent', another European.

In the case of my garden, the style of the house overlooking it, and the situation of the house at an odd angle to the border of the property (to make it face south) also dictated a naturalistic, informal style, without a perceptible grid or axis. Again, this was not a romantic impulse, but a practical decision to keep the garden in a style appropriate to a modernist house built in the mid 1960s.

A small, secluded sitting area in the middle of the plantings.

I've said a lot, perhaps too much, so the rest will be silent.

(well, almost silent)


The New Wave has been much in the news recently--that is, the horticultural news--and I imagine we will soon be seeing magazine articles and books about this garden design phenomenon. With a "Dutch Wave" exhibition at the Garden Museum in London, blogs by Noel Kingsbury and Darryl Moore, and newspaper articles about this perennial-intensive, naturalistic, emotional style of planting, we appear to be in for some retrospective, and reassessment, as the media makers look back over the past 15 years.


  1. I enjoyed my walk through these gardens this morning. Ironically, my favorite picture is the one you describe as a scene from Poe: "an image that carries associations of abandon, decay, withdrawal of life, a suggestion of some ominous potential." I couldn't disagree more. I found the scene to be a beautiful Autumn pic with leaves of burgundy, gold, orange and green. The stones invited my eye to want to follow, to gaze into the pond and enjoy the delight that surely must be hidden there. But the next picture... definetly Poe and I too would be tempted to tell a tale as I walked into the darkness... if I dared go in at all.

  2. Thanks for cofirming the connection with Poe. And thanks also for pointing out the opening photo does not at all suggest the mood of a Poe short story. I'm of the opinion a blog post should open with an attractive photo, not a depressing one. I should have made my intent clear, and have added a caption. We all need editors!

  3. I can almost feel the change in your emotions as you walk through your garden. My own emotions are so affected by the light - not just the brightness of the light but the angle of the sun and whether it's filtered through the trees. If there is bright but gentle light it seems that the garden is smiling at me. "Romantic" seems almost a cheap word, doesn't it? I think of a gardnener as somewhat like a parent - a wise parent won't push a child to become something that doesn't fit the child's talents and personality, but instead will encourage the child in a direction that will be soul enriching. A gardener must get to know what the garden has to offer, what it's personality might be once nurtured. In that process the gardener becomes intimate with the garden and feels a part of it. To me, that's the "coming home" feeling.
    Beautiful post - words and pictures. Thank you.

  4. Thanks for visiting, Ginny. I agree with you. You need to be sensitive to your garden and its needs, sensitive to place, and work with your conditions, not fight them.

  5. I think it's too bad so many people use "romantic" as an almost dismissive adjective, maybe "ebullient", "verdant" and "lush" are better. I do find these types of plantings romantic, I guess, but with none of the negative connotations. I think of romantic as alluding to the carefree exuberance of your garden...that while it's obviously the result of planning, patience and diligent upkeep and editing, it looks effortless, as if it truly belongs to and enhances it's location. I think that is the true test of any garden, if it looks like it just "IS", it makes sense and doesn't seem forced...regardless of labels, it's stunning and each new picture you post just proves that.

  6. Thanks so much, Scott, for the kind compliment. But you know the camera tends to glamorize gardens and interiors. I don't understand why. Maybe because digital technology enables us to make so many photos, some just have to turn out.

  7. I really don't understand attaching romantic to your garden. It is to me both practical and eminently modern. Unless, as Scott says, people mean anything beautiful is necessarily romantic. For me your garden also seems to fit into the land better than traditional gardens(something I struggle with). I associate romantic is something along the Sissinghurst lines, or a drastic ill advised attempt to recreate Henry Fuseli waterfalls. This "new wave" now twenty years old, seems to me to be more about looking at the world as it is, not as it was, and at looking at textures in new ways.

  8. Dear James, this is not a blog post, this is a book! And one that I would gladly pay for! The writing and photos are superb. The New Perennial movement does not suggest Romantic to me, but more Natural. We are working on incorporating those ideas in an established garden on a steep slope, sort of difficult, but gardening involves work. I am bookmarking this post to read and reread. Thank you.

  9. Balsamfir,
    You raise an important question. Perhaps I'm deluding myself. I certainly see the term applied to such gardens, but perhaps not to the extent I seem to think? Your comment contains some astute observations that make me think.

  10. Francis,
    I admire your choice to work on that steep slope. For me, it's similar to what I did in deciding to "go with the flow" and just make what I have work as a garden, letting the site guide the way. If I made one major mistake, it was following Noel Kingsbury's advice (I think in The New Perennial Garden, but I could be mistaken) on planting direct into existing vegetation. Kingsbury has since written that that technique isn't successful over the long term. I disagree based on my experience so far, by the way. My major problem has been controlling the old pasture grasses, which are almost evergreen and difficult to eradicate. But I'm making progress and think I will prevail in a few more years. And if I don't, those grasses do make a pleasant wild meadow background.

  11. When wooing new clients, the landscape designers and architects I work with bring out a list of garden styles they are capable of creating including such tired cliches as Asian inspired retreats, colonial revival and the one that causes me to cringe the most "bold romantic gardens". I think we need a new words.

    I am glad to see your garden in fall, even if it is only from a digital photo. I think the melancholy emotion of a fall garden comes from the nature of the season, which more than any other is one of transition - a transition into a time of the year I do not look forward to. At least the garden tends to go out awash in color.

  12. Yes, garden designers are between a rock and a hard place. I think they don't have a very knowledgeable clientele, and have to make up catchy names. My favorite name to hate is "English garden." We have a long way to go before garden design matures into an art form. But not to be too negative. There is some superb work going on, but in the midst of a lot of BS. The High Line, for example, I think you agree is a magnificent example of the best happening in this country. And yes, the season makes this a very emotional time in the garden, especially for someone like me who tends to be rather melancholy naturally. But I'm actually looking forward to winter. I love it (perhaps because I grew up in Mississippi, so I still find snow and ice exciting). But winter does tend to last forever up north. Around April it seems it will never end.

  13. James I'm suffering from 'the comment ain't worthy of the post' syndrome right now.

    Truth is I get yer.. You've created something very special there, an absolute delight and easy to do it ain't, unless it's instinctive, which I reckon you are.

    I think Dan Pearson was there at the front of a more naturalistic approach to gardening. I managed recently to obtain a copy of his book 'The Garden- A year at Home Farm', chuffed to bits I was. Whilst trawling the web looking for a copy, I came across it on an Aussie web site, it was entitled 'A year at Home Farm, A Year of Splendour' and that's exactly it, splendour.

    Enjoy your piece of paradise, I know I am.

  14. Faire Francis is right you know - you really should be writing a book. I'd buy it happily. The world would be better for it. Maybe you could edit and expand on some of the blog posts you've already committed? Okay then. And surely there's an eager publisher reading this as we speak...poised with a cheque in a perfect world somewhere...

  15. Rob,
    I agree with you about Dan Pearson, and I do love his work. I discovered him after the others, and I see his work in a much broader perspective, not really representative of the New Perennials or the New Wave movement, as such. I am profoundly affected by his personal approach to reading the landscape and sense of place, and making gardens appropriate to that. I'm very surprised you had such a hard time finding "Home Farm." I loved that book about possibly his most formative garden design experience. I heard him speak last winter in NYC on his tour to promote his new book Spirit: Garden Inspiration.

  16. Peter,
    Thanks for the encouragement. That's actually at the top of my list of things to do when I retire from my day job at end of this year. Help me with a working title, would you? Or at least a direction. And I'm waiting for that publisher to contact me... Ha!

  17. James,
    Writing a book is great idea. Your garden is very special. It is art. Your writing is thoughtful and you have a distinct, clear voice. How about Bringing the New Perennial Garden Back to America?

  18. James, your garden is lovely! The photos are warm and inviting and illustrate the fall splendor of grassy plantings. Great work! Thank you for sharing.

  19. Adam, thanks much for the thoughtful comment. I'll check out your work featured in the latest issue of Horticulture.

  20. This is absolutely golden, love it. Just discovered the blog through this post, and very much looking forward to reading through past posts. Keep up the fantastic work. Gorgeous gardens!

  21. Ben, I'm very happy you like the garden. This post is from over a year ago. It looked much the same this year, until the Great Snow and Ice Storm of October 28 flattened it all. But I even have a post on the results of that storm. It wiped out the garden, but it will all return next spring. Thanks for the kind comments.



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