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!


  1. Your first photos are lovely. It made me think of this rooftop garden in Garden Design magazine:

    It seems to me that fountain could be added to this sort of structure.

    1. I can't warm up to vertical gardens, though some are certainly beautiful. It's almost like a very elaborate kind of semi-permanent flower arranging. So why do I like these "sort of" examples in Italy? Probably just my love of Italy and the warm glow of old memories.

    2. Oh, I agree. Vertical systems are like a stage set. If one plant goes, you have to move in quick with a replacement so you don't see Oz behind the curtain. But, you seem to be wanting something vertical, layered, a bit flowy, that tells (or hints at a story). So you'll probably need to build something that has planting spaces up high.

      I think everyone comes back from Italy in a daze and changed. I guess the trick to using it, is to identify the essentials of what we loved -- the time taken to appreciate food and beauty, the right combination of sun and shade on a patio, the patina (tells stories), fruit (figs!) in the garden, the elements of stage set drama in architecture and gardens. . . what else? Then interpret that with our own American materials.

      What an interesting challenge. I'm going to be thinking about it.

    3. I think I'll only be doing the basic garden this year because our construction project is going way over budget. I hope to get the new fence up and stained, build the pool, plant the trees, install gravel paving with some stone, and prepare the planting areas along the sides. I'll also start doing some perennial planting, but I have no idea how much. Some things I can bring from the country garden, but it's better that I'm forced to go slowly. Whatever I do at the back will take time. The masonry wall I'd like could be expensive, unless I can work out a way to make it myself, or substitute a wooden construction. Having to move all materials through what will then be a finished apartment will be a problem. The lighter the better. I ordered a red Radio Flyer wagon, which arrived this weekend, to use for transport through the house.

  2. If you went 'upstate' would you find a similar yellow iris? The arum lily is mine, but it could speak for a cosmopolitan city? Bring something from your country pond, to speak of your other rural life. And architectural salvage? There was a house down on Glen Beach in Camps Bay, built of architectural salvage. Where each piece could tell a story. Wonder if the present resident knows all the stories?

    1. Iris pseudacorus does grow in this area. And it's rather common to find architectural elements in Brooklyn brownstone gardens, but I'm still wary of this approach, much as I like the fantasy.

  3. Hello James,

    Not so out of place, I think. Brooklyn is -- or was -- filled with ruins, and Italians, for that matter (the challenge would be to find a substitute for the tufo used in the fountains you have photographed, but that would not prove so difficult I think). Nor is it crazy! Recreating one of the monstri of Bomarzo, now that would be crazy, magnificently so. And what would be wrong with that?

    Since your blog welcomes horticultural meditations, it seems to me that craziness is the essence of gardening, a mad, transient and ultimately doomed attempt to work nature against nature. Notions of good taste often seem to deny the essential madness of our hobby (in the Shandean sense of the term). The other arts are stable in ways that ours are not. Your lovely fountain in the Forum is a monument to decay (and regeneration).

    It's in this sense that I question Anne Raven's dismissal of "cottage gardening. " Not that I welcome groupings of cheery and clashing flowers, but rather that I see "cottage gardens" most open to individual expression, to the sentimental accumulation of plants from friends, and least burdened by an idea of taste (or form) that seems antithetical to the fundamental impermanence of our project.

    By way of conclusion: snowdrops are blooming in Morningside and Central Parks.

    1. Ross,

      You make a persuasive case. And I do tend to feel an affinity with anyone who makes reference to Tristram Shandy. I realize the term "hobby horse" predates Uncle Toby (I've been intrigued with the origin of that word, and with why gardening is always classified as a hobby in these times.), but gardening is certainly my "hobby horse" though not my hobby! Ruins in Brooklyn, indeed. I do have some ornament saved from the old Long Island Rail Road terminal on Flatbush Avenue, which I plan to incorporate in some tasteful, inconspicuous way, but I remain firmly ensconced on the fence in regard to the vegetable fountain. All of this seems a far cry from Paley Park, which at one point I said I'd like to emulate. Time will tell.

      Shocking to hear snowdrops are in bloom in NYC. Out near the Delaware, where I am today, they won't be showing for two more months.

  4. Seems a bit stagey to me!
    The only bit I'd buy is the moss and the fern which makes the vegetable fountain OK ish.
    But I feel there was a statue in there at some point. Maybe still is if you have a poke around. Time works miracles!

  5. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  6. I love your idea, James: surely all you need do is tweak the Roman inspiration a bit to get a Brooklyn version!? Great photos.

    1. Faisal, I think I've thought too much about all this. Maybe I'll have to do a few more posts on Italy!

  7. You comment came through twice, so I deleted one. Stagey? I suppose so. That's why I'm reluctant to embrace the idea. It certainly raises the question of what is appropriate to a place--in this case a back yard in Brooklyn, where back yards tend to be derelict. Perhaps I should contemplate thoughts of ruin and neglect and see what emerges.

  8. James. Not for publication. I do really like to follow your blog and pay very close attention to the ideas and explanations. But I need to say that the layout seems to take a long time to load that it's a hassle. Perhaps there is just too much on every page and that makes it take such a long time. The lag is so long that for the past month when I have been away, and using a mobile connection, that whenever I have seen you post I have not looked at it. It takes too long to load. Perhaps there are people who do not connect with your site because of it. Maybe the thing to do is to cut the extras on the page back a bit.
    Hopefully you take this positively. As for me I now look forward to backdating and seeing those posts about Brooklyn ? that seemed so intriguing, but have not accessed. Kerry

    1. Kerry, I published your comment to solicit feedback. In the last several weeks, I eliminated a memory intensive background image that I thought might be causing the slow loading. I have the same problem with slow and partial loading on my iPad. The blog partially loads, but slowly, and many photos don't load. I have the same problem with my mobile phone. So I'm aware of it, but am just not tech savvy enough to know how to solve the problem. I'm hoping someone who reads this may have helpful information. But it's something I'll continue to investigate.

    2. I WAS using Pingdom to check what is slow to load on my blog. It's been singularly uncooperative lately, but perhaps you'll have better luck. What slows mine down is the favicons on my blogroll and badges with embedded links. On the other hand, using a laptop I've never found your site slow to load! Perhaps you need to enable a mobile template, if that's the problem. Do you need to make your photos smaller (pixels not physical size I mean)?

    3. I always reduce the photo file sizes, so I think it may just be a problem of a show internet connection.

  9. James, 'Stagey' is bound to occupy your thinking a fair bit as you're leaving behind a very 'naturalistic' garden. Actually, the 'naturalistic' garden could be considered stagey, depends on your take on it.

    Who is Ross Hamilton? I think his description of cottage gardening is so well put. Am I right in thinking he's refering back to a recent Anne Wareham comment?

    Anyway, I love all the moss and general greenery in the first water feature. Not so struck on the vatican pool.

    You could have a rectangular modern pool with nothing planted in it, just reflecting the sky above.

    1. Rob,
      I'm not leaving the naturalistic garden behind. I'll still be there too. But you comment about its being stagey is right. I've always thought the Federal Twist garden, and the one before in Rosemont, was rather theatrical.

      I don't know who Ross Hamilton is, other than my assumption that he lives in NYC, Manhattan I gather from context in his comments, and that he's very interested in gardens. Perhaps he'll tell us about himself. I hope so. Yes, he was referring to Anne Wareham's comment.

      I'm glad to hear that you, and I hope others, like that water feature at the entrance to the Palatine Hill. I really can't account for how powerfully it affected me. A mystery. Perhaps a memory from a past life (ha!).

      I still definitely plan to have a rectangular pool. It's one of the things I believe will remain as I explore garden design alternatives.


    It was a kind and northern face
    That mingled in such exile guise
    The everlasting eyes of Pierrot
    And, of Gargantua, the laughter.

    His thoughts, delivered to me
    From the white coverlet and pillow,
    I see now, were inheritances---
    Delicate riders of the storm.

    The slant moon on the slanting hill
    Once moved us toward presentiments
    Of what the dead keep, living still,
    And such assessments of the soul.

    As, perched in the crematory lobby,
    The insistent clock commented on,
    Touching as well upon our praise
    Of glories proper to the time.

    Still, having in mind gold hair,
    I cannot see that broken brow
    And miss the dry sound of bees
    Stretching across a lucid space.

    Scatter there well-meant idioms
    Into the smoky spring that fills
    The suburbs, where they will be lost.
    They are no trophies of the sun.


  11. Peter, wow ...................

    Do you know Crane is one of my favorites? I think that image from the Forum speaks of a kind of striving for timelessness, and of life and of death. Proper subjects for a garden, to my mind.



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