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.


  1. I am glad your garden survived the storm. Most of my damage was from falling limbs. I had a few things that had put on considerable recent growth because of more consistent rains, and these were the first to bow down to Irene. I often think I am done with the garden, but like you some editing and lots of weeding are still needed. Also in my case, I have crowded the garden beyond what would occur naturally, so I do have several major pruning sessions each year.

  2. James,
    The garden looks great. That final shot of the house is especially nice and maybe even a little formal with those upright evergreens-- a very nice composition. Glad the country garden fared better than the city one.

  3. I know what you mean, Les. I think it's a wonder you didn't have more damage being so close to the water. And pruning ... yes, I forgot to mention pruning. I need to do major pruning, especially on the willows, almost every year. Some I coppice, or stool, and they still attain a height of ten to fourteen feet in one season.

  4. Thanks, Michael. I was at Naumkeag (we are salvaging a part of our vacation, visiting friends who run an inn in the White Mountains) earlier this week for my first visit there, where there are mature Arborvitae (the same "shrub" in my photo). The tree us unfortunately so overused we learn to miss its beauty, and we forget what a stunning large tree it makes.

  5. I really enjoy seeing your posts about your more naturalistic New Jersey garden. You've pulled it together beautifully, as far as I'm concerned - enough structure and editing to keep it peaceful to human eyes, but enough "wildness" and use of appropriate plants to survive storms and sink into the surrounding landscape.

    Living out here in prairie country, I'm particularly intrigued to see your use of natives, including some that are particularly important to our local landscapes - prairie dock and ironweed in this post, for example. (Although we have different ironweed species here: Vernonia baldwinii as our most common native ironweed and I'm enjoying the finer texture of Letterman's ironweed, Vernonia lettermannii, in my garden this year.)

    I'm looking forward to seeing how your gardens change and grow in the future. Good luck with your Brooklyn garden redesign - I was sorry to see your big (mulberry?) tree uprooted there.

  6. I think your garden would cope quite well with a little hands off approach, it is so naturalistic it can take it. Mine however wouldnt, I tried not cutting all the grass this year and couldnt stand it after about 6 weeks it just looked wrong in this garden.

  7. Glad you (and your garden) weathered the storm well. I'll be watching with interest to see how much you can "pull back" from the garden. If nothing else, it will be an interesting experiment on how light a hand you can have and still maintain a garden. One thing is for certain, the garden really has a sense of place...and of maturity...seeing all the plants forming communities and whatnot. Love those Vernonia...I love those vibrant shots of color among the rich greens.

  8. A garden that can survive a hurricane unscathed

    he says casually!

  9. My thinking, James, is that it makes sense to let Federal Twist go a bit feral. The garden looks like it could take it, since you've established its framework. And surely, from your own point of view, you don't want to be so tied down to maintenance you can't get away from it. There are a million garden philosophies, all with merit: one of the most relaxing is to let the garden have its way and look after itself, without getting too anal about what's right and what's wrong. I know from my own observation that my garden will often show me the way forward, rather than the other way around.

  10. Interesting to see how well herbaceous vegetation survives. I remember Jim van Sweden talking about grasses being hurricane-proof. Now we know he wasn't just hyping. There is a lot of variation in how things stand wind here, which is (obviouusly) not so strong, but often more persisent. Much depends i suspect on root networks, - amazing to see how effectively radial a two yaer old Vernonia root system is, or big Eupatoriums , hard work to dig up to transplant, and of course taht wold give them enormous strength in a wind.

  11. Gaia Gardener, thanks for the comment. I suppose I'm trusting to something like the Gaia theory in letting go a little.

  12. Patientgardener, I agree my approach wouldn't be appropriate in many gardens. My garden "emulates" wildness, so it works there.

  13. Scott, next to the Joe Pye Weed, the intense color of the Vernonia is startling. It grabs your attention from a distance, and plays tricks with depth perception. I'm glad to have more.

  14. Diana, if I grew dahlias, I'm sure I couldn't report the garden a success. As it is, I can name a few plants that didn't do well in the winds. Inula racemosa 'Sonnenspeer' is one. They were all flattened, but they're so prolific, it doesn't matter. I'll just cut them out and compost them. They served well most of the season.

  15. Faisal, I like your comment about letting the garden show you the way forward. I hope I'm learning to let it do that, and to drop the "battle of wills," if a garden can be said to have a will.

  16. Noel, thanks for pointing out the importance of root networks. It's not something I'd thought much about. I do think it's an important factor in a plant's ability to withstand wind and rain. However, in my experience, all grasses are not "hurricane proof." Some are. Miscanthus, for example, and some of the panicums. P. 'Cloud 9', though very light and airy, stands up amazingly well. 0ther panicums (Shenandoah, Dallas Blues, Heavy Metal), though able to withstand high winds with ease, are flattened by heavy rain, especially the repeated heavy rains we've been having in the Northeast. I think the aerodynamics of the garden setting may have something to do with that.

  17. I saw you mentioned on Laurrie's blog and thought that I would pay a visit.
    You have a beautiful garden and luckily it came through the storm without much damage.
    I like the way the garden smoothly transitions into the surrounding environment. I recently admired Ironweed in a local garden. I did not realize that it likes to wander and will now carefully consider a place for it in my own garden.

  18. I think you are making an interesting contribution to possibly changing the way we see gardens - helping to open people's eyes to a new and different 'look'.

    And one of the critical skills will be to know exactly when naturalistic tips into too messy. This boundary may change as our 'eye' changes as well as when the light and weather change...

    I wonder similarly at this time of year about when decay turns from romantic and sad into depressing.

  19. Jennifer, thank you for noticing that the garden transitions into the surrounding environment. It's important to me to know others see that.

  20. Anne, your comments make me think, and I feel another blog post "coming on" about how we see gardens, where to draw (or find) the line "when naturalistic tips into too messy," etc. I think it's akin to looking at some Modern Art (I capitalize because I'm referring to a movement that has past, to some paintings that go back a century.). We see organization and relationships among shapes and colors, and we recognize when something "works" and when it doesn't. But it's hard to define that in a recipe or formula. (One reason I'm turned off by some of the "plant by numbers" approaches being used lately.) Not to say gardening is like painting, not at all, I'm just using an analogy. I purposely included some images in which I think the balance is tipping into messiness (after the storm, or areas obviously "in progress"), and it would be useful to explore that more deeply.

  21. It's a fine line.

    Noel's comment about root structure is interesting, though I guess the potential problem is less about plants uprooting and more of bent or snapped stems. I wonder, is frost heave more of a problem for you in your zone 6 winters?

    Well, the garden's had the wind through it's hair but looks fine despite. You'll know when it's become 'under-gardened'

  22. A fine line indeed. It helps to take off your glasses (if you wear them), ha! Seriously, this kind of garden does work better from a distance at certain times, and that's fine. There's something about looking out from a high point, from a "little" prospect. For walking through and exploring the details, spring, early summer, the height of summer in late July through August is best. No, I've never had a problem with frost heave, wind seems not a serious problem, but hard, driving rain can do damage to some grasses, flattening them, but I've been watching the smashed panicums recover, coming up in irregular clouds that will take on colors and do their bit as the fall progresses.

  23. James,
    Greetings from the Kansas prairie. I love the relaxed look of your garden and the skillful use of plants. I realize it takes a lot of work to look relaxed without messiness and I commend you for it. Keep up the great work.

  24. Thanks, Patrick. I hope to reduce the work required. The experiment continues.



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