Saturday, January 28, 2012

Garden Diary: Brooklyn garden progress

The fence is in.

Now what color? I'm thinking of Charleston Green, a green so dark it's almost black, a color I love in gardens. You see it all over Charleston, South Carolina. My one reservation is that such a dark color will absorb a lot of light, so possibly a stone color instead? I definitely don't want to leave the wood bare. Suggestions welcome.

This was the view toward the new extension a couple of weeks ago.

Now I need the contractor's help with more of the "heavy lifting." I gave him the rough plan below as a guide to installation of a few garden basics:  a 5-foot by 14-foot bluestone paved area outside the glass doors to capture drainage water, a start on the garden pool, a hole roughly 3.5 by 8.5 feet (in which I'll build the pool when spring comes), and a plan to lay geotextile fabric for weed suppression under a 3-inch gravel layer as the base of the garden floor (the gridded area on the plan).

The ground elevation rises a foot or more from the house to the back of the yard (there was an 80-foot-tall mulberry there until hurricane Irene came through last fall, so the high elevation at the back can't be changed). I asked the contractor to "step up" the fence if necessary, and to add timbers to terrace the garden, thus accommodating the changing elevation. I'd actually prefer two 6- or 8-inch rises, front by back, but I'll live with what is necessary to avoid the cost of moving a large volume of soil through the house for disposal. The black dots are likely locations for trees--probably Sunburst Honey Locust, but that still may change.

Next week I'll get my first look at the space from outside. With luck and good weather, the initial paving may be finished too.

No planting plans yet. I've thought over numerous design and planting options (here and here and here), and I believe I'll go with the grove of box woods under the trees with random, modular perennial plantings (exactly what that is will remain to be seen once I've had the opportunity to experience the garden in its formative stage). Of course, there may be new ideas, surprises.

Of course, I need to improve the soil (an entirely different approach from my Federal Twist garden), and I need piles of compost. But that's well in the future.

Friday, January 27, 2012

A Wall Like No Other: Giardino Borghese

We're having quite a mild winter this year ... so far. This morning I even saw hellebore flowers emerging just outside the living room window at Federal Twist. This unusual climate is, in a way, worse than a winter of heavy snow and howling winds, which would be more appropriate and comforting. I can imagine the pleasure of a roaring fire with a nor'easter blowing outside, but these unnatural warm spells make me think even more longingly of spring. We on the Northeast coast of the US know spring won't really come until well into May.

So I'm diverting myself with memories of a spring visit in Italy almost a decade ago. And I'm finding some surprises.

I took these photos at the Borghese Gardens with my first digital camera. In looking through them, and doing a little Internet research, I discovered a garden device I've never been aware of before.

It's kind of like a three-dimensional, paradisaical, stand in for the conventional wall. A way to separate public from private space that's elegant, delightful, and gentle--no hurt feelings because you're being kept out.

Cardinal Scipione Borghese began the Villa Borghese (now Galleria Borghese) and gardens in 1605 as a kind of 17th century party palace, a villa suburbana on what was then the outskirts of Rome. His uncle was Pope Paul V, so he had status, money, good connections and, I imagine, many "friends." The building was designed more to display his artworks (he was a patron of Bernini) than as a residential retreat. He had many other residences for that purpose.

So it was intended as a kind of spectacle, a place for display of art, good taste, the prizes of wealth, and appropriately, a good deal of attention was given to creating a rather spectacular garden setting, something to dazzle the Roman glitterati of the early 17th century.

From very early in its history the public was allowed access to the front gardens of the villa, and that tradition became so well established it continued for centuries. But the other side of the villa was private. The Villa Borghese handles the difference between public and private in a beautiful way. To assure that privacy, linear gardens extended out from either side of the main villa. These were not open to the public, and they prevented access to the private, backside of the villa.

Your can see the layout--like a giant baton--below (courtesy of Google Earth), clearly separating the public side in the lower part of the photo from the private area in the upper half--a much more attractive solution than a garden wall.

To the right is the Garden of Bitter Oranges (Gardino dei Melangoli). The oranges are planted in pots, and at the time I was there--the end of April--they were swimming in a sea of irises. All the gardens immediately surrounding the house are still quite formal and geometric. Interestingly, the surrounding Borghese Gardens were redesigned in the "English" style from the 18th into the 19th century, and clearly imitate an English landscape garden, in contrast to the baroque gardens immediately around the villa.

Functioning like a startlingly ornate, three-dimensional garden wall, the Gardino dei Melangoli blocks public access to the back of the villa, which as you can see below, has no grand staircase, only a simple entrance for private use. Here too the garden is very formal, with box parterres planted with bulbs and annuals for seasonal flower display.

This private garden was also used for display of sculpture, though the grandest sculpture was safely housed inside, where it was protected from the elements.

This portion of the garden, which opens to the larger (now "English" style) garden beyond, is amply proportioned and has wide gravel pathways. The sense of open space on this cool, sunny day was heightened by the feeling of enclosure, awakening a sense of an ancient open glade amid a forest of trees. Quite a contrast to the rather fussy flower plantings of the parterre.

Then at the other end of the villa is another linear garden, which also functions to separate the public from the private sides. This baroque aviary or vivarium was designed by Girolamo Rainaldi. John Evelyn called it "an Elysium of delight" in 1644 and wrote that the vivarium housed ostriches, peacocks, swans and cranes "and divers strange Beasts."

This is the other side of the vivarium. A second one was built later further down from the villa.

These last photos show that view looking out and walking away from the villa proper into the English landscape garden.

And eventually the gardens, located on the Pincio Hill, end at the Spanish Steps, where visitors can reenter the busy urban life of Rome.

Of course, I'd like to take some kind of lesson away from this, something that might further the development of my little garden in Brooklyn (not so far fetched; I recall seeing a brand of chewing gum in Italy with the name Brooklyn Bridge!). I suppose my lesson is that enclosure can actually create a sense of space by calling attention to its limits.

(I should credit Wikipedia for much of the historical information in this post, and for calling 
my attention to the public and private aspects of the original Villa Borghese.)

Friday, January 20, 2012

Roman spring

A recent comment from Ross Hamilton set me thinking about two "aquatic" features I remember with great fondness from visits to Rome ... Ross was writing about suggestions for an architectural feature in a masonry wall I had imagined constructing in my new Brooklyn garden ... "My only thought ... would be to have a screen that has a (large) architectural fragment at its centre, and perhaps at its base, a small pond? A fragment would fit nicely into the Brooklyn sense of place, I think. Think of moss and fern covered ruins in Italy."

I was feeling a little winter tired when I read this, and I immediately recalled two wonderful memories of Rome, even had these photos from my last visit to Rome, in 2003 (so long ago!) ... one at the Forum and another in the Vatican Museums, both of which seem to fit Ross' description of moss and fern covered ruins.

First the Forum, which was actually full of fascinating vegetation in early May ...

At the entrance to the Palatine Hill is this striking composition of ferns, mosses, a few callas, and I don't know what else, water seeping continually down through the mass of vegetation on rock. Is this a vertical garden from antiquity? I've always wondered whether this was created in more recent times, or perhaps started as a spring, its beauty recognized and "cultivated" over the centuries. It's quite large, maybe twenty or so feet tall, as I remember.

Whatever it is, it captured my fancy when I first saw it many years ago, long before I became a gardener, and has remained as a powerful visual memory. If you know anything about this "vegetable fountain," please let me know.

The other similar aquatic feature is in the Octagonal Courtyard in the Vatican Museums, the very courtyard where some of the most famous sculptures in western civilization reside--the Apollo Belvedere, the Laocoon ...

So this is how I interpret Ross' suggestion for my Brooklyn garden. Crazy, I suppose. So very out of place to my mind. Even if something like this could be created in our climate, would it ever seem right? But what a wonderful fantasy!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Garden Diary: Speaking of geometry (footnote to previous post)

I won't be doing anything like this since I won't see the garden from above. But food for thought.

A garden design from House and Garden in 1956, courtesy of Leaf magazine, via Anne Wareham, via Susan Cohan:

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Garden Diary: Reimagining the garden

The external structure of the new room is up. Now I can see the pattern and geometry of the facade that will form the most prominent side of the garden--the entry side. The surprise is how very off center is the twelve-foot-wide door opening to the garden.  (The doors are black, and their sharp definition against the rough masonry facade has a lot of visual punch.) The scale of the back wall in comparison to the door opening creates a simple but powerful geometry I can't ignore. It will be a dominant element in the garden.

The grand revelation. Now I can see the back wall of the new garden
room, and it demands reimagining the garden.
I'm remembering what I learned in the books of John Brookes about using a grid derived from the dimensions of the house, or a significant component of the house, to define the garden space. It appears I need to work with a series of rectangles--the rectangle of a single door, the rectangle consisting of the unit of four doors, and the rectangle formed by the back wall of the extension. And, of course, the position of the door opening within the wall itself, which will determine how the body moves out of the house into the garden, which in turn sets certain spatial and aesthetic expectations.

The garden has to 'grow' out of this nest of shapes, and invite the human body to enter ... what? To be determined ...

I don't intend to abandon earlier concepts, those described here, and here, and here. But I do have some rethinking to do.

I'm quite happy about this. More challenges, more problems to solve. More fun!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Garden Diary: Down on River Road

Hey! Look at this... yet another post on my city garden to be. I'll try to remember to label these "Garden Diary" so potential readers will know obsessive navel gazing continues in this quarter.

I caught sight of this clearly man-made planting driving by on the river road a couple of weeks back--a grove of sycamores underplanted with boxwoods.

Another thought for the city garden. But instead, I'd have a small grove of Sunburst Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos 'Sunburst') underplanted with box. With one important addition ... spots of randomized perennial planting worked into the box matrix. The surface might be gravel, or gravel with stone.

Not exactly copied "from nature" since this is a utilitarian planting in a nursery, but one example of the place of chance and contingency in garden making.
I'm recalling Dan Pearson describing the planting technique he developed for the newly landscaped area in the enormous Millennium Forest project on Hokkaido in Japan. On a Gardens Illustrated podcast, he described the development of "modular" planting groups that were used to cover a large area of newly created garden, filling the space between the public entrance facilities and the more distant forest.

The hosts of the discussion, Tim Richardson and Noel Kingsbury, had brought up the idea of random planting, which is having a great surge of interest among gardeners in central Europe, and they asked the panel of Dan Pearson, Cleve West, and  Andy Sturgeon what they thought about this concept, and were they using it in their work.

The following is my attempt to transcribe spoken dialogue and it tends to ramble a bit, but I think you get the point. Describing the making of a meadow of cultivated plants that took inspiration from regenerating woodland floor at the Millennium Forest, Dan said, "We made about 18 zones, which were large drifts ... that may have only had 5 or 6 plants ... and then I worked out what I thought [would work] ... a guess, because I didn't know what this climate was going to do with this plant combination I was putting together ... I'd choose maybe one emergent plant that would be very tall and fine ... and one plant that would be a groundcover, something for early in the season, something for late ... I came up with this system whereby the plants were put together in this very random arrangement that was an absolutely fascinating exercise ..."

The important point is the use of random planting combinations, and having the willingness and knowledge to follow the changes in the plantings as they thrive or not in their various microclimates. Here are some images of the Millennium Forest project on the Dan Pearson Studio web site.

So this concept I'm thinking about for my new city garden is very much not about the crude, ugly  layout I will show below, but about a process whose outcome is uncertain, and demands continual engagement and willingness to commit to working with what comes. (Does this really differ from any other kind of gardening, I ask myself. Not really.) I realize the process Dan Pearson describes is taking place on an extremely large scale, not in a small garden, but I'd like to think about how random planting might work in the smaller context.

I suppose it's best to define what is meant by "random" in the context of a small garden. In this case, not a totally random distribution of plants, but a selection of plants "right" for the conditions and then a kind of ad-libbing, grouping and positioning plants without a preconceived planting plan in mind, working in the moment. This is more easily said than done, but an interesting way of engaging with the garden design process.

My intent would be to use a limited pallet of durable, long-season plants grouped with box balls to create a unified visual effect. For a start, the list might include tough plants I've had success with in the past--Bergenia, Helleborus foetidus, Epimedium, various Carex and ferns, even an occasional tall plant--Thalictrum, Angelica gigas, Inula sonnenspeer, Sanguisorba tenuifolia alba--if I could work them in.

I'm no graphic artist or draftsman, and I'm limited by my use of Excel as garden drawing software, but here is a crude representation of the concept I'm talking about. The groupings and distribution are not intended in any way to represent a final design. Only to suggest a concept.

Two or three small chairs, Bertoia chairs as one example, might be moved around the garden as wanted, so the gardener and visitors can sit in private, where neighbors can't see through the tree canopy. The chairs would need to function as sculpture.

Vines and groundcover plants, plants I probably haven't even yet imagined, might go into the narrow strips along the fence lines.

Though this is in no way a garden "design," I find it an interesting concept to contemplate during the coming cold months. I'm thinking this would involve continuous change to more or less degree, room for lots of trial and error, or simply change or not, as desired. Not so much a garden concept perhaps as a way of living.

And of course all this could be brought to a full stop and fixed to some degree, whenever necessary or desired.

Saturday, January 07, 2012


Near sunset on a hilltop near Oxford, Mississippi, early January 2012.

White oak (Quercus alba), a growing population of American beech (Fagus grandiflora), Sweetgum (Liquidambar Styraciflua) are the most notable trees, though the woods are full of vines and undergrowth, and many seedlings, especially beech. This is a forest in transition.

I spent my formative years here and this landscape speaks to me. This is William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, and the myths he created still linger in these hills and in my memory.

"Memory believes before knowing remembers, believes longer than recollects,
longer than knowing even wonders."

- William Faulkner, Light in August


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