Saturday, December 18, 2010

Light and Color

Aster laterifolius, Rudbeckia maxima

I'm still waiting for those mornings with hoar frost, or at least a covering of snow. But no such luck yet.

At the end of November, when I looked closely, after a week away in the deep South, I found quite a bit of color. The kind of color Rick Darke documents so carefully to explode the myth there's no color in late fall and winter.

Sanguisorba canadensis, Lysamachia ciliata 'Firecracker'

Light too. These photos are interesting for their use of backlighting in some cases, and for direct sun light in others--but the warm, low light of autumn, so different from the harsh overhead summer sun.

Silphium perfoliatum

Miscanthus sinensis 'Gracillimus'

Mettuccia struthiopteris

Inula racemosa 'Sonnerspeer', Miscanthus 'Gracillimus'

Eupatorium purpureum, Rudbeckia maxima, Silphium perfoliatum, assorted miscanthus

Miscanthus, a true lover of wet clay - it's everywhere

Sanguisorba canadensis, Scirpus cyperinus

Hydrangea quercifolia

Miscanthus again

Acorus ogon

Aster laterifolius, Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai', Eupatorium perfoliatum, Spartina pectinata marginata

Bergenia and Box

Sanguisorba canadensis, Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker'

Miscanthus 'Gracillimus'


  1. I do love those Miscanthus flowers - I have one plant so far (small garden) and am waiting for it to bulk up but I am wondering if I need to move it as it is on a slope so maybe too dry for it - will investigate

  2. Down here, I feel cheated out of late fall color and you are welcome to come get all my hoar frost and snow cover. The sasanquas were frozen in prime bloom time and much of our foliage was freeze dried before it had a chance to reach some mellow colors. Your garden however, remains lovely.

  3. patientgardener -
    I'd sure my conditions are different, but I do have several on a steep slope and they do very well there. The original intent was to use them as a ground cover, but they've served well as decorative elements, screens to block the view into the garden, building a little anticipation, great textural elements, wonderful kinetic sculptures in high wind, providing added beauty and interest in bloom, then great fall color. I could go on.

  4. Les -
    My two little Sasanquas still have buds so I hope for a warm day to open them. You--and England--seem to have had much worse winter than we have up to this point. The color in my garden has literally been drained out in the past couple of weeks. I look forward to a snow cover so I can get started burning the grasses (burning on a dry day with snow covering the ground is my preference--so easy to control).

  5. Just lovely, James, your camera work is spot on and your garden glows in the fall light. I thought that first shot of the asters was a Christmas tree at first blush, it is so sparkly. I've always loved autumn best of the seasons and the fall colors have a lot to do with that. My memory takes me back to hunting trips in the Mississippi Delta with my dad in our '56 Chevy pickup, driving dirt roads with sumac - dried blood red and waving in the breeze -framing the road. Thanks so much for your efforts. They are appreciated. Merry Christmas, old friend.

  6. This is so beautiful. I almost like the grasses in fall and winter more than I do in summer. I love the background of your blog.

  7. They really do achieve a wonderful biscuit colour (the Miscanthus).

    I never really 'got' the garden in winter thing, I think I've just seen the light.

    Some beautiful shots there


  8. Allan -
    Good to hear from you. I think you'd like a walk through the garden. Wish you could visit sometime. Even consider coming east? I know, you just got west.

  9. Phillip -
    Thanks for the comment. I do agree, fall is the best season for the grasses. I saw the blog background on another site, Scott Webber in Portland (scottwebberpdx, Rhone Street Garden). Looked it up and bought it. It does add to the blog loading time, however. I'm thankful for Scott's good taste and resourcefulness.

  10. You startled me with those Bergenia and Buxus! What a great combination in the midst of all that glorious grassy diaphanous-ness.

    You are about a month and a half behind us up in eastern Ontario where snow covers everything and colours, even every shade of brown, are now hard to find.

    In my older age I find that I stop and look at all the shifts and even the most subtle changes in tone, tint and colour that appear all around us in every moment of every season. During walks with my dog I have really begun to appreciate and mentally chronicle these changes but alas, most homeowners (my clients) here don't appreciate the subtleties of fading foliage and stems frozen in death. And, even if they did, I would be even more exhausted in the spring, so my hands and knees are actually grateful.
    I wonder, James, do your design clients embrace this beauty?

  11. Rob -
    I hope you've seen the light. There are limits, I admit, but I find leaving the winter garden standing offers much greater opportunity for moments of fleeting beauty. Much depends on light and weather. Cutting it to the ground too early leaves nothing.

  12. Ailsa -
    The Bergenia and Box bed I hope to complete next year. I've been planning that combination for three years.

    About your question, I don't know. My "clients" such as they are are mostly friends. When I retire from my "work" job at the end of this month, I hope to have more time for that. I do think appreciation for the beauty of winter might help encourage some property owners to take a more naturalistic approach and retain more standing woodland and hedgerows, reduce lawn area, perhaps intensively cultivate limited areas, but in large measure let managed nature take back part of their properties, creating more habitat for animal life, and a more natural environment for humans. I'm an enemy of clear cut residential development, the dominance of lawn and tidiness, and would love to take part in making that change happen. But I don't fool myself. Lawn care and maintenance is a multibillion dollar industry, and won't go gentle into that good night.

  13. There is something so special about Miscanthus and the glow of autumnal sunshine. I love the tawny shades of the grasses and perennials. Beautiful photographs.

  14. Still looking good...all those fabulous seedheads and grasses...color me jealous!

  15. Plantaliscious -
    Thanks for visiting and commenting. I see you're working with grasses too. My plants of Molinia 'Skyracer' were standing last weekend. I know molinias have the reputation for falling to the ground early, and they do that for me too compared to other grasses. But I've been pleasantly surprised with how long these last.

  16. Scott -
    Don't be jealous. I think my moment of color has passed.

  17. James!

    I've been happily reading a book called "The Authentic Garden (Five Principles for Cultivating a Sense of Place)", published by Timber Press back in '07, as written by one Claire E. Sawyers:

    "Death is...a process of nature that, if given space, can yield emotionally powerful and beautiful images. But American gardeners, no doubt because of our larger cultural attitudes toward aging and death, are apt to see this process as something to hide, or "clean up" and remove as quickly as possible from the garden. We tend not to see or appreciate the beauty of a tree's skeleton or a stump that's weathering and revealing the interior structure of a tree..." (page 39)

    This is old news to the likes of many, of course, but it's interesting to remember once in awhile that most people in this world can't seem to recognize this obvious beauty. It's like trying to imagine what it's like to be colour blind, yes?

    Claire E Sawyers attempts to explain what 'Wabi-Sabi' means to immature Western ears as well and quotes a Robyn Griggs Lawrence: "WABI stems from the root WA, which refers to harmony, peace, tranquility, and balance. Generally speaking, WABI had the original meaning of sad, desolate and lonely, but poetically it has come to mean simple, unmaterialistic, humble by choice, and in tune with nature...SABI by itself means 'the bloom of time'. It connotes natural progression - tarnish hoariness, rust - the extinguished gloss of that which once sparkled. It's the understanding that beauty is fleeting."

    And Leonard Koren: "WABI-SABI represents the exact opposite of the Western ideal of great beauty as something monumental, spectacular, and enduring. WABI-SABI is not found in nature at moments of bloom and lushness, but at moments of inception or subsiding. WABI-SABI is not about gorgeous flowers, majestic trees, or bold landscapes. WABI-SABI is about the minor and the hidden, the tentative and the ephemeral: things so subtle and evanescent they are invisible to vulgar eyes."

    And that's not to say that my eyes are completely free of vulgarity but only that I'm appreciative of their being less vulgar than other eyes.

    Thanks again for commenting on my blog, by the way. I quite like that sort of thing.

  18. Peter -
    This is a gift. Thank you. I've encountered Japanese concepts of beauty, but only in a fleeting and superficial way. Your comments make a lot of pieces fall into place. My heart is sort of thumping with excitement (a metaphor, but you get the point). I must get this book.

  19. James, death to me too is an essential part of the process of gardening, and has a beauty, much as we'd hope our own deaths would be beautiful. I hope I don't sound too spooky, but all the bits that fall down and bang you on the head and blow whichever way are as beautiful as anything ordered. I love Peter Holt's perceptive comments. It has begun to be summer here, so we are upside down from you. Faisal.

  20. Faisal -
    Yes, I was surprised and delighted by Peter's comments. So very important to know that some cultures appreciate these things (e.g., the process of death and decay), and even have specific words to talk about them. The American way of death is a mechanized business that denies the absolute fact of death at every step, hides it from us to the very end. Our culture does not find beauty in dying plants (with exceptions). We intend to turn upside down, like you, in February when we go to Argentina and Uruguay for two weeks. Our intent in Uruguay is to visit gardens designed by Amalia Robredo ( I know from a past visit it will be quite a surprise to leave the depth of winter here to step out into full-blown summer of the southern hemisphere.

  21. Quite BEAUTIFUL snaps! It is grey and dank here and has been so for days. Great to see that warm glow of dead vegetation in the sun. I loved your comment about the ephemeral effects you get. I like the changeability of natural light more and more, the sense of just catching and if I am honest of missing too.
    Best Wishes for 2011 James

  22. Robert, a transient phenomenon, so to speak. Over the past year, the changing light has become much more important in the garden, I think because many plants have matured, and their size and bulk create a larger, more varied, vegetative surface over which the light can play. Also a surface full of minute penetrations, like lace, that capture light inside.

  23. James,

    I have been following your blog for several years now and not commented. I blog over at Grounded Design. I worked for over a decade at Oehme, van Sweden, some of the innovators of the New American garden style. Your garden is oen of my favorite. I feel like I know it from your wonderful photographic documentation through the seasons. Keep up the great work and the experimentation. It's one of my favorite gardens . . .

    Thomas rainer

  24. Thomas,

    I'm a reader of Grounded Design (it's in my sidebar), though I haven't commented either, that I can recall. I look forward to seeing what you do with your new garden in Arlington. Good luck. And thanks so much for the compliment; it means a lot to know you understand my little garden "experiment." I wonder if you've seen the planting I "lifted" from an Oehme, van Sweden design I once saw in a book (I don't remember where): a broad swath of mixed Petasites and Pycnanthemum muticum backed by a wall of Miscanthus 'Silberfeder'. It's one of my favorite plantings. At the time, I couldn't find any 'Silberfeder' and had to drive several hours up the Hudson to get it. Good to hear from you.

  25. Rust never bleats.
    I forgot who i am.

  26. No cultivar of plant (or species for that matter) can enhance or improve any concept if you have the mind to do it.
    Muggles from never you mind.



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