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.