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.


  1. I love this space. Since I am new, it is time to explore your country garden.

    1. Mary,
      I'm pleased to make your acquaintance. Thanks for the visit.

  2. The pond and boxwoods look so great. A couple of upside down plastic milk cartons weighted down at the bottom of the pond (and hidden by black dye or rocks or plants) should protect the fish from cats and raccoons. I think the red wagon makes a great garden ornament.

    1. Great idea. Thanks. I have several black plastic pots. I'll cut holes and weight them down at the bottom of the pond. I've already added the black dye, so the bottom is invisible.

  3. Delicious stuff, a clean slate and a restricted palette. Whatever you do, James, it's going to look good. You don't need a professional, other than yourself. Are you going to transplant any Fed. Twist plants over?

    1. Faisal,
      Yes. I hope I can transplant some FT plants before it's too late. One reason for the rush to get things done. Restricted palette? I'm trying. Can I control myself?

  4. I love seeing the plants beginning to fill the space!

    1. Thanks. I'm having a hard time getting around to planting. Want it to go faster, but probably better slow.

  5. Love all this! Why don't I have a cool town garden?!!

    Mind you, I wouldn't have added anything to the pool besides the dye, mind - I love a clear black reflecting pool and once one bit (fish) goes in, lots of other clutter follows..

    Wish I could see it in the flesh.. (don't ask, like good wine, I don't travel!)

    Great stuff. And you are so right about the hosta. I love that you can see that. Wish there were more of you in the garden world!


    1. Thanks, Anne.

      Ah, the pool. I have a practical problem. Mosquitoes will breed in the pool without some kind of intervention. I love the serenity of the simple reflecting pool, the constantly rippling surface of the water, but NYC is now fining land owners for "stagnant water," which my pool is by city definition. So I must have either fish or frogs and, in fact, think my preference may be for frogs. I have many hundreds to choose from at the Federal Twist garden. But even frogs want plants to hide in. It's a dilemma and I'm not sure yet what to do.

      Of course, I got the idea for the black dye from you. It's a wonderful addition. Enhances the reflective quality, inhibits algae, and hides the bottom of the pool.

      I'm glad to have your confirmation on those hostas. Off to FT they go.

  6. James,

    I have been following your entire process (which has been great fun) and I have a suggestion about the placement of the Acer palmatum dissectum 'Green Waterfall'. My first impression is that too many elements are on axis with the door. What makes your composition so interesting and contemporary is that fact that you are making things on axis: the door, the Shell object (another water feature?) and now the maple, but you have deliberately made the gravel wider on the right side than the left which I like very much. By placing the 4 Sunburst honey locusts symmetrically at the 4 corners of the gravel rectangle, you have also created two parallel axises 1) The pool centered on the door and 2) The centerline of the gravel area accentuated by the 4 locusts.

    My eye is calling for the maple to be centered on the gravel rectangle and the 4 locusts. I think it will contrast better there placed against the dark wall and appear, at first glance, more random (but actually very deliberate) As it becomes more mature and weeping, you can prune it to overhang and embrace a smaller focal point (maybe a sculpture?) on axis with the door and pool.

    I hope this doesn't make things too complicated but it my gut feeling. I have replanted many small trees and shrubs when I am at this point in the process....just an idea from a gardening friend...Thanks for allowing us inside your head as you develop this project. It is very beautiful.

    1. Thank you, Michael. I like your challenging idea of moving the maple. I'm not yet sure I'll do it, but it's an intriguing concept. I do have two axes, one very prominent, centered on the doorway and the pool, and a more subtle axis formed by the Sunburst honey locust and garden borders. I think these two axes give the garden an interesting geometric interplay and tension. Moving the Japanese maple might make a composition that is less "obvious," one that maintains more interest and elicits more thought over time. A lot, I think, has to do with how I plant the deep back border, and I may want to get a few major plants in place before making change you suggest. For example, I know I want a double-flowered Hydrangea quercifolia 'Snowflake' over on the right, where the back border first steps down to the next, lower border. (These hydrangeas are planted in Union Square Park and their blossoms are amazing; they continue to grow outward as thye flower, developing a kind of weeping habit.). I find it much easier to see these things with physical objects in place than in my imagination.

      Thanks very much for this suggestion. It's the kind of response I hope for because it challenges my original concept and makes me think.

  7. I think it will be an immensely calm space. A true oasis in the city.

    Different shades of green and leaf form is where it's at for me. I like Hosta. Unfortunately for me, so do molluscs....

    Have you thought about some kind of chorus frog, exotic sounds, make sure the neighbour's are on-side.

    You are creating a really nice space James.

  8. Rob,
    Frogs are on the agenda--at least being considered. I want their music, but frankly I hadn't considered how neighbors might feel about that.



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