Friday, May 25, 2012

Rain, rain

Endless rain, seemingly, has everything shooting up at amazing speed, including weeds. Local grasses are in flower, creating a kind of foggy haze over the garden. Once these early grasses turn brown, they'll give it the look of a meadow, and the rapidly emerging perennials will stand out against the tawny background.

Something to look forward to because, frankly, I'm bored by all this.

In the first few years, I thought technique alone--experimenting with a garden in a most inhospitable place, going about it without any soil improvement, relying only on "right plant, right place," and editing out the failures--would be enough, but it isn't. I need more from the garden. The "idea" of sustainability is poor sustenance.

I've been thinking a lot about the importance of emotions in gardens (seeing gardens, making gardens, designing gardens) so it's disquieting to have sunk into this funk. I think the problem may be this:  I need people in my garden, need a conversation, stimulation, insight. In a pinch, a tranquil sunset will do.

But for now, a photo tour, also boring because photos fall far short of the reality of being in the garden.

So ... to list the plants, across the pond, Darmera peltata, Petasites x hybridus, Japanese irises, Carex muskingumensis. The large foliage plants are a prime source of interest (at times, even pleasure) in this early season.

Darmera with Ligularia japonica ...

Across the way, a Cercesis canadensis 'Hearts of Gold' planted last year and in the distance, poison Hemlock (Conium maculatum) in flower. It will quickly die and turn an unpleasant brown. Unlink most of the large plants, this one does not retain structural interest, so I'll cut it as soon as seed has matured. There's plenty coming up below it.

Thank goodness for Marc Rosenquist's sculpture. It adds another level of complexity (dare I say meaning?) to the garden. It asks questions, makes me think, suggests metaphors, sparks fantasies of swirling motion (a wheel, a galaxy, the Axle Tree?), raises issues of taste, of aesthetic appropriateness. It reaches outside the garden.

View from the back, looking toward the woodland garden. One of many Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' is just to the right of Marc's sculpture, which has become a place, a reference point. I could even say it links the garden to the rest of the world, to ideas of art, history, culture, the universe.

Bracken, one of my favorite plants, is a legacy plant. It may have been here a century or more. Who could know? It was here before my garden certainly. People give it a bad rap because it tends to spread at the edges. Not nearly as invasive as many other plants, and it moves slowly.

This isn't a pretty picture but you can see the developing L-shaped Hornbeam hedge and the bench it's intended to surround. Someday it will define an end to this corner of the garden, and hide the deer exclusion fence behind.

That hedge, should it ever come to pass, may also become an artifact, like Marc's bronze, that adds to a conceptual appreciation of the garden. I want it to work at multiple levels. In the present, as a visual demarcation of one corner of the garden (with the unavoidable question of what lies beyond), as a spatial device to give an emotional sense of safety and enclosure, and practically, as a screen to hide the deer fence. To anyone with a little knowledge of gardening history, it will also refer to a centuries old garden culture, to the entire history of British gardening, beyond that to Renaissance Italy and even ancient Rome, creating a conversation between those traditions and my naturalistic garden. (On further thought, that's a heavy burden to put on a hedge, but I suppose it can serve as a reminder of the more formal elements of Western gardening tradition.)

Below, the serpentine wall seen from the area of the bench. I need to work on this. The Petasites japonicus is growing over a well drained wastewater leaching field and isn't entirely happy here. The stone wall, as a reflection of the Hornbeam hedge, might itself suggest a more appropriate planting, but one I'm not yet aware of.

A 180 degree turn gives a view across the garden. Siberian irises here will be divided and spread across the field. The ordered row of Thuja occidentalis across the garden has to be seen in the context of the Hornbeam hedge and the stone walls throughout the garden.

I don't mean that there is any specific meaning intended here. But I do enjoy evoking aesthetic and cultural references, and seeing my garden as an embodiment of the historical concept of "garden," of finding a place in garden culture, so that Rome and Rousham hover in the background and are present with me. I can't control what it might be for others.

And then, the garden is simply a place to sit, perhaps alone ...

... or in conversation.

The planting below speaks to the emotional power of images. Years ago I saw a photo of an Oehme van Sweden-designed planting with Miscanthus 'Silberfeder' in the background and mixed Pycnanthemum muticum and Petasites massed at its feet. Though I'm not yet able to define the emotional appeal of that planting, even many years later, I felt it was appropriate for this spot, not least because the environmental conditions were suitable, but also because I loved the shapes of the plants and their effect in combination. It's most effective later in the season, when the Pycnanthemum turns white and the Miscanthus is in bloom.

Perhaps the key to the interest of this planting is its playfulness, with the dramatic contrast of the large, funnel-shaped leaves against the very small ones. But it's also more than playful. It recalls some of the more frightening children's fairy tales. The growth is so vigorous, it's almost threatening. At the least, stimulating in an aggressive way.

Though the bracken is very different, it has much the same aggressive in-your-face effect ...

... like a wave about to wash over you.

The circle of red logs ... merely decorative? Gardens don't speak in sentences, so you have only emotional affect to go on. And of course a long tradition of associations with circles, and with the color red.

A strange planting, some intentional, some not ...

... dominated at the moment by Poison hemlock ... is this for some witch's brew? Is this a Maurice Sendak garden? Perhaps there's something to that connection, a certain outsized, exaggerated quality. More so later in the season when many plants grow much larger than people. Then I've noted some visitors prefer to stay near the house, safely removed, up on the little hill.

Straight lines and curves ...

... forms emerging from the chaos of early summer grasses ...

... box and Bergenia, footed by a sedum found in the wettest part of the garden ...

... and irises.


  1. I think this garden is amazing--the scope, the constraints you have chosen to embrace, the results. Maybe you feel "at ends" with the process because you are in-between garden-defining projects? You do seem much more satisfied with the richness and texture that your garden offers in Summer and Fall--maybe now is time to focus on adding a punch of Spring color/interest/structure--I know you've written about wanting to do that. Around here, we might plant a meadow with an ephemeral like Camassia--not sure if it would work for you, but it is cold and wet tolerant, naturalizes well, and harmonizes with a meadow setting.

    On another topic--you might consider Rodgersia to replace the dry petasites--same big look and it seems they require much less water (at least, that was the case in my old garden).


    1. Emily,

      Yes, more irises is one thing I could use at this dull time of year. I do have a few camassias around the pond and have thought I should buy them by the hundreds. They do like the wet. But like the irises, they're rather ephemeral. Interesting you suggest Rodgersias. I just got four Rodgersia podophylla Braunlab, which I had intended for Brooklyn. I love podophylla's leaf shape. Maybe I should consider them for Federal Twist instead.

      I think part of the problem of my mood is that my garden has gotten so large I have to spend more time maintaining it than enjoying it. Or perhaps it's because we've just been through a construction project in Brooklyn, I'm also trying to make a new garden there (and every day I take to cut out tree roots and plant, it rains!), and even at FT when I get help, it rains! Like today.

      Thanks for the advice. I agree with it all.

  2. Bored ! - You are quite dissatisfied with something. To me it seems a very natural garden. Very. Although carefully constructed, it does not look like that to me. (admittedly I am not a plantsman - more a landscape view person). Where you do make a positive comment it's about the Rosenquist sculpture - you express relief even. The sculpture is 'natural' but more 'constructed'.
    Is it that you would prefer a garden that looks more constructed. And is that an essence of gardens.
    Notable to me is how different your Brooklyn garden is. Very constructed and it's almost designed to look 'constructed'.

    1. Not constructed. That's not what I'm looking for. The Brooklyn garden has that look because it has to fit into a little rectangle. I think that's what you're referring to. I think I want the garden to talk to me, to stimulate thought. It's designed on sustainable principles, but I definitely don't want it to lecture me on sustainability (a devalued word I don't like at all). Marc's sculpture is in a sense "nongarden." sort of like the impurity that causes an oyster to form a pearl (not sure that metaphor works).

      As I think more on it, the Brooklyn garden could be naturalistic, even within the bounds of that rectangle. I made a choice to have a very different kind of garden there. So I guess you got me, though I'm not sure the word constructed is what I think about it. Thanks. You've got me thinking and questioning myself.

  3. A truly beautiful garden and good to see an alternative to the highly stylized designs currently prevalent. Combining seasonal interest and opportunities for wildlife with an appreciation for the inherent qualities of each plant.

    I particularly like the sense of atmosphere (albeit perceived via a photograph)suggesting tranquility, security, contemplation, comfort and a reconnection with nature.

    Typing this on a hot, late spring morning your garden looks so appealing ...

    1. Thank you. I suppose all the rain has got me feeling blue. The "inherent qualities" of the plants will be much more visible in about three weeks. By then, they'll be showing their almost mature forms.

  4. James yer in full flow.

    So you're bored with all this, but I wonder, after adding the narrative do you see things differently, re-freshed?

    I like all the tall stuff. I like abondance. Watch the bracken by the way, It reaches out, like tendrils slowly ensnaring you, go home after dark. I think it gets a bad rap as it omits a natural herbicide, makes it difficult to grow anything amongst it, but it's been here for many millenia, unchanged, survival of the fittest, definitely smacks of pre-history.

    It gets my vote.

    1. Yes, Rob, I worked my way through something in the narrative and feel better now. You must be a very empathic person to be able to read my moods so easily. Abundance, yes ... abundance is certainly what my garden is about. One more virtue of bracken. It has great color in the autumn.

  5. The sculpture and the oyster and pearl idea is quite striking. I will be thinking about that one and probably end up strolling about thinking of how I can initiate an landscape 'pearl'. Something incongruent becoming something that adds - Kerry

    1. I'll have to think about that one myself, Kerry. I have friends who, it appears, are sailing around the world. They just spent a week hiking the Milford Track in Fjordland. Anywhere near you? Reports are that they are now in Fiji.

  6. All those lush shades of green are balm to my eyes -- I'm trying to stay positive about no rain for six months!

    1. A few weeks ago I thought we were headed for drought, then the rain started. I fear, where you are, the rains will not come.

  7. I'm posting this for Ross Hamilton, who couldn't post this comment and forwarded it by email:

    Hello James,

    It's a lovely garden, a glade, green and lush, a secret. Your garden reminds me of my past and present allegiance to the world of flowers, and how flowers are now less natural than artificial. It is curious, in the history of landscape, the role that flowers play in making nature into art.

    I would say that you (with others) garden in a new way -- a way that leads not back to nature, but to a space in which the demarcation between nature and culture is as "foggy" as the blur of your early summer grasses. I would suggest, since your post invites analysis, that you continue to embrace the mess your garden reveals so.. beautifully (a loaded term). Your garden poses the curious question: as gardeners, do we separate ourselves from nature, even as our "love" of nature pushes us to garden?

    Think of how Socrates and the stoics advocated indifference. (Your hemlock brought him to mind). They advanced as you may know a practice of "spiritual exercises" that helped people let go of their lived concerns and accept death (to philosophize is to learn how to die, Montaigne wrote, following Sextus). As an object of contemplation, your garden suggests to me a release from the self. It's a letting go.

    From this perspective, then, the Rosenquist sculpture might in fact be a block, rather than a solution.

  8. Ross,

    I wish I could discuss your comment; I can read it in different ways, so I'm not sure of your meaning. You raise intriguing questions. I'll take your word "flowers" and read its meaning as perennials--the plant with reference to all attributes: form, structure, texture, meaning visual texture of the plant as well as the surface texture, color, and reflective qualities of its foliage--and so on. But then I don't understand whether you mean plants (flowers) individually, or the use of non-native species, in many cases from far distant lands. So your first paragraph raises so many questions, I feel I could devote an essay to questions of its meaning alone. Please help me here, if you're in internet range.

    As to demarcation between nature and culture, has any garden ever not been artificial? Aren't all gardens cultural constructs? I remember once hearing Rick Darke say all landscapes are cultural landscapes. Is there a nature that isn't seen through and formed by culture? To answer your question--as gardeners do we separate ourselves from nature? My answer is yes, emphatically. You point to a paradox, as I read your words--we come from "nature" and in some sense want to return to "nature." But I don't want my garden to BE nature. I may as well go into the woods, sit in a yoga position, and meditate.

    "To philosophize is to learn how to die." I certainly resonate to that, agree wholeheartedly in some undefined, ineffable way. As I sit looking at the play of changing sunlight over the now tall Filipendula, with pinking flower umbels and sharp, angular foliage like stained glass catching the light, contrasting against the dark woods, my feeling is one of sensuous pleasure, and as I continue to look, perhaps contemplation. With discipline perhaps I could stop the circling thoughts and just be. I have to take it for what it is, when it comes, out of my control, just as the changing light is not in my control.

    "A release from the self ... a letting go"? I'd like to think about that.

    We really should have that gardening dinner some day when you return.



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