As spring lingers, I want to take time for us to visit with one of my favorite garden bloggers, James Golden, the master at “View from Federal Twist“.
He has led us through his landscape for several years now, showing what he terms “a New American Garden” starting in 2005 on the “view” but actually horticulturally starting 5 years earlier at another garden, his garden in Rosemont, New Jersey (based on his interest in a number of books by such garden designers as of Noel Kingsbury and Piet Oudolf, Henk Gerritsen, and Michael King). The Rosemont Garden won Grand Prize from Horticulture for best plant combination in a border setting, and a national Honor Award from the Perennial Plant Association. Besides his blog, his private space in Brooklyn has just been featured in the spring edition of Leaf magazine. He welcomes visitors to the Federal Twist garden (as he will do so two times this year — on June 29 and Oct 19 — for the Garden Conservancy) and has been featured many times by other bloggers showing their photos of his garden. Heck, I even read his book reviews for the knowledge he freely imparts!
Obviously, it is difficult to characterize someone so accomplished in the gardening world in single word adjectives, but “knowledgeable” and “passionate” are two that jump to my mind.
James, how did you come to love gardening? What is your history or story?
I had an awareness and appreciation for plants from my early years growing up in Mississippi. I can see that interest now, in memory, but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. It’s almost like I was sleepwalking. I have vivid memories of the Spider Lilies (Lycoris radiata) springing up through the grass in my mother’s front lawn, of tumbling and hiding in waves of vetch in the vacant lot next door, of wildflowers in spring, pink evening primroses (Onoethera speciosa) crowding the roadside in summer, and, of course, the magnolia, Magnolia grandflora—lots of memories of the visual pleasure plants gave me—though for some reason I wasn’t aware of how much I loved plants until I moved to New York just after finishing graduate school.
I’ve been gardening since we bought our first brownstone in Brooklyn in 1979, so I guess I’d say I’ve been at it for over 30 years. That first garden was a small 16- by 20-foot vest pocket garden, but I learned a lot there. I didn’t really get started with more extensive gardening until we bought a country home, an old farmhouse in the hamlet of Rosemont, New Jersey, a quaint little village in the first ridge of hills above the Delaware. Just as I started gardening I literally stumbled upon a book while browsing in Barnes and Noble, a book that entirely changed my way of looking at plants and gardens — by Piet Oudolf and Noel Kingsbury. The book had a powerful emotional effect on me. I was hooked, instantly. I’d say I did not so much learn; rather, it felt as if I re-cognized, the beauty of plants throughout the entire life cycle, the beauty in seasonal changes, especially the colors and structures of dying and dead plants, and the emotions associated with that, about plant structure, about the rather theatrical presentation of sweeps of grasses massed with perennials. I was clear from the start that this is a very emotional approach to gardening.
Actually, I find you to be a teacher of landscaping, rather than gardening – am I wrong? Once you design the landscape, though, you have to put something into it (garden it). Maybe I’m all mixed up?
My first inclination when I hear you refer to me as a teacher and landscape designer is to deny it. I’m certainly an amateur. I know professional designers and I’m very aware that their training enables most of them to solve problems and gain access to information and materials I don’t have, to do things I can’t do.
But your question gets to an important point. I love plants as much as any plantaholic, but my approach to gardening is extensive, about the total effect, not individual plants. So I use plants as material. I think about the garden almost as an organism, of use of plants in groups, in communities, almost like a musical composition, and my approach is to make the landscape pleasing aesthetically and sensually. With this extensive kind of gardening, it’s not really possible to give individual plants care. This is more like farming than traditional gardening. And I’m hardly concerned at all about utilitarian use, a garden designed for cooking out, dining, recreation or—God forbid—growing food. That’s something else entirely, and though I value it, I’d rather buy my vegetables from someone else. I’ve also learned to accept a certain amount of messiness.
You still live and work in Brooklyn, what is it you do in the city? I think you said somewhere that you work only a couple of days a week away from home. Does that mean that your gardening escapades (writing, teaching, learning), whether in NYC or in NJ, have the other days?
Actually, Phil and I live in Brooklyn and I work in Manhattan, but only three days a week now. I tried to retire two years ago, but decided to work in the office, near Union Square, two days a week, then a third day at home. That allows me to spend most of five days a week in the country, and to get in three visits to the gym each week. I started going to the gym only upon my retirement, just before I turned 66, largely because I wanted to keep in shape for gardening. I have to say I’ve never felt better. I will have to deal with the issue of aging in the garden but, so far, that’s not been a problem. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been before.
On the other hand, I know that someday I won’t be able to keep up the Federal Twist garden, and am planning it so that it requires as little maintenance as possible. And I do realize that one day, a 20-mile round-trip to get a quart of milk will be a bit too much. So we well may eventually sell the country house and live full-time in Brooklyn, where I can maintain my small garden there. But I want that to be a long time in the future.
How did you become enamored of Oudolf and Kingsbury’s work? What made you want to try out some of their principles?
I’ve already told you how I “became enamored” (good word choice) of Oudolf and Kingsbury.
When we moved to the house on Federal Twist Road, I knew the land would be difficult to make into a garden. It was overgrown with weedy junipers. We would have to cut 70 or 80 trees just to get enough open space for a garden. I was certain I wanted a sunny glade. I also knew the land was heavy clay with serious drainage problems. In Kingsbury’s The Natural Perennial Garden I had read about matrix planting and, specifically, about planting directly into existing grasses. I had also learned a lot about plant communities, plant sociology (how well certain plants coexist), and about the dynamics of the interactions, so I got the original idea for how to make my Federal Twist garden from that book. I didn’t have all the answers, or course, only concepts I would have to test. This would be an experimental garden. What can be done with poor land, poor drainage, and soil compacted by construction?
Do you feel you’ve succeeded or are succeeding? Are there things about gardening in America that are different from European gardens that make these principles hard or even impossible to follow? One of the problems I have had in my own garden is that once I find a grass that prospers, I can’t get rid of it! The American Prairie is meant to be planted with a grass of some kind! I grew up in Missouri and was constantly fighting the grass from taking over.
As far as I’m concerned, I’m succeeding because my garden makes me happy and meets my needs. I call my garden a wet prairie. It’s certainly an artificial prairie. If I have a matrix plant, it’s probably miscanthus, which grows very well in my wet clay conditions. I also have many prairie plants, various silphiums, Joe Pye Weed, panicums, rudbeckias, filipendula. I do have problems. A European pasture grass that was here before I was is highly invasive and has to be knocked back from time to time. I do intermittent battle with it, but I’ll never get rid of it and am trying to learn to coexist. If I let it grow, it turns brown in the hot summer and makes a pleasant grassy matrix for the much larger plants I grow. I also have an annual battle with Japanese Stilt Grass (Microstegium vimenium), which, though an annual, seeds so prolifically I have to spend literally days pulling it out every summer.
Gardening is a dynamic process, so I’ll never achieve perfection. There’s no such thing. The garden will exist as long as I monitor and manage it. When I stop, the garden will stop too. The next owner can try to turn it into a lawn, but I doubt that will work.
What do you want to impart to visitors to Federal Twist? What can we learn from your experiences there?
Learn what conditions your plants like and how your plants behave, use large numbers of plants in communities, use competitive plants in combinations so they tend to keep each other in check, and pay attention to what’s going on in the garden. Let plants compete. Let things self-seed. Let natural seeding from the surrounding environment take place. Don’t view a plant as a weed just because you didn’t plant it. Intervene when necessary but don’t get obsessive about it. But most importantly, pay attention and respond to the garden with appropriate action.
What is the hardest part of producing your blog, the photography, finding the time, writing, what? I am a very new blogger and I am finding it a fantastic way to communicate with others that share my gardening passion, but I must keep up with the writing whether I am bitten by the muse or not. Dear Husband takes my photos and he has certain ways of communicating through his pictures that I have difficulty (except superficially) communicating in words.
I do it two ways. Usually I select photos, edit and size them for blog use, then write to the photos. At other times, I want to say something, write about some subject that interests or disturbs me, and in those cases I just write, then look for images after the fact. I probably spend more time selecting photos and manipulating them than I do on any other aspect of the blog. I don’t work for a large readership. I just do what I want and let it go at that.
What other gardens do you most admire and why? What do they have to teach you, and then to teach us? You seem a natural-born teacher: do you enjoy teaching us what you have learned?
I’m really surprised to hear you describe me as a teacher. I guess I’m blind to that. Right now, my favorite gardens are Paley Park and the High Line in Manhattan and Chanticleer in Wayne, Pennsylvania. Paley Park for its magic. You enter it and you leave the busy city for an almost spiritual experience. It’s almost cathedral-like with its high, skinny trees, the tranquility of its minimal plantings, and the sound of the waterfall on the back wall, which puts you in a world apart. The High Line for watching people responding to the park, the extraordinarily beautiful, almost music-like Oudolf plantings, and the sense of journey, almost spiritual journey. Chanticleer for its joyful virtuosity, clever and daring horticulture, use of humor (which is so rare in gardens today), and for its willingness to innovate and take risks.
Do you plan to retire in Brooklyn or in New Jersey (even Leaf magazine said your Brooklyn garden was more zen “aging in place”)?
I don’t want to leave the country, but I’m 68 now and I know I can’t deal with long drives for necessities of life forever. I’ve never felt better, but at some point I think we’ll have to retire to Brooklyn. The city has much to offer, and if either of us ever has to deal with disability, that’s the place to be. I hope it’s 15 or 20 years before that time comes.
After 8 years of working Federal Twist, is your list of “to do’s” for that property growing or changing direction?
If money and time were endless, I’d be expanding the garden, extending the deer fence. I’ve taken the upcoming Garden Conservancy Open Day tour as impetus to make some changes I’d long contemplated—adding a new reflecting pool at one end of the house, which has necessitated lots of new planting, and adding long native stone planting beds at the other end, elevated so I can grow some things that don’t thrive in very wet conditions. I’m also dealing with seventeen 70- to 80-foot white pines that fell just next to the garden in Hurricane Sandy. They are too large to be removed so I’m thinking of how to make them a part of the garden, possibly a pedagogical, ecological approach. I think of my garden as a very emotional garden, so incorporating didacticism is a challenge.
What part of taking care of the two properties is most fun, most unpleasant?
I’m very much like Anne Wareham, author the The Bad Tempered Gardener. I don’t really like to garden. I want to enjoy the finished garden, the seasonal changes. If I could afford to have someone else do all the work, I would. So I get lots of help, but I do quite a lot of physical labor myself. I’m the one, for example, who puts on waders each year and cleans out the pond.
You wrote me once about what might make your garden more or less accessible for visitors. Is this something you will be continuing to ponder for yourself and for visitors?
It came up as an issue when I was responding to a Garden Conservancy questionnaire about accessibility for touring my garden. Two entrances from the house require the use of stairs to reach the garden (because the house was built on an elevated hill back in 1965, I imagine to get it above the wet soil). There is a side entrance that should be accessible to people with walkers or in wheel chairs, but the path is gravel. A wheel chair may be able to make it through the garden with no problem, but I’m not sure. I certainly can’t afford to pave the paths, which amount to several hundred feet.
I’m not so concerned for myself. The garden is far too extensive for me to manage it if I ever became disabled in a way that limited mobility. Then it would be time to move to the city.
Thank you so much, James, for helping us think about our gardens in new ways, visualize them in entirely beautiful and somewhat carefree approaches, and help us visualize what we can do as we age in whatever place we find ourselves. Thanks too for helping us plan for the future. It is never “done”, but only a step in a beautiful, life-fulfilling process.
For those of you who enjoyed this interview, you may also be interested in our interview with Charlotte Weychan, The Galloping Gardener.