June 21, 2022

How the worst site can become the best garden

“A real wasteland. “An abandoned wood.” And: “Kind of scary.”

Hearing James Golden recount those first impressions of the land from which he sourced his famous garden, Federal Twist, one has to wonder: why did you ever buy such a place?

It was the mid-century home in western New Jersey that charmed Mr. Golden: a long, low two-bedroom perched atop a 12-foot bank. But even on the first day of 2004, when he saw her with a real estate agent, glimpsing the land beyond the wall of windows inside the future weekend home, he could see the obstacles. A dense stand of Eastern Red Cedars (Juniperus virginiana) seemed to want to engulf the house. Below the shore, trees tangled with invasive multiflora rose up in an intimidating world backed by rough, heavy, wet clay soil.

There couldn’t be a traditional garden here, he knew that instinctively, even before he fully understood what a tricky place it was. Any idea of ​​printing beds and borders by traditional methods must be abandoned, and quickly.


For Mr. Golden, it was the first of many acts of acceptance, adding to a years-long advanced course in that old garden adage, “Don’t fight the site.” This kind of site fights back, repeatedly reminding the controlling gardener.

And yet, the 1.5-acre garden in Stockton, NJ, has hosted grateful visitors at the Garden Conservancy Open House since 2013 (and will again this year, on Sunday, June 12). He was featured in 2020 on “Monty Don’s American Gardens”, for BBC Two. And that’s the subject of Mr. Golden’s recent book, “The View From Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature and Ourselves.”

At first, however, it was daunting even to think of what might be possible. “I knew it was an awful place for a garden,” Mr Golden recalled. “But I also knew that I would make a garden here.”

This would be an extremely ambitious undertaking, as Mr. Golden was approaching retirement age. He had enthusiastically grown orchids in the Brooklyn home he shared with her husband, Phillip Saperia, where they had a small garden. But Mr. Golden calls himself a “book gardener”, educated not by great manual gardening work but by reading, especially books on the naturalist views of practitioners like Wolfgang Oehme or, more recently, Thomas rain.

There were also images in his mind of the gardens of Dutch landscape artist Piet Oudolf, emphatic expanses of herbs and flowering perennials with multiple seasons of presence. But those gardens, he knew, hadn’t been made in mud—not in soil like his, where any hole you dig stays full of water for days.

“It had to be an ecological garden, almost by default,” he said. “I had to find what I could grow, plants suited to this ecology. I would almost say that I was kicked and screamed at the term “ecological garden” because I couldn’t think of any other term to describe what I had to do. »

He had to match the plants to the place.

But first, he had to make room.

First task: open a clearing in this forest of red cedars and let in some light. He hired help to remove some trees, and in doing so, the ground delivered a stark reminder of his reluctance to infiltrate or otherwise cooperate.

“It wasn’t until I saw how the equipment sank into the ruts of the mud that I realized how dirty the clay was,” Mr Golden said. “It’s like wet plastic.”

The idea of ​​plowing or other conventional land preparation seemed hopeless, even counterproductive. But something he had read in a book by Noel Kingsbury, the British naturalist garden designer and writer who collaborated on books with Mr Oudolf, had stuck.

“Noel had written about planting right in the rough grass,” Mr. Golden said. “About creating a kind of rugged prairie by digging big holes and planting big competitive plants in them.”

The hope was that they would settle in and shade out some unwanted underbrush, with the desired plants gradually gaining an advantage.

And so the experiments began. The new clearing was mowed and the first test plants entered, many of which were native to the prairies according to these inspirational books. However, not all could withstand the conditions, and what survived was not a garden.

It looked more like “developing chaos,” Mr. Golden said. “I basically had a mowed field with a wild array of plants growing there.”

One summer day, frustrated, he pulled out the lawnmower and made his way through the middle of the winding path.

“And it was just…it was like an epiphany,” he said. “Suddenly the garden started to come alive and I felt like I knew the place for the first time.”

He even began to refer to it differently. “I started calling it the prairie garden – my mock prairie, an imaginary prairie,” he said, acknowledging that his approach was not just for natives.

But like a natural grassland plant community, the planting became denser and denser, with the species that survived clustering together. Those who failed, failed. It was survival of the fittest.

Among the winners: the queen of the pink-flowered meadows (Filipendula rubra Venusta) and the giant black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia maxima). The cup plant, compass plant, and prairie dock (Silphium perfoliatum, S. laciniatum, and S. terebinthinaceum) also thrived. Moor grass (Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea Skyracer) and various Miscanthus also stood the test.

“I quickly realized that big, tall, competitive plants were the easiest thing for me to grow,” he said.

From them came not only the true beginning of the garden, but also a sense of belonging.

“From this contrast between the openness of the path and the almost impenetrable quality of the plantations, ideas began to evolve,” he said. “A teeming mass of perennials that regrows a little.”

His vision of what a garden could be, he said, extended to “a landscaped garden,” another way he now describes Federal Twist: “More and more, I wasn’t focusing only on this flat meadow-like area. I was also thinking of the trees at the perimeter and beyond – and the sky.

As the network of plants grew, a network of paths also grew.

“The garden is designed to be immersive, to force visitors to encounter the plants,” he said. From season to season, his “open-closed-open experience” changes shape again and again.

A place where two chairs invite a visitor to sit and enjoy the view of the garden in the spring becomes an almost hidden room once the surrounding plants reach their summer scale of eight and sometimes 10 feet. You are swallowed up; the outlet, or through, is concealed.

It’s not a big garden, but every time Mr. Golden had visitors, someone approached him and said they were lost. Hearing this repeatedly, he finally sank and he rediscovered a version of himself from long ago in Mississippi.

“It brought me back to very strong childhood memories and how I loved getting lost in the vegetation,” he said. “So I think it was a subconscious drive, and it gradually became more conscious as I became a more conscious gardener.”

Eventually, as fall approaches, the garden changes once more, triggering the big reveal – and one of Mr. Golden’s favorite moments. Trees defoliate and other plants also drop. Again, there is openness.

“The garden is growing,” he says. “It’s like it’s breathing, opening up to the surroundings, and you can’t tell the difference between the planted garden and the unplanted landscape beyond.”

Other gardeners may chase the tender moments of peak bloom, but at Federal Twist, plants that fall and later fade away are also honored.

“It’s my favorite time as the garden goes dead for winter,” Mr Golden said. “After living with my immersive garden all year, I welcome a bit of nothingness.”

He also hails “the beauty of dead plants”, an appreciation he attributes to Mr. Oehme, particularly for Inula racemosa Sonnenspeer, or elecampane. “It’s kind of like a death scepter – atmospheric skeletal noir – but at the same time neither depressing nor scary.”

Most gardeners would be terrified of the presence of horsetail (Equisetum arvense), a related native fern whose rhizomatous nature makes it extremely difficult to manage. But Mr. Golden celebrates his presence, along with that of other volunteer natives, including the sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and the eagle fern (Pteridium aquilinum). They help him “control the surface of the soil”, he said, forming connective tissue – a living green mulch – between the things he has planted.

One thing he planted is currently being planted: Butterbur, an alien butterbur with massive leaves and thuggish behavior.

He loved the bold texture, but it’s reached its doomsday. And as he recently approached his 77th birthday, Mr. Golden found himself thinking: Do I want to leave behind?

And so the cleaning up of the space it filled began, and with it, the next installment in the garden-making experience that is Federal Twist.


Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to gardenand a book of the same name.

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