Friday, November 29, 2013

The Garden by the Road

The Photography of Darren Higgins

The border serves as a buffer to the road in a part of the yard that was pointless as lawn. Photo by Darren Higgins

We had such a warm response to Michael Tortorello's article in The New York Times last week that I've decided to share a few photos taken by DC-based photographer Darren Higgins that did not make the article. While I did my best to avoid coverage of the less-than-flattering aspects of the house and garden (they are legion), both Michael and  Darren Higgins thought the full context of the garden's relationship to three roads was worth revealing.  It was a horrifying thought to me. Even in my wild fantasies of glowing media coverage, the subject of my garden on the bus route was not quite the angle I imagined. So here is a last peek at the garden before I hide it for another four years.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We're in The New York Times!

The duck blind in our border garden.

Wouldn’t you know it: the one garden I designed that I'm sheepish to show even to my friends is the one that gets featured in The New York Times. Ah well, I'll have to have a word with my PR department . . .

Today our garden is featured in The New York Times Home section. The story is about our garden: how we started it with little money (and even less design) while renovating a very dilapidated house (still in process); how it’s different than what we design in our landscape architecture firm; and how we live in it. My wife and I were fortunate to spend a Sunday in late September with The New York Times' feature writer Michael Tortorello.  Michael is funny, warm, and wickedly smart in a casual kind of way. His articles are one of the reasons the Times' Home section is such a compelling read. His range is vast, from the ecology of vacant lots, to what happens when trees go dormant, to great human stories such as this recent one of James Golden. His focus on the way real people live and work with real spaces is always refreshing. 

The wonderful images were taken by DC based photographer Darren Higgins. Darren spent most of a day with us, hanging off our roof, clinging to a ladder in the middle of the street—all while narrowly dodging traffic. Considering the garden is surrounded on three sides by ugly roads and one side by our ugly house, Darren did a lovely job telling a story with a not so promising site.

While I love to read the real story of other people's gardens, I tried my best to distract Michael from our garden. Lots of lofty talk on the meaning of gardens . . . but it was all to no avail.  Anyway, please check out Michael's excellent piece on our garden in today's New York Times. 

Our deepest thanks to Michael, Darren, and the editors of The New York Times. It was a pleasure to entertain and work with this amazing bunch of professionals.

One minor post-publication quibble: The print edition of the Times refers to me in two bylines as a "horticulturist." I am, in fact, a licensed landscape architect. I have many friends and colleagues who are indeed professional horticulturists. I don't do what they do, and they don't do what I do. Though both professions deal with plants to a degree, they are two entirely different professions.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Selecting Exceptional Plants

The next future plants? Or not quite garden-worthy?

How great plantsmen use superior plant selection to elevate their designs 

Let’s face it: it’s entirely possible to create an elegant garden out of everyday plants. The highly sculpted gardens of the Belgian landscape design firm Wirtz International almost flaunt the fact that a large, diverse plant list is not necessary to create great design. Their serpentine coiled hedges, dreamy cloud-shaped boxwoods, and fluffy grass-covered mounds are an artistic declaration that less can indeed be more. No cutting-edge plants here: just boxwood, yews, hornbeams, and the occasional ornamental grass.

Even at a less grand scale, simple can be beautiful. I can think of no more elegant space than a simple gravel terrace underneath a beautiful tree. Who can ask for more than dappled light, the sway of a branch, and the change of seasons?

But at the same time, some of the best plantsmen in the world achieve success in part through discriminating taste in plant selection. They seek out not only the most vigorous plants, but also the most interesting selections. This discerning eye is one of the qualities that unite a diverse group of plantsmen such as Karl Foerster, Mien Ruys, Beth Chatto, Wolfgang Oehme, Henk Gerritson, Piet Oudolf, Fergus Garrett, Dan Hinkley, and Roy Diblik. Their gardens are legendary in part because of their ruthlessness in plant selection. And as a result, they made us see their plants (and gardens) in a new light.

Renowned plantsmen known for their discriminating plant selection
Consider Piet Oudolf: he is known for his rigorous trialing of plants before ever using them in a design. In the preface to Dream Plants, an excellent reference book by Piet and Henk Gerritson of the toughest plants, Noel Kingsbury describes Piet’s process, “Over the years he has grown a vast range of plants from seed list, collected seed in the wild, trialled innumerable plants bought in nurseries as well as those given him by friends and colleagues. Only a tiny fraction of these are judged good enough to be used in the gardens that he makes.” 

So is it possible to develop a discriminating eye for plants? One that will improve your own plantings? This fall I am looking at the flaws in my own garden. Many of the changes I will make focus on plants that just didn’t perform in my small space. So in order to learn a few lessons, I’ve been pouring over the planting plans and lists of several of these designers. The takeaways I list below are definitely more suited for the horticulturally adventurous rather than the casual gardener. But whether you consider gardening a quiet escape or an extreme sport, some of these points are worth pondering:

Saturday, November 2, 2013

A Garden Cannot be Designed

It is November, and for a few brief weeks in autumn, I enjoy my garden. Other than bulbs, there is little to plant. And my constant second-guessing about what to change can wait until late winter. For now, it is what it is. 

This morning I woke early. The dewy dawn puts a soft haze over the border, frosting the tops of the Mountain Mint and bending the inflorescences of the Switchgrass. Many of the plants still look full and summery; others are more skeletal. It is a good time of year for looking. And perhaps even better time of year for feeling the place.

I look forward to the garden maturing. A new garden can have sort of an adolescent energy, with some plants hitting their stride while others sit hesitantly. While this dynamism is fun—never sure what to expect out there—I sort of long for it all to settle down. An older garden has a different feeling altogether. A young garden is all about plants; but as a garden ages, it becomes all about the place.

This morning, however, the autumn light and dew have given the garden a false sense of maturity. What is it that I feel in this place? What am I looking for? Nostalgia is the emotional undercurrent of a garden, the connection of a physical place to our emotions and memories. Nostalgia—at least as I define it in relation to gardens—is not a flight from reality into a fantasy of the past. Nor is it a longing for specific memories. Instead, it represents a constructive desire to recover a way of being in the world that we have lost. The best gardens engage us in this way. 

I’ve long defined a garden as a relationship: a relationship between a person and a bed of soil; between an idea and a place; between our desire for reality and our need to flee it; between the essential loneliness of being and our hope for encounter. So in this sense, a garden cannot be designed. It exists only at the moment we are engaged in it, when shovel hits soil. Only when are we baptized into the soil—the meeting place of the inanimate and the animate—does the relationship begin.

This is not to undervalue the role of a professional designer. We need alchemists who can turn our banal residential yards into spaces for dwelling. But a garden is a relationship. The best a designer can do is to make the introduction. 

This weekend I will spend planting bulbs. I always start this process with some kind of concept in mind: a drift of daffodils here, a pool of crocus underneath the Serviceberry, Camassia poking up through the budding Deschampsia. But after about thirty minutes on my knees, it all falls apart. As I creep through the four-foot tall vegetation, rabbit-like, I end up putting the bulbs wherever they fit.

Come spring, I will be surprised.

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