Thursday, November 10, 2011

Garden of Light

"We garden with light!" - Anne Wareham
I thought the heavy, wet snow storm of October 28 (an extraordinary storm so early in the season) would have destroyed the garden, at least for the rest of this season, and for the most part it did.

But the clear air and low sun yesterday morning showed the power of light to transform even a scene of ruin into a kind of beauty--light, and the frame of a camera, can create appealing pictures, even of colorful destruction, but a walk through the garden in the morning light was something much more special than I had expected, more than a series of pretty pictures; it was more about atmosphere, context, and illusion.

Certainly no one would call this a "flower garden."

A garden of light, perhaps?

Even this scene of apparent devastation has quite a bit of interest, for me anyway. A kind of botanical archaeology of the garden year. If you click on the image to expand it, you may see what I mean:  evocative contrasts of color, shape, and tone, like impasto on a canvas.

This morning encounter set me thinking about the limits many of us put on our use of the word "garden" because what I was experiencing, while certainly appealing to my senses and thought-provoking, wasn't typical of what most people seek in a garden visit. That is changing, I think, as more gardens imitate, or seek to replicate, the processes and "look" of wildness--gardens like the High Line in New York City or any of many gardens in the "New Perennials" style. As these new gardens become more popular, they may be leading to a gradual change in expectations.

The scene before me was of destruction in large measure--flattened plants, mangled grasses lying in heaps and broken spires, circles of green iris foliage looking for all the world like they had been exploded from their centers and laid out flat on the ground, leaning towers of rich leaden brown Joe Pye Weed, limber willows sprung back from their ice-covered flatness with feathery foliage still intact, the giant miscanthus badly battered but still mostly upright. It was a scene of colors and shapes clearly akin to a kind of abstract painting, some elements a result of intentional choice during planting of the garden, others completely random.

Grasses, even torn into such asymmetrical shapes, are one key to gardening with light. But not just any light; backlighting the tangled foliage makes such a damaged garden come to life. Grasses become like myriad and intricately shaped lanterns, catching the light, amplifying and transforming it through some process of inner refraction and building up of color effects into a bit of the ethereal, a hopeful glimpse into potential, the possibility of beauty in ruined things.

The opening of the woods as the leaves fall lets the light stream through in picturesque shafts of brilliance. Ironic though it may seem looking at these images, the pleasure of my garden is an old, and obvious, one, going back to the Picturesque tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Consider the effects of light, atmosphere, color, scene in the paintings of the Hudson River School, a vision of landscape, with a powerful dose of nostalgia for the past, that formed one of the most enduring myths of America. Much of my appreciation of the ruined garden is a similar romantic, even sentimental, feeling for  "nature," an old and very traditional sense of landscape characteristic of the American experience with the natural world--also my penchant for seeing the garden as a theatrical stage set, though one that takes years to make and that constantly changes. Smoke and mirrors, a human kind of seeming magic.

The spaces in the woods created by the fall of the leaves and the newly penetrating light bring a sense of release after a summer of profuse growth. This seems appropriate to the time of year. In summer, the focus is on the garden; the woods are simply a wall, an enclosure. Now, with the shortening days, the light of the sun streaming through the woods makes me raise my eyes from the low plain of the garden to the bright depths of the surrounding trees, to the wooded world beyond the garden, reawakening awareness of the interconnections of garden and natural world, of human culture with nature, present with past.

The smells were sweet that morning. The fragrances of autumn will soon become the odors of fermentation, rich, earthy, savory, but this day the early processes of slowing growth and decomposition were sweetly reminiscent of freshly mown grass or fresh cut hay.

So this is my goodbye to the garden for another year.


  1. We have had no snow yet here in Wales and the temperatures are absnormally high but today is so grey and dank that there is nothing to see. The whole garden is a wet, grey blur of dampness. Your photographs show how vital light is to the garden. I agree wholeheartedly about the sense of release that can accompany the loss of leaf growth. I also have every year a feeling of relief that I can move indoors which is astonishing when you know how vital my garden feels to my well being for most of the year!

  2. James,
    I hope you realize how lucky you are to have a "wooded world beyond the garden" that you can borrow upon in your vistas. Being stuck in the middle of the city, my "beyond" is comprised of fences, garages and neighbouring houses. It is very confining but also very happily challenging to create a garden in such a small space where everything can be seen in one look. Or can it? My vistas are seen from a mouse's view as well, so perhaps they are just as grand as yours! ;c)
    Always a pleasure to live vicariously through your glorious country "garden".

  3. Elizabethm,
    We certainly have had our share of such grey days. One of the reasons I have the kind of garden I do is the enjoyment (in normal years, if there are any!) of the shapes, structures, and colors of the strong perennials standing through fall and well into winter. But this year we had a hurricane, then a tropical storm, then heavy rain for prolonged periods and, finally, an early storm of heavy, wet, icy snow (about 8 to 10 inches). That squashed the garden like never before. Like you, I welcome what remains, the gifts of the autumn light, and the sense of openness and release, and retreating inside to a roaring fireside until spring.

  4. Ailsa,
    I do love the woods (except when trees fall and cut off electricity for a week) and realize how fortunate I am. I'm planning a small garden in Brooklyn, however, and it will have similar views to yours--probably more unattractive--so I think my aim will be to create a canopy of foliage to block most of the views, except for the sky overhead. But I can't even think of starting that garden until next spring. Thanks for your comment.

  5. As I read through your post and looked at your beautiful fall photos, I kept thinking of all the bird life that is assuredly finding food and shelter in your garden - you've truly set a bounteous feast for them. The plants may be dormant, but I can't believe that there isn't a great deal of active life in that landscape!

  6. I find myself agreeing with you on all counts. My garden in winter bears little resemblance to the strikingly hoar-frosted winter images in the pages of gardening magazine, but I still find it endlessly fascinating in winter. I think you touched on all the reasons for my similar attraction to this type of landscape...which is more than a little due to my romanticizing of nature. For me, so much of why I garden (and love gardens in general) is the moods they can convey...and a reason I love the New Perennial (aka Oudolf) school of thought is that it seems to encourage that idea that a garden should be should provoke an emotion, a reaction beyond the surface aesthetic appeal. I love the idea that this time in the garden is our well-earned rest...and these remains aren't detritus, but the ghosts of summer glory.

  7. Gaia Gardener,
    Yes, the last few mornings the birds have been our in force, flying in a frenzy I think it's related to reproduction, but I'm not sure. The garden is full of Praying mantis egg cases, and I don't know what else. This morning I had a flock of wild turkeys in the garden, unusual because it's surrounded by an 8-foot-high deer exclusion fence. Big turkeys! Fifteen or twenty. I think they've finally all flown out after several hours of back and fourth. I do envy your open prairie, though I realize I'm fortunate to have my wooded seclusion.

  8. Ah that's what I glimpsed, a deer fence. I was under the impression your garden just flowed out seamlessly into the woods.

  9. Scott, I agree so much that mood, atmosphere, emotion of extremely important. If a garden doesn't get to me emotionally, it just doesn't work for me. I've seen some beautiful gardens, some that are aesthetically successful or intellectually stimulating, but I go away with a feeling that something is missing. I don't deny there are many different kinds of gardens, with different purposes, different meanings. When I first saw the photographs in the Oudolf and Kingsbury books 8 or 10 years ago (also Oudolf and King, Oudolf and Gerritsen) I was immediately "converted" by the powerful emotions they evoked.

  10. Diana,
    Without the deer fence, there would be NO garden. We have an extraordinarily large deer population. So many that driving at night is very risky. I am working to plant shrubs and grasses to obscure the fencing, but it does take time. In most lights, it's virtually invisible.

  11. Exactly. You show it so well. I am headed to NY on Sunday with a friend to once again visit the High Line. My husband said, "but there won't be anything to see." He is, of course wrong, as your post explains. There will be much to see. It isn't a flower garden where a blooming rose is the only attraction. Your garden, your woods beyond, the artificial space of the High Line, they are all wonderful even now. Especially now.

  12. Enjoy the visit. I'm sure you'll find a lot to look at/be in/enjoy. I predict lots of color.

  13. Evocative indeed, especially the chairs situated to enjoy the summer garden, their purpose now in stark contrast to the scene surrounding them. This is brave gardening, without strong formal bones to soften the blow, allowing nature's voice to ring through so clearly it hurts -- as well as thrills and enchants. Bravo, James.

  14. It is all about the light.

    That Wareham woman is right.

    My appreciation levels for light quadrupled once I started taking photos. That and staring at a Panicum 'squaw' in late October, late afternoon sunlight.

    I know that freak early winter storm knocked some of the stuffing out of the garden, but it looks special to me.

    I like the fact you describe Autumn's smell. It is exactly that, earthy, composty, all heading back to the ground. Au revoir, le jardin.

  15. Ah yeah the light fandangle.. Just goes to show from these snaps that if you put all your eggs (in this case grass) in the one basket to are tempting fate! All the more reason for a more comprehensive range of plants to hold the fort when certain plant types get trashed! One wonders how the Oudolfian scapes fare after such treatment! BUT then again i can grow such a vast range of plant types I never have any down time!

  16. Denise,
    After looking at DryStoneGarden's post on a week at Joshua Tree, I've been fantasizing about living in Palm Springs and having a desert garden. That will never happen, of course. The little non-living structure my garden has--stone walls and gravel paths--is beginning to emerge with the fall of the perennials (and leaves). I actually like the tabula rasa of winter and, especially early spring, after I've burned what remains, when there's a bare pallet of potential, so to speak. Thanks much for the comment.

  17. Rob, Autumn is the most fragrant season, memorably fragrant, much more than spring or summer. Don't know if that's a personal quirk, a matter of taste, or pure orneriness. Yes, light and grasses. Someone should write a song.

  18. William, so right you are. But I'm satisfied. I like watching the process, and it seems appropriate to this place.

  19. James,
    You have captured some really lovely images. You make destruction look beautiful. Unfortunately, most I my grasses got smashed and I cut them back this week. Very sad, because they are normally the cornerstone to the November garden.

  20. Michael,
    This is a first for me. The grasses have always survived well into winter, but the effects of this extraordinary weather are at least interesting to observe. Miscanthus giganteus and Joe Pye Weed both came through with interesting structure remaining. The smaller Miscanthus 'Silberfeder,' gracillimus and 'Adagio' lost their shapes but some are turning spectacular colors. The Miscanthus purpurescens is totally flat, not even recognizable. Ligularias did well too, and even the glaucous foliage of Rudbeckia maxima remains a colorful addition to the floor of the garden. Unlike you, I won't cut the smashed grasses. I'd rather let them become dessicated over winter, then selectively burn them in the last days of winter. No biomass to dispose of and, if done while snow is still on the ground, they self-extinguish at ground level.

  21. Wonderful pictures of a very REAL garden, James.

  22. Faisal, yes, REAL. No one would intentionally set out to achieve this effect. Things happen.

  23. Even portraying destruction, it is beautiful, and the redeeming quality of destruction in a garden is that come next year it will only be a memory.

  24. Time to sit by the fire and read. Next April it all starts again. I grew up in the South, and still expect to see signs of spring in February, but no, not until April, May, really.



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