Friday, November 02, 2012

Fountains of light, abstract patterns, taking a chance on chance

I took these photos just before we learned Hurricane Sandy was headed our way. Since we weathered the storm on high ground in Brooklyn, I have no idea whether the garden was knocked flat or blown into a frenzy of exoticism. These may be the last images of the year--but probably not. I'll know when I can find enough gasoline to make my way out to Federal Twist.

Autumn progresses and the leaves change colors, shrivel, fall ...

... exposing structures of the garden perennials and the bare branches of the forest trees beyond. With good light a kind of contrapuntal patterning, a visual music, begins. This is present through all seasons, but reaches its peak in fall.

This is the dry end of the garden where tall perennials and grasses--Panicums, Molenia, Miscanthus, Rudbeckia maxima--tower above the shorter perennials--glaucous blue Pyncatheum muticum and golden bracken. There are no flowers now, except for drifts of Aster tartaricus not visible here, but who wants flowers with all this color?

This is an example of horizontal layering--plants dotted throughout the landscape, some tall, some short, some opaque, some transparent--in almost random distribution rather than lined in ranks as in a traditional flower border.

Graveled paths and concrete pavers run around and through this area but they're hidden by the perennial growth. The Wave Hill chairs below give a sense of scale and locate one of the paths.

The tallest grass is Miscanthus giganteus below, at about fifteen feet, counting the flowers ...

... which is about the height of the bank going up to the house, mostly hidden behind mounding miscanthus and other perennials.

Layering at a smaller scale--whisps of golden bracken and miscanthus flowers in front of Sedum 'Herbstfreude', backed by a real keeper, a native broom sedge (Andropogon virginicus) that was here before I started the garden.

The layering effect can be visually complex, and at times quite flat and two-dimensional, suggesting patterns on paper or textiles. Here a golden leaf of seedling Silphium laciniatum with seed stalks of Rudbeckia maxima.

At this time of year, the garden takes on colors of the surrounding forest, though in more concentrated form. Seen from above, the plants make a bowl of abundance, and you can see the colors of the garden and the forest beyond are one. The green wall of trees that acted as a barrier during summer vanishes in areas of deciduous growth, and the garden joins with the open spaces of the forest ...

... to enjoy the patterning, you have to go down into the garden and look out through the layers of planting. Lines, voids, colors and textures make sensuous compositions easily seen during this brief season, creating
graphic, at times abstract, tableaux ... but tableaux that evoke emotional response. I think of tossing currents, heaving waves, sea metaphors to capture the movement, implied and real ...

... and depending on the light and time of day, you may find yourself in a world of magic, nature made unreal, touched by artifice.

Layers--Eupatorium perfoliatum, box wood, Hydrangea quercifolia, Miscanthus adagio, Salix britzensis, then forest.

With this kind of naturalistic, "pseudoecological" gardening, combining many different plants in close communities, editing is very important BUT it must be balanced with a willingness to experiment, to "take a chance on chance," to wait and see if an emerging plant or group of plants can work.

Below, for example, the mid-height plant at the front is an easily self-seeding native, Eupatorium perfoliatum (Boneset). I wanted it in the garden, and it appeared on its own about four years ago. Now it's spread, but not so vigorously that I need to bother about it much. In early fall, when there isn't much other color, the off-white umbelliferous  flowers of this plant are a pleasant ornament and they add bright spots of light as darkness comes. I'm glad to give it the run of the place, and can easily pull it out when it appears where I don't want it.

One of the challenges of a naturalistic garden is the potential mess if plant growth isn't carefully edited.  Since this garden needs a feeling of fullness and abundance, most editing is limited to removing self-seeded plants that don't belong in positions nature chooses for them. Only rarely do I  need to clear an area and replant but that does happen.

Here, in this tunnel-like planting of Miscanthus, dry, leaden spires of Inula racemosa 'Sonnerspeer' add a mysterious touch, a somber note, that's an emotional highlight of this moment in the garden. The Inula is self-seeding wildly. I'm sure I'll have to eliminate many seedlings next spring, but it has such an extraordinary structure and presence, I wouldn't be without it.

Though modeled on natural environments such as the banded appearance of grasses seen across a wild field, the horizontal layering in the garden is a combination of accident and intentional planning. It's important to accommodate accidents of growth and self-seeding, but also to edit when necessary. From front to back (below), Liatris spicata, Panicum 'Shenandoah', Aster tartaricus, seed stalks of Rudbeckia maxima, Filipendula rubra, Thuja, then the forest trees with their network of limbs jutting this way and that ...

... all rather precariously balanced between chaos and aesthetic order. An almost Japanese effect. Another person might want to edit this to make it simpler, but I prefer letting the pattern and organization emerge as you analyze the component parts.

The path below adds three-dimensional depth, suggesting a narrative of travel or a story.

More examples of horizontal layering, some closely cropped from the fabric of the wide view, looking very two dimensional ...

A simple example of layering--Rudbeckia maxima seed heads, mounded Filipendula, Thuja, background forest.

Rudbeckia maxima, Joe Pye Weed flower heads and yellow foliage, Thuja, forest.

... while the next is clearly three-dimensional, as signaled by the out-of-focus Silphium perfoliatum foliage in the foreground ...

Silphium perfoliatum, Aster tartaricus in flower, Filipendula.

... and again with the focus changed.

Same image, different focus.

Moving back to the scale of garden landscape, the next images show horizontal layering across much larger areas. I think one thing that makes this layering distinctive is the figured ground field created by the forest background--a texture of trunks, limbs, leaves, colors that lends an almost painterly quality and an even greater sense of fullness, particularly at this time of year.

The same Silphium, Miscanthus giganteus, various Panicums further back, then forest trees.

And in the next images, contrasting shadow and light contribute another kind of differentiation.

Layering on the large scale, looking across from shadow to light, a distance of perhaps 300 feet to the trees.

Another close-up abstract composition, Ligularia japonica and Panicum 'Cloud Nine' ...

Two layers--Ligularia japonica, Panicum 'Cloud Nine'

Hydrangea quercifolia in foreground, Miscanthus on the bank up to the house.

The image below is an especially complex example--Aster tartaricus in the foreground and a stalk of Silphium on the left, then behind from left to right, Panicum 'Dallas Blues' and the leaden brown of Joe Pye Weed, with the orangish foliage of Filipendula behind, then a still green willow (Salix sachalinensis).

Does it hold together? I think I'd put it on a postcard. But it's a picture, not a garden.

Here the open simplicity of fine grasses in sunlight.

More complex patterns. Perhaps too wild looking for some.

But move in closer and order emerges.

Taking a view from the distance you can't tell where the garden ends and the woods begin. A reminder of how close the forest is, and the garden's transience. In forty years this garden would completely disappear if I didn't burn in spring and edit, edit, edit.

You can find the full photo set at this link (click on Slideshow in the upper right when you reach the link).


  1. My goodness and golly gosh..I think some of these images completely blow away many Oudolfianscapes.. William Morris immediately came to mind and for some strange reason Roast Beef with all the trimmings! Great to hear you survived Sandy.

    1. Thank you Billy. That's a compliment I place great value on, coming from you, the master of Wigandia. Though I don't think I'm quite up to challenging Piet Oudolf (an understatement!). William Morris, I get, no problem, but I'll have to work on "roast beef with all the trimmings." After I sent this post, I realized I got the word pseudoecological from you, which upon more research, I see you took from Hugh Johnson. I was referring to much the same concept Noel Kingsbury calls "artificial ecology," and I think they are pretty much the same. Thanks for the word. I'm adopting it for future use. I hope you're doing well in Thailand (are you still there?).

    2. Roast Beef has a certain richness..(to dumb it down somewhat!) I have always credited Mr Johnson with that word (pseudoecological)..This 'layering' seems to be the catch word at the moment which is great! I have practised this stuff for a couple of decades and use both the vertical and the horizontal (who wouldn't!) I also selectively encourage (choose the weeds i want) self sowing to un-contrive (is that a word!) my contrivance. Billy

    3. P.S. No I have been back in AU for about 6 called Spring with very few warm days..It seems the garden had more than normal rainfall in winter and early Spring..too much abundant soft growth does not auger well for a hot Summer or indeed a snap 30+ degree heat in late Spring.

    4. I did have a New York Strip steak the other night. Closest I've gotten to roast beef in a long time. I wonder what a New York Strip is in Australian. I find un-contriving less stressful than contriving. Let things come up, then decide. It's sort of like having a ghost writer.

    5. a ghost steak

  2. Jim,
    i thought I saw the garden in the perfect light when I visited--maybe not? What is the difference between horizontal planting and Oudolf's "layered" maxtix/scatter/island planting? It sounds like it is the same concept. I have been experimenting with Oudolf's ideas at Teixeira Park in Peterborough. Hopefully it will play out, on a much smaller scale, as well as it does at Federal Twist. I hope it all survived Sandy. Glad you hear all is well for you in Brooklyn.

  3. Michael,
    I took these two days after your visit, so the colors had more time to develop intensity and these are taken in late morning light (which only works with the low light of fall). I adopted the "layering" term and turned it on its side, or perhaps on its edge. Layering is usually, of course, used to describe how plants are positioned on the ground plane, and Oudolf's technique, as I understand it, is a vertical layering--first a plant matrix (often grasses but not necessarily) planted over the ground surface, then a layer or layers of taller perennials (forbs, if you will) punctuating the plant matrix. Dan Pearson also describes layering in a similar way, building up layers of plants to get most use, and longevity, our of limited space. And there was a book on layering at the Swarthmore conference (you know the author; my memory fails) that I want to get. On the other hand, I'm referring to the layers of plants looking across the garden, seeing the apparent layers of plants in profile, analogous to theatrical scrims, which build up a three-dimensional view from near to far. So my use of the term is actually misleading. I hoped to make my meaning clear, but I may have not. Other than that, my approach is very different from Oudolf's, mainly for reasons of time and money. He plants into carefully prepared ground, and uses planting diagrams very carefully designed, then maintains control to keep exactly that design over time. He wants his plantings to remain the same. He'd never put up with random self-seeding. I do. I just watch it and control it when necessary. Someday I'd like to talk to Oudolf and ask him it he ever lets things self-seed in his own garden (seems that would work for him, whereas it wouldn't work in a garden for a client who doesn't want to become a part of the day-to-day maintenance process). I wish I'd asked Noel that; he's probably have the answer. I look forward to seeing what you do in Teixeira Park.

    1. A great post, James, if not for the stunning photos (the one with the dried Inula was brilliant) but more for your explication of your design process. I thought your use of layering was clear--the photos made this easy to understand.

      I agree. Your process seems much different than Oudolf's. More like the strategy Oudolf used for his Wisely border, though looser and more open to self-seeding. Naturalism is a rather big tent when it comes to design and compositional strategies--so I love that this post advances thinking about the many ways this art can be expressed.

      I am very impressed with the use of shrubs like the Oakleaf hydrangea. One of my dissatisfactions over the years has been how little structure mostly herbaceous plantings have (and I even consider dried perennials and grasses as structure). The textured mounding of shrubs like the hydrangea is wonderful as both a foil and extension of the more herbaceous masses.

      Yours is a profoundly emotional garden. It is that connection between design and emotion that is so captivating to me.

    2. Thanks, Thomas. Sorry for the delay in responding, but I just found several comments awaiting being published. It must have to do with communications problems related to Sandy. Yes, my process is very much different from Oudolf's as you noted. What I got from him is, I believe, an understanding of the beauty of plant structure and form, living and dead. The scales fell from my eyes when I first saw his work, and I mean that literaly even thogh it sounds trite and overly dramatic. It was an intensely emotional experience.

      I want to add more shrubs, and more negative space, which is essential to making layering work well. Now that Sandy has wiped out a major line of huge trees (more on that in a soon-to-be-post) I'm trying to turn potential disaster into a grand opportunity to make some of these changes.

      I really appreciate that you respond to my garden emotionally. That's my intent, to evoke an emotional response.

  4. It all looks wonderful, all those textures and glorious autumnal colours. I really hope the storm hasnt dont too much damage. Its been very quiet with all the east coast bloggers being busy or having no power, my thoughts are with you all.

    One day I will have to come to the US and visit, I would love to see Federal Twist in real life.

    1. Yes, if I weren't in a lucky part of Brooklyn blogging would not be in my life for a week or two. Let me know when you come over to the US. I'd like to get to England, where I haven't been in decades. But I want to spend two or three months there and haven't figured out how to afford that.

  5. Beautiful, beautiful grasses. I love your idea of visual music, I think that sums up garden design perfectly.
    Helen is right - we're all thinking of you here in the UK

    1. I think the visual music metaphor captures a lot, but it's very hard to explain intellectually. In walking the High Line, I've felt Oudolf's plantings in a very musical way. Something like sounding a theme, then playing variations on it. Rather, sounding multiple themes. Returning to familiar themes, using that pleasure we feel when we recall something familiar. It has something to do with the way plants are grouped, how the groups work together, then repeating plantings and plants. As a technique, it could produce a very mechanical and dead result, but it doesn't. Oudolf plays music. (I recall your High Line visit was a bust; rain I seem to remember.)

    2. (and I recall her daughter saying - it's just grass, Mum! Get over it)

  6. Incredible. Fall is by far the most beautiful time in gardens such as yours. Love your chairs, and the need to not have flowers. And I agree regarding "editing": I let plants self sow as they will, sometimes moving seedlings from paths into areas I want them, sometimes pulling others out all together. It's a garden. Yet it's wild. It's a garden. Yet it has free will. Luckily most of the time we're of like mind.

    1. Nice way to put it. A garden with free will. I agree fall is the best time. Fleeting too, with daily changes, and rapid rise to peak then decline. I hope Sandy left me some structure for ice to cling to. Those Wave Hill chairs are pretty, but poorly made. Mine are two years old and already starting to rot. I read that many people get the plans and have their own made in more durable hard wood.

  7. Just amazing. Light is what it's all about. Glad you are OK, if immobile.

    1. As Anne Wareham said in a past post, "We garden with light." (I know I've quoted that before, but I really like it.) We're all mobile again, though gas in NYC is still in short supply.

  8. Hi James, it's fascinating hearing you talk of gardening so much the way I practice it - the looking, the editing, the allowing,the chopping,when your matrix, plants, structure and climate are so very different. But late light and the colours of what my father used to call the 'back end' - those we have in common.

    I find it hard to be seeing pictures, with no real sense of being in your space, and this, of course, is the problem about gardens. They need to be encountered in the flesh and you are so far away and me not a traveller. What a form to choose, eh??

    Though you raise a spectre of a visit??? (dreaming...) You could see the reality of Noel's garden and explain it to me and see Veddw and maybe explain that to me, all in one day.... Doesn't that tempt you?

    The upside of gardens only being experiencable in the flesh is it brings some good visitors sometimes!

    Glad you survived the storm - I think Federal Twist would survive most weathers. I hate to think of the devastation the US is coping with though.

    1. Anne, great to hear from you. Yes, our gardens are vastly different; it's amazing that we use some of the same practices in making such different gardens. Visiting is a problem, I mean, when one can't visit because of distance. I try to help make up for that by getting as much of the garden as I can into some photos, to at least give a reader some idea of how things fit together. But there's no escaping the limitations of seeing a garden only on a computer screen of in a book.

      Yes, I want very much to make a visit to the UK. There's so much I want to see it's overwhelming, so I delay, hoping I'll find some way to visit for two or three months. Obviously, I have't worked that out yet.

      I haven't had a great meny garden visitors. Recently, I have, and I like having them, so I hope to do more of that in the future. Strange that tea and cake haven't ever caught on over here. Seems such a pleasant thing to do as part of a garden visit.

  9. I do hope your garden wasn't blown away. It is so beautiful, I share your love of grasses, they are the best at linking a garden to the surrounding landscape and for adding movement plus of course the wonderful colour throughout the year. Christina

    1. Yes, the grasses really make the fall special. I'm overwhelmed by miscanthus, but frankly they do better in our awful wet soil than just about anything else, and they are impenetrable ground covers. But I do want to add more molinia. They take longer to settle in, but are extraordinary for color late in the season.

  10. Replies
    1. Thanks, Mary. But you raise a question. Garden, light, photography? All three, of course, but I think the camera lens likes autumn light.

  11. Many thanks for those great pictures! Anyone not loving grasses must change his opinion immediately when seeing your garden in autumn (and, of course, in every other time of the year).

    Friendly regards from Austria,

  12. Katrin,

    I've been enjoying your recent posts on grasses and Beth Chatto's gardens. I have seen criticism of Beth Chatto in the past few months, and I think she is not getting the attention or respect she deserves for her amazing work. It's good to see all your great photos, even though my German is almost nonexistent.

  13. I am really, really jealous of your H. quercifolia--it must enjoy near perfect conditions. Most of the H. quercifolia around here are pretty leggy in comparison to yours. Also, the leaves tend to brown instead of coloring really well. And, if/when they do color-up, they share the plant with sodden, brown leaves that refuse to fall. How would you characterize the specific conditions enjoyed by your plant?

    Also, I have come to recognize many views of your garden and the paver path with Wave Hill chairs is among my favorites--I think I appreciate the layering most in this context. Beautiful, as always!

    I am eagerly awaiting a post-storm post. Are you able to move around the city? When do you think you will be able to get out to Federal Twist?

    Take care!


  14. Emily, I have several that are not doing well at all, and two that grow like they're on steroids. The one you see is in a raised bed made of the local stone. I bought soil (so it's not my heavy clay) and it's planted near the end of the pond, so there is plenty of water down under, even in drought. That may account for its vigor.

    That open area with the chairs adds some void space to the garden, something I want more of. I have an area I haven't done much with yet, mostly pasture grasses, that I'm thinking of using for another negative space, with a similar approach to paving in a geometric shape, with some kind of enclosing plantings around it. I need to retain views into the space so it registers as negative space. I want to start this soon if weather allows.

    The storm post-mortem is coming. It's not pretty, but on the up side, it's given my garden a much more open view into the woods and a whole southern sky of sunlight. I think major ecological changes, much out of my control, are coming.

    Good to hear from you.

    1. Ouch. That sounds rather ominous. However, I feel optimistic that your garden and your garden philosophy with weather the changes gracefully. Rereading what I first wrote, I note that "eagerly" probably isn't quite the word I should have chosen--but I hope you understood how I meant it.

      I think I won't try another H. quercifolia--I doubt can improve on past performance and my base soil is heavy clay over hardpan, so you haven't offered much encouragement there...


  15. so beautiful!
    I just love your garden and especially in autumn.
    Greetings Renate

  16. Thank you, Renate. In case you don't know, you hit a post on my old blog. I try to maintain this one, but no longer post to is. The new one is



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