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.


  1. Continuous change...

    The enjoyment is in the doing so you may never be able to achieve the full stop even if you wanted to, isn't that the point though?

    I guess the plan is the bones, fleshing out the random element. Somehow I think this way may be the most satisfying take to date.

  2. Diana,
    Yes, a metaphor I overlooked. And rhythm is certainly an important part of this garden concept.

  3. Navel gazing?! Hardly. Planning a new garden is immensely exciting. I like this plan, which is firm and structural but also allows for experimentation with plants, instead of just saying there will be hydrangeas and box, for example, tho there's nothing wrong with gardens built with those plants either. And thanks for reminding me to check these excellent podcasts more frequently!

  4. Rob,
    It gives me lots of freedom. It's also easy to build in garden elements a little at a time, as budget and time dictate, allows lots of room for play (garden play), and can be fixed at some future point if need be (or possible for me to do). Satisfying, yes, in the sense that so much is left undone without being "unfinished." The underlying layout may turn out to be less symmetrical once I can experience the slightly off-centered view from inside the new room.

  5. Denise,
    Part of me wants certainty, but I know that's not possible. Trying to remain open to possibility, without fear of chaos, isn't easy for me. Hey, I may even put in a hydrangea or two. I think this could be like learning to balance on a high wire.

  6. James,this discussion about randomness, or apparent randomness is very interesting, and you're obviously putting alot of care into your vision. I really like the idea of an upper storey and an under storey, and I like the minimal palette.

  7. Hi James, at the risk of being difficult (what's new?!) how would this be different from that old 'Cottage Garden' style?


  8. Faisal, your comment and Anne Wareham's following it remind me to be careful about what I think "random" means in such a small garden. One important point, I think, is the minimal palette. I've taken Pearson's concept out of it's rightful place in large open space, and that changes everything.

  9. Anne,
    You always ask the difficult (and disturbing) questions. On first blush, I think I'd say it differs because the planting is mostly made of a largely predetermined group of plants, not a "random" selection from the whole universe of possible plants with a bit of this here, a bit of that there as you would find in a true cottage garden. And I think the composition, though done "in the moment," would be more ordered by the grid of trees and "musical" arrangement of box, and by a slight formalism of associating the herbaceous planting groups closely with the box (spatially). I will probably end up using stone in some kind of grid arrangement, which adds another formal touch. I think my description of the idea of planting "in the moment" can easily be interpreted as the same kind of real randomness as used in the cottage Garden, but I do think it's a different process carried out within formal constraints. I'll use an analogy to Robert Frost's remark that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down. One has to keep the abstract "net" in mind. Perhaps your comment deserves a post unto itself. Have to think about that.

  10. By 'random' you mean 'planted intuitively', yes? And by 'intuitively' I mean 'as an extension of nature' or as a conduit of natural processes. This isn't a new idea and isn't unique to Dan Pearson...obviously.

    I think that Lady Veddw needs to explain how she thinks these ideas are LIKE 'cottage' gardening and not vice versa. For once, perhaps, she can contribute something CONSTRUCTIVE rather than tossing out subjective/negative barbs? Hmm.

  11. Peter, I think I could agree I mean planting "as a conduit of natural processes" in the sense of imitating nature in both an abstract way (spatial distribution of plants, stars in the heavens, galaxies, patterns) and a very specific way (what grows in filtered sun, in Brooklyn climate, soil, in association with what other plants, etc.) I may mean more but don't have time to explore right now. Not sure I mean planting intuitively; I have to think about that and we're catching a flight back to NYC this morning, so I'm rushed. I guess my answering this comment while packing shows my priorities! I used Dan Pearson only because he gave such a complete explanation of a similar process on the podcast, and because I like his work. Certainly many others are doing this. I actually appreciate Anne's comments because they make me think about my words, and what I mean, as does your comment.

  12. In what way is this not 'a garden design'?
    You would find that all garden designers make changes to their concept which may be drawn, not always, and is only drawn on paper in the same way that your concept is drawn in your mind! Of course the hard landscaping has to be to some extent fixed, but then onwards 'off piste'is usually a phrase which occurs somewhere in our conversations here! Life of course then makes its own design of it.
    Love it.

  13. James,

    I was fortunate enough to be in London last May and was able to attend this lecture which was quite stimulating. My memory was that Noel Kingsbury was suggesting a truly random initial planting and that Dan Pearson talked about a more thoughtful starting point where plants are selected and placed in the garden where they would be successful. I may have misunderstood Kingsbury but I thought what he would create would end up looking very haphazard and messy. Something like setting up a grid and placing plants anywhere. Pearson, on the other hand, talked about emulating, in a very erudite way, how the plants might combine in nature and editing them over time as they evolved together. The closest that I have ever experienced to this design concept was Piet Oudolf's design at the High Line. It is very sophisticated and well thought out but it didn't feel random or arbitrary in any way. I certainly don't think it will be low maintenance. It will require well-trained gardeners to edit the bullies and so on.

    I like your deign a lot. I use tight round box in many of my gardens and I like to start with planting the trees first, then the shrubs and evergreens, and finally the perennials. I end up spending quite a bit of time placing the boxwoods and looking at them various directions in the garden. Although you said you wouldn't be using the seating very often, I'll bet your visitors will be out there before you know it! I also like to sit in the seating areas while I'm placing the evergreens and any large stones etc. so I can try to create interesting pictures from different vantage points that you have set up for the garden visitor to use.

    I think you mentioned that you have used Gleditsia triacanthos 'Sunburst' at Federal Twist. It might be fun to try a new tree that is more distinctive (and less common then the honey locust, which is overused in my opinion) than what you already have. That way you would have something different to enjoy in each garden.

    You are on the right track. Thanks for including us all in the process! I am really enjoying your process. Needless to say, I will be watching your every move.

  14. Thanks, Robert. I just wanted to emphasize that the "drawing" is not intended in any way to represent the appearance of the garden, only to roughly illustrate the concept.

  15. Michael,
    Thanks for the detailed comments. How fortunate you are to have attended that lecture. I believe you are right in that Kingsbury was talking about a really random planting, probably using the seed mixes similar to those developed by James Hitchmough and Nigel Dunnett at Sheffield University, while Pearson was speaking of a much more considered randomization, which I have interpreted for myself as using a carefully selected group of plants suited to existing conditions to the extent possible, and then approaching the planting with a very free hand, open to continuing change. I'd agree a similar approach is used at the High Line, where I find the arrangement of plantings to be almost musical in the sense of stating a theme, answering it, improvising variations on the theme, etc. I do like you advice of selecting seating areas to choose the locations of the boxwoods. I'm sure I'll spend many days moving them around, once the trees are planted. I'm even thinking I may want permanent benches (preferably stone) in selected areas, and that will affect everything.

    I realize the Honey Locust is a much overused tree (actually, Sunburst is much less frequently used in my experience) in urban environments, but I love the color, and the light, relatively low canopy is ideal for my purposes, so I'd find it hard to go with an alternative (unless someone suggests something I haven't even considered that just blows me away). Frankly, I want other trees, and using only this one is a difficult discipline for me.

    Thanks, again.

    1. James,
      I have been thinking about the scale of the Gleditsia triacanthos 'Sunburst'. One source I checked said it will grow 35' tall and 30' wide. Eight trees in a garden 20' by 40' seems like a lot. If you are hoping to repeat a tree, you might consider something shorter and more upright like a stewartia, Styrax japonicus 'Pink Chimes', Syringia reticulata, or Acer griseum. All of these trees have multi-seasonal interest and a scale that fits your site well. If you wanted to keep the honey locust, you might follow Dan Pearson's lead in his London garden and have one gleditsia as a main large tree and add other smaller trees and large shrubs as an understory. James van Sweden's book Architecture in the Garden profiles a number of his gardens, many small urban gardens, that might inspire you. I was leafing through it and he also mentions how much he likes Paley Park. Tom Stuart-Smith's website has some inspiring use of box in his deigns that you might like as well. Good luck!!

    2. Michael,
      I appreciate the thought you're giving to this garden plan. I'm open to new ideas. I had already decided eight trees would be far too many, and planned to cut back to four or six, probably four. I realize these trees can theoretically get very large, but my experience with them in difficult urban conditions is that they grown much smaller. As one example, I had a Robinia pseudoacacia 'Freesia' in a 30-inch planter on a deck in Brooklyn for many years. It grew only about ten feet tall over several years because it's roots were constricted in the container. When we got a country house, I moved the tree there, where within four years it towered about thirty feet, and it continues to grow. The Sunburst Honey Locusts I have in my garden at Federal Twist hardly grow at all because of the difficult soil and moisture conditions. So if I do eventually plant the Honey Locust in the new garden, I'll certainly plan to prune them severely each year and probably create difficult soil conditions to help keep them in check ('binding their feet' with rocks and compressed soil perhaps).

      I do like the idea of using stewartia because of the interesting bark. Likewise the Acer griseum. But both these trees will cast a much denser shade than I want. I don't care for the Syringia reticulata because the flowers turn into a rotting mess if they aren't promptly removed. I'm certainly interested in looking at alternatives, but I do want something that will cast a light shade.

      I'm also feeling rather wedded to a symmetrical garden, at least for the basic layout of the trees. But again, I may change that. The main opening--12-foot-wide sliding glass doors--to the garden is off center. Now that I can see how very off center it is (only today did I get outside to see this) I'm reconsidering the whole idea of symmetry and how the facade of the new room will influence or even dictate the design of the garden. Now I think I'll do a brief post on that to illustrate how this changes everything.

      I do intend to get van Sweden's book, which seems to be one of the few I don't have, as you suggested, and look at examples there for inspiration. I'll also take another look at Tom Stuart-Smith's website.

      I really appreciate your help on this.

  16. The evolution of your design makes me think that you want to be more involved with this garden season to season (and day to day) than your first drawings would indicate. They portrayed (to me) a rather 'done once and finished' space, and I think few gardeners want that. This scheme gives you some structure and tranquility but also something to muck about with continually.

    Thank you for sharing your process with us; it's so helpful to me.

  17. You're exactly right, Cindy. I had thought with a garden almost bigger than I can manage in the country, I'd want something more 'done once and finished' in town. But soon realized that I'm not a person who could live with a static garden. One part of the podcast I didn't quote was Dan Pearson's saying the 'random' plantings at Millennium Forest work only because they have 'this absolutely amazing' gardener, Midori, there. Midori (not sure of spelling) sees what is happening with the plantings in different areas and has the knowledge and understanding to continually make adjustments to keep the plantings in tune with their micro-environments.

    1. I actually listened to the podcast after commenting. It was very interesting; I have a page of jotted wisdom in my notebook. (I have to look for some parsnips.)

  18. I love this idea...and it's something I toyed with myself in the backyard this year. I selected a (fairly) small group of plants and then planted them in a "matrix" of sorts. It's a really small, narrow space...and as you mentioned, it will be interesting to see how Pearson's large-scale ideas work on the extremely-small end of the spectrum! I was quite pleased with the will probably never be a "magazine-worthy" sort of garden...but I delighted in the continual interplay of the plants as they jostled for was an interesting push-and-pull sort of thing. Anyway...I agree with Denise...planning a new garden is exciting and stimulating...there are nearly endless possibilities before that first shovelful of dirt is even lifted :-)

  19. Right on. I'm buying supermarket parsnips for my garden!

  20. Scott, yes, the scale 'thing'. How do you reconcile the idea of a kind of random planting with the small scale of an urban garden? That is, without creating chaos. I think it has to depend on careful selection of a limited range of plants, and resisting the impulse to 'over design' during the process of planting. Let chance play a part, and change things as necessary. It requires a rigor an discipline that doesn't come easy.

  21. Thanks for inviting people to think with you, such a pleasure, especially for this New Yorker who will never have the pleasure of his own New York garden. Alas!

    I've just read Dan Pearson's Sanctuary in the City, and while I appreciate him as a gardener who gardens in a way that seems remotely on my level (i.e. without help, and with limited time and budget) his book made me appreciate him more as a plantsman, with a delicate sense of the interrelation of plants (less brash than Christo Lloyd). I enjoy how his garden is personal and relaxed, the accumulation of plants with private associations.

    But I find him really lacking in structure. His fondness for decks (which you also like, sorry!) but most of all the shift in his garden from flagstone to large pebbles (horrors) to decking made his design visually jangled (for me). I'd have preferred a mix of brick and old flagstones, or perhaps only brick in a herringbone pattern. I'm glad another reader suggested you look at Tom Stuart-Smith, a fabulous gardener with even better hair than Dan, if such a thing is possible. His "London Garden" on his website is remarkably beautiful.

  22. Ross,
    I'm glad you're interested and look forward to your comments as I try to revise my plans. I still am thinking about your suggestion for some kind of architectural "ruin" in that masonry wall at the back of the garden. I love the work of Tom Stuart-Smith. One of his private gardens was featured in the recent issue of House and Garden, which I forgot is no longer published in this country, but still survives in the UK. Check it out on their web site. I have powerful memories of Stuart-Smith's last two Chelsea gardens (which I've seen only through media; never have been there), and think they are ideal small gardens. I have to disagree with you about Dan Pearson. Have you looked at his professional work on his web site? There's also a lot of it featured in one of Noel Kingsbury's recent books, though I can't remember which one at the moment.

  23. Hi again - I know you have a new post up: it was that which reminded me to look here. (BTW the only way I could find it was to return to previous email: couldn't see how to go back one on the site)

    Sorry I'm seen as negative, which sounds a terrible thing to be. And sorry not to have time to elucidate the concept of a Cottage Garden, but one thing that often characterised that as a 'style' (reality - another discussion) would actually be structure, often using topiary and hedging. After all, Arts and Crafts was an elaboration of this style.

    Interesting that Andy Sturgeon has re-embraced Arts and Crafts (Chelsea 2012)

    However - this discussion is already enormous! Another time...

    PS in negative mode again, of course, given the references to pictures of people's work here, a cautionary thought: how much do photographs tell us about garden reality? (see recent discussions on thinkingardens)

    1. Blog basics: to get to any posts, just click on the title of the blog and they all stream down the screen.

      I think, at least in the US, the term cottage garden has been so misused and overused that it's become almost meaningless. So I don't know how to respond to your comment. In your culture, it's probably a much more clearly understood concept. I'm also not aware that Andy Sturgeon is planning an Arts and Crafts garden for the next Chelsea. I looked on the Chelsea web site, but found nothing to confirm that. You may have "inside" information.

      Agreed. Photos of gardens don't stand in for the garden. I think we just have to recognize that limitation and acknowledge it. People will continue to look at photos of gardens and make judgments to the end of time. Part of that is just the limitation of distance and inability to travel everywhere one might wish. Part of it is a growing "trust" in images, whether on TV, blogs, or in books and magazines, in place of the real thing. Isn't cyber reality already beginning to replace physical reality, at least for some? But I can see the questions this raises can balloon into an entirely different discussion.

    2. Re Andy Sturgeon -

      and re photographs - there has been great discussion about the use of photographs to depict gardens on thinkingardens ( = worth a look though I say it myself.

      Maybe this should have been an email - this is now a very old post and if I'm not careful I miss your replies. which is awful - they're always worth coming back for!

    3. Thanks for that link to Tim Richardson's piece on Andy Sturgeon's 2012 Chelsea garden. Frankly, I've always liked Arts and Crafts gardens, in all their variety, though my exposure to the "real thing" (rather than photos) has been limited. I've followed the about using photographs to show gardens (in contrast to evaluating gardens from really being in them) rather closely, and agreed seeing the garden in person is the only way to actually know a garden. But with current media (personal and public) emphasis on the visual image, I also think it's almost a losing battle to get people to realize what they see in a glossy magazine is not a garden. Best we can do is to keep making the point, raise consciousness. But photos do, in fact, have influence. And a photographer committed to showing a garden can, to a limited extent, communicate a more complete "experience" of a garden if she/he is willing to make the effort, and is willing to sacrifice a "great image" to "truth." Even then, a photo is no substitute for reality, but it can come closer.

    4. That comment also belongs here!?


    5. You're right. I just posted a version on thinkingardens.



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