Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Incredible Shrinking Man

I say I don't have a lawn, but I suppose I do--a very tall lawn, a simulacrum of a tall grass prairie, highly modified. Modified in very specific ways to grow on my wet land perched on the rim of the Delaware River Valley. To see my garden as lawn, it's helpful to imagine yourself very small, like the incredible shrinking man, walking among blades of grass that have become like giant trees.

Indulge my little conceit, a lawn of very large plants, many not grasses. The Rudbeckia maxima and the scrim of fading Filipendula below are taller than you are. So taking a walk through--not across--the lawn at this time of year is a thoroughly three-dimensional experience.

Unless you're a giant, the Rudbeckia maxima and Filipendula venusta behind it are taller than you are.
This kind of lawn has several advantages. You don't have to water it. Even with day after day of over-90-degree temperatures, and little rain, it's doing fine. After several years of growth, the roots have gotten deep enough to reach what water remains well underground.

You can  hide in this lawn--totally disappear, just like the incredible shrinking man, and no one in the house can see you. Need I enumerate the advantages? A fine place for dalliance, though that's not likely to happen at Federal Twist, except among the bugs and butterflies and frogs. A fine place for peeing outside too; that's good for driving away groundhogs. And it adds nitrogen to the soil.

Nor do you need to feed it. The plants stay in place over winter, so their goodness returns to the soil. After burning and chopping in spring, the detritus adds organic matter to the earth. It's certainly not self-maintaining, but care is infrequent, and not too much work.

It plants itself. Above, self-seeded Vernonia with Hydrangea arborescens by the pond ...

Another self-seeder, Silphium perfoliatum, on the right by the path. It, too, is taller than you. The lone Liatris is from one of several experimental corms I haphazardly put into the ground last winter. I see I should add many more.

Bees love it.

Filipendula, Joe Pye Weed, and Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) above. Now that the Filipendula has faded from garish pink, it blends in well, and it remains a great structural plant. Structure is important to maintaining a tall lawn and keeping high visual interest. Flowers are a frill, nice but secondary.

Breaks in the tall field of planting create voids, corridors of view, and relative perspective. Here the tall Rudbeckia maxima, Miscanthus giganteus, Cercis canadensis 'Hearts of Gold', Filipendula, Calamagrostis acutifolia 'Karl Foerester' (l to r) tower over daylilies planted amid shorter grasses and carex, other low plants. Your eye can move freely among the taller plants and roam the open spaces, knowing potential for freedom, anticipating change, seeking the new (or old), reconnoitering routes to elsewhere. Then behind it all, the wall of forest, setting the boundary, but with its own interstices leading into a darker world.

So another advantage of this kind of lawn: it offers opportunity for daydreams, psychic mini-vacations. Make of the spires of Thuja what you will. But do notice the silver white bloom of the Pycnanthemum muticum, buzzing with hundreds of bees and wasps, so fragrant it opens the door to another sensual world.

Traveling the main path across the lawn is almost like moving through a three-dimensional simulation. All the tall yellows and purples shift relative position as you move through the field, and the sharp orange and red daylilies play visual tricks, sometimes moving closer, at other times receding, adding to the perception of depth.

This lawn gives pleasure in many ways, some quite subtle, but you have to bring a certain sensibility, attention to detail, openness, moments of stillness. These little emotional pleasures require a contemplative state of mind, then they come, transient re-cognitions, like meeting dear friends from the past.

Daylilies planted out in the field of grasses are virtually invisible until they bloom. (Some flowers are important, and I want to add 50 or 60 more daylillies.) They offer transient visual delight, surprises, like giving a child a bright colored object.

Moving on to the far end of the garden, where a layer of rock under the surface makes a dryer, leaner planting environment ...

... and the plant community is different. More of the "legacy" plants were left in place (Timothy grass and other pasture grasses, Blue-eyed grass, bracken, assorted Persicaria), so the character of the planting is different.Those tall plants not yet in bloom beside the paving are Inula racemosa 'Sonnenspeer', another prolific self-seeder.

Prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) with big, paddle-shaped leaves gives this area a unique solidity and mass, and a bit of humor. They seem to impose themselves on the landscape, squat down on the ground almost like uninvited guests who decide to take up more room than anyone else. Or like strange animals from another planet.

Miscanthus 'Silberfeder', daylilies, self-seeded Vernonia, the circle of red logs, Calamagrostis acutifolia 'Karl Foerester', dying Poison hemlock (Conium maculatum), Eryngium yuccafolium (l to r).
I was twelve when I first saw The Incredible Shrinking Man. It was a formative experience of my childhood. I remember Scott Carey, at the end of the movie, disappearing into the grass of the lawn as he continued to shrink, the grass having become like a forest. He'd become an explorer of the infinitesimal, perhaps to find a door to infinity.

Eryngium yuccafolium.
This fired my imagination far more than anything I had ever heard at the Southern Baptist Church. It still does.

No, I don't imagine I've become Scott Carey when I walk through towering plants, but I do feel some of that sense of mystery and discovery.

Contemplating this scene, watching the changes from season to season, from year to year, I recall those feelings I had over 50 years ago as I watched Scott Carey receding into invisibility.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

The path out ...

... and the path in.

At the end of the movie, Scott Carey stands at the window screen of his basement, about to walk out into the natural world to meet his fate ...

... and he speaks this monologue:

Scott Carey: I was continuing to shrink, to become. . .what? The infinitesimal? What was I? Still a human being? Or was I the man of the future? ... So close – the infinitesimal and the infinite. But suddenly, I knew they were really the two ends of the same concept. The unbelievably small and the unbelievably vast eventually meet – like the closing of a gigantic circle. I looked up, as if somehow I would grasp the heavens. The universe, worlds beyond number, God’s silver tapestry spread across the night. And in that moment, I knew the answer to the riddle of the infinite. I had thought in terms of man’s own limited dimension. I had presumed upon nature. That existence begins and ends in man’s conception, not nature’s. And I felt my body dwindling, melting, becoming nothing. My fears melted away. And in their place came acceptance. All this vast majesty of creation, it had to mean something. And then I meant something, too. Yes, smaller than the smallest, I meant something, too. To God, there is no zero. I still exist!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Neo-Victorian Garden?

In the Ruin Garden at Chanticleer

Attribute it to zeitgeist I suppose.

A few days back I was browsing my collected photos of Chanticleer, the extraordinary garden just outside Philadelphia, searching for images for a writing assignment. As I looked at some of the garden's highly stylized plantings, I suddenly realized that I was seeing something closely akin to Victorian ornamental plantings. Strange, because I'd visited Chanticleer for several years and never before thought of anything there as Victorian.

I certainly don't intend to say the Chanticleer gardeners are trying to recreate those garish, geometric plantings that--except within certain circles--have been very out of fashion for a century. No, in this case the plantings are highly innovative, creative uses of new materials in unusual ways.

Take the Ruin garden, for example. In the main room of the Ruin (above), at the end of the sarcophagus-like dining table, which is also a fountain and a mirror, is a vegetative mantle piece, shown much more clearly ...

... in this image. What fun! And what a magnificent creation. I took this photo in the summer of 2010. Now look at the same planting ...

... in the summer of 2011. Clearly the same base, but with a few deletions and additions.

Okay, just for the heck of it--though I'm not sure what this does for my neo-Victorian thesis--here's the 2012 version from last April. Very different, so I'm wondering if the earlier designs were returned for warmer weather. I plan to go next week so I'll find out then.

You're probably not convinced yet. So take a look at some other plantings at Chanticleer.

Here in the Tea Cup Garden palms are mixed with geometrically bedded out succulents in what has to be called a neo-Victorian style.

And look at this bedding scheme ... convinced yet? This is a far cry from boring Victorian plantings, but the striking blue of the fescue, the orange poppies, the unexpected fig tree all conspire to create an immediately accessible visual excitement that recalls something of the "show-off" quality of Victorian bedding schemes. Here the designer is pushing the boundaries of taste and achieving not the garish, tired look we've come to associate with Victorian gardens, but something entirely new, true artistry ...

... so too the artistry of this amazing container planting of (I believe) a purple leaved brassica, variegated sage, ranunculus, and sticks.

The fountain in the Tea Cup garden again (in yet another year). The orange motif is a recurrent visual theme.

One thing these Chanticleer plantings are not is staid. This is a garden full of joy, delight, a garden with a sense of humor. The gardeners of Chanticleer are playing with an old tradition, making it fun and giving it new life.

In you're interested in exploring the neo-Victorian phenomena, a good place to start is Wikipedia, or one of the Steampunk sites.

(Chanticleer offers much that has nothing to do with the neo-Victorian. More on other aspects of this major American garden in another post.)

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Paxson Hill Farm

Know what this is? It's an Imu at Paxson Hill Farm. I was about to say "my favorite nursery" but Paxson Hill is so much more than that.

The nursery exists mainly to supply Bruce Gangawer's garden design and landscaping business with plants. (Well, that's ostensibly the reason--something like this place doesn't evolve except through love and passion.) What Bruce doesn't use, he sells. Fortunately, his taste tends toward unusual, hard-to-find plants not available in commercial nurseries. Plants such as Astilboides tabularis, Darmera peltata, Pycnantemum muticum, a variety of different Epimediums, Ligularias, Silphiums, Carexes, that extraordinary Lespedeza 'Gibraltar' ... always something for the discerning eye.

Actually, Lynn runs the nursery operation, and you'll probably be talking to her on your visit. She's very knowledgeable about the plants, and can answer any questions you have.

Then there are the display gardens. A woodland garden filled with shade plants is right next to the nursery area (though I took no photos on my last visit). Across a stretch of lawn is the paddock where the Imus live along with Alpacas and the occasional miniature horse.

Several years back, I remember seeing Bruce on a tractor at work in the distance. I didn't know what he was doing. It wasn't until the following spring that I realized what he was up to ... he was making a new garden in full sun, with ponds and waterfalls and streams.

Here is the main entrance. Great composition, with the black bridge overarching a waterfall, the curving gravel path in the foreground, and the mounding trees behind, giving a dramatic sense of depth even in this two-dimensional photo. As usual, I visited at the height of early afternoon brightness, so much detail is lost. If you look closely you can see three of many Lespedeza 'Gribralter', which will be covered in drooping masses of scarlet flowers in late summer.

Right now, the Japanese irises are in bloom, in many colors. They thrive here and I've always wondered why because this is a sun drenched garden, and it appears to be quite dry.

Use of honeysuckle as a ground cover was one of my first surprises in this garden. I'd never seen it used in that way. It's quite effective left to mound and creep where it will.

More Japanese iris. They're everywhere ...

This was a rather flat piece of land before. Now it's been transformed, terraformed in a magical way, with dramatic changes in elevation.

Artful use of varied path materials--gravel, stone, wood--and ground covers ...

Headed up the hill toward the source of the water in a bubbling "spring."

A view across to the maze garden, with the gazebo on a hill ...

Display plantings in the wooded garden at the top of the hill ...

After several year's growth, the rock garden is just about perfect ...

Looking toward the nursery area from the elevated gazebo ...

The upper pond ...

The sales nursery ... and behind that greenhouses with tropical plants, an unusual selection of annuals, pots and planters, fish and aquatic plants ...

Even if you're not buying, or not even looking, Paxson Hill Farm is a wonderful place to be--though if you're a plant lover, you'll probably leave with something.

Follow the Paxson Hill link at the top of this post for driving directions, and more information on the nursery.

Aerial view of Paxson Hill Farm


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