Thursday, March 31, 2011

Garden Diary: That Black & White Time of Year

... a bit of navel gazing  ...

This time of year the garden is almost totally bare, the grasses burned and the remnants of perennials either chopped to mulch or hauled off to the compost heap. This is the time to savor the emptiness of the garden ... the mysterious recession of life back into the earth.

The garden in early spring, after burning and cutting has removed all evidence of the masses of herbaceous perennials and grasses.

Over the next three months, hundreds of grasses and perennials will begin their inexorable rise into the light and, by midsummer ...

For contrast ... same view last August.

 ... will fill this space with a mounting sea of vegetation.

Taking Stock
This is also a good time to reassess the underlying structure of the garden. Using black and white makes it easier to do this.

In my effort to add structure, to create a garden for the "off season," to differentiate the garden from the surrounding woods, have things gotten a little too busy? Does the structure interfere with the “savoring of emptiness”?

Over the past year, paving all the paths with gravel has had a dramatic visual effect, giving them a heft and substance they lacked before, with bands of gray that bring a sense of motion, almost like a network of roadways, to this little field in the woods, punching up the shapes and curves, even foreshortening distances, making the garden appear shallower than in past years. Is it too busy? I don’t think so, not yet—not if I remember to keep a light hand. (Of course, much of this is invisible, or can be seen only in partial glimpses when the plants return, so the garden's structure, which can be seen like a picture now, can only be sensed as a journey in the summer, when you have to walk through it to understand how it's made.)

But the paths do work. They are a practical solution for walking over the very wet land, and their curved shapes, solidity, and width keep the naturalistic wildness-to-come within bounds. They provide access, make it possible to explore with ease, and give a sense of boundary and space that defines the planted areas and keeps them from becoming overwhelming.

So on balance, I think this is an improvement. I can work to refine it.

The meandering armature of the garden--the long, narrow pond in the lower right, the linear stone planting bed in the middle distance, and the curved sitting area in the upper right--suggests a series of S-curves, like a flowing stream.

Sense of Place
My starting point has always been sense of place ... to remember this is a garden for a modernist house in the woods ... a quite place in the gently rolling hills above the Delaware River, where centuries of rain and erosion have carved a modest landscape of subtle curves and slopes. I've wanted to take my queue from the natural processes that shaped this land ... thus the native stone walls, the curving gravel paths, the naturalistic wildness of the plantings, the clay pond.

This focus on sense of place is also the reason for another, more abstract feature that overlays the network of paths. This is the curvy diagonal running from the lower right to the upper left in the image above (pond, raised stone planting bed, paved sitting area). We have an unusual geology in this part of New Jersey, characterized by masses of fractured argillite bedrock just under the surface. When it rains, the water can’t percolate into the soil, so flows in copious flood across the land surface. It's a little like living in the midst of a shallow creek bed. I've noted before that my garden resembles a river delta, where the overland flow of water follows natural channels that form subtle flow patterns. This phenomenon is a defining feature of this land. (An Irish neighbor has a small sign in Gaelic in front of his house. When I asked it's meaning, he said, "Land of soggy feet"!)

I’m using the word armature in the sense of a framework as used by a sculptor to support a figure being modeled. Or rather I’m using that definition as a metaphor, a touchstone image. But I'm not at all sure it works, at least not yet.

My original intent was to develop structure that would give the garden more winter interest, as well as a structural meaning that makes the delta metaphor integral to the garden's design. The meandering diagonal does help carry the eye back to the corner of the garden, where a sitting area with bench and hydrangeas is gradually evolving. Behind this corner I’ve planted two hornbeam hedges meeting at right angles, so this will indeed be a “corner” with some oomph (if the hedge grows, that is). That hedge may be the answer to making this concept work as intended. I also may want to shape the existing plantings to direct the eye toward this diagonal line of flow. Time will tell.

So I continue fiddling, not yet sure it will turn out as I want, waiting for the hedge to grow.

But isn’t that a large part of what gardening is about? I’ve made the plan and I’m executing it. I remind myself the pleasure is in the doing, and I’ll continue to make changes to better define this armature, integrate its parts, try to make it “read” as a meaningful statement about this place.

If I had my preferences, and cost were no object, all this would be a single thing, probably a series of interconnected pools moving off into the distance.  But the cost would be too high, and I'm not about to start again at this stage (and age).

Last fall, to better integrate the pond and raised stone bed, I started adding stone around the pond (above). It will be wider than shown here, but irregular and intermittent, suggesting a natural deposit of the native argillite, and visually wedding the pond more closely to the raised stone planting bed to its left.

The new sitting area farther out needs help too. It’s in the midst of large, blousy plantings, and needs some breathing room (it’s so bare out there now, you have to use your imagination). Some of the larger plants may need to be moved, allowing the eye to travel a bit. I'm thinking of adding low plant groupings about the perimeter of this area, to make it more “planty” so it feels like a natural feature, not some abstract idea imposed on the landscape.

A Walk Around
So down into the garden to see how it looks at ground level (below). Entering the garden from the front of the house, you move through this woodland garden before entering the open "prairie" space. The path on the right is the "private" entrance from the gravel terrace overlooking the garden; the one on the right brings you from the front entry.

Entering from the woodland garden at the side of the house, two paths start the visual flow.

The circling paths create a sense of flow, of movement, pulling you along and around even when there’s not much to see other than empty landscape.

The smaller path from the house passes on the opposite side of the pond then enters the main cross pathway in the mid-distance.

The curve of the major crossing follows a change in elevation. My thought was to use the natural contour of the land to shape the path.

If things go as planned, the box woods in the center will merge into a single undulating mass.

Looking back from the opposite side (below), the new sitting out area is visible on the left. It was added when the garden was in full growth. In this naked state, I can see it needs tweaking ... more gravel to widen it, low plantings around the perimeter to give it its own sense of place, addition of a narrow linking path on the right to complete the circle it wants to make with the existing path. I do want to keep the entrances to this area narrow, allowing room for only one person to pass at a time. This will be a private space when the garden is growing at full tilt, and access needs to be controlled.

Continuing around to the link to the main path on the far side of the garden (below), it's clear I need a similar link at the right end. At first, I wanted to prevent passage through this area to give it a greater sense of privacy. Now I find the desire to walk through irresistible. The message is clear.

The Wave Hill chairs are out of place here ... too prominent ... so I'll use them on the periphery of the garden, perhaps near the pond, and add simple low benches here.

The sitting area was imposed on the exiting garden, so some
larger plants will have to move to give it breathing room.

Rounding the back side of the garden, a wall of Arborvitae and some isolated evergreen specimens give some interest (mainly bringing some green into the brown field) ...

... but the stars at this bare time of year are the Japanese fantail willows (Salix sachhalinensis 'Sekka'), which I’m pruning into small trees with two or three trunks each (yes, some spring pruning is needed about now). These are beautifully shaped plants with a very Japanese aesthetic, at least to my eye, and I find they can carry the garden almost alone until the perennials reemerge. Later in the season they bear large fuzzy catkins heavy with yellow pollen. Even in the summer, their large, irregular shapes enhance the Silphiums, Eupatoriums, and other tall perennials and grasses.

The Japanese fantail willows are a prominent feature of early spring. These need pruning to reveal their beautiful shapes and, of course, much of their charm is their early spring color, which is lost here.

I've also begun to add bulbs though none are visible here. Daffodils and crocus survive the wet conditions well, and camassias should, though the few I've tried haven't been much of a success. There are actually daffodils in this view, but they haven't emerged yet.

So I have quite a lot of work to do this season, as I'm sure will continue to be the case with every coming year. The key will be in knowing when to stop.


  1. I really like the fact your garden opens into an area surrounded by woods. I think that brings an almost 'secret' feel that is just wonderful and becomes more apparent as the the trees leaf out.

    There's a garden I visit near here which is set down amongst the woods. It opens in a small dip and feels just tranquil. You gain some feeling of 'security' from the cover around, just a good vibe.

    I really like the Fantail Willow. They reflect something of the trees that surround. I know where you're going with the Box, patience is a virtue, however. Sadly, blight is all too common over here, it particularly seems to affect the dwarfing Buxus suffructicosa.

    Whatever changes you make, I'm sure you make the right one(s).

    I smiled when you mentioned thoughts for a series of interconnected pools moving off into the distance being restricted by money and age. Where does the bloody time go? It's said that the best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago. ho, hum.

  2. James,
    Your new paths were certainly worth the effort. They create a beautiful line for the eye to follow and invite the visitor on a journey through the garden. It must be exciting for the the path to slowly disappear as the perennials emerge and grow. The evergreens are also making a nice statement this time of year. I really like the way you placed them. I have to try taking B&W photos of my garden.

  3. The thought that has gone into this garden is astounding, and the documentation of the process has been intriguing to me. You've already come a long way from the early posts I saw of this wet delta, and I want to see more as you tweak away.

    I appreciate your blog for the way you let us into your whole space, the long view -- both mental and the physical garden itself. (I get tired of the blogs that show a flower, a bloom, all those close ups. I want to see a real garden and you don't disappoint.)

    The black and whites are a great design tool.

  4. Rob,
    Thanks for reminding me of the "secret" feeling of a garden hidden in the woods. I'm usually so preoccupied with wishing I could push the wall of woods back a little to get more space and distance, I overlook the magical feeling (echos of childhood fairy tales) they give. Yes, where does the time do? Your words always bring me a fantasy of life on a sunny day in the Dordogne (my own fantasy; I'm sure you have cloudy, rainy days too). Here, on April 1, I awoke to yet another early spring snowfall. I'm sure it won't last long, but can we get on with the season, please?

  5. Michael,
    Thank you for confirming my work with the paths. In this place, I know I have to keep structure minimal, so it's helpful to me to hear the opinions of others. Also the evergreens. I'm happy with them, but I also realize they're rather "spotty." But I can't have many because they upset my maintenance regimen. (It's not possible to burn grasses close to evergreens.) I try to keep the woodies isolated, so I can burn without danger of killing them by accident.

  6. Laurrie,
    I agree. I get tired of close-ups of plants and flowers and want to see the garden, so I try to get long, wide shots when I can. I don't have any special equipment so have to settle for less-than-professional results, but what I get will do. I do think some of this is navel gazing, as I said, but it's encouraging to know some one finds it interesting. To some extent, I think I'm talking to myself, clarifying my thoughts and plans for the future. But it's rewarding to make a "connection."

  7. It's so nice to see the FT garden again - thanks much. Feel free to indulge in this sort of sublime navel gazing as much as you can. I honestly believe the world is a better place for it.

    Here are some thoughts for you to take with a grain of salt...

    I feel like the lovely, new Mein Ruys hiding/sitting area needs to be differentiated from the rest of the paths - it should be distinctly wider or maybe it could be visually extended with another more formal planting feature. Heck, since that raised boxwood planting still needs to be repeated elsewhere (ha ha), maybe you could incorporate another smaller version of that as a frame next to it? Maybe it would make sense as a composition if another Salix'Sekka' was planted nearby? Hmm.

    Thoughts these are, just.

    Here's another one...

    I've been meaning to ask you...

    Have you read 'The Poetics of Space' by Gaston Bachelard? I have a strange feeling that you might like it.

  8. Peter,
    I won't take issue with your suggestion since the original idea of making a third linear addition was yours in the first place. I wish I could get your help, professionally speaking (do you do house calls in New Jersey?). Let's see... I could probably manage widening the "Mein Ruys hiding/sitting area" physically. But I don't know if my pocket book can afford a second raised stone planting area. And the Salix won't do because this is over the septic system leaching field (I can only imagine what destruction a willow would do to that.). I may have to take up an ultimate solution with you via email. Thanks for the compliment, by the way; I've never merited the use of the word "sublime" before, and I doubt it applies to little me. Bachelard's book has been in the pile beside the bed for two years now. I've been intrigued, and am pretty sure I'll find much I read "familiar," but have not read it yet. Since you apparently have, and approve, that will be impetus for me to start it.

  9. The tour of your garden in all its winter starkness made me sigh with pleasure. I love the way you have created a garden to be experienced rather than viewed from a point - "you have to walk through it to understand how it's made". Perfect. I really like the idea of echoing the delta in the gently curving paths and the shape of the pond. Your narrative makes sense of both what it is and how you want it to be, so that I feel as if I understand exactly what you mean about the seating area needing its own space around it. Fascinating, stimulating, I've re-read this several times already. I use B&W myself to critique my garden but never to such good effect. I feel inspired. Thank you.

  10. Janet,
    Thank you for letting me know you understand my point. To some extent, I know I'm talking to myself in these posts, but it's certainly rewarding when someone else gets the point. I do these black and white posts every spring when the garden is a kind of tabula rasa. It shows me where it's been and where it's probably going. Paving the paths with gravel, for example, has made the garden seem much smaller. Of course, much of this impression will disappear once the plants come back.



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