In coming up with the design for the flower beds at Mamaroneck, I suggested that the beds be raised with low stone walls that looked like the stone walls prevalent in the Irish countryside. Jim, who comes from an Irish background of course loved the idea but more importantly, given his occupation in high end construction, realized the idea beautifully with the help of an Irish stone mason.
There are some great functional features- you can sit comfortably on that wall to weed, tend and plant those beds. They also raise the plants and give them a lot more height and presence. This is much needed as it competes with a huge stretch of lawn - anything with less visual weight would probably look a little lost. As the summer progresses and plants tumble over the walls the visual is one of abundance, overflowing with foliage and flower.
After the fact, I've discovered that raised four square beds are typical of Pennslyvania Deutsch German gardens- so without really knowing it, the design also references Heidi's heritage. Her influence is also significant in what goes into the beds. It's largely the product of our trips to the the garden center together. Her background is also textile design so we are often to be found squinting at three pots pushed together to see if the colors 'weave'.
Last year, there were some very successful planting combinations that I'm looking forward to expanding but one thing I'm going to make a little more effort this year is to pay a little more attention to using the walls a little more. There are some great ideas in Getrude Jekyll's Wall and Water Gardens like this of growing things in dry walls that I'd like to do a little more of.
As the frost free date draws closer, I stifle an inner chant - get back outside. Its much the same every year, except this year its different. Its not just an impatient mantra, no this year 'get back outside' is a slogan.
Gardening is now officially - activism. Michael Pollan tells us that gardening commingles our identities as consumer and producer and citizen. Folks, we are smack dab at the front end of a good ole cultural movement. Where once there were greasers, beatniks, hippies, punks, hipsters we are now an army of gardeners and urban farmers jostling at the starting line to dig up lawns, plant vegetables and grow flowers. Naturally, as a graphic artist and t shirt designer my service to the revolution is to provide what every pop culture moment requires - a message t shirt. So here is the first in a series of rad tees for the summer of 2008- get back outside.
But wait- don't buy this t shirt unless you need one because less is more.
I didn't go to the New York Botanical gardens looking for daffodils but there they were, masses of them, brightening up the feet of solemn pines, nodding fields of white and yellow being entirely charming. I gazed and gazed then thought I should video this. Here they are, beneath the trees, dancing in the breeze, to enjoy again.
Soundtrack: Max Richter : Written on the Sky
With the recent media about the Billion Tree planting initiative by the UN and the follow up in NYC of ten thousand trees soon to be added to the Manhattan landscape, I couldn't help thinking back on this view of trees, pictured above taken at Wave Hill last summer. The view is from the cafe terrace, dominated by this one majestic tree. I took quite a few photos of this view but wasn't really struck by any of them- none of them seemed to evoke the actual experience of the moment.
Coincidentally I happened to come across this week some photogravure images with a really blue/green cast and decided to process the images along these lines and I really like the result. Its more dream like and more dense. It feels more like the actual experience of being there when a view like that encourages you to slip away from focussing on the details of your surroundings and you drift into random thoughts and memories of other days like this.
There's some unique aesthetics of springtime in Manhattan that I really enjoy. One of them is the renewed presence of private 'gardens' in the city. There are some real jewels as the one pictured above found on a street of brownstones in West Chelsea. There's also a certain look to them with their backdrop of paint or masonry- in taupes and terracottas that heightens the color of the flowers leaves, and shadows they throw.
The flowers and new leaves on trees enjoy a similar juxtaposition with the grid of the city- the windows, brickwork and geometric lines of buildings- like an organic melody against the linear rhythms of the architecture. They reflect in the glass and metal of parked cars and windows and bring interesting new color notes to gray shadows and dull walls.
I also love the pairing of painted plywood boarding or the stripes of posters as a backdrop - some of the combinations remind me of kimono prints or oriental screens. The energy in the city in spring also shifts as people walk a little slower, dress a little lighter to enjoy the warmer days and start to crowd the markets and benches as they begin to linger and enjoy being outside again.
What is an American Garden? No, I'm not seriously seeking a definitive answer- the subject is probably broader than this continent and as diverse as the many origins of its people, not to mention the shifting influence of time, place and circumstance. It is a question however that surfaces every now and again for me, and I enjoy the trail of discovery it generates - most recently on discovering this book The American Flower Garden by Neltje Blanchan which I've added to the vintage book collection here.
She certainly has me at hello- the opening chapter kicks off with a quote from Wordsworth that ponders if gardening can be considered a liberal art of some kind and then gets into the subject of the partnership between Nature and Art. Certainly in terms of underlying principles I am in tune with the views of this writer from a century ago and am actually surprised at the overall emphasis on natural-ness and subtlety. The image above is the opening image in the book which demonstrates this well.
Not quite the same feeling of being in tune after reading a thought provoking post on Garden History Girl about personal landscapes. Her reaction to the walls of Sissinghurst were quite different from mine. She writes about her urge to 'tear down the hedges' preferring 'the vista, the wide view to the sky' of her native prairie home. For sure, there's definitely an innate British tendency for privacy but there's also a sort of underlying gardening philosophy or strategy to maximize the possibilities of what you can grow in a space. A lot of gardening literature that the novice English gardener soaks up encourages the use of walls as additional vertical space as well as their use in creating protected micro climates and enhanced growing situations - one London gardener I knew successfully grew a fig tree against a sunny southern wall.
For me, the Sissinghurst walls suggested one more thing- they defined a canvas. They outlined the scope and the limits of a creative endeavour. I think its this most of all that has been challenging in developing ideas for the Mamaroneck garden. Its a quintessential American suburban garden that is sizeable but mostly completely open. The borders are lightly defined and hardly any of it is not viewable from the main or side street. My natural design instinct is to want to divide it up into 'rooms' and develop each one with an interesting idea or point of view. I've learnt however over many years of enjoying this garden that, that just wouldn't be right in its context. It's also not how it functions. It wants to be open to the traffic of children and the view of passing neighbours to wave to and greet. To restrict access or views would just be plain wrong- if not downright un American here in the hometown of Norman Rockwell.
I'm hoping to explore this subject further this summer, I really want to visit a few more gardens, I've got the Garden Conservancy and the American Garden Museum site bookmarked for this purpose. Take a look at their current online exhibition of images of American gardens from a gardeners scrapbook.
I bought these Shiitake mushrooms from chinatown the other day and I'm posting this more as a note to self for a couple of reasons. Firstly, unlike Shiitake in grocery stores like wholefoods where they seem to be available all year round they're not always available here in Chinatown and I'm curious if there's some kind of season or cycle involved. So duly noted- available mid April.
The other reason is that it seems relatively easy to get the supplies to grow this fairly expensive commodity yourself both outdoors on an 'innoculated' log and indoors on some kind of sawdust kit. I'm wondering if it might be cool to work this into a terrarium type container indoors with a woodland theme. With the added benefit of course that I could harvest the 'fruit' which is both delicious to eat and nutritionally rich.
Lets just have a quick fantasy session. A quick design run through of what I would love to have in my dream garden. A water feature almost identical to the one pictured- to be found at the New York Botanical garden. I like everything about it, the rusticity of the hewn timber scaled big enough for me to sit on its edge. The simplicity of the water spout, the moss growing inside the trough. The idea that I might find this hidden or nestled in a cool overgrown place on a hot day.
I can imagine it maybe on the side of a house in a little shady transitionary space- through a side gate. Or, lets make it a much grander fantasy - its somewhere way down a path on my property maybe as a prelude to the sound of a stream further down. There would of be ferns and hostas and alchemilla and primulas and somewhere I could sit and look up at reflections dance on a rustic ceiling.
I'm looking forward to a new season of potted plants for my apartment. In preparation this week - the terracota pots are dusted off and the stones are rinsed. I have stones and pebbles that I use to mulch the pots. I've had these supplies for many years bought from random gardening hardware stores in the city, quite a few are from a little store in Chinatown. The stones however have had some special additions over the years as I add to the collection with mementos of different places,
Some are from the beaches at Weekapaug where I spent a few years sharing a summer house. The larger ones from Watchill beach. There are some small green stones from Jade Beach on the California Coast- souvenirs of a road trip along Big Sur with a dear friend. They remind me of us singing along to the radio and that motel on a cliff with the Hollyhocks. There are striped and smooth white pebbles that I picked up in Provincetown during the daily mornings ritual on the beach with my dog, Eti. There's a glass bead that was part of a gift, a pebble from Positano and there are a couple of stones from the site of the old brewery in Northern Liberties close to where I lived in Philadelphia. The largest 'stone' isn't really a stone-I made a couple of them- yes made- as sculptural studies of paper maiche covered in encaustic wax- they were a test to develop the bowl you see in the top left hand corner. Its nice to think that my soon to arrive annuals will be planted with these cherished perennials.
This is what I see, from my desk looking to the left. The sheer curtain only screens half the view, the building across, leaving me an edited view of the sky and the gingko tree. Its a view that shifts with the season and also with the shift of fabric choices I make from time to time - see the gingko tree here in fall beyond a beaded voile fabric from the year before.
Currently I have a white silk charmeuse half panel- leftover from a print project and a pair of vintage chintz curtains bought from the flea market. The curtains are a much treasured find that I bought as part of a trio of fabrics, all exquisite floral prints in unusually muted colors. I've tried theses chintz curtains a few times and thought they don't look quite right - a little too much like my grandmothers house.
But then, I love my grandmother's house. I spent a lot of time there as a child. In the last post I described a moment that sparked a fire of enthusiasm for gardening. The kindling for that must surely have been laid here watching my grandmothers daily evening ritual of tending to her garden - watering her plants, deadheading flowers and fussing over her collection of ferns. The curtains are staying for now.
Its in spring when this window comes alive, afternoons are suddenly animated by abstract shadows and slabs of light shift that spotlight random vignettes. I'm particularly liking this choice of crinkled white charmeuse, the shadows from the plants cast a more pronounced almost living botanic print that contrasts with the static vintage flowers on the panels on either side.
One thing I've learnt about prints and patterns, they become more subdued, the more you add to the mix. Think of a Victorian parlor with lace, brocade, damask, chintz, porcelain, scrolls- all those patterns and textures, instead of increasing the visual noise actually seem to muffle it. Not that I want a busy victorian aesthetic, although there's a tearsheet I've kept in my inspiration folders which has a beautiful, earthy arts & craft take on pattern mixing. Maybe thats what I like about the image I posted - its resemblance to this tear sheet. I think this is the beginning of a project- more prints for the dining room.
I can describe to you the moment that the idea of gardening altered fundamentally for me. It was when I walked into the Rose Garden at Sissinghurst. Maybe it was because it was the first of the gardens there I saw that made it so profound. More so than the white garden, which surprisingly didn't move me at all, maybe it was the time of year - and it wasn't at its best. I loved the cottage garden, it was the perfect time of day to see it - towards the end of the day but let me save a fuller description for another post and get back to those first few moments in the Rose garden.
First, I took in the walls, how extravagantly high they were, this was almost an interior space. And then - the fragrance, the air was perfumed, not thick but richly so, a perfume I now know as that of old roses and of an intensity that I've not really experienced again. My next thought - that there was a kind of creative madness here, a wild organic abandon but tempered with some kind of craft or control, I couldn't quite figure out what it was, perhaps the high walls. It wasn't till later, reading up on the subject, I learnt that it was Vita Sackville West's husband Harold Nicholson, who architected the garden and was responsible for the strict box hedging that controlled her exuberant planting, framing its chaotic beauty. It's this combination that creates the visual potency I experienced.
After the inital rush of the first few minutes, I started to look a little closer at what was in the beds. What I can still visualize now can only be described as bold - in both color, shape and combinations. It was cottage gardening unlike the pretty impressionistic renditions I was accustomed to seeing. This was bolder with a more modern expressionistic take. The dark geometric hedges framed splashes and clumps of unruly color. One technical reason for this - she introduced shrubs into the planting- different from the traditional herbaceous only border. She said they were "more interesting and more saving of labor"
By the time I exited the garden I had decided that I was no longer simply looking for ideas on what plants to put into my thin long strip of garden in the east end of London - I was going to dig it all up and start over. Two weeks later, I had indeed dug the entire thing up, removed all the turf and unlike every other garden on that street with a stripe of lawn, narrow path and narrow flower border, I decided it was to have two gigantic borders. A sculptor friend who moonlighted as a handy man laid an old brick path down the middle of the garden, which would be flanked by these two beds, which then led to the end of the garden which he also paved to become a large patio area under the Chestnut tree. Gardening, as an obsessive pastime had officially begun.
I don't remember what I paid to visit the garden, but it wasn't a shilling which is what it used to be when it first opened. Vita nicknamed her visitors 'shillingses' and wrote of them:
"These mild gentlemen and women who invade one's garden after putting their silver token into the bowl ... are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute. Between them and myself a particular form of courtesy survives, a gardener's courtesy, in a world where courtesy is giving place to rougher things"
Indeed the world has become a rougher place and I owe many more shillings as I keep visiting her gardens over and over in my thoughts.