Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Garden Diary: Reflections

Barring some brief, miraculous frosty transmogrification, the garden is gone for the year. I'm ready to burn what I can and cut the rest. Winter's barely here and I want to move on. 

I have projects, changes to make, things to do. I was recently notified, you see, that the garden will be on the Garden Conservancy Open Days next year. Nothing like a deadline for motivation. Right now, unfortunately, this feels like work. Where's that delight in gentle, impulsive garden making? I want play and pleasure--not work. For years toiling in the corporate coal mines I kept as my mantra (or complaint) Robert Frost's words in Two Tramps in Mud Time:

My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.

It seems I never accomplished that goal, so as next best, I've semiretired to garden play, or so I thought. Could it be the competitive instinct is inborn, so deeply ingrained, I can't stop it? So to prepare for next summer, I've started on a series of changes, "improvements" as they were fond of calling them in 18th century English landscape culture, more I'm sure than I'll have time or money for. Down the road, I hope I'll be able to remember this is play too.

The first project is this one ...

We just finished the new reflecting pool. Much work remains--building a low stone retaining wall for the gravel bed, deciding what pattern to use for the paving, entirely replanting the area around the pool. I want a touch of formality, probably mostly shaped box wood and Thuja spires, contrasting with the wildness and informality, especially here near the house and pool, where straight lines and right angles lend a greater sense of geometric order.

Hidden under the bank going up to the house, I hardly see this new pool area from above. But from down in the garden, it's been an annoyance. The garden is young--barely seven years--and I just hadn't had time to deal with it.  I planted a Salix 'Hakuro-nishiki', which grew fast and helped cover up the inattention, but it was time to fix this.

View coming down the stairs from the house.

My initial thought was to create a simple path and paved area, and new plantings, to add strolling options and a more engaging experience in the garden. Then it occurred to me I could make room to add a reflecting pool. (I've been exceedingly happy with the new pool in the small Brooklyn garden, so the thought of adding a reflective element at Federal Twist caught my interest.) The ideas started morphing and I realized I could also take this opportunity to remove a gravel path I've always disliked, reuse the gravel in the new pool area, and turn the unsuccessful path into a new planting area, even mound new soil on the path, creating a kind of irregular berm, with the hope the improvement in drainage will allow me to grow some plants that don't thrive in heavy wetness.

Once the pool was finished, however, I wasn't satisfied. I wish it were larger, but topography prevents that. Much more importantly, it doesn't look like it belongs. So instead of using this new area as open negative space, which I had planned to do, I'll enclose and partially hide the pool within close plantings of shrubs, grasses and perennials. It can be glimpsed through the plantings, but will remain an enticing, seemingly out-of-reach mirage from many parts of the garden. The photo below shows something of the veiled, partial glimpses I'd like to create.

When the area around the pool is fully planted, it will be partially hidden, veiled by vegetation.

I made these mark-ups with a simple program called Skitch to better envision how massing might work to make the reflecting pool a private area for contemplation. First, the view from the south, shown below. Small paths will allow entry from the left, the right, and the back. The green shapes may be shrubs such as box wood and spires of Thuja occidentalis (Arborvitae), which does very well in my wet soil, and is an extraordinarily beautiful, native evergreen in spite of what you might think! The yellows and blues show how various mounding and vertical grasses and perennials might be used to create privacy and screen views into and out of the area--and to hide the unsightly deer exclusion fence at the back (another problem solved).

Below is a view from the opposite (north) side. Another aspect of the new plantings--apart from screening and visual pleasure they can give--is controlling reflections in the pool. To some extent I can experiment by moving plants around in containers, but intuition will certainly play an important role. I can already see that distant trees will probably dominate the reflected view, and am pleased with that. Again, apart from the green lines, which indicate Thuja and box, the other colors represent general concepts for massing of grasses and perennials, and perhaps other shrubs such as Lindera angustifolia (if I can find it), viburnums, or coppiced willows (I'm particularly interested in finding Rosemary willow, Salix elaeagnos 'Angustifolia'.)

This final view shows the area from behind the path I'm removing. This will become a messy, sprawling (read "naturalistic") berm  planted with shrubs and perennials, giving some added height. Though I will order a few "prize" plants from remote sources, I need large, well established specimens from local nurseries to get a finished effect in time for next summer. That means using what's available locally and remaining open to improvisation.

I think using Skitch has awakened my sense of play. We'll see.


  1. The new gardening year always starts for me once Christmas is over, I am itching to get on just waiting for the ground to dry out.

    I like your pool but it does jar with its surroundings. I think you need to make it a destination and seperate in from the surrounding wilder planting. It reminded me to a degree of the reflecting pool at Kiftsgate where the reflecting pool is surrounded by high hedging to separate it from the rest of the garden. It certainly has a very still atmosphere.

    However your pool is much smaller and so high hedges would be stupid and I cant see that very formal box hedging would look right, it would probably just add to the pool looking out of place. I like your plans to create screens around it with looser planting and I think it should be that you come across the pool as a surprise.

    Sorry I have rambled on abit but I thought it was very interesting

    1. Helen, thank you. I'm in complete agreement, and your example of Kiftsgate, though it doesn't provide a specific solution for my situation, does illustrate very well how the pool has greatest effect when cut off and isolated from the rest of the garden, as you say making it a destination, but giving it a place apart. The square shape of the pool is itself a jarring element in my garden, and I can now see one best kept apart where it can work as a contemplative element in its own clearly defined "room." Though I can't use an evergreen hedge, I think more informal placement of the evergreen thuja at transition/entrance points will provide a similar isolating visual effect.

  2. That looks interesting! I`m looking forward to pictures next year!
    And also interesting method of doing a garden-plan! I like sketches like that.
    I think your ideas will work well - especially the higher trees in the background (view from the south) will be a nice addition in front of the very high tress in the far background.
    Greetings from germany Renate

  3. Thanks for the comment. Yes, I do hope the tall shrubs around the pool will help link to the very tall trees in the surrounding woods. I'll pull out my copy of Perennials and their Garden Habitats (Die Stauden und Ihre Lebensbereiche) and research other planting possibilities. Yes, the colored sketches are primitive and child-like, but they certainly help.

  4. Intense engagement brings real joy to life. Even though it involves working like hell.

    I love the half-hidden pool. I made me think of your garden as a kind of labyrinth that one walks through in mediation and thought, perhaps ending at the pool (or maybe it's another 'station' along the way to the center).

    I wish I could be there for your "Open Days."

    1. Cindy, you are describing the garden late in the season, when it does indeed become like a labyrinth. Then the tall plants do form a kind of living wall that obscures vision out and sets the stage for a more meditative experience. There are stations along the way, but at present no center. I like your idea.

  5. Hello James,

    I've always believed that "Open Days" exist to provide ground cover for obsessive gardening: Hortus furor var. Garden Open Days. Also useful for persuading recalcitrant partners, as in "We must! Garden Open Day is coming!" So well done.

    I love the idea of a reflective pool in the center of the garden, the water that makes your garden possible, that orders it.

    A thought did come to me in the middle of the night (if you allow a suggestion, I think a circle rather than a square, and fieldstone rather than cut stone, would be more in keeping with the spirit of your garden. A larger pool that gathers three paths and throws them out into your garden and the world, like a vortex. all best for the new year, Ross

    1. Hello Ross, I'm not sure the Open Days deadline will persuade my recalcitrant partner to cooperate. I've raised the alarm, but he hasn't been forthcoming. He seems to have other interests entirely. You gently tell me you don't think the new pool is the right pool. I agree, of course, but it will stay, and I'll do much to make it a separate "station along the way," as Cindy said above, so that its jarring shape "belongs" within a limited, separate realm set apart under the hill, just below the house.

      But I must say I love the idea of a central circular pool, and your metaphor of three paths thrown out like a vortex into the garden and the world. That isn't practical where the new pool now is because septic system infrastructure underlies that area, but out in the middle of the garden, or on the far side, it would be, though I'd have to move in many tons of gravel or soil to create a level grade on our slanting site. It's a Big Idea for my little garden. I have two long winter months just looking out to think about it.

  6. I will be there for your Open Day. It's a bit of a drive down from Connecticut, but I have long wanted to wander the paths of your complex, layered garden, and so the date will go on my calendar as soon as it is published. Can't wait . . . please have nice weather that day!

    One thing I like about your blog is the detailed problem solving / design / thought process you go through. I like to follow it and examine all the possibilities you plan. I agree with your thoughts about the pool, although I might do fewer grasses as you already have many. But the heights and enclosure and thoughts of half hiding the surprise of a reflecting pool is right on. And I am going to get to see it for real.

  7. It is quite a drive from Connecticut, but I'd love to have you come. This is B&B territory, and there's a lot of interest in the Delaware River Valley area. Gardens Conservancy will probably give me a day near the end of June. I've asked for a second day in October, and if they agree, I'd recommend that as a first choice. This is definitely a fall garden. Interesting in mid-summer, but the fall is the best, preferably late in the afternoon. If GC doesn't do a late date, I may open it myself, though I'm not sure how I'd get people to come.

    About the grasses, I've looked at photos in Rick Darke's books showing fields of native miscanthus in Japan. I really love the effect. And it just happens that miscanthus is almost perfectly suited to my heavy, wet clay. But I will strive for more variety in the planting.

    I do intend to use more shrubs than I have in the past. We have native Lindera benzoin, but recently I've seen several Lindera angustifolia, which have extraordinary fall color and hold their foliage through winter. I'd like to introduce some new plants like these in the new area, and perhaps some new perennials.

  8. James,
    After visiting the garden in October and having a new understanding of its relationship to your contemporary, rectangular house, the square pool makes perfect sense to me. You seem to be following Gertrude Gertrude Jekyll's mandate for the garden to "curtsey" to the house. You might think of other ways to bring elements near the house to the garden to make them more harmonious. I just got this thought that maybe our houses and gardens should have symbiotic relationship. Maybe that thought will spark something? I like your shrub ideas. FYI, Fairweather Gardens had Lindera glauca v. angustifolia in there catalogue last year. I got a few for my garden after seeing them still clothed in leaves last winter at the Arnold. Thanks, as always, for including us all in your garden-making process.

    1. Michael,
      As they say, "great minds think alike." Just yesterday I sent an email to Fairweather Gardens asking if they will have large Lindera angustifolia available this spring. I'm also looking for the larger Lindera salicifolia, and think I recall seeing it listed at Broken Arrow Nursery, which you and Tovah told me about. I've recently seen it used in the winter landscape at Brooklyn Bridge Park. I hadn't seen that beautiful suede-like foliage before. I also saw these beautiful shrubs in their glory at Chanticleer in October.

      I fully agree that the garden and house should be one, at least in most cases, so thanks for the Jekyll reminder. The pool looks out of place lying naked amid the remnants of the planty part of the garden. I probably should have used a photo showing the house rising up in the background, so the setting would make more sense to someone who hasn't visited the garden. I'll certainly think about your suggestion to bring elements near the house to that part of the garden, and perhaps others. I've resisted using Japanese garden elements, but in fact the house has a few architectural details that have a clear origin in Japanese architecture--the very wide, beamed overhanging eves and many internal details, subtle but present, that suggest a trail back through Frank Lloyd Wright to Arts and Crafts to Japanese detailing. I certainly won't be adding a Japanese lantern to the garden, but perhaps a clearer focus on Wabi-Sabi and the idea of a Japanese stroll garden.

  9. hello, I like the pool and the contrast with the curving lines of your garden, what jars for me is the straight wall and corner as seen clearly in one of the photos, I would be interested to see how the pool sits in your garden when all the plants are in full growth, you have so much in your garden I can't imagine the pool being any thing but hidden.

    I wasn't thinking japanese though find the suggestion interesting but FLW had come to mind, though in the form of rectangle within rectangle off centre in one of the houses in Oak park, Chicago, it must be more than 20 years that I saw it,
    look forward to seeing what you do do and wish I was near enough to visit on your open day, Frances

    1. Thanks for your suggestions. The straight stone wall surrounds the base of an embankment with the house at the top, and its shape, I'm afraid, is fixed--a given. The pool in fact won't be hidden without some changes. It's next to a group of winterberry hollies that never have done exceptionally well, so there's a clear view through them. I intend to move most of these to a group at the back of the garden, and plant new shrubs, grasses and perennials that I know will partially block the view from the main paths. I don't recall the FLW rectangle in Oak Park, though I've seens many of his buildings there. Like you, I look forward to how this situation resolves itself. Thanks for commenting.

  10. that touch of formality near the house - was what I planned for Paradise and Roses. One visitor stepped off the verandah and exclaimed in pleased surprise - Oh! Now this is quite formal.
    What about adding an echo of your staggered stepping stone path? That has been tucked in my ideas folder for our new garden.

    1. That's exactly my plan. I'm trying to resolve placement that will echo that existing path yet look good with the severely rectangular pool. Formality for me is an inexact term. In my garden, a few balls of box wood look like formality.

  11. Hi James! I wouldn't comment except that you reveal some dissatisfaction with the size and shape of your new pool. When I reflected on those comments I came up with the idea of extending the pool area away from the coping by using a checkerboard of squares (size derived from some common denominator between the width of the coping and the outer dimension of the pool). The checkerboard pattern to be more dense when adjacent to the pool and gradually (by leaving out more and more squares) more open, irregular, and organic near the edges or even trailing off down a path. A solution such as this might serve both to increase the apparent size of the pool and to provide linkage between the stark geometry of the pool and the naturalistic elements of the setting. The material of the squares would be the same as the coping material and the alternate "open" squares would be your gravel or a mix of gravel and tight/low ground covers. Just my 2 cents. I will be interested to follow the new developments in this garden.

    1. Hello, Emily - I like the idea conceptually but implementation on this slanting site would be very difficult. I've actually thought of doing something similar already, but since this is very near the septic tank, I'm limited by the underground "infrastructure." As it is, I've had to use gravel to a depth of over a foot to create a lever surface for the pool. Extending that for the "evaporating" grid you describe would be a huge task (I'm very aware you're not daunted by such tasks, considering your use of cut concrete for your paving. How did that work out, by the way?) and could become a real problem if future work on the old septic system is ever required. I've thought of a similar idea, using square concrete pavers behind the pool, on the existing gravel bed, and offset diagonally, creating a mirror image of the pool in concrete. I'm not sure if it will work. I've been moving the pavers around in different patterns, but they are so heavy I find I do only a little at a time. More patterning this coming weekend, weather permitting.

  12. Hi, James! I liked your projects, to re-plant and move some plants.
    Thank you for dropping by!



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