Monday, May 09, 2011

Spring walkabout

Til now, posts on these garden walkabouts have only appeared in summer and fall. Spring just wasn't a good time in the garden on Federal Twist. The site is cold and wet, and most of the perennials that thrive in these conditions get a late start. Only this year is the garden beginning to show significant early season interest.

A part of the change is simply maturity. The communities of plants have had a few years to grow together, forming large masses varying subtly in height, texture and color. I've also added shrubs and small trees--while keeping the largest areas open for perennials only, essential for easy planting management--which provide a sense of scale, and a few evergreens, whose dark silhouettes contrast dramatically with the lighter spring greens and golds of the herbaceous perennials.

Right now the morning sun backlights much of the foliage, looking for all the world like fractured stained glass, and the broken light filtering through the partially leafed trees imbues the space with a sense of peace and optimism. The wind gently whispers; humming birds alight in the aged dogwoods that screen the garden view from the house. It's a most pleasant, but of course, transient scene, a momentary Eden which passes quickly enough ...

... passes, for me that is, to the "mechanics" of the garden, for example, structure, contrast in color and form, garden management practices ...

The graveled paths encircling the planted areas, like the dark evergreens, give a visual weight to the garden ... the stone walls, a hard mineral background contrasting with the soft vegetable tissues ...

It's far too early for the pond to be overgrown with vegetation. For a while, the there's a clean edge and the water surface reflects the sky, a distant dogwood (below), or serves as a simple foil for Camassias planted around the pond's perimeter. It's taken three years for these to settle in and get going. Now I see I should plant more, and in other parts of the garden, especially since they echo the form of the hybrid Petasites flower spikes, which are blooming at the same time.

Less photogenic, but essential to understanding another aspect of garden mechanics--the maintenance or management process--are the spreading mats of perennials. Here, an example of matrix planting, Symphyotrichum puniceum (formerly Aster puniceus or Swamp aster) has formed a wide circular mat that out competes many of the less desirable grasses.

And here, large masses of Filipendula rubra 'Venusta', which have been a strong and stable presence for several years now, even though the soil is crowded with a variety of competing plants. If you want to manage large areas rather than "garden" individual plants, you'll have to learn what plants are appropriate to your conditions. That knowledge isn't always easily available, so a willingness to experiment, and to fail, is necessary. I used to have a community of Liatris pyncnostachia mixed in with the Filipendula. It was a stunning combination, but the Liatris gradually succumbed to competitive pressure and has all but disappeared.

"Nature's first green is gold," Robert Frost, that great and cynical observer of Nature, wrote. To build on that golden theme of early spring, I added three Sunburst Honey Locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos 'Sunburst) in the early days of the garden. They've not grown much, but each spring their brilliant foliage beckons like finely hammered artifacts of gold. I don't want them to become large trees; these golden poles are fine.

Then I discovered the wonderful non-native Euphorbia palustris, which I've scattered around to create more pools of golden color, and I may add more. Note here too (below)  the thickly growing mass of violets--functioning here as another important garden management tool--ground cover (matrix planting again).

The more distant view from the raised terrace outside the house shows fine detail to the naked eye but not to the camera. What you do see is the void in the forest in which the garden exists, and that void is a defining characteristic of this garden:  a clearing in the woods, a safe place, though a tentative safety that might vanish in the blink of an eye.

Gardens are like that, constantly changing, threatening loss of control, running away from you if you aren't paying attention.


  1. I'll have to check back entries, but judging from this walkabout I'd guess yours is a youngish garden really hitting its stride, with mature plantings and desired colonies developing. The gravel paths are a wonderful counterpoint to all the green, and I love the echoing undulating ribbons of rock, gravel and plants. Strange, but coming from Los Angeles, all that green looks alien to me -- but not the gravel! What a magnificent garden you've made.

  2. Denise, yes, you're right. I started this garden in 2005 when we cut the trees to make the clearing in the woods. So at the outside, it's only six years old.

  3. No longer 'a clearing in the woods' but a garden. An inviting space to walk thru and explore. Somewhere to sit quietly and listen to the birds and frogs?

  4. Robert Frost was right, and Euphorbia palustris illustrates that.

    I keep debating whether to grow Euphorbia Griffithii 'fireglow'. It would handle your clay soil, but has the potential to be a bit of a thug.

    I look forward to seeing the pond through the seasons.

  5. But would Euphorbia Griffithii 'Fireglow' take the wet, wet in winter? Let me know if you've had experience with that.

  6. Diana, yes, especially frogs, thousands of frogs, thanks to which we have almost no mosquitoes. And places to sit too, though since it's my garden, I can't seem to sit for long.

  7. I love the contrasts of colour and texture. The paths work wonderfully well, I think I would have gone for bark chippings to echo the woodland clearing feel, but it wouldn't have done the same job at all, and echoing the shapes with the rough stone works beautifully, and I think could work on a smaller scale too. I have to confess that I am not so keen on the conifers, though I understand why you used them. I've tried to grow Euphorbia Griffithii 'Fireglow' several times, but it just doesn't seem to cope with my heavy clay, which tends to be rather wet during winter.

  8. Janet, I used wood chips for the paths for several years but they washed away every time it rained. It was a real mess. The gravel works wonderfully, and it's giver the garden a much more substantial structure. More park like, though that change may not be all for the best. I use Euphorbia palustris, which thrives in the heavy, wet clay, not Griffithii.



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