Saturday, October 27, 2012

Garden visitors

Surprised, I was, a few weeks back to get an email from Noel Kingsbury saying he would be in the Philadelphia area for several days, and would like to drop by.

When we moved to Federal Twist in 2005 and I recognized I'd be gardening in a very difficult place, my hope for the future came from two books by Noel Kingsbury--The New Perennial Garden and Planting Design: Gardens in Time and Space (written with Piet Oudolf). In the first, I learned about naturalistic gardening, in particular about planting into rough grass. In the second, about the three kinds of plants--competitors, stress tolerators, and pioneers or ruderals (more accurately, three primary growth characteristics shared, to various degrees, by different plants) and about prairies--the enormous numbers of plants in a square yard of natural prairie, for example, compared to the much smaller number of plants in a square yard of cultivated garden. My selection of plants was, of course, also affected by his popularization of the Oudolf plant selections.

Noel Kingsbury and me (the one in the cap with his mouth strangely open) accompanied by towers of dried Inula racemosa "Sonnenspeer."

Kingsbury is a scientist, and an extraordinary writer, so rather than oversimplify, I refer you to his books for more details. Needless to say, they were of enourmous value to me making a garden in the woods of western New Jersey.

So I was certainly gratified to have Noel Kingsbury visit last weekend. We had a walk around the garden, then lunch, then a second garden walk. In between, Noel got out his computer and showed me images of the amazing plant communities in Kyrgyzstan, where he visited this past summer.

Checking out the asters.

Just before Noel's visit to Federal Twist, I attended the 29th annual Perennial Plant Conference at Swarthmore, where he was the first presenter of the day. I had read and referenced his books so many times I had little to learn, but I hope others "got" his message--that we need to pay attention to how plants grow in nature to have more successful gardens, that we, in effect, can create artificial ecosystems that make our gardens more self-sufficient and, though not labor-free, certainly lower maintenance. (By the way, the Swarthmore conference is a tremendous conference, and the Swarthmore campus, also known as the Scott Arboretum, is extraordinarily beautiful. I give it the highest recommendation.)

Amphitheater at Swarthmore

I also met a neighbor from nearby Frenchtown at the conference. Well, I didn't know we were neighbors, until I heard a woman behind me mention Frenchtown, and on asking discovered she was Helen Grundman, also a garden designer. Helen and her husband Bill, a forester and organic plant care expert, dropped by for a garden tour mid-afternoon.

The conference was full of surprises. During a break, while I was looking at a dried plant arrangement on the stage, a guy approached me saying, "James?" It was Michael Gordon, a cyber friend who I've been in touch with for several years via the blogosphere but had never met. Michael, from Peterborough, New Hampshire, has a blog called The Gardener's Eye. An optometrist by profession, Michael is also an accomplished garden designer; he designed all the public gardens in Peterborough, as well as his own very polished garden. Michael was traveling with his friend and well known garden writer Tovah Martin, and with garden designer Maude Odgers, also from Peterborough. So several hours after Noel left, Michael, Tovah, and Maude arrived to see the garden in a beautiful just-before-twilight light. It was almost dark when we got back into the house and had coffee, drinks, and cookies, and a warm, pleasant conversation before they left for the long drive back to Connecticut and New Hampshire.

So my unusual day of garden visiting leads me to two conclusions:  (1) I think I should attend more good garden conferences (and meet more people of a like disposition) and (2) I should have more garden visitors, preferably from midsummer to fall, just before sunset.

Is the Garden Conservancy listening?

*Photos of Kingsbury and me were taken by Phillip Saperia. Unfortunately we forgot to take pictures of our other delightful visitors.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012


This field, on a sandy hillside outside Oxford, Mississippi, spills down from the front of a new house recently built. A traditional American landscaping approach would be to bring in soil and lay sod to create a lawn. The sandy soil would require tremendous quantities of water to keep the lawn alive. Fortunately, this has not happened.

The field is beautiful in itself, and an ornament to the house. The question is, can the field be maintained  always to look this good?

The plant community we see here is in part a result of disturbance during construction of the new house. Some of the most significant and beautiful plants are ruderals, pioneer plants that quickly come in to  colonize open ground, and thus likely to be replaced by other species over time in a natural process of succession.

The first and second photos show feathery dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) in bloom with broomsedge (Andropogon virginicus), the predominating plant in the field. Broomsedge is a keeper and is likely to stay a long time. It's a beautiful field grass, especially in the fall and winter, common throughout the area, well adapted to local conditions. But the dogfennel is a pioneer plant, and is likely to disappear as other, more stable plant communities establish over time. Though it's considered a highly undesirable weed by agriculturalists, it's a striking perennial, with delicate, feathery foliage that captures and reflects light and a flexible structure that allows it to move about in the breeze. It's an animating plant, taller than broomsedge, providing vertical accent, aesthetic interest, and tactile pleasure. If touched, it has a distinctive, highly aromatic odor I find pleasant.

It may be possible to manage the field to retain its ruderal species but that would probably require repeated disturbance of the land surface, perhaps by rough mowing in the late winter, just enough to break the ground surface and expose seeding area for the ruderals to take hold anew each year.

Another option might be to let plant succession occur with minimal intervention (mowing once a year to clear the field for regrowth and prevent its reversion to forest). A third option might be strategic planting of cultivated species appropriate to the environment, actually managing the landscape, almost like a garden.

A fountain of dogfennel laden with seed.

Dogfennel and wooly croton contrast with the thin verticals of broomsedge.

Above, in front of the dogfennel, is another ruderal that adds textural and color interest. Known by various common names such as hogweed and wooly croton (Croton capitatus), this plant is an annual with grayish foliage and distinctive gray flowers and seed heads. Here it appears to be growing in linear patches that follow the wheel tracks of heavy equipment.

Below you can see a "river" of wolly croton running up the hill from the road.

A river of wooly croton running up the hill.

Here, a close up of wooly croton. It's a very attractive plant though not likely to be used widely if it has to be seeded every year. Some experimentation may be in order.

If this were my field, I'd roughly mow it once in the spring, making sure to break up the soil surface where I want the ruderals to reproduce, and watch what develops over the next two or three years. On second thought, I recommend that to the owners. I'd probably start by adding one or two large, distinctive perennials right away.

That's just my inclination.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Faulkner's place

"Memory believes before knowing remembers. Believes longer 
than recollects, longer than knowing even wonders."

- Light in August, 1932

In this opening passage to Light in August, William Faulkner is drawing a distinction between the lasting effects of early memories formed before language and self-conscious "knowing" exist. I doubt Faulkner thought much about gardens, except as symbol or literary device, but his recognition of the power of early memory to shape an individual has bearing, for me, on the nature of emotional response, and by extension, on emotional response to the garden. I have my own inarticulate memories.

On a recent sad visit to Oxford, Mississippi, I visited Faulkner's home, not to see the house, but to walk the grounds which, especially near sunset, have a tranquility and quietness any garden might hope for.

Spacious grounds

The garden is very simple--sky, space, trees, derelict remnant of a long lost rose garden, lines of ragged privet hedges. In years past, I might have doubted whether this place could properly be called a garden, but now know it can.

Vacant brick-lined beds mark the old rose garden, now moss covered in the deep shadow of trees, evoking thoughts of time past, layers upon layers of cultures mostly forgotten. Like a palimpsest, the substance is wiped away, but the outlines remain.

Rose garden

These scattered bricks make a profoundly evocative garden that far surpasses any actual rose garden that might have existed in this place.

The old, straight cedars (Juniperus virginiana) measure off the large space, giving sense of scale ...

House through trees

... and they frame the sky. Light and sky are, in fact, a central theme of this happenstance garden. Everywhere you walk the sky opens through apertures in the trees, and light floods in, making dark shadows appear even darker ...

Sky encircled by trees

... and the effects of low sunlight at this late hour and this late season are everywhere apparent. Just look at the chiaroscuro-like quality of these images ...

House, circa 1840

Privet hedge

Culturally, the subjects of the images take us back beyond the rose garden to even earlier times, suggested by the modest house of a beloved black servant ...

Another life, another race, another story

... and to an even older time when this land was inhabited by native people who had no concept of ownership of the land ... and even further back, to wilderness itself.

Ancient grape vine

It's fitting that our exit should be not through some wrought gate or formal entryway, but by an almost invisible path through a tangled green hedgerow.

Hedgerow path to the car park

"He ranged the summer woods now, green with gloom, if anything actually dimmer than they had been in November’s gray dissolution, where even at noon the sun fell only in windless dappling upon the earth...

- The Bear


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