Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Garden at Paxson Hill Farm

One of my favorite nurseries is Paxson Hill Farm, straight across the Delaware River from here, about four miles as the crow flies, but more like eight if you drive. Located a little north of New Hope, Pennsylvania, in Bucks County, Paxson Hill Farm is a very special place. It offers an unusual selection of perennials and shrubs, a collection of animals (emus, peacocks, even white peacocks, white turkeys, guinea hens, llamas), and an extraordinary garden in the making. The owner, Bruce, originally started the garden with a mound capped by a gazebo structure and surrounded by a maze of privet hedges, which you can see in the lower right of the Google Earth photo below. This photo was taken six years ago, so what you don't see is the subsequent growth of that maze garden and, more importantly for me, the magnificent wild, gravel garden Bruce has started to the left of the maze garden.

I took these photos in early September of 2009. At that time, I believe this garden was only in its second or third season. I think a year of site preparation preceded that, during which Bruce contoured the land, added several ponds linked by streams, fountains and waterfalls, and numerous large rocks, as well as the pumps and conduits to make it all work. This visit was unfortunately at high noon, so the light is as harsh as it gets and the colors aren't nearly as intense as they would be at another time of day.

At this early September visit the Lespedezas were in full bloom.

Above is the central area of the garden. You can see the free use of grasses and carex of many different types, large lespedezas, and evergreen accents, with a view of the Japanese bridge in the far center (painted black, not red), crossing above the largest waterfall. Click on the photos to see the details of the planting, much of which hasn't yet had time to grow in fully.

To the left is a large grass border, using Miscanthus 'Giganteus' to completely obscure the view of the maze garden behind it, smaller miscanthus, irises in profusion and, edging the path, various grasses and carex. Note the path of recycled railroad ties. Bruce has used gravel paths in interesting combinations with other materials, as you'll see below.

The bridge registers almost as negative space with the bright flowering miscanthus behind it.



A groundcover of Japanese blood brass (Imperata cylindrica 'Rubra') with a pennisetum.

Palm sedge (Carex muskingumensis) beside the water.

A view across the pond. Notice the use of many carex.

An interesting pattern using cross-cut "tiles" from timbers.


One large rock as a simple step.

Another planting of Miscanthus and irises.

I'm only guessing, but this may be Carex glauca 'Blue Zinger'.

Another carex planting.

The view from the far side of the pond, from among a grove of trees.

A simple, and elegant, stone bridge ...

downstream from this bubbling pool.


A rock garden in the making.

Moving into the maze garden.


Looking back toward the wild garden.





Monday, February 22, 2010

Why do I garden? What's that, again?

The boredom imposed by our heavy snow cover is getting on my nerves. I've been planning changes for the spring--adding hornbeam (Carpinus betula) hedges and columns in my mind (above), planting a curved border of alder (Alnus gultinosa) and willow (Salix koriyanagi 'Rubikins') to screen the close-side view of our eight-foot-tall deer fence in an arc extending off the edge of the picture on the right, wondering how alder will take to hard pruning or coppicing (I chose it because it will grow in my extremely wet conditions), planning addition of extensive groundcovers of carex and low grasses. To what end all these plans? Why do I do it? Some practical reasons, certainly. Adding structure to contrast with and contain the wildness (aesthetic improvements), adding mystery by obscuring parts of the view, hiding an unattractive feature. Manipulation of the three-dimensional garden pallet. But this omits other important parts of the garden, at least for me.

A recent post on the Hegarty Webber Partnership blog, highly critical of those who think gardens must have a message, has been nagging at me. First I want to to say I only wish the American gardening scene entertained such a variety of ferment and conflicting attitudes toward gardening as we find in the UK, one aspect of which Lesley and Robert criticize on their blog. On this side of the Atlantic, we have a much more limited range of concerns--the predominant "how-to" approach to just about everything gardening, usually limited to the very practical (how to grow tomatoes, the seven best plants for a sunny border). Or to the politically correct:  the native plant garden, the sustainable garden; even some, not up with current trends, want to know how to make an "English garden," whatever that is. In the US, we're very message oriented in a different, much more limited way. Nothing too artsy, nothing too serious, unless you're vegetable gardening, truly a profound undertaking on which the fate of the world apparently depends.

In the UK, the range of discussion is much broader, though they have silliness too. Over there, all of this can become highly personal, emotional, even intellectual, and frankly I find that stimulating. Of course, the UK has gardening personalities in numbers that far outdo us; that adds an entertaining overlay of innuendo, cattiness, and backbiting.

But to return to the nagging thought spurred by the Hegarty Webber blog, I'm considering whether I should feel guilty that I want my garden to have a message, or more correctly, messages. Why do I spend all this time planning changes in the garden? Why do I garden?

I'm reminded of a meeting with several engineers a few years back. We were discussing a proposal for new work when, out of the blue, I said I'd rather be gardening. One engineer asked me, "Do you do flower gardening or vegetable gardening?" I had no answer. I don't define gardening in that way. I answered, "Ornamental gardening," but that really didn't close the gulf of misunderstanding that existed between us. I found it difficult to express my feelings about gardening.

So what have I been doing in creating a new garden in these wet woods over the past five years? I think, first, I've been making a place where I can indulge my delight in plants and the process of plant growth. I, like most gardeners, am profoundly affected by plants and am moved almost to poetry to see them piercing the cold earth, growing, blossoming in spring. You can almost feel it, can't you? The bud swelling imperceptibly, the haze of color tinting the extremities of the trees where they touch the sky.

Then looking at the landscape, seeing the world at that larger scale, where individual plants, the earth itself, blend into a greater whole, a new level of complexity governs. A landscape can evoke pleasurable memories and sensations, or unpleasant ones (think Auschwitz, for example). Landscape is the world in which we live. Of course, our perception of landscape is different to different times and cultures. In 17th century Great Britain, wild and mountainous landscapes were frightening and to be avoided. These are the same mountainous prospects the Romantics taught us to see as sublime. Landscape evokes thoughts of past engagement and travels to near and distant places, routes of travel, maps, the shape of the land, its folds and creases, what that shape suggests as metaphor, and what it says, scientifically speaking, of the ancient past, of geology, and of time, both eons and seconds, constant change, a rivulet that will become a river in thousands of years, the low angle of late sunlight on the trunks of the trees as darkness comes on at end of day. A whole range of sensations, memories, thoughts converge in the experience of a landscape. Some sensual and emotional, some intellectual.

We want to imbue this landscape with meaning as a way of understanding our world. It's easy enough to find glib meaning in the unattractive or outright ugly aspects of landscape, as in a highway strip mall on its way to economic demise, or any of the many aspects of ubiquitous urban sprawl, easy enough to interpret such changes as a sign of social ill or economic failure, perhaps a critique of unfettered capitalism.

As gardeners today, most of us seek out "pretty" aspects of landscape (I ignore for now those "artists" who engage with the un-pretty). Consider the High Line, the new elevated urban park in New York City. This is one interesting example because it was an ambiguous "object" that some liked very much and others wanted to demolish. The High Line is interesting because it changed what many would have considered a waste, derelict industrial structure into a world class park, one that has opened to almost universal approval. On first take, you might think the making of the High Line was an act of redemption, because to some it was not "pretty"; it was an industrial relic. But pretty is a relative thing. To many, including myself, it was a potent symbol and a testament to how nature quickly reclaims the works of man (a little of Ozymandius here:  "look on my works, ye mighty, and despair"). Does the High Line have a meaning? Certainly. It's an urban pastoral. The abandoned elevated rail structure, simply because it was inaccessible and left alone, made itself into a wild garden through years of self-seeding and protection from disturbance high above the streets. Two men with vision and an organization capable of raising several hundred million dollars has, indeed, "redeemed" the High Line, but that redemption was really the prevention of its demolition and reconstruction as a safe, highly complex, and expensive urban jewel. But the amazing park that has emerged is nothing more than a refinement of what already existed (with plantings designed by Piet Oudolf, no less). So the High Line does have a meaning. But it's an ironic meaning, a retreat from the urban environment that created it, lacking the grittiness of the city in which it was born, elevated safely above the streets, with attendants and guards, with spectacular views, particularly at night, when it's safe as can be, unlike most big city streets. It seems we can find meaning almost everywhere we look.

I locate the garden somewhere between simple love of plants and the complex feelings we can have about landscape. The garden is a middle point, between the microcosm of the individual plant and the macrocosm of the landscape, and by extension the earth, the universe. In part, it's a place of protection, a safe haven, a place where "every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make him afraid." But it's more than that for me, and it failed to be that for many in the past. In fact, it has been the opposite. My garden is in a place where men, and women, witnessed struggle, failure, even genocide. The individual lives that ended on this land, the hopes and fears of the Native Americans who lived here, the hard lives of early white settlers can't be known specifically and in detail, but these people most certainly lived pleasantly and badly, and died, whether of violence, disease or old age, throughout these gently rolling hills. Not to recognize this is almost a desecration of the past. This is a place that has known pain and fear, and it is appropriate that a garden in this place gently remind us of that.

After this lengthy rumination, I must say I agree with much of what Lesley and Robert have to say in their blog post. They criticize those who say a garden must have a message, those who oversimplify in the name of belief, who aren't able to stop and smell the roses. A garden must first of all give pleasure. A crocus in blossom can just be a crocus in blossom. It doesn't have to stand for something else. But of course, it can. Archibald MacLeish's Ars Poetica, a classic of 20th century American poetry, comes to mind (yes, it really just popped into my head, its ending line). Just substitute the word "garden" for "poem" and you have it:

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

September Moon

Night time garden. A reminder, a time out, a time for feelings buried or submerged during the the work day. An invitation?







Saturday, February 13, 2010

Garden Diary: Snowy Revelations

We weren't hit nearly as hard as others to the south, but with 9 inches last weekend, and almost 20 more inches this week, the garden is virtually invisible. The few things that show reveal directions for the future, as does the blank white slate presented by the deep snow cover. I can better speculate where to place the structural shrubs and trees I've ordered for this spring.


To the right of the photo above is an apparently empty area. It's actually full of plants, all dormant now. In the distance is the farside path. As Peter suggested, I'm thinking of starting a pleached hornbeam hedge on this side of the path, with plentiful open space at each end but still carrying the eye from the Thujas to the left, toward two large Salix sachalinensis (also virtually invisible from this distance).


This is a view of the 8-foot-high deer fence (not really visible in this photo). The snow brought down several cedars, so I'm thinking about cutting them into logs and building a series of structures made of two uprights about 7 feet tall, with a curved (downward bending) cross piece at the top. This could create a screen along the fence side, adding a powerful visual rhythm, with a suggestion of Japanese design, in all native materials, and in keeping with features of the house (not Japanese, but clearly designed using Japanese motifs). Of course, they could just as well suggest lean-to structures that might have been made by native Americans ... a multicultural symbol. They will be in too much shade to grow flowering vines, but Virginia Creeper would look good on them, and I may find other vines suitable to the situation. Further to the right, I fantasize intermittent hornbeam hedges rhythmically placed to either side of the path. But best first to confirm hornbeam will grow in this place.


Siberian irises, grasses, a Magnolia virginiana, and a 'Heritage' River birch seem to have strong enough structure to weather the heavy, wet snow. The Siberian irises are especially notable. I love the seed pods (often used in Arts and Crafts art work) and would like to plant more. They bring a lot of color interest early in the season then provide continuing visual interest all the way to spring. They are actually at their best in snow, when most other plants have been submerged.


The little humps above are box, planted in an elevated stone structure. Interesting. I wonder what I'll find when the snow melts.

The real visual star in this white blankness is the newest stone wall (native Argillite, known locally as blue jingle or blue jingler), happily situated where its side captures the sun from late morning on, bringing a warmth and sense of protection to that end of the garden.

One of the few grasses that hasn't been completely buried by the snow. And last, the oncoming of evening.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Gramercy Park and the Chrysler Building

I work on Park Avenue South, near Gramercy Park. Every morning, after parking on 18th Street, I make the short walk to the office, crossing Irving Place, which presents a view of Gramercy Park just two blocks up. This area is still relatively small scale, with a feeling of the old New York. Gramercy Park is privately owned by the residents of the buildings around it. If you don't have a key, you can't get in. The park is an oasis of peace in the bustle of the City, wedged at the end of Irving Place, between the roaring traffic of Park Avenue South on one side and Third Avenue on the other. Most of the buildings are relatively low, and some very elegant 19th century townhouses remain, particularly a beautiful row on the west side of the park. Looking across the park, you see the Chrysler Building towering far up the narrow cleft of Lexington Avenue. Quite a contrast.

This rather incongruous image makes for a beautiful view, one I take delight in each morning. The contrast between the Art Deco icon with its theatrical verticality and the guiet little island of Gramercy Park suggests how such contrast might be used in the garden. The rather crude image below (my Photoshop skills are very limited) gives you the idea:  tall, square hornbeam columns amid the blousy perennial garden. Placement and size are only for trial; the positions and relative sizes will certainly change when I get around to the actual planting.

My garden consists mostly of herbaceous perennials. While the many large perennials do give a sense of height, the overall effect is of a wild horizontal planting. Some strong, clean verticals would add an element of formality and a feeling of height. I've ordered some English hornbeams (Carpinus betulus) to grow into vertical topiary columns. I chose hornbeams because they make great looking hedges, even retaining their brown leaves into winter, and they may be able to thrive in my wet clay. One full year should tell the tale.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Gravel Path

We started the garden paths using cedar chips from the cedars (Juniperus virginiana) we cut down to make space for planting. Good to start with, but cedar rots in this wet, muddy place, and every time we have a big rain, it washes out. Time to bite the bullet. I had 20 cubic yards of "river washed" pea gravel and 15 of coarser gravel delivered a couple of weeks ago.

 We're laying a geotextile fabric to keep down weeds, then a thick two-inch layer of coarser "blue" driveway gravel, and a top layer of pea gravel. This appears to be making a solid, stable, easy walking path that will keep the feet well above the extreme wetness of the garden soil.

I've always wanted a gravel path not just for the look, but more for the feel of walking on it, and for the sound, a soft sursurration of movement and faint crackle - it's a synaesthetic experience, part of appealing to all senses in the garden.

Of course, the gravel isn't cheap. And since limited access makes it necessary to move and place the gravel by hand, labor cost is high. I'm hoping this path will last.

Now the path calls out for groundcovers and varied pathside plantings to better integrate it into the whole. That means plants that can survive and thrive in wet clay, are at least moderately agressive but not too much so, and will spread into the surrounding areas to moderate the growth of weeds and create a visual ground congruent with the larger plantings. For starters, various carex, Deschampsia caespetosa, Lysimachia nummularia. Suggestions welcome.


Related Posts with Thumbnails