Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The invisible garden

"When you talk about beauty in the context of the garden are you talking about a series of beautiful scenes that stay in the mind, or are you talking about some sort of all-pervading sense of beauty which you can take away with you? What are the modes of beauty which you think a garden can offer which may be of value? ... I mean, talking about the Italian tradition, so many of those gardens are about the invisible qualities of the garden rather than the visible ones."

- Tim Richardson, talking with Penelope Hobhouse at the April 2009 Vista Lecture in London

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Morning, July 25

A morning garden walk, nearly August, yet the usual heat and drought of summer hasn't come. The cool, rainy days we've had since spring are warmer now: highs this week will be in the mid-80's and the rain will come as thundershowers, not lingering drizzle. Communities of plants, their time come round, bloom in successive waves, a phenomenon magnified for me because I see it only on weekends. Morning light is still bright, muting colors, but some of the haze and fog so typical of fall is beginning to briefly settle in.

Rudbeckia maxima in full bloom with Physostegia virginiana 'Miss Manners' (Obedient plant) as a low background (below), and Pycnanthemum muticum (Mountain mint) just turning silver behind it ...

Rudbeckia mixing with the tall, heavily budded stalks of Silphium terebinthinaceum (Prairie dock) ...

From the opposite end of the garden, looking toward the area of the photos above ...

A closer view ... bright pink of Filipendula rubra 'Venusta' has faded to a more acceptable copper-pink color ...

The Joe Pye Weed has begun to take on color (right). I'll cut the floppy Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker (left) next weekend.

A closer view of the Filipedula flowers as they fade from pink to copper ... the foliage, particularly its angular shape, is an asset to the end of the season.

A distant view from above, the early morning haze presaging season's end ...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Plants for wet clay: Ligularia japonica

With ornate, curly, finely cut foliage that evokes an old fashioned Arts and Crafts feeling, Ligularia japonica is one of my favorites. The plant above, in its second year, grows well in heavy wet clay; I'd say it's even thriving. I missed the opportunity to get a photo last weekend, when its flowers were in full bloom at about six feet, but you can see a bit of the color here.

I found the next ligularia at an inn in Hudson, New York, at the end of May.

This one is planted in fine, heavily composted soil, and you can see the difference that makes. Its foliage is much deeper green, growing with a great deal of vigor, and forms a thick canopy that hides the stems.

My plants came from Plant Delight's nursery.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Garden Diary: Inner Paths

Some German parks and gardens have small paths, just wide enough for a single person wandering alone, to allow a more intimate experience of plants. These networks of narrow passageways are separate from the major garden paths. Their entrances are sometimes hard to find and the paths tend to be invisible from outside the garden.

My garden is wide and long and densely planted. I'm quite used to walking through my plantings, but others, particularly those a little intimidated by large plants, wouldn't even think of venturing across the garden. Besides, they might step in the wrong place and hurt themselves or do damage.

I got out my small mower the other day and started a network of small paths. Now I've opened up new opportunities for planting - for more work too. The thing is, the small paths now need to be paved in wood chips or gravel, and their edges need to be refined and integrated with surrounding parts of the garden by adding small-scale plantings to define (and decorate) the newly opened spaces.

I have to admit I've never seen such paths, never been to the German gardens I'm describing. All I know of this I've read in various books by Noel Kingsbury, who does the service of making German gardening concepts and practices available to those of us who don't read or speak German. But he doesn't provide detailed instructions, so I'm winging it.

First take a look at the large scale in the photo below. The path I cut starts off to the left of this photo. It's a very wavy T shape with the top of the T - the crossbar - running in a curvy line across the garden out of view on the left, and the main vertical line of the T running horizontally, left to right, across the field of view in the photo, roughly in front of the bank of miscanthus glinting in the sunlight about two-thirds of the way back. Actually the vertical line of the T is split into two parts so once at the end on the right, you can either exit, or double back over a slightly different route and out via the right-hand side of the crossbar of the T.

Three entrances make it easy to enter the paths. One is shown below, about three feet left of the tall glaucous blue Rudbeckia maxima.

Next, the actual entrance. I had to cut between a Switch grass (Panicum 'Shenandoah') and a white Obedient plant (Physostegia virginiana), leaving a messy area of dead vegetation. I'm sure some of this damage will take care of itself over time, but a little attention to a walking surface, to tell a visitor where to go if nothing else, and some cosmetic edging would make me happier. (The big leafed plants are Silphium terebinthinaceum with flower stalks two to three feet high and growing rapidly. Making these "walkable" may be a challenge.)

Continuing on through in the next photo, the path makes a turn to the right, with a larger resting space just beyond the miscanthus, then a turn to the left. Remember the T-shaped model for the path? In spite of all the turns, this is all still part of the crossbar of the T.

The next photo is of this turn from outside the garden, showing how well the screening of plants hides the internal path network.

The crossbar path continues into the bright sunlight to the opposite side of the garden. Just within the area of shadow is a sharp turn to the right. This is the start of the long vertical line, or descender, of the T, which goes across the wide part of the garden shown in the opening photo.

The first view is of Miscanthus purpurescens, Veronicastrum virginicum and the smoky tops of Calamagrostis 'Karl Foerester' in the distance. Stepping forward ...

emerge the gwaky stalks of Silphium laciniatum (also lots of vernonia, Rudbeckia maxima, other tall verticals), a blue Zenobia pulverulenta in the lower right, a golden arborvitae standing gnome-like in the mid-distance and the beacon of a Sunburst honey locust at the end.

The final few feet, pictured below, show the need for some quick attention to planting to make this a welcoming destination. And I have to cut that old cedar root, which is a tripping hazard.

Here you may exit, having traversed about 40 feet of interior garden, or make a turn to the left and retrace a slightly different path back to the crossbar of the T. If you turn left, this is the path you take through a group of Inula Sonnenspeer, a bank of Miscanthus 'Silberfeder', and on the left a Vernonia gigantea (from Alan Armitage's Plant Delights nursery). Moving forward ...

you can see the giant leaves of the inula in more detail - rather scratchy plants to brush against. But this path is only for people who want to see such plants in detail, and close up. It's not for the casual viewer.
Moving onward into the sunlight, you enter the crossbar of the T again, making a right turn which takes you to the exit near a sitting area under a maple.

As always, "just doing it" without further thought leads to new discoveries (actually, I've thought about doing this for two years at least; just never got around to it, then plunged in). I had thought I'd only need to attend to providing some "paving" to preserve the outline of the paths. Now I foresee need for very careful attention to maintenance if I'm to avoid damaging the surrounding plants. I may even have to move some. And what of those that decide to topple over - staking? cutting? And how to clean up the rough edges?

Thursday, July 09, 2009

Garden Diary: Red

I've had six walnut logs since a tree fell two years ago. I painted them red, and I've been trying to find a use for them. A vague memory of a magazine photo showing a corridor lined with red logs at Jack Lenor Larson's garden on Long Island (seen many years ago) kept recurring. He had used them in a Japanese context. For me, in a western New Jersey forest habitat, red evokes the Native Americans who lived in this area for thousands of years - the Lenni Lenape. I put them into a circle (think symbol of turning inward for protection, a group huddled around a campfire) under cedar trees at a far side of the garden and, last weekend, repainted them Front Door Red. They work well viewed from a distance through the plantings.

You can't see them here, but they are to the right of the tallest cedar in the center of the photo.

Here you see a glimpse of red but you may need to click on the photo to enlarge it.

Changing viewpoint slightly ...

A little closer, standing amid the plants ...

As long as we're standing here, a close-up of backlighting on a Silphium perfoliatum shown from distance above ...

Getting closer ...

Shifting viewpoint again ...

Red of a different sort, Lysimachia ciliata 'Firecracker'. It was vertical, but continuous rain has given it a graceful quashed look, though it's covering most of the path.

Viewed from the opposite side ...

And at greater distance, moving toward the logs, which are behind the photographer ...

Panning right toward the bank at the base of the house ...

Up close, the logs look naked. They need additional plantings, perhaps small bunch grasses or carex and other smaller plants to anchor them and make them appear to have grown out of the earth.

Sunday, July 05, 2009

Natural Garden Style by Noel Kingsbury

"This book aims at introducing gardeners to a style of working that engages with a sense of place, uses plants that suit the place and manages the plant community that develops when different species are combined." - Noel Kingsbury

Yesterday, on the way back from the day lily farm, Phil and I stopped briefly at a roadside nursery. At checkout, the couple in front of us were buying plastic branches of flowering dogwood and a few annuals, little shapeless blobs of color. The impulse to take something of beauty from nature, even in the form of a plastic imitation, must be a sign of hope.

Noel Kingsbury's most recent book, Natural Garden Style: Gardening Inspired by Nature, is about making natural-style gardens. It too is a sign of hope - though of an entirely different order. Kingsbury has something of great value to say to that couple at the nursery. They certainly will never read about it in this book, but the ideas he is seeding about may eventually reach them via more indirect cultural influences.

This most recent work is a 'how to' book, but a 'how to' book of ideas, concepts and examples, not techniques. A list of the chapter titles tells much: Meadows, Prairies and Borders, Trees and Woodland, Sculpture and Ornament, Gardens and the Wider Landscape, Sun and Stone, Creating and Maintaining. Call it a 'how to' book of big ideas. You won't find a recipe for making a prairie. What you will find is a description of what a prairie is, how a natural prairie differs from the simulacrum of a prairie we may choose to make in a garden. You will learn about the incredible density of plants in a natural prairie - numbers and varieties of plants in a square meter, for example - and how that affects maintenance - by, for example, creating a stable matrix of plants that 'naturally' keeps weeds out because they can't find a place to put down roots.

Unlike the couple at the checkout counter, Kingsbury works from a highly informed position. From the start, he readily acknowledges the contradiction in the term 'natural garden': "No garden is really 'natural'. Leave a garden to the forces of nature and the result will nearly always be a tangled mess of vegetation that will give little joy ... We have to be honest. What we want from a patch of land and what nature would do with it, given half a chance, are very different. The nature we want in our gardens is a refined and tidied-up version, preferably one that is pretty and keeps us interested for as much of the year as possible."

Kingsbury's garden writing is among the best you will find in the English language. This book, like his others, is well organized, based in scientific research, aware of its historical context in the long line of proponents of naturalistic gardening going back to William Robinson in England and Karl Foerster in Germany, and generous in its use of photographic examples of the work of many of today's notable garden designers - among them, Dan Pearson, Wolfgang Oehme and James Van Sweden, Piet Oudolf, Neil Diboll, Isabelle van Groeningen and Gabriella Pape, Jinny Blom, Henk Gerritsen, Cleve West, Tom Vanderpoel, John Brookes.

I expect any new work by Noel Kingsbury to be a thoroughly enjoyable, nonstop read, and this one maintains his high standard. Kingsbury has established a worldwide reputation through his many works, though I do wonder how well known he is in the U.S. His signature themes of naturalism and sustainability are right on spot for the times, and his clear, well paced, and superbly organized prose is a pleasure to read.

Kingsbury has always recognized the importance of North American contributions to 'naturalistic' garden design as well as the importance of our flora as a source of many of the plants used to make such gardens. I have never seen another European garden writer give such prominence to the contributions of Neil Diboll, founder of Prairie Nursery in Wisconsin, to garden design. I hope more North Americans can overcome an aversion to British garden writing (because thought irrelevant to our climate) and buy this book.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Copper iris

Copper iris (Iris fulva), a Louisiana iris, growing by the pond in early June. This is its first season and I hope to see it spreading in years to come. A brief spot of color, like most irises, but it adds a unique color to the spring panorama.

Here are two blossoms in shade and sun.


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