Thursday, August 25, 2011

Garden Diary: Growing older in the garden ... a little navel gazing

Ah, the changes that come with age...

It's a subject that should be of interest to everyone since we all will grow old some day. I admit it's a subject I'd rather not think about, but living in the country where a visit to the grocery means a 20-mile round trip in the car makes city living seem a prudent alternative. We're fortunate to have both, and to be able to adapt to future conditions as necessary, having both a country house on Federal Twist Road and a city house in Brooklyn.

We're also thinking we should maximize rental income on our Brooklyn house as we move into retirement, so have made plans to enlarge the garden apartment and move there (probably a wise option if the "Tea Party" types manage to wreck the American economy.)

What this introduces into my life is a new city garden.

The new room we're adding, shown on the left in the plan below, will have twelve feet of glass windows and doors looking out onto what is now a derelict back yard. Thus, the need for a new garden--something to look at, for a start, and a real garden where I can do what is done in gardens. It will certainly be very different from the country garden at Federal Twist.

This is the view out back today. The tree is a Mulberry that, fortunately, never fruits. An arborist we had look at it about ten years back speculated that it might be one of the largest Mulberries on the eastern coast of the US. It's probably 80 feet tall and I'm guessing it may have been growing here when our house was built over 140 years ago.

Someday it will have to be removed. Can you imagine the cost of cutting up this monster and moving it out through the house?

So we'll have a shade garden. I've sprayed the plant growth with a glyphosate herbicide in an attempt to clear the ground. I'm not too worried about that right now because building the new foundation and adding a room will be terribly destructive. We'll have to wait for construction to end, let the air clear, and see what we're left with.

We certainly will need an attractive, new fence. And a plan for the garden. I'm thinking about gravel paving with clustered bluestone. We have over 200 square feet of it, some of which you can see sinking into the ground below. Until recently, this was a tenant's garden. He kept it up rather well. but once he lost interest, it quickly became overgrown and reverted to the mess you see now.

The back of the house is not attractive, but imagine a 16-foot-deep room added at ground level, new surfaces, new colors. The addition will leave a 20- by 40-foot garden space. Small understory trees will be essential for privacy. And I'm thinking about using bamboo on the right side to screen a neighboring house with four stories of terraces  ... probably clumping bamboo ... but perhaps a beautiful, tall running bamboo, if I can bare the expense of a liner to contain it. (I need a bamboo expert. Know one?)

The back wall of the existing house and new extension will have to be painted in colors complementary to the garden to be. Something warm, not this cold, bluish-grey.

The neighbor on the right (the house with overlooking terraces) has many trees, casting our plot into shade. That, added to the high canopy of the massive Mulberry, makes it impossible to think about any but an all shade garden.

I've been mulling over what to do for the last few months. This is my initial sketch. It may, or may not, become a reality. I really have to evaluate the space remaining after the construction ends, probably in November. But here is food for thought. I'm also considering hiring a professional for some "coaching" and to do phased, finished plans.

I recently read Dan Pearson's Home Ground: Sanctuary in the City. Though I'm in no way trying to imitate Dan's former Peckham garden in London, his book has been present in my mind as I think about my own urban garden and what I want from it. On first thought, for example, I might have made a sitting area close to the house. But I remembered Dan's writing about how important it had been for him to make a decked area out in the garden, away from the house, to pull people out into the garden, and make a setting where they could enjoy being "in" the garden, not at its edge. So I've used a deck for a sitting out area, toward the back of the garden. It would be surrounded by large-leaved plants that give visual interest, interesting scale, and a sense of shelter.

Though it gets lost in the bus-y-ness of the sketch, the small rectangular pool will be the heart of the garden. I'm imagining a still, tranquil, reflective surface, at grade, with no fountain or flowing water. An edging of bluestone, the historically appropriate material for brownstone Brooklyn. Frogs, or perhaps goldfish, will control mosquitoes.

I'm also thinking about plants, just to get the juices flowing. Decisions will come later. Here is the rapidly morphing, rather random, list:

Acorus gramineus 'Ogon'
Astilboides tabularis
Bamboo (clumping but upright)
Darmera peltata
Grasses: Chasmanthium latifolium, Hakonechloa macra,etc.
Galium odoratum
Hedera helex
Hydrangea arborescens
Hydrangea paniculata 'Limelight'
Kirengeshoma palmata
Ligularia japonica
Ligularia Othello
Parthenocisus henryana
Schizophragma hydrangeoides
Tetrapanax paperyfera (if it survives in Brooklyn, which theoretically is in Zone 7)
Trycirtis, other tall spiky things for shade

Perhaps a shady spot for rocks and a small moss garden ...

(Just possibilities ... do you have others to suggest?)

It will be an intimate space. Nothing like this.


  1. What a great opportunity to work on something completely different from your Federal Twist garden. I'm sure it will be just as stunning though. I really like the idea of the still pond in the shade garden. I saw one in the Mien Ruys Gardens and it had a great effect on the space. I was wondering about the seat in your draft plan and why you chose that spot? I would have pictured it in a more symmetrical location, perhaps right across from the pond (but set back slightly and 'embedded' in greenery?).

  2. I also live in an old townhouse with a walled garden. You will need a lot of big plants to soften all the sounds that bounce of the walls. I like your choice of plants. I suggest lots of bamboo!

  3. James,
    What an exciting opportunity. The Pearson book is the perfect inspiration. You might try Magnolia sieboldii as a small understory tree and epimediums as a ground cover. Hydrangea quercifolia could also be a nice texture. Looking forward to seeing what you do!!

  4. Garden Wanderer,
    Interesting that you invoke the name of Mien Ruys. I mentioned Dan Pearson, but I'm certainly an admirer of Mien Ruys' gardens. I put that seat in an asymmetrical location by accident, then decided I liked it there. At the corner it's more open at the sides, and doesn't break up the plantings. I think I might feel claustrophobic with the seat nestled in between plants. But I could change my mind. I want a certain degree of symmetry.

  5. Denise,
    I would love to have stone walls but those are rare here. Big plants I certainly will have, especially around the decked area, which may have to be larger. And bamboo, which I've never grown. I want bamboo. I saw several kinds on a recent visit to Chanticleer, a beautiful garden near Philadelphia.

  6. I deleter two comments by accident. Let this be a warning to those who read email on smart phones with small screens. It's very easy to press "Delete" instead of "Publish."

    First is a comment from The Intercontinental Gardener (

    James, you Mulberry reminds me of "my youngest oak" on the seaside of my house in Sweden; it has the same kind of gently curving, textured grey trunk. Lovely.

    Yes, I can see the influence of Dan's garden in the plan. It is a great idea to build the deck back in the garden, as you say, it will bring people further in there. And a pond always suggests calmness, which is probably needed in a city garden.

    I'm always torn between the choices for a shady garden; whether to revel in its shadiness, or to brighten up it with some variegated or light green/lime/chartreuse leaves. At daytime, I usually love the darkness best, but when nightime comes, I often crave for plants that don't disappear in the dark. Your plant list seems to support the first of these; it will be interesting to see how your city garden develops.

  7. Liisa, is the oak you refer to the one in your recent post? Probably not, because it looks old, certainly not your "youngest oak." I think I want to have some plants with silver leaves such as some Pulmonarias and willows, which will add a bit of brightness, and white flowered hydrangeas, the annual large, white, and very fragrant moon vine. I admit I'm anxious to get started but construction will probably not be finished until rather late in the fall. I'll be lucky to get in some "infrastructure"--fencing, paving, possibly the pool and deck. Of course, cost is an issue too.

  8. The second comment I mistakenly deleted is from Elephant's Eye:

    Sound, yes, I was wondering about that. Water that flows, very gently, gives white noise, an oasis in the city feeling? In the last garden we had a tiny patio pool, and my blue bench next to it, in the shade of an overarching Searsia/Rhus. I often sat there, lost in another (tiny) world!

  9. Diana, you make a good point. I do like the sound of water and the white noise would be valuable in a city garden. But I don't like messing with pumps, keeping them unclogged, etc. so decided on still water. Perhaps I'll want to add a some kind of dripping or splashing water, a large bowl shape with a small fountain, mostly for the sound, that can be easily accessed and maintained.

  10. William, thanks for the suggestions. Nandina was a much overused shrub where I grew up in Mississippi, and I learned to associate it with lots of direct sun. I really didn't know that it would take shade because I'd seen it in all day sun most of my early life. Now that I've gotten several decades of distance from it, I've grown fond of its exotic appearance. Mahonia is a favorite too, though I've not had much success with it in the country garden. Perhaps this new garden is the place.

  11. Michael,
    Magnolia sieboldii is an excellent suggestion I hadn't thought of. Frankly, I didn't know it would succeed as an understory tree. I'm particularly taken with this one, so will give it serious thought. I'll definitely use epimediums too. And I've been admiring a kind of unusual double-flowered Hydrangea quercifolia in Union Square Park. It's not really a double, but flowers seem to keep emerging from spent flowers creating a very unusual pattern. It may be 'Snowflake'.

  12. Ferns James. Big ferns like dryopteris filix-mas, the male fern et al.

    Billy's suggestion is spot on. Mahonia is a plant I really like. Good n'structural. Exciting times. Japanese anemomes take a fair bit of shade. The white 'Honorine Jobert' is a beauty and would light up the shade, particularly in the evenings.

  13. Rob, I like all your suggestions. Ferns, certainly. I love ferns. I have lots of Metteuccia struthiopteris at FT but I wouldn't stop there. I've always loved Mahonia foliage. And Honorine Jobert is another I've wanted to grow. I seem to be overwhelmed with choices. Fortunately, I have several months to let all this percolate through my fevered brain. I'm getting excited. FT may be left on its own for a while and that may be a good thing, seeing how it does, what kind of "balance" it achieves without my intervention, moving toward a lower maintenance regimen.

  14. Hi James, again... yes, the oak in my latest post is "my youngest". I have other two other ones on the front/street side of the garden, one of is twice the size and another that has a circumference of 4.2 meters (ca 14 feet) - I feel very fortunate to be a guardian of it for a small fraction of its lifetime. I love oaks, they radiate such a sense of history and of time passing... Have a great weekend, James. Liisa.

  15. Liisa, so your youngest oak appears to be quite old. I know what you mean about the sense of age and history. We have a few around us in the country that I imagine were mature trees when George Washington was in the neighborhood (we're just above where he crossed the Delaware on that cold winter's night over 200 years ago.) I hope you'll continue with your blog (in English) when you move back to Sweden, and return to your garden.

  16. Thanks for sharing this new, future project. I will follow with interest. 2 early on a uk sunday to even think of plant choices, but are your petasites better behaved in the US? Will have fab character. Are the needs of tenants different from those of owners?

  17. But I think I'm sad. How long have you been on Federal Twist, not long, right? If I had oodles of money I'd buy your place--the house, the garden, they are perfect. I understand your consolidation, but then again I don't (I'm sure there are many more factors than blaming a political party). I yearn, I crave to be out in the middle of nowhere, so to be in a row house with a small space would feel claustrophobic to say the least.

  18. I forgot to mention, Hypericum 'Golden beacon'. I grow it and the new foliage is a nice shade of yellow. I think it colours best with some sun, but I reckon a pert sun position would be ideal.

    Do you know Itea virginica? I don't have it but intend to do so. Nice catkiny flowers and a shapely shrub which, I believe is a US native. You got heavy rain there James? I've been watching Irene on the news.

  19. Robert, petasites isn't well behaved here either. But at Federal Twist the soil conditions do effectively control it. In Brooklyn, I think it will grow out of bounds quickly if not planted in a tub or something that will contain the roots. Tenants don't use garden so that's no issue, and almost any change will improve their view.

  20. Benjamin, thanks for the sympathetic message but we're not giving up Federal Twist, at least not for many years. This is just a consolidation to try to enter retirement in good financial condition. I'm actually looking forward to this small, more compact, more controlled garden as a contrast to the wildness of FT. I am a little concerned about how I'll find time for both, but I could have worse choices to make. (I realize one political party isn't the sole cause of our our financial distress in this country.)

  21. Rob, itea is a native shrub here. It colors beautifully in the fall and does well in shade. As to the weather, it now appears I will have a rather sunny garden. We are traveling in New Englend, but got word and photos from a tenant that the huge mulberry is entirely uprooted and now lies against a neighboring house, and our shady neighbor lost some trees. How quickly an environment can change! We are heading back to Brooklyn as soon as weather permits to deal with the mess. Now I'll have a sunny garden from about noon (the worst time for sun to hit the garden) to late afternoon, although the south side will remain in shade since it will be in shadow from the wall. Looks like I have to change my plans.

  22. I'm incredibly excited by this news, but I sense it will be a bittersweet change for you. This is an insanely destructive time in U.S. politics, but gardens can be immense solace. What about Japanese anemones for your shade garden?

  23. Right, Denise. After the storm, I have to see just how much shade is left. Japanese anemones will probably have a place because I need whites late in the season.

  24. Oh, I misunderstood. So glad you're keeping the place in the country. Then I envy you for the new challenge, which should surely benefit the larger space, and be benefited by FT.



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