Monday, April 30, 2012

Gardening in darkness

My life is so arranged (rather, I have arranged it) that I find myself making frequent late night drives between the city and the country house. I did that last night, after seeing an exceptional play.

On the drive out I felt very much alone, intensely alone, driving through the late darkness, capsuled in my car. Not a loneliness of longing or depression or sadness, but an existential aloneness, a freedom, an ephiphany of sorts, recognition that I've been given a gift, the ability to be aware how tiny and insignificant and brief my life is in this dark, measureless, incomprehensible universe.

I understood that everything, my being, my life, all I do comes out of this darkness. Some of us make gardens out of darkness.

As I sit here today, looking over the green garden, I know that light is darkness and darkness is light, that I'm seeing darkness, that my eyes and brain interpret various frequencies of electromagnetic radiation as light, color, shape, my two eyes and brain allow me to think I can judge distance and spatial relationships, sensory cells create the illusion of fragrance and touch, ears sound.

But beneath this all is the cold, unknowable darkness that makes it possible for me to garden with light.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Garden Diary: planned or random? Living through the changes

At long last we had a good rain. A happy conclusion to a weekend of nursery rambling, new plant purchases, and a long visit to Chanticleer with new friends.

So I unloaded the booty in heavy rain on my return to Brooklyn and piled it into the garden. What to do now is the question. I have a plan but I'm letting the space speak for itself, with a bit of fortunate accident helping things along. I adjust, adapt, change the plan in response to new knowledge, new perceptions, random occurrences. I'm living the garden day by day and find more clarity and focus, as what is, asks me to be open to the unexpected.

I'm still learning to balance my small, rather austere, formal city garden, which needs a tight rein, with the wild abandon of my country garden, which can absorb all sorts of plants and experimentation with little ill effect if things don't go as expected. Not so in Brooklyn; I may have come back with too many plants I've only vaguely associated emotionally. This is not what I meant when I blogged about "random planting" in an earlier post, but I am working toward a structured randomness. I exaggerate; I've been thinking about how the garden will come together, so most of the new plants, though bought spontaneously, do fit an impressionistic concept I mull over in most waking hours, constantly rearranging, associating different plants, knowing full well I'll probably plant on a spur-of-the-moment decision, though after long internal debate. Yes, this is a kind of randomness. Like knowing the dice very well, then making the throw. I think "random" differs from "uncertain."

This photo shows some of that potential "randomness." The prime purchase is the Acer palmatum dissectum 'Green Waterfall', which I've now planted smack on the axis through the doorway and pool. I've no problem with that purchase. At some point I had thought of a Japanese maple in this position, but only as one in a rush of images in my mind's eye. Though it's not a highly creative solution to the need for a focal point, at $90, it's a practical one. When I saw it at Meadowbrook Nursery, a nursery run by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, last Saturday, I knew the decision had been made. And it's a beautiful little tree. The color shows well against the fence and I can already see it will initiate other changes in design and planting.

That maple illustrates how well greens go with the slate color of the fence. I have serious doubts about those glaucous blue Sieboldiana-type hostas over by the left wall. Unless I make that color a significant theme in an appropriate place, the hostas may have to go to the country garden at Federal Twist. The color just doesn't sing in this context, though I may yet find a color field where it belongs ... a little early to tell.

So the key elements of the garden so far? The pool, the boxwoods, the Japanese maple, and the Sunburst honey locusts, which are leafing out and will become much more prominent. I rubbed off all but the top few buds to encourage development of a branch structure at the top.

I don't mention the view up and out of the garden as an important element of design because I've discovered that the dark color of the fence tends to keep the eye within the garden space, creates its own force field, stops the eye and pulls it down. Photos don't capture that sense of enclosure, and even tend to magnify the importance of the view out.

Having lived with the garden space for a while now, and having had time to compare it to my much larger, more open and unconstrained Federal Twist garden, I realize the screen I had envisioned at the back, to hide a maintenance and composting area and to serve as a focal point, will not work. Space is much too limited and a screen would interfere with the serenity of the garden, giving it a cluttered feeling. Too much stuff.

The Japanese maple, once it's gained some size, will be part of the solution. I still think it should be joined by a screen of evergreens. One concept is two yew columns on the left and three on the right (or Thuja occidentalis or vertical hollies, or something else dark green and vertical). Right now my preference is for yew, whose dull, matt green will provide a neutral background for interesting things to happen in front. Also perhaps two Ginkos, each placed symmetrically at each side. I favor Ginko over fastigiate hornbeams or some other choice simply as a matter of personal preference; I love the form and texture of the leaves. One on the right would hide the ugly utility pole and the other would help block the view out.

I anticipate objection to the Ginkos, but a tall, slender selection such as 'Princeton Sentry' would probably work. Eventually they will become large trees, but that's likely to be after my time here, and then someone else can do with the garden space as he or she wants. This is only a working concept. It may change, as so many things have. Wednesday evening I saw a fastigiate purple beech in a friend's garden; another very good choice. So many possibilities ...

Between the yew columns and the graveled area, I imagine rivers (perhaps tatters?) of color running in irregular patterns across the width of the back garden, buffered with dark green of, perhaps, common Euonymous kept trimmed low.

Another issue is where to use the large planter at the bottom of the photo above. Placing it on axis, as I've done here, seems a bit much. If I use it, it will have to be off center and the planting will have to be kept low, and probably will be dark. Possibilities? Persicaria microcephala 'Red Dragon', large leaves of one of the reddish Ligularias,  black Colocasias, or prehaps Carex muskengumensis to hang over the sides paired with the large foliage of Darmera peltata or Rodgersia?). Or I may take the planter to the country garden where I have plenty of room for it.

Note the photo of the maple before planting (below). The decrease in height and presence made by planting it certainly makes a difference, so I look forward to seeing a larger tree in a couple of years.

Yesterday I drained the pool after about ten days full -- to leach alkali chemicals from the concrete. I think I'll keep the water level a little lower than this, about one-half to one inch below the pool edge. I do want it high enough to get maximum reflection. I may also use a bit of black dye. Just a little to suggest a color more green than black. And I think I'll try four or five small fish to control mosquito larvae ... and a small bubbling fountain. Will the fish survive our racoons and feral cats? I want a clear surface, but may have to use some aquatic plants to provide hiding places from Brooklyn marauders.

As to space for people, I'd say this is a garden for a brief stroll out from the house, for contemplation, a moment alone, an solitary night time glance upward to remember the infinite universe.

The only place for socializing will be the paved area just outside the doors opening onto the garden. Room for four, perhaps six. Outdoor cooking is not my forte, or my interest, but I'll probably get a small, low grill ... something like a hibachi.

And as for a maintenance and composting area? I just can't spare the space, so gardening tools will live inside the cellar door. I'm not yet sure where my red wagon, an essential tool for moving materials through the house, will go. Perhaps it could be a "wall hanging" in the entry vestibule of the house. Or as Ross Hamilton suggested, perhaps in jest, a table for serving drinks. As to composting, Michael of Bramble and Bean (a neighbor) has suggested Vitamix composting, which I'll investigate.

I want plants to dangle over the ten-inch-high barrier at the back. When I found this Lonicera pileata at Meadowbrook Gardens, I knew it belonged here. The Lysimachia numularia 'Aurea' on the left, of which I have several, may also dangle.

This view from the back of the garden to the house gives me a new idea that may add immensely to the experience of the garden. A small stone path could allow visitors, one at a time, to walk up and across the elevated planting area at back. So much better use of the space than a wall or screen to hide a composter and tools, making possible a journey through the garden, small as it is, rather than just a walk out and back.

The muted colors at twilight suggest how evocative lighting could be. Lights will make the garden come alive at night. Imagine the pool glowing in the dark.

I wonder how professional garden designers put it all down on paper, make plant lists, source plants, and install. I thank my lucky stars I'm an amateur, slow and indecisive.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Rosemont Cercis

This redbud (Cercis canadensis) in the Rosemont Burial Ground is certainly one of the oldest I've ever seen. I'm not actually sure it's a tree of outstanding age. I've been told the Cercis can take on an ancient look in only a few decades. Here is another view.

The Rosemont Burial Ground dates back to the eighteenth century, though exactly how old it is is a mystery too. The words on the oldest slate stones have been entirely erased.

The trunk, I've noted before, is about three feet in diameter. The largest limbs present an image of sinuous power that suggests in form and motion the coils of the sea serpents in the Laocoon. I may be stretching this analogy a bit, but more than once an old, twisted Cercis has brought this sculpture to my mind. (Which may say more about my own subconscious than anything else.)

Though the emotions evoked by the two images are very different (the tree is not a figure of tragic suffering, but of survival, of the ability to endure), both share in a sense of awe.

The image below, with the uplifted branches against the sky, is an entirely different matter.

The tree still flowers profusely and, had I been able to visit it last Monday when the temperature rose into the upper 80s, I'm sure it would have been abuzz with thousands of bees as in years past.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Garden Diary: Brooklyn update

This is the first lesson of my initial foray into the Brooklyn garden:  plan views are just marks on flat paper. You don't get a sense of the space until you spend time in the garden, then the plans start changing, evolving. Banal, but  the realization feels like insight.

After a ten hour round trip to Schoharie, New York, last Thursday, I have my four long sought Sunburst honey locusts (Gleditsia triacanthos inermis 'Sunburst'). Mere whips, though seven feet tall with absolutely no branch structure -- a structure that will be much needed.  The locust canopy will be essential to block the view of buildings across the way. So a new plan:  what to do in the interim?

The second lesson? Clutter in a small space won't do.

But if you ignore the bags of compost, gardening tools, pots left from the previous garden (a tenant's), the watering hose, the red wagon, all the extraneous stuff, the original concept is visible:  the off-center axis (door center, pool, old concrete fountain as planter, a yet-to-exist structure at the back. The diagonal drift of box from far left to near right breaking across the straight lines of the axial layout, the neutral slate wall, reflections in the pool.

I intend to take care of housekeeping soon -- tool storage in the cellar, removal of the assorted pots to the country, disposal of plant containers and bags of compost and peat -- but some disorder will be necessary until the soil preparation is complete and the major plantings are in.

A screen at the back, to create a hidden maintenance area, has to happen sooner rather than later. Now that I'm working in the garden, I see my original plans for a screen are too large for the space. I need to shrink the wall, lower its height, make it feel lighter and more transparent (without actually being transparent). Make it simple. And make it fast. A cardboard mock-up may be in order.

I also want to minimize the view of the buildings opposite as quickly as possible (it's much more distracting in the photo than in reality). I came across some relatively low-priced fastigiate hornbeams in my search for the Gleditsia. What about planting four across the back as an "instant" screen? Apart from  possible interference from massive roots of the fallen mulberry, my major concern is crowding this small garden space with four more trees. Arguing in favor of the hornbeams, I could say the raised planting area is ten feet deep and provides ample breathing room for a tree screen. The trees would be lined up at the back edge of the garden and they would retain a narrow, vertical shape for many years. And they could be pruned so their canopies occupy space only above fence top.

A more easily solved problem, certainly less emotionally fraught for me, is visible in the photos above and below. Like most things made of wood these days, the fence was assembled using green wood, which is quickly shrinking, opening vertical cracks. When this process ends, I'll caulk with black silicone and cover it with more slate stain. A simple problem, relatively easy to fix.

The wood used to create the terracing is another matter. Do I let it age naturally to a neutral gray, stain it the dark slate color of the fence, or use a light taupe sealant, which is the same color as the back wall of the house? I think I'll want to make the wood disappear, so I'll probably use a coat of sealant to pick up the colors of the gravel and the soil.

I've grown to like the naked, unadorned pool frame. So rather than use bluestone coping or tile, I may leave it as is, only giving it a coat of sealant to unify the color scheme. I'm certainly open to hearing the other opinions (though I may ignore good advice, I'd like to to consider other options). So any thoughts?

The line of rough stepping stones (above) is temporary. I wanted to see how a rhythmic line of paving would look. I intend to use neatly cut bluestone squares or, if I leave the raw concrete of the pool exposed, possibly concrete pavers. I'm leaning toward selection of simpler, less decorative materials. It's probably no surprise that I'm an admirer of the gardens of Mein Ruys, especially her use of concrete and wood. I see her as a kind of guiding spirit.

Third lesson? Simplicity and unity of color are needed in this small garden. (Until the plants cover everything.) So many of my material and color selections are being driven by that goal. Simplicity and unity.

The paved area next to the house turns out to be well sized for a sitting out space. Our tenant left the chair in the photo below, as well as three more in the basement. They are not unattractive and they have the high advantage of being free. I could stain them the color of the fence, put two on each side with a small, low table between each pair, and use potted plants (perhaps) selectively placed to help define the area and integrate it with the rest of the garden.

Oh, I haven't mentioned the water. I ordered a gallon of black dye yesterday, just to give it a try. It will hide debris, allowing me to spend less time cleaning the pool. It also retards algae formation by  blocking light penetration, and may amplify the reflective qualities of the surface. And it won't harm fish and plants, so I can drop in a few goldfish to prevent mosquitoes breeding.

This is the big surprise:  the water moves continuously, sometimes very subtly, but always. I think because the pool is over sized and rather deep, the volume of water tends to retain energy imparted by the gentlest breeze. Watching it from inside the house is quickly becoming a favored pastime. I sit on a cushion in the middle of the empty floor, just looking out.

And in that sense, the apartment in the city is very much like the house at Federal Twist. A glass enclosed, sheltered, private space with a view out to light and air and life. The archetypal cave opening to the world.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Easter morning - a garden story

"Complacencies of the peignoir, and late
Coffee and oranges in a sunny chair ...
... mingle to dissipate
The holy hush of ancient sacrifice ...

We live in an old chaos of the sun,
Or an old dependency of day and night,
Or island solitude, unsponsored, free ...
Deer walk upon our mountains, and quail
Whistle about us their spontaneous cries;
Sweet berries ripen in the wilderness;
And, in the isolation of the sky,
At evening, casual flocks of pigeons make
Ambiguous undulations as they sink,
Downward to darkness, on extended wings."

from Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning

This is it, folks. A life of grace given in mystery. We go gentle on this old earth, or should. It's all we have.

Seeking completion, and something like beauty and my own kind of salvation (I'll be 67 on Monday), I've been thinking about that empty space across the garden; you see it more closely below ...

... the space on the other side of the far path ...

 ... it needs a stone wall, a wall of "ambiguous undulations" to frame the garden's story - a visual halt before the woods begin, perhaps a serpentine wall  of undulating height to build a little movement, rising gently to meet the understory of Viburnum prunifolium catching the morning light, reaching up to the trees. A wall to set the garden, in this bare state, in silent motion.

(Thanks to Emily for reminding me of Andy Goldsworthy.)

After realizing readers were interpreting this post as religious (christian), I've amended it. 
This is not a religious posting.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Before and after

Feeling a little overwhelmed ... finishing construction, preparing the Federal Twist garden for a new year, even thinking of a prominent new serpentine stone wall there, scouting for trees all my weekends, planning the move into the new apartment, enumerating the endless tasks to prepare the soil and install plantings in the Brooklyn garden, otherwise living a full, rich and quite busy life.

This is the start of a list I must make today to take control, or at least feel I've taken steps in that direction.

I think this is a time for self-encouragement. Time for a look back and a look forward. This is the Brooklyn garden after the eighty-foot Mulberry fell in the hurricane last August.

And here is the garden today (photo courtesy of Michael of Bramble & Bean).

I feel better now.


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