Thursday, September 29, 2011

Plants for Wet Clay: Ludwigia alternifolia (Seedbox)

This little native plant isn't of particular interest until early fall. It does have small yellow flowers in mid-summer, but it's more inoffensive than pretty.

Now the foliage will quickly turn a fiery red. Seedbox does well for a few spots of early fall color. Below it's come up next to another self-seeder, Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica). Quite a blast, however brief.

But its seed cases are it's main claim to a place in the garden.

If it were more prolific, I might have to call it a weed.

Sunday, September 25, 2011


Among the most iconic of all American garden scenes, the Blue Steps at Naumkeag.

From Gilded Age to Art Deco, Mabel Choate and landscape architect Fletcher Steele made this classic American garden by freely adapting influences from cultures around the world--England, China, particularly Renaissance Italy.Though rooted in the Picturesque tradition, Naumkeag broke new ground in several ways, introducing large earthworks as a major landscape element for the first time in the U.S., and making Art Deco a significant garden style. Mabel Choate and Fletcher Steele avoided pastiche by staying true to the sense of place, to the low, misty, magical Berkshire Mountains, and by using simple, ready-to-hand materials like concrete, brick, wood, and paint. No imported marbles or recreations of European gardens here ...

Below, the entrance to the house, a building of subdued opulence, designed by Stanford White, only for seasonal summer use, and located in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, near Edith Wharton's home, The Mount, not at the shore in Newport. The Choates bought the land and fell in love with the mountain views early in the life of the family, and their love of this place and its distant views was an important influence on the garden that would come to be, assuring the house would be sited high, and the gardens would surround the house on high terraces.

Below, the Top Lawn and terrace, behind the house, with a view of the mountains. Making a garden must have been a challenge on this steep slope. Frederick Law Olmstead, who they first consulted, told them to build at the bottom of the hill. They had visited the land and picnicked there for several years, and were not willing to give up the views. So they promptly hired another architect.

Renaissance Italy haunts this garden. The Choates named this view at the end of the Top Lawn the Perugino View.

A glance toward the South Lawn, just before entering the Afternoon Garden, Fletcher Steel's first design at Naumkeag ...

 ... the Afternoon Garden functions as an outside room ...

 ... with (Italy again) painted Venetian gondola poles (though of simple materials, reclaimed from Boston Harbor, carved and decorated with paint) ...

 ... a pergola ...

 ... a boxwood parterre ...

... and Mabel Choate's sleeping porch, like a treehouse, overlooking the garden ...

... a formal, yet quiet, intimate, tranquil place ...

The Pyramid Steps are an unobtrusive and beautiful transition, leading from the Afternoon Garden to a runnel of water sloping away to the iconic Blue Steps (we'll get to that later) and the South Lawn, which stretches off into the distance.

Looking back toward the house, the South Lawn is defined by a double hemlock hedge on one side and a curving line of globe locusts (Robinia pseudoacacia 'Umbraculifera') in the other. It provides a long, sunny walk ...

... to the Pagoda ...

The South Lawn is one of the earliest examples of use of an earth work for landscape purposes in the U.S. By chance, Mabel Choate stopped a fleet of trucks carrying loads of earth, bought it on the spot, and had it dumped in the rough area that was to become the South Lawn.

Research conducted for the application nominating Naumkeag as a National Historic Landmark notes that "here, Steele was inspired by the shape of distant mountain silhouettes and by the experiments of modern sculptors such as Brancusi. It was the earliest modern 'earthwork' recorded in this country and the progenitor of many later experiments with abstract modeling of earth forms. Steele wrote, 'So far as I know it was the first attempt that has ever been made to incorporate the form of background topography into foreground details in a unified design.'"

Fletcher Steele used the material "to create an abstract form in the manner of modern sculpture, with swinging curves and slopes which would aim to make their impression directly, without calling on the help of associated ideas, whether in nature or art." The National Historic Landmark application documents the influence of this work on earth artist Robert Smithson and landscape architects such as A. E. Bye, Rich Haag, and George Hargreaves.

 A beautifully designed reference to the Italian water steps of the Renaissance and even earlier Islamic gardens, the Water Runnel leads from the Afternoon Garden and Pyramid Steps ...

... to the Blue Steps. Though the design concept comes directly from history, Steel's success, perhaps genius, was his adaptation of the design using modern materials--a blaustrade of simple metal tubing painted white, concrete steps and ramps, blue painted niches--that make it Art Deco of the highest order, and more closely akin to a Hollywood or Busby Berkeley stage set, than to Renaissance Italy ... not to mention the white birches, which are pure New England.

Though at the bottom of the steps there is nothing but grass.

This is quite a disappointment. After this brilliant descent, the bare expanse of grass with a few diseased fruit trees seems like an unkind trick. Mabel Choate had her cutting and vegetable garden here, but I doubt it could have provided a satisfying conclusion to the journey down the steps. A creative solution would be for the Trustees of Reservations, who own and operate this extraordinary property, to commission a modern design, or hold a competition, to complete this work.

Otherwise, visitors will have to resort to cropping out the lawn at the bottom of their photos, as I did. But only this piece of the garden seems unfinished. Back at the top of the steps are other pleasures ... such as the misty landscape views ...

... which could indeed be the background in a Renaissance painting.

The Rose Garden is another Fletcher Steele tour de force (not because of the roses; almost anything would look better than those gangly, bare sticks), but because of the striking abstract, geometric design, best viewed from above.

Here is a borrowed photo from Todd Haiman's Landscape Design + More, which gives a better view. (Do click the link to Haiman's blog for a fascinating and more detailed account of Naumkeag.)

Though the most notable parts of the garden only began when Mabel Choate inherited the property, and began a 30 year friendship and collaboration with Fletcher Steele, Nathan Barrett developed the original design for Naumkeag's terraced gardens in the 1880s.

Barret was responsible for some of the more traditional parts of the garden including the Arborvitae Walk, shown below, which leads ...

... to the Evergreen Garden.

Here we find a different spirit entirely, more traditional, certainly less playful than the rest of the garden, nothing modern at all.Tranquil, certainly, though the symmetry is marred by the slightly misplaced, or mispruned, Thujas on the right.

But a glance to the right reveals Fletcher Steele again, with a terraced approach to the Chinese Garden. I admit this isn't my favorite, though I find the subtle terrace plantings and the cloud motif of the large stones embedded in brick to be masterful.

And the moon gate. Beckoning, dramatic, intriguing, mysterious, stalwart, magical. It leads directly to the front of the house, completing the high circuit of gardens that is Naumkeag.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Garden Diary: Aftermath of Irene (in the country)

While the seemingly endless tree removal continues in Brooklyn, I made a quick round trip to the Federal Twist house and garden to check on hurricane damage, which a neighbor had told us was minimal. After seeing the gravel drive washed away (the force of the water made ruts nine inches deep), I didn't know what to expect back in the garden.

I discovered the effects were a lesson in letting nature take its course. Apart from a few plants that had fallen in the sustained high winds and driving rain--some of which lie in graceful arcs and at attractive, odd angles--the garden was mostly unscathed, a comforting reminder that nature takes care of itself. Some plants need to be cut--those blocking paths or otherwise contributing too much to the chaos, but that's easily done and hardly noticeable.

Seeing the garden falling into a relaxed state of apparent neglect was a pleasant reminder that the advent of fall is near; the garden will finally reach its climax in the next month. And the easy dishevelment left by the storm reminds me of the long-term future of this garden. It's something I've been working toward and, as we start a small urban garden in the city, I think it's time to consummate the plan.

That plan is to let the garden at Federal Twist go a little. Not entirely "go," not in the sense Germaine Greer recently advocated in the Telegraph, and Robert Webber so vociferously denounced in The Hegarty Webber Partnership blog, but to make some trial in allowing the garden to survive on its own terms, with minimal intervention. That doesn't mean I will stop paying attention; an abandoned garden would soon become chaos or, in our location, woodland. What I will do is focus maintenance on essentials. Weeding, and editing to remove inappropriate self-seeded plants will remain on the agenda, as will occasional cutting with a string trimmer. And of course, the annual burning and cleanup in early spring.

This past year, I've tried to give some of the larger plants "breathing room," clearing the soil around their bases and mulching, one last "huzzah" push into independence. Next year will be a time of waiting to see which plants win over the next few years. Part of this, of course, is psychological ... finding out just how far I can take this process, and how much dishabille I can comfortably live with.

I'll do my best to pull back quite a bit and see just how much maintenance is absolutely necessary.

The upside of Hurricane Irene's passing is that I got to see just how little difference it made. Certainly, there are debris to be removed and plants that need cutting back, branches that need to be picked up ... but all in all I've judged the garden a success just because it wasn't destroyed by the storm. This is so mostly because its "ideal" state is one of ordered naturalism, with structure provided by stone walls and paths, the house raised above on one side, and by a loosely structured arrangement of plants in groups, drifts, in contrasting shapes and textures.

I have no doubt Penelope Hobhouse would not approve. But this works for me. (No criticism of Ms. Hobhouse intended ... I'm a fan of her work.)

So here are some record photos of the aftermath ...

Above you can see some of the clearing done around the bases of large plants, even some mulch, just to reduce competition for one more year. I'd like to infill this area with Pycnantheum muticum and orange daylilies (Hemerocallis) as groundcover.

I do note that the silver Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum muticum), visible in the middle of the above image, will be increasingly important in the "lower maintenance" garden of the future. It's a beautiful plant, especially its silver color in mid- and late summer, it thrives in this place, is a formidable groundcover, is extremely fragrant, and attracts an enormous variety of insects.

More Pycnanthemum muticum with storm tossed Petasites, another great groundcover, though far too invasive for most gardens (not mine), and Miscanthus 'Silberfeder'. All the miscanthus are great groundcover plants.

Ironweed (above) is increasingly important to the structure of the late garden. This New York Ironweed (Vernonia noveboracensis) was added only a couple of years ago, but it's spreading and will need control in the future.

If I had to pick a "most important" plant, it would be the Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) leaning precariously above. It was thrown about by the storm rather violently but is none the worse for wear.

Not that it's the most important plant to the structure of the garden. Not at all, but for me it's the most distinctive plant, one with an unmatched magical quality. Its strong, thin stems tower and dangle above the plant's enormously large, paddle-shaped foliage for a good three months, suggesting a world of airiness and fragility. It's marvelous.

I don't normally care for much of the sculpture I see in gardens, but I find Marc Rosenquist's piece makes an important structural contribution, serving as a kind of anchor, a center point that conceptually and visually organizes the experience of the garden.

The long, curving stone wall and gravel path have a similar function, "containing" the garden, "retrieving" it from the inward pressing woodland ...

 ... as does the house.

I have at times thought my garden too wild, and longed for something more controlled, more formal. This visit from Irene has made me realize I've finally made a garden that can even survive a hurricane unscathed. I'll try to be content, and try to maintain my commitment to minimal intervention for a while.


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