The World of Moss
Moss seems to create its own miniaturized “fairie world”. For years we have been experimenting with the moss at Sakonnet Garden’s entry - enlarging, regrading and weeding to expand its plush green carpet. The scale imparted by this landscape of tiny velvety plants and gnarled trunks imparts a good entry experience for the garden - not revealing what lies ahead. In fact by being miniaturized it seems to set up visitor expectations in a way that subsequently seen tree trunks and flowers appear much larger than reality.
Sometimes transplanted patches of moss establish easily, sometimes not. A gel wetting agent mixed in the top inch of soil seems to help the moss take hold, keeping transplanted moss bits from drying out. Moss hates being covered by leaves, so keep raking.
We want this garden to feel local. Initially we encouraged native ferns to sprout in the moss to remove possible Japanese “moss garden” connotations. Now that the gnarled trunks are beefier, ferns just seem to be clutter.
JAG: Sakonnet Garden grew from being a group of sunny little clearings within an overgrown dark thicket into more formalized intertwined rooms divided by high hedges and walls. These partitions separate spaces and enable each to have a different spirit.
The doorways and passages between rooms become important for enabling the framing of views. Here the steel Gothic frame that copies our house’s front door helps to compose a wonderful picture in the garden. We see one young Weeping Threadleaf Lawson Cypress starting to grow above the hedges. Hopefully one day a little grove will arch overhead creating a delicate texture against the sky. In actuality we have never seen a mature Weeping Threadleaf Cypress so have no idea what’s really in store.
We are teased by creation of a high maintenance garden when low maintenance is more logical and certainly more practical.
However, we’ve learned that one or three carefully sited big pots filled with spring bulbs and summer annuals can go a long way toward providing the impression that a whole garden is filled with bloom (and are a lot less effort than a big bed).
An explosion of tulips, with 20-30 bulbs crammed into one oversized pot works really well for filling a space and can bloom above rabbits’ reach. The inconvenience is that the tulips do better in winter if the pot is buried above the bulbs soil level (soil temperature is buffered), but it’s a pain to lug, bury and subsequently lift large pots. Huge pots are more handsome and buffer root temperatures better than small pots, but it may be possible to dig in multiple small lightweight plastic pots and transplant their contents into a large pot in early April when the foliage is just starting to grow - worth an experiment.
There is something so wonderful about tulips. Is it their color purity? ability to glow? to impart happiness? After a long snowy winter, even the white ones convey optimism.
We love masses of white tulips in the Silver Garden. Here we experiment with luminosity by introducing old glass fishnet floats among flowers for extra glow when the sun swings around to backlight all. Mikel suspended the globes on simple standard dahlia cages.
We like white tulips here in an architecturally enclosed space, but we find ourselves preferring the way tulips look when exploding over the tops of large pots more than how they look in terra firma. Huge tulip flowers are so wonderfully shiny and artificial-looking that they seem to look better lifted into fabricated pots than when their feet touch the soil.
One never plants enough bulbs. We knock ourselves out to plant 1000 but in Spring, wish it had been 2000. We find ourselves stuffing two or three layers of bulbs into a pot and need to plunge the pot up to its neck in soil for winter. Buried pots don't suffer wild temperature extremes. (2014)
Some Look Better Backlighted
Some plants look much better when their outlines are exaggerated by backlighting. Here we see Mikel's sculptural Euonymous "snakes" looking wonderful with backlighting showing off their silhouettes. The peeling bark of Paperbark Maples looks much better when the tree is planted to the South of the viewer so that sun can pour through exfoliating bark and make it glow orange.
Our little garden sometimes seems huge, in part because there is no vantage point where one can see how small it is, in part because of long "enfilades" that lure you down tunnels punctuated by flanking walls, in part due to carefully thought out "layers" that put one 3-d object in front of another and another, each layer seeming to create space. Backlighting is a trick that works.
Not everything looks best backlighted. When illuminated from behind "black" iris and tulips turn burgundy. (2014)
Every June, the central "red ditch" converts from green to scarlet. Rhododendron Vulcan's Flame is a wonderful old West Coast hybrid that has done well for us, slowly building in scale, blooming after the general peak of late May. After years of tough triage, we started winnowing down to our favorite rhodys, adding more of the same. Doesn't this work better here than a collection of colors?
"The rake's progress" (with apologies to Mr. Hogarth) : we find ourselves increasingly more interested in "creating experiences" with plants than in just having or growing them. We enjoy visitors' surprise in coming around a corner to suddenly be blasted by this scarlet vision. The rhodys are planted to be backlighted after noon, so the result is the red is exaggerated even more.
Here, the backlighting is in fog, causing the flowers' edges to dissolve a bit in haze. Fun! (2014)
Piles of Froth
Hidden within a wild thicket Sakonnet Garden developed slowly as labyrinth of interconnected outdoor "rooms", each with its own character and mood. High hedges or stone walls reinforce the separate intent of each space.
One zone is called "the yellow garden" with an internal high circular “curtain wall” of boxwood that separates summer perennials within the circle from increasingly stately tall rhodies on the outside.
We’ve searched hard to find the best chartreuse yellow rhododendrons - starting with the Hardgrove hybrid called Golden Star (left). Most are more creamy or chartreuse than yellow but seem yellower when the strong yellow Welsh Poppies planted below them reflect yellow upon the rhody blooms. A few small dots of dead white are juxapoised just to make the ivory rhodies appear yellower.
Trading up - here on the right we see one of the first pale “yellow” rhodie hybrids. Barely ivory, it has subsequently been replaced by Kristy Lynn, George Woodard’s new, yellower hybrid. A hybrid called Hotei is the yellowest of all for us, but it is a miffy plant, barely hardy for us and awkwardly losing branches.
We like this room best when the Dovetree drops its white Kleenex all over the small central lawn. (2013)
JAG: The yellow garden seems to capture a shaft of sunlight in an often foggy landscape. The dark backdrop of a boxwood hedge enables the beds of yellow and yellow-variegated foliage to appear illuminated.
MF: one of the most satisfying plants is yellow barberry, easily bent to one's will to great effect. Sometimes the common enhances the rare, just like me and JAG.
JAG: Space is scarce so Mikel has cut the boxwood hedge into a high, thin "curtain wall" – only 10" wide at its base but 7' high! You're not supposed to be able to cut hedges this narrow, but we started with 6" root cuttings.
MF: One thing you're not supposed to do is dash the dreams of an ambitious garden fantasizer. Sometimes it works out (sometimes not) but Johnny's cries for "thinner MF, thinner" have worked out for the hedge (if not for me).
JAG: Here we look south from the yellow garden, back towards the garden entry, on the garden's main spine. A column filled with white variegated Fallopia (alias the "Fallopia tube") is placed at the south end, viewed through dark keyholes in hedges. When back-lighted the leaves appear brighter than any flower.
JAG: I think about designing with light. Most gardens are flat-lighted, seen all at once with just one lighting. Brightness and shadow are tools for creating impact, maybe even feelings. Art is seems to be about creating emotions.
MF: At any point looking backward or forward one is lost, Entry or exit? Main or sub path? For me this prolongs the experience. Which rabbit hole am I down? Where should I go next? Mystery and surprise are one of the key elements of our garden (and our character?)
Ribbons of Black Beech
Beech trees, when tiny, seem to take forever to grow. Then they pick up steam. We had conceived of a series of 9’ steel hoops covered in black foliage through which one would walk. We planted the darkest black leafed form of weeping European Beech that we could find - Black Swan. Then stretched the growing shoots up upon the steel. (Actually we learned best to not let the branches touch the hot black-painted steel directly in August).
About a decade later they are starting to do what we had imagined - dropping their side branches into long wavering streamers of black. These tendrils should now get longer and ever better, but, of course, with time, the oldest branches will get woody and stiff and have to be trimmed to favor new young drooping ribbons.
Scroll > (pictures) to see an image of the beeches 2 years ago before they started to drop their ribbons. (2013)
The Black Border
MF: Dark is chic. Let's face it, there are no black plants, but gardeners love to romanticize. What makes this path exciting for me are the circles that draw you along in either direction. Both ways lead into the light.
JAG: A century ago Gertrude Jekyll lobbied for juxtaposing plants on the opposite sides of the color wheel in order to give each color greater intensity. The black border theoretically should look darker after your eye is blasted by the adjacent yellow garden.
MF: Gertrude was right. It works.
MF: The azalea hedge was designed by rabbits. Every time Johnny tried to transplant a small evergreen azalea from our wire-fenced nursery into the open garden, the bunnies would nail it. Back into the nursery the nipped plants went, lined up along the nursery fence.
JAG: Thus our “flowered wallpaper” hedge began, finally tall enough to be cut with hedge shears to thicken it. Evergreen azaleas have such pure artificial colors that they don’t seem to combine well with rhododendrons (or with deciduous azaleas either), but their very artificiality seems a benefit when not grown naturalistically.
As a local boy I must have been motivated by tightly clipped azalea balls in yards near Fall River, but never dreamed of the excitement of creating entire hedges. For most of the year this hedge looks like nondescript clipped privet, but in late May it blasts off. Thank you bunnies.
Almost a quarter of the garden is devoted to large leafed plants, bold textures, oversized ferns and zone 7 relatives of tropical genera. It evokes the feeling of a subtropical jungle.
In this quadrant, a durable old Dexter rhody named Weston, once grown for flowers, is being limbed up to show off its muscular trunk and to serve as a "liana perch" evocative of an equatorial forest. (We hope). The liana is a tough strong honeysuckle hybrid called Mandarin, chosen for both its orange canopy flowers and for its sinewy trunk, which excitingly is starting to wind around itself.
We are looking for some big old twisted grapevines to cut and tuck into the twisting honeysuckle to beef up the scale of the honeysuckle vine even more.
The yellow Hostas and Aralia are sited in the center of this clearing to give the impression of a shaft of sunlight.
"It is theater, not gardening" you say! Well, why not? It is about creating experiences. (2014)
Red Mughal Pavilion
MF: We don’t usually get invited to parties in India but were tempted by a snoop. In old Delhi our friend Karun had recreated a townhouse of recycled Moghul building fragments. Our other travel excuse was a possibility of finding similar fragments to create a little Asian pavilion for the “subtropical quadrant” of our RI garden.
JAG: The red pavilion was sited up in the air to float above a carpet of Petasites and palmettos, but getting it here was a trauma, for half the building was lost within US customs, never found. Thus a local RI craftsmen made its banquette seat of stock materials. A steeplemaker fabricated its spire.
My aunt Lal thought it crazy to bother with garden seats as “no real gardener ever has time to sit down”, but this red pavilion gives a wonderful perch for sundowners. As in an elevated Indian hunting machaan, once we even saw an unsuspecting fox coming to drink in the pond below.
JAG: Almost a quarter of our garden is devoted to large leaved foliage plants reminiscent of equatorial forest. We were lucky to have started this neo-victorian patch twenty five years ago; giant-leafed Paulonia, native florida Magnolia ashei, a backdrop high wall of wind-protecting bamboo, palmetto clusters, our big Trochodendron, black bamboo clumps and hundreds of exuberant ferns and Petasites now are a mature backdrop for new faux tropical experiments. We certainly have tried out many candidates for the subtropical garden, but his red banana must be a decade old.
MF: Burle Marx was unknown to most when John started this endeavor to keep the tender tropical nurseries in business. This garden has provided its own stimulus plan. When we have wet summers it is spectacular.
The Silver Meadow
JAG: In June our little silver and blue garden behaves as intended - being wonderfully shimmery in sun, its forms almost dissolving in light, like objects in a Bonnard painting. For the rest of the year it is a disaster. The blue Halcyon hostas turn green, the Silver pear defoliates, the weeping cedars have the Northeast's Cedrus blight. The white spikes of foxgloves and delicate clouds of Crambe have fizzled out by mid July. It needs new inspiration.
MF: After its show stopping performance in June (I particularly love being knocked over by the cat pee smell of Crambe), this area is closed for business. John built magnificent stone walls that enclose this space and make it an intriguing passage even when bloom is finished.
Note: we subsequently are redesigning this area to extend season while hopefully keeping its shimmers in June.
JAG: We started off like bees, attracted by flowers. With time, however, forms and textures have become much more interesting than flowers. Yak foliage is a favorite. It is so beautiful, whether dark shiny green or silvery, that we don't want it covered with bloom. The yak hybrid in the center is old - probably 35 - kept low and dense by MF's diligent annual pruning. He cuts off the first flush of silver new growth each May. Anemone nemerosa, on the left, is a great spring woodland groundcover. The foreground plant is a Rodgersia.
MF: Flowers fade, but texture lasts forever. (It's why I love winter. I am never disappointed when it ends.) Arranging plant textures is the evolution of sophistication in a garden. After the heady and the blousy of bloom comes the poetry and expression of texture.
A Blast of Blue
In 2015 we modified the house and then needed to reshape the prior garden, providing opportunity for a fancy new fence and for building a deep bed with more well drained ideal soil for perennials, especially for a Delphinium experiment. We had always wanted to grow them and know they are tricky and are heavy feeders.
We found a grower in nearby Connecticut of New Zealand delphinium hybrids, Dave Burdick, apparently more resilient that older UK strains apparently. They were amazing in year one, but suffered in summer 2016 drought.
MF: I found some undersized furniture at a country market--wonderful fun for playing with scale.
JAG: The rhodies usually are at peak 1 June - mountains of froth.
We planned and planted this garden about 1980 but now many of the rhodies are getting too big that its getting time to redesign.
Enhanced Habitat for Iris
This beautiful local grassland iris, called Slender Flag (Iris prismatic), exists by the thousands in several local meadows. It is a species that must have benefited by a single autumn mowing (that dropped cut hay in place). This nutrient recycling richened the soil, apparently helps this iris.
The management of meadows varies by species. Avian Bobolinks want large open fields here mowed after 15 July when the babies have left their nest. Bobwhite quail want brushy hedgerows with blackberries and Killdeers (a farmland plover) want areas of bare soil where cows (or Woolly Mammoths or Bison) foraged.
In order to keep all this diversity the community needs to make concerted effort to keep large enough patches in all these land uses. We¹ve done it with Piping Plovers, we can do it with grassland species too.