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Monday, May 30, 2011

The Bad Tempered Gardener by Anne Wareham

Anne Wareham’s new book, The Bad Tempered Gardener, is irreverent, honest, funny, gossipy, and personally revealing. It's one of those books that practically reads itself. I didn't want to put it down.

Anne isn’t well known in the US, but in her home UK she has a reputation for stirring up quite a storm of controversy. She questions the status quo, the veneer of complacency that permeates the gardening world, the unspoken rule that one can say only polite things about gardens, never be critical or even honestly analytical. She annoys people—and many are important people in the British gardening firmament. Anne does have the manner of the elephant in the china shop, which she readily admits.

She also sees the gardening media as being complicit in all this. Not to say they are evil; they need to sell books, magazines, TV shows, and of course everyone wants to see pretty garden pictures; almost no one wants serious discussion or critical analysis; this is a sign of our times. Anne is one of the few, apparently, who is bothered greatly that gardening is relegated to an irrelevant place in our culture. She asks why that is. She apparently can’t stop herself from wildly gesticulating and pointing lewdly when she sees the Emperor walking naked in the street.

Anne Wareham takes “The Garden” seriously. She wants the garden to return to the important position it held in past times and cultures. I think she’s on to something:  the diminished importance of the garden as an artistic and moral work in our culture—now viewed as a hobby, like making model airplanes, or at the opposite extreme, as an expensive trophy of the wealthy—is a symptom of something out of kilter at a much deeper level. (I should admit my bias here; I’m on her side of this issue.)

A miscellany in the good sense, with a bit of biography, soul searching, garden history, media criticism, funny stories (“I hate gardening”), all presented as a series of generally chronological essays, varying widely in subject and tone, it’s just the kind of book you can dip into at any time of day or night; great for commuters. A collection of thematically related essays, generally covering the making of her garden, The Veddw, on the border of Wales, The Bad Tempered Gardener, to my  mind belongs with a group of fine, lesser known works, some classics. At the moment only a handful immediately come to mind, and they are all personal and idiosyncratic in some way—Eleanor Perenyi’s Green Thoughts: A Writer in the Garden, though you would probably have a hard time imagining two more different sensibilities, Mirabel Osler’s A Gentle Plea for Chaos, likewise a vastly different style and voice from Anne’s, G. F. Dutton’s Some Branch Against the Sky. They may disappear from sight for long periods, then be found again, bob to the surface on some metaphorical seashore, perhaps to be republished, or used copies will be ordered from Amazon or Ebay. They’re like messages in bottles, simply there in the mass of garden media “noise,” carrying messages that may be found by like minds in the future, perhaps to spark new ideas at a more propitious time.

As I was looking through the latest issue of Gardens Illustrated this week, I was wowed by the photos, but the text hardly registered as anything more than a neutral ground against which to display the photos. Even when I read an article, I was left thinking, ‘What’s the point of this?’ Perhaps someone designed, or had someone else design, a beautiful garden, but to what end? A few pleasant places to sit? Pretty vistas and plant pictures? Dramatic allees of hornbeams or pristine topiary? A  spectacular display of garden talent? Why is there no consistent concern with meaning, with aspiration for making something more than pretty gardens?

There’s no slickness in The Bad Tempered Gardener, no “garden porn,” though Charles Hawes' small garden photos give us helpful windows into The Veddw. I think of the glossy garden magazines, innumerable books displaying the gardens of the wealthy or famous—all surface glitter, stimulating unrealistic aspiration among the less well-to-do, giving The Garden a romantic glow but no meaning beyond the appreciation of a well designed stage set.

We need more books full of words about gardens. This one is funny, annoying, stimulating, and immensely sad. Please read it with an open mind and see if you don’t find much to think on.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Judy's visit to the High Line

On her visit to the High Line last weekend, Judy had only her cell phone camera with her. These look pretty good. Good enough to make me want to put railroad tracks into my garden.












Sunday, May 22, 2011

Glimpse of the High Line

Friend Judy Mann visited the High Line yesterday and sent me this photo, asking the name of the tree:  "...quite glorious, but I never saw anything like them before. Do you know them?"). My answer:  Purple smoke bush (Cotinus coggygria), exact cultivar not known.


I'd normally have described this as a scraggly specimen in need of a drastic pruning. But this planting makes me see it anew. And quite striking it is, with its awkward pompons stretching toward the open sky, and the contrasting low perennial surround. (And note there are several more in the distance.) The High Line is doing interesting, creative work, delightful horticultural accents to the Oudolf-designed plantings, and obviously entertaining park goers. These eye-catchers are capturing the public's attention and making them want to know more. A good thing.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Garden Diary: Closing the ground

An open scar in the woodland garden marks the spot where I stored piles of cedar chips, now gone, left from clearing  the land in the spring of 2005. Behind those piles is the utility and composting area. This place is one of the first you see on entering the woodland so I'm starting a restoration program to hide the composting area and close up this blot on the landscape. The soil is compacted, full of tree roots and stone. I have no idea what years of stored cedar chips may have done to the soil chemically and biologically.

On walking through the garden gate, the first thing the eye goes to is the scene below. The light and open space naturally draws the view there. So far, so good.


The early spring meadow area in the center between the paths is well along now; at least it's green, so I can turn my attention to the right side of the main path, which presents the major problem.


Ground covers are my first concern. On the right side (below), where the neglect is most evident, Hosta 'Francis Williams', Ajuga 'Caitlan's Giant', Spodiopogon sibiricus (hidden by the hostas), and Sweet woodruff are successfully negotiating the thin, heavy, wet soil.





And just past the "scar," another colony of Sweet woodruff is doing its thing. But looking slightly back to the right ...


... is the scar itself. Perhaps "scar" is too harsh a word. This is not an unacceptable floor for a woodland, but my preference is for a tapestry like groundcover of carex, pulmonaria, fern, epimedium, and hellebore. A few plants of Aster divaricatus (Eurybia divaricata) have seeded in from across the path, indicating this may also become a successful addition to the tapestry. I've planted some clump bamboos and hydrangeas in the background to get enough height to hide the composting area, but don't yet know whether they will do well in the conditions offered.


In other parts of the woodland garden I'm trialing other potential ground cover plants. Here Leucothoe auxliaris seems to be making a successful plant life.


And here Mattuecia struthiopteris is spreading into a colony--not as large as this fern usually gets, probably due to the packed clay it's growing in, but it is successfully spreading.


I could go on at length about groundcover plants in other parts of my "impossible" garden, but I don't want to frighten you. More on that later.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Plants for wet clay: Zenobia pulverulenta

Zenobia pulverulenta is a small shrub native primarily to coastal wetland areas of Georgia, North and South Carolina and Virginia. It's a strikingly beautiful plant whose delicately glaucous foliage seems to belie its unsophisticated origin. It prefers rather wet conditions, coming from raised wetland areas, usually underlain by peat, called pocosins. (Pocosin is a native American word meaning "swamp on a hill.")

Foliage color is this plant's main asset. Too bad it's lacking in structure and rather shapeless. It would look much better associated with other plants or a background that offers pleasing contrast or complementary color.

After a few years of growth, this shrub has grown large enough to make a significant visual effect. Zenobia seems to be a rather rare plant in cultivation, and the glaucous form isn't the only one. Some are simply green. I bought two at the Native Plants in the Landscape conference, a well known native plant gathering held annually at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, three or four years ago.


I was uncertain how the plant would fair in my often saturated, wet clay; its natural habitat, which is wet but apparently well drained, very acidic and low in nutrients, is quite different from conditions in my garden. So far my Zenobias appear to be thriving, vigorous, and in pristine condition. Their small, bell-shaped white flowers are borne in profusion in the summer, and the plants are bulking up into admirable specimens.


The lesson, I suppose, is that you can research a plant's origins and native conditions, but you can never successfully predict how well it will adapt to differing conditions in the garden. You just have to make educated guesses, and see what happens. Take a risk. There are serendipitous surprises.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Monday, May 09, 2011

Transient phenomenon

Sunset, golden light against a dark gray sky, lasting about 90 seconds, then gone.




Spring walkabout


Til now, posts on these garden walkabouts have only appeared in summer and fall. Spring just wasn't a good time in the garden on Federal Twist. The site is cold and wet, and most of the perennials that thrive in these conditions get a late start. Only this year is the garden beginning to show significant early season interest.


A part of the change is simply maturity. The communities of plants have had a few years to grow together, forming large masses varying subtly in height, texture and color. I've also added shrubs and small trees--while keeping the largest areas open for perennials only, essential for easy planting management--which provide a sense of scale, and a few evergreens, whose dark silhouettes contrast dramatically with the lighter spring greens and golds of the herbaceous perennials.


Right now the morning sun backlights much of the foliage, looking for all the world like fractured stained glass, and the broken light filtering through the partially leafed trees imbues the space with a sense of peace and optimism. The wind gently whispers; humming birds alight in the aged dogwoods that screen the garden view from the house. It's a most pleasant, but of course, transient scene, a momentary Eden which passes quickly enough ...


... passes, for me that is, to the "mechanics" of the garden, for example, structure, contrast in color and form, garden management practices ...

The graveled paths encircling the planted areas, like the dark evergreens, give a visual weight to the garden ... the stone walls, a hard mineral background contrasting with the soft vegetable tissues ...








It's far too early for the pond to be overgrown with vegetation. For a while, the there's a clean edge and the water surface reflects the sky, a distant dogwood (below), or serves as a simple foil for Camassias planted around the pond's perimeter. It's taken three years for these to settle in and get going. Now I see I should plant more, and in other parts of the garden, especially since they echo the form of the hybrid Petasites flower spikes, which are blooming at the same time.








Less photogenic, but essential to understanding another aspect of garden mechanics--the maintenance or management process--are the spreading mats of perennials. Here, an example of matrix planting, Symphyotrichum puniceum (formerly Aster puniceus or Swamp aster) has formed a wide circular mat that out competes many of the less desirable grasses.


And here, large masses of Filipendula rubra 'Venusta', which have been a strong and stable presence for several years now, even though the soil is crowded with a variety of competing plants. If you want to manage large areas rather than "garden" individual plants, you'll have to learn what plants are appropriate to your conditions. That knowledge isn't always easily available, so a willingness to experiment, and to fail, is necessary. I used to have a community of Liatris pyncnostachia mixed in with the Filipendula. It was a stunning combination, but the Liatris gradually succumbed to competitive pressure and has all but disappeared.


"Nature's first green is gold," Robert Frost, that great and cynical observer of Nature, wrote. To build on that golden theme of early spring, I added three Sunburst Honey Locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos 'Sunburst) in the early days of the garden. They've not grown much, but each spring their brilliant foliage beckons like finely hammered artifacts of gold. I don't want them to become large trees; these golden poles are fine.




Then I discovered the wonderful non-native Euphorbia palustris, which I've scattered around to create more pools of golden color, and I may add more. Note here too (below)  the thickly growing mass of violets--functioning here as another important garden management tool--ground cover (matrix planting again).




The more distant view from the raised terrace outside the house shows fine detail to the naked eye but not to the camera. What you do see is the void in the forest in which the garden exists, and that void is a defining characteristic of this garden:  a clearing in the woods, a safe place, though a tentative safety that might vanish in the blink of an eye.






Gardens are like that, constantly changing, threatening loss of control, running away from you if you aren't paying attention.

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