Friday, September 21, 2012

In the balance

My garden exists somewhere on the edge between a wild field and a cultivated garden. Knowing the nature of this place and the difficult conditions I was presented with when I first started the garden, I chose an experimental, naturalistic approach combining plants already on the site with new plants, many large enough to dominate, literally smother, competitors, some native, some not. The chief criterion was whether a plant could thrive in this place, not place of origin.

Mounding shapes like heaving waves, suggesting tumultuous motion, and evoking some anxiety perhaps?
But my intent was bedeviled by a tentativeness, by concern that this was contingent on a host of uncertainties, a risk, a bet, a gamble. It might not work. And I've worried about the wildness over the years, not knowing whether my garden would survive as garden, whether I could maintain that precarious balance between wild and cultivated.

Now I have enough years with it to know I can. Though I'm with the garden only a few days a week, and I don't particularly like standing in the pond pulling weeds or dripping with sweat in a pile of scratchy Miscanthus, I can from time to time intervene in the dynamic process of plant competition, make changes for the better. At times, rip out unsuccessful areas and make them anew. Now I feel much more at ease with the messiness, the lack of neat edges, the ungardened or partially gardened areas.

The long view - much more tranquil, especially with the strong verticals of the trees behind.
Many people, I realize, don't see a garden at Federal Twist. Some see a field of weeds and large, strange plants. Some become uneasy walking through it. Others "get it."

Since I don't really care for the labor of gardening, should I call this a garden an object of aesthetic or philosophical contemplation? One gardening acquaintance has called it a "creative mess." Is it?

The answer to both questions is "yes."

White candles of Sanguisorba canadensis light up the twilight.
It calls out to you to give it meaning.

You have to "find" the garden each time you look at it. I'm wary making comparison with paintings or photographs because they not at all the same, but it helps to look at the garden as an intentionally composed image. Simply taking a photograph does this, creating a frame that leads the eye to focus on individual details and find relationships within the framed image, and suggests the possibility of what lies outside the frame. It's a tool, so to speak, a way to learn how to look at the naturalistic garden.

Pattern and order ... in the first image you can see the mounding shapes of Miscanthus, Lespedeza, Oakleaf hydrangea, Joe Pye Weed, Filipendula and Golden rod, toward the back Miscanthus purpurescens in plumy flower. Added to this visual differentiation is the tumultuous emotional effect, a feeling almost of being tossed about by a sea of plants smashing together. A paradox, it seems, because all was quite still when I took that shot. Nothing is moving. The movement is only suggested by a seeming superabundance captured within that tight frame. The tumult and motion take place only in the mind of the observer, not in the garden.

With dense planting minor changes in position present new compositions.

A bit of dark water evokes dark thoughts.

Lespedeza thunbergii 'Gibraltar' veiled by Prairie cord grass, an alien and a native. Only the native is invasive!

The central garden, with a bronze sculpture almost hidden by the plants, a pleasant visual association, and vaguely evocative - but of what?

Raised planting of box extending back to the pond, joined to it by a mound of Oakleaf hydrangea, with irrepressible self-seeded Great Blue Lobelia and Eupatorium perfoliatum.

Swamp aster, Chelone 'Hot Lips', Conoclinum coelestinum.

The main path across the garden. Most of the verticals are Rudbeckia maxima.

Panicum 'Shenandoah' and Rudbeckia maxima.

Great blue lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica) naturalizing in grass.

An area of naturalized planting in grass - the dry end of the garden.

Walnut log circle, intended as a reminder of native inhabitants of this area. But such symbols don't really work. You bring your own meaning to it.

In the photo this view looks rather chaotic, showing the garden teetering on the edge between order and chaos, but in three-dimensional reality you can move around. The sense of spatial definition brings the view back into balance.

Rudbeckia maxima, a major theme plant, with my best ground cover, Miscanthus.

The low house on the hill broods over the garden.

A seating area for disappearing into the plantings.

The bank going up to the house.

Sanguisorbas. They self-seed well. I want other varieties.


  1. Creative mess is also my goal :-) Your garden is beautiful, both your gardens are beautiful. Congratulations!

    1. Thank you, Petka. Let's make of our messes what we can.

  2. James,
    I "get it". I love all the textures and combinations. It is a work of art no matter how you frame it. When you compare this garden to your city garden, you realize that I see your appreciation for both a "messy" garden and a more tailored, formal garden with more conventional structure. For me, each garden feels right in its particular location.

    1. Michael,
      Thanks. Of course, now I want to take apart the city garden, but I suppose it's not really together yet, still in the works, so I'm not really at the taking apart stage yet. I do like having the opportunity for a much more controlled space in Brooklyn. And that's given me a new sense of freedom to enjoy the wildness in the country.

  3. I like your way of gardening and how you use perennials. Especially in autumn with all the grasses your garden is very beautiful.

    Kind regards from Austria,

    1. Katrin, I think we have very similar approaches to gardening. I do wish I could use more geraniums (Storchschnabel), but I haven't found any that can survive, much less thrive, in my wet clay. Perhaps you have suggestions?

    2. Hm, thats a difficult question, but there are some Geraniums, which may like your clay. You could try Geranium palustre, G. pratense (which has some good garden cultivars in different colors) and G. maculatum. You could also give G. erianthum a try and G. psilostemon, with some gravel in the planting hole it could work.

    3. Thanks for the suggestions, Katrin. We have G. maculatum growing naturally around here, but it seems a rather delicate thing with a very brief season of bloom. I'll investigate your other suggestions. G. Rozanne grows well and rather rampantly in the drier area near the house, so it's worth giving it a try out in the wetter and much more competitive garden where I'd love to see it covering large areas of low growth. I may plop in a couple and see what happens over winter.

  4. The garden is very beautiful. You are right to say that it looks like a green sea, that is also my association. I am reminded of the maelstrom from Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues, though yours is less terrifying than the one that pulled down Nemo. After all we are all being slowly pulled back into the earth from which your garden rises. Perhaps your enigmatic sculpture is the vortex, the omphalos? (which I take to be its model? -- I remember how astonished I was to see the omphalos of Delphi, which it closely resembles):

    1. Ross, another coincidence! I just finished a new post on the garden in sunny morning light (haven't yet pressed "publish") in which I refer to the area of Marc Rosenquist's sculpture as the omphalos. I like all aspects of your analogy. And with death overly present in my life in recent months, I also deeply feel your words "we are all being slowly pulled back into the earth from which your garden rises." Thank you very much for this comment. It's a delightful "presence" at this moment.

  5. Your garden, your writing and your photographs, James, are sublime.


    1. Thank you for the kind words, Frances. It seems many of my plants that have yet to bloom are already blooming for you in Tennessee.

  6. Coming from someone who "gets it," this is amazing. What a fantastic space. Great work.

    1. Thanks, Ben. I thought we'd have similar tastes, judging from your fb "likes."



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