Sunday, August 07, 2011

Garden Diary: Yellow to Mauve, with Sound

High summer and ample rain have given me a garden almost profligate. The large prairie plants have grown even taller than in past years and spread by self-seeding into new areas. The invertebrates, the insects, appear to be thriving, usually more apparent by the sounds they make than their visibility, with healthy populations in good balance. That I had no problem with Japanese Beetles this year, only a few, I attribute to a diverse invertebrate community in equilibrium.

Angelica gigas, a honeypot for insects from Heronswood

The tall yellows continue and now they've been joined by the mauves--broad masses of Joe Pye Weed (Eupatoriadelphus maculatus), intense and transient deep violet of Iron Weed (Vernonia), somewhere in between a few Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya), which survive only in propitious locations, not being as successfully competitive as some of their neighbors; even my only Angelica gigas, a dark, burnished, purple-almost-brown. As these colors fade through August, the grasses have just begun to put on their late summer fireworks.

I've linked a short video of the garden to this photo. Take a look (click on the photo above), and you'll see a panning shot across the garden from the raised position of the house. This gives a good overview, but it really misrepresents the garden, which looks entirely different when you walk down into it. Looking at the video, you'd have no idea a network of rather wide gravel paths, and other smaller paths, run through the plantings. You see much more of the intricate detail only by walking through, and the rest of this post will take you on that walk.

Here are several views of the main path across the garden showing the plantings beginning to overflow the edges, a desirable state of affairs to my thinking.

Vernonia, Eryngium yuccafolium, Aster tartaricus 'Jin Dai', Silphium terebinthinaceum, Rudbeckia maxima, Physostegia virginica, Panicum, Hemerocallis crowd the path edges.

This isn't planned color, and I make no excuses for it. My interest is line, mass, form, movement, visual tone in the sense of emotion more than color. Above, the tall Rudbeckia maxima on the left, fluffy aging flower heads of Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra) below it contrasting with the sword-like leaves of the early spring Iris pseudocorus, then a bunch of Joe Pye Weed, which really is much more colorful than this photo shows, and Cup plant (Silphium perfoliatum) on the right, all softened by the gauzy screen of flowering Switch grass (Panicum virgatum 'Shenandoah').

Further down, form, texture, and the enormous variations of green make an entirely different effect, less impressionistic, more literal in a comic sort of way. Paddle-shaped leaves of Prairie Dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and giant coneflower (Rudbeckia maxima) make a busy show of themselves against a background of now silver Mountain Mint (Pycnantheum muticum) and Panicum 'Dallas Blues'.

I want masses of white Obedient Plant (Physostegia virginica 'Miss Manners', above) and have more growing on for planting after the weather cools. My goal is to treat the Pycnantheum and Physostegia as a groundcover, and spike it here and there with red to orange Daylilies (Hemerocallis). I suppose I'm more a creature of fashion than I'd like to think, and have unconsciously absorbed a liking for hot colors--though it's not just a matter of fashion; in my intensely green garden, the spots of brilliant color add a pleasing depth and complexity, passion smoldering in dark recesses.

You might think they would clash with the very different color scheme of the garden as a whole but, because their blossoms tend to occur in isolated spots, and are highly transient, they don't. Hemerocallis also seem to do well in a highly competitive garden environment, and the other plants hide their tattered, unattractive foliage after the blossoms pass.

On to the sound part of this post's title ...  All these plants attract hordes of insects, and their movements and sounds are entertaining and stimulating, sensuously and intellectually. At this time of year, these "incidental" insect performances happen against the constant roar of cicadas emanating from the wall of woods surrounding the garden. The sounds come in rhythmic waves, as the insects answer one another. And the night sounds, of course, choruses of frogs serenading. 

The audible landscape is like a separate world ... one I can't understand at all but perhaps understanding isn't necessary. You can just give yourself over to the sound, "rest" in it like a giant sonic cushion of vibrant air.

About eight feet off the main path Marc Rosenquist's sculpture, though not mauve or purple, certainly associates easily with those colors. These daylilies are the last to bloom of about fifteen planted throughout the middle of the garden. You see them from one angle and ...

... from another you don't. Again, a demonstration of the need to walk around to see the plants from various points of view.

The pathway across the middle of the garden. Another way to get up close to the plants. I'm adding yet another, less obvious path branching off from the left of this area to make it possible to get deep within the plantings.

A European grass, Molinia caerulea 'Skyracer', with tall, delicate flower stalks, crowds the entrance path, so close it touches you, but so light and airy you don't mind a little crowding (well, some do).

Last weekend we added this small new entry path on the opposite side near the house. We put it in by violent means, just digging across trying avoid established plants. I don't really like it; it's too neat and tidy. The edges need to be muddied and planted, and some larger plants will have to be moved next spring. Then, perhaps it will look a part of the garden.

This is the view up toward the house from the new small path ...

... and here a glance off to the side.


  1. Love the contrast of the paths and the lush growth and the forms and light. The shot of the chairs at the middle of the path makes me want to climb right into the photo and sit down.

    How about lobelia cardinalis among the obedient plants? The intense red from afar, in among the white spikes, can be striking. I have them together in my garden, but only a very small stand of each. They bloom at slightly different times, but with some overlap.

  2. Well played, Golden James! This perpetually evolving FT garden of yours is my favourite imaginary place. Hands down. Wild Bill Martin and King Kingsbury and can talk their hearts out for all I care. Oudolf? He's passe now. Mainstream. You're cutting the best edge! Fine aesthetic mysticism on the woodland edge. Too beautiful. Wow.

  3. Laurrie, thanks for looking and liking, and for saying it. It's appreciated. I do have some Lobelia cardinalis off to one side. I started with 20 plants someone grew from seed and gave to me. Now I think I have four. It's certainly bright red, but I find it tends to be short lived unless it has absolutely perfect conditions, which I can't offer it. I do grow Lobelia siphilitica, which does well and even seeds about. Not red, but a touch of blue never hurt.

  4. Peter, good to hear from you! You're doing such astounding labors on your "worldscaping" project I value your taking the time to look at the FT garden. Thank you, thank you. I know you're a man who appreciates aesthetic mysticism on a woodland edge, living on such an edge yourself. I hope all is well with you and your family.

  5. The video was helpful, but like you said, can't do the garden justice. I've been thinking of taking my tripod out and taking some pan shots from different places, then stitching those together into one video. I'm enviou sof your obedient plant--mine has flopped over flat, and I've had it, coming out in a few weeks and ironweed, rudbeckia, milkweed, liatris, who knows what else will get crammed into that 4x4' area.

  6. Mine tends to flop too, especially after a good hard rain (which I don't think is the cause of your floppy Physostegia). Along the path I "gracefully" tie it back, something I hate to do. Yeah, the video gives you another way to see spatial relationships, but it hides as much as it reveals, and the image quality is awful.

  7. I second what Peter said, and hearing the birds brings your garden to life. The still pictures give an 'unconscious' artwork effect. Your garden is growing on me.

  8. Your plant photography is excellent (I'm a massive fan of Angelica - captured very well). We'd love to have you as part of our flickr group which gets featured on our homepage.
    Kind regards


  9. Ah, I enjoyed the stroll.

    Love the beetroot red of Angelica gigas, looking all lovely and umbelliferous! Are the crickets singing? I love this time of the year. Late summer, the light's so much better.

  10. Diana, Sound does bring the garden to life. I've thought of looking for something that can record sounds of the garden. A large part of the pleasure it can give is in the sound--cicadas all day long in high summer, frogs by the thousands in spring and even continuing through the summer, crickets and similar beasties at night, the birds and the wind.

  11. Elspeth, I'll check out your link. Thanks for the visit.

  12. Rob, the sun is lower now and the morning garden light, which was very harsh, has turned to backlighting, giving the plants more definition (important in my busy, mixed garden), and a beautiful "stained glass" effect as the light is transmitted through the foliage. This is my first Angelica gigas, so I hope to have lots of self seeding.

  13. Wow, what a fabulous garden! I'm just getting into grasses and this post has been a real inspiration to me that it's a good thing to do!

    I also loved your post on the New York High Line. It wasn't open last time I went to NY, so I've had to see it vicariously through others instead, so thanks for that - and for a great blog! :)

  14. Beautiful garden, in my favorite style, prairie with other stuff mixed in.
    I worked in a garden with this kind of spirit but, alas, the new owner wants 'neat & clean & mine', which I could not acomodate.
    One important point regarding 'prairie' gardening: it suits a setting with wide views and a 'wild' background.
    Great post.

  15. Dear Nutty Gnome, I hope you try it and like it. Don't know how it will go with your Japanese garden but, come to think of it, I do use many Japanese plants in my own garden.

  16. Chris, glad you like the garden. As to wide open spaces, I just don't have any of those. Call it a "woodland prairie garden," even if no such thing exists in nature. Actually, meadows of a sort, prairies if you will, do temporarily form at times in clearings in the woods. They always revert to woodland, but that's only if a person like me isn't around to continue the disturbance. I'm like the fire that created the original prairies, so to speak.



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