THERE’S AN OLD expression in gardening, a folksy piece of advice that states: “Don’t fight the site.”
James Golden has been guided by a more nuanced version of that idea in creating a much-praised garden, a wildish, unexpected landscape in New Jersey called Federal Twist. It was even featured on Monty Don’s “American Gardens” series for BBC Two. I’ve been reading James’s new book about Federal Twist, and just like that old garden adage, a lot of his philosophy of garden making is about acceptance, about letting the place tell you what it wants to be.
James Golden came to garden making later in life, when he was preparing to retire from a writing job in the corporate world. His new book is “The View from Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature, and Ourselves” (affiliate link).
Plus: Enter to win a copy of his book by commenting in the box farther down the page.
Read along as you listen to the February 14, 2022 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on Apple Podcasts (iTunes) or Spotify or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).
matching the garden to the site, with james golden
Margaret Roach: Hi, James, How are you? Winter: It’s winter [laughter].
James Golden: Winter. I just went out to see if my Hamamelis ‘Jelena’ was blooming yesterday morning.
Margaret: Oh, you have that one, too? That’s the first one to always bloom for me.
James: Yeah, it’s my only one because they hate my soil conditions. So I have to grow it at the top of a stone wall.
Margaret: So, before we get started, to celebrate the book, I know you’re going to be doing some virtual lectures in the coming weeks for Wave Hill public garden in New York City, and for Innisfree Garden in Millbrook, New York.
So, congratulations on the book, which I believe is officially out in the United States March 1st, is that right?
James: I hear it’s officially out March 1st. Yes.
Margaret: O.K. So, set the scene for us with a little history. When did you start making Federal Twist and how big is the place? What was the blank canvas? Just set the scene.
James: Well, Phil, my husband, and I have lived in Brooklyn for years, and we decided to look for a house in the country. And we, of course, in our area, we’re looking for an 18th-century stone house. But I saw an ad for a modern house that was, that claimed to be Frank Lloyd Wright-like. So we took a look at it, and actually loved the place.
It was built in 1965. So, it’s basically sort of mid-century. It has a wall of windows looking out on what then was a monoculture of junipers. And we decided to buy the house, though I had serious reservations about the land as a place for a garden. I knew it was a bad place for a garden. I knew it was a horrible place for a garden. But for some reason, I just knew I would make a garden here. I didn’t know how, but I was very confident that I would make a garden.
Margaret: So, you say horrible place for garden because soil or drainage or what?
James: First, there was no open space so we had to cut down about 70 or 80 junipers.
Margaret: Uh-huh, the native Eastern red cedars? Yeah.
James: Originally, the house had an open field behind it. So I was in a sense restoring the land to the conditions when the house was built, but the soil was heavy, heavy, wet clay. It doesn’t percolate at all. The water just runs over the surface. If you dig a hole, the water stays in the hole for days. There’s a huge amount of stone under the surface. So the plants that can be grown here are very limited.
Margaret: So as I said in the introduction, sort of a theme that—speaking of limitations and so forth, and reality checks—a theme that repeats throughout the book is one of acceptance. And you said you knew, you say in the book, that you knew looking at this wet clay, and I think you described it as having “a rough, coarse nature” of the site. You say you knew that it would be an ecological garden that you would make because of what you saw, and accepting what you saw.
James: I knew that only plants adapted to this ecology could grow here. I had to find out what many of those were. And I did a lot of experimentation in the early days.
I also had a visual picture. I was at the time in love with Piet Oudolf’s gardens. And I wanted something like that, but I quickly discovered I couldn’t have that. I would have to have my version.
Margaret: And so his gardens, they’re certainly not in a heavy clay wet situation, right?
James: No, they’re on very well-prepared soil, and they’re planned very carefully and maintained very carefully, because Piet does not want his plants moving around [laughter]. The gardens aren’t wild at all. They just look wild.
Margaret: Right. So I hate to say it as a longtime gardener, but traditionally gardening is really about exerting control over a space, about dominating it with the human hand, especially if you want to achieve formal effects.
And as I’ve said to you before in our correspondence, it’s not about acceptance of the place, but sort of unacceptance really. It’s imposing something.
And so you say in the book, “acceptance is the key to creating a garden that felt right in its place.”
So what did you, you knew it would be an ecological garden. Did you have any other sort of instincts early on in making—and about what year was this that you began the garden? I’m sorry. I forgot to ask that.
James: We bought the house in late in 2004, and I started clearing the trees in spring of 2005. That was the starting point. I also started my gardening blog called View from Federal Twist at that time.
Margaret: Yes, I remember.
James: Which is sort of where the name of the garden comes from.
Margaret: And Federal Twist because?
James: Because we live on Federal Twist Road.
Margaret: O.K. Because it’s certainly not a Federalist house or [laughter]…
James: No, no. And no one knows why the road has this name.
Margaret: Ah, yeah. You talk a lot about wildness also in the book, and you just referred to someone who doesn’t want his plants to move about, but you say “I wanted my plants to move about.”
So tell us about sort of some of the other principles or the guidance. How did you even, the way you describe it, tough soil, tough site, a forest of Eastern red cedars. How did you, what did you, did you start with, with a path or did… Do you know what I mean? What revealed itself to you or where was the beginning?
James: I actually did start with a path, but before that I had to have some sort of method for controlling the ground surface. And I was at the time reading Piet Oudolf’s books, many of which were actually written by Noel Kingsbury. And I was reading in one of Noel’s early books about planting directly into rough grass. And he recommended digging a big hole, buying a big competitive plant, putting it in the hole, actually doing that many times over. And I took that advice, and it worked.
I planted many large prairie plants and other plants, too, that quickly shaded out the lower growth. Not all of the lower growth, there’s still lots of native Carex and lots of Equisetum and other plants that existed here then. But that method was critical to making the garden work, and giving me something I could control with limited labor.
Margaret: So you did not remove existing vegetation, other than that you opened up the space where that had been dense trees, the conifers. You didn’t remove the existing herbaceous, or whatever, vegetation, the ground-level vegetation. You planted into it.
James: I just mowed it, and the planted into it. And then initially with no sense of design, I was just experimenting to see what would grow. I discovered, for example, that something like Monarda, such a common plant, really can’t grow in my conditions. So I just got everything I could find really to see what I could grow in this place.
Margaret: So it was kind of a buffet, you experimented and saw who survived.
James: And then I sort of had a developing chaos, and couldn’t get a good idea for design. So I got really frustrated one summer day and got out the mower. I don’t have a mower now. And mowed a curvy path across the middle of the field.
And that was just, it was like an epiphany.
James: Suddenly the garden sort of began to come to life. I was able to see slight changes in topography where the more cut weeds open at the edge of the pathway, I could see into the inner structure of the weeds and how they rooted into the earth. And I felt that I knew the place for the first time. That was really a sort of a magical moment for me.
Margaret: It’s interesting you say that, because it reminds me again of another sort of old piece of garden “wisdom,” which was when people would be like, “Well, when I’m getting started, how do I know where to make my paths?” And there was this, and I don’t know who first suggested it, but it was like, “Watch where your dog goes from here to there, take the path that your dog takes”—how animals know the terrain.
Do you know what I mean? And they have an instinct or whatever. It’s not necessarily a shortest distance between two points but they take the best route. And so you didn’t watch a dog do it, but you got that mower out and made a path that’s great. And it really revealed so much.
James: And then eventually I had many, many paths, so.
Margaret: Right. And you talk about, again in the book, you talk about, like you were saying, the wildness and so forth of this place, but you juxtaposed elements of structure against that. The path being probably it’s not literally structure, but just by mowing it—but it is in a way. So you sort of juxtaposed structural elements against this looser, wild nature of the place. [Above, a reflecting pool is a bit of formality or structure juxtaposed against the effusion of plants.]
James: Yes. Appropriate structural elements. We have a lot of native stone in this area. As a matter of fact, we have had a huge supply along both sides of the property line of a stone called argillite, which is a sort of gray somber stone. The oldtimers, boy I should be an oldtimer now, but-
Margaret: I’m with you, James [laughter].
James: The oldtimers call it blue jingle or blue jingler, because if you hit the rocks together, they tend to ring. And we had a huge supply of it, so I think we built several hundred feet of rough, very roughly laid stone wall, which are an important part of the garden structure.
And since, I’ve added a stone circle and numerous sitting areas and a couple of very, very low-impact, subtle sculptures. They’re dark bronze, and they’re very simple. So they sort of blend into the background and have more or less organic shapes.
Margaret: One other “sculptural” element that I loved, which was surprising seeing the pictures in the book… So there’s all this looseness and then there’s sometimes a grouping of vertical conifers [far right in above photo], very tight conifers, like a little cluster of exclamation points. I don’t know how many places that repeats itself, but I saw at least one.
James: Of course. And then I called them Thuja occidentalis, because I hate to say that they’re arborvitae.
Margaret: Right [laughter].
James: But it’s an evergreen that is extremely well-adapted to my soil conditions. And they love the wet.
Margaret: Interesting. Interesting. And they’re just so emphatic.
And one of the plantings, one of the areas I loved seeing, and it’s a plant I’ve only seen in Wisconsin at University of Wisconsin-Madison’s prairie restoration and thereabouts in nature. It’s the only time I’ve seen it in mass. You have this big mass of what’s called queen of the prairie, Filipendula rubra. And it’s just not a plant that I see gardeners use. So how did was that one of your experiment plants that then thrived and got a permanent spot cause of it?
James: It was. This was the early 2000s, and frankly I couldn’t find very many good nurseries around here, so I was really struggling to find plants. I couldn’t use plugs, because plugs tend to just vanish and the growth in my garden.
Margaret: Right. Little tiny plants. Right. Right.
James: And I found a nursery called Paxson Hill Farm, just across the river in Bucks County. A guy named Bruce Gangawer, who is a garden designer and uses a nursery more or less to store plants. He gets in really unusual things that I couldn’t find anywhere else.
And I found this big supply of big pots of Filipendula rubra ‘Venusta’ [above]. I had only seen pictures of it. I’d never actually seen the plant flowering, but I got 30 or 40 of them and planted them across a wide swath. And amazingly, they have remained stable since the garden started and they flower profusely every June in that Pepto-Bismol pink.
Margaret: I know they’re crazy, right? And they’re not little guys—they’re tall.
James: But they have beautiful structure. They have beautiful foliage and they’re actually prettier after they flower, when the flower heads turned a sort of bronzy color.
Margaret: Oh, O.K. I’ve never seen them at that moment. So it feels like, from the pictures in the book and so forth, it feels like you found that not just starting with big plants, as in larger-sized plants, but plants that have stature that can stand up to the situation. Do you have a lot of bold or tall kind of plants? Is that true or is that just my looking at the pictures?
James: That’s true. I often look for people just to give a sense of scale in photographs.
Much of the planting by midsummer is above head height. So when I have a Garden Conservancy Open Day, it’s not infrequent that someone comes up to me and tells me they’re lost and they don’t know where to go.
Margaret: [Laughter.] And you probably love that. You love that.
James: I do. There may be another path 6 feet away but because the plants are so tall, they just don’t, can’t find it. Anyone who is willing to just explore the garden will find their way through. And that’s sort of my intent. I didn’t want confuse people. I just wanted to encourage them to explore and not ask me which way to go, because there is no way to go.
Margaret: Right. It’s not like an allee that leaves one place and that’s the end of it. Right. It’s not that kind of formality, and one destination.
James: That’s not to say that I don’t like formal gardens. I do, but I couldn’t have one in this crazy place.
Margaret: Right. Other plants? There seems like there’s a lot of ornamental grasses, big-stature grasses [below, some at the edge of the terrace]. Other plants that you’ve found have worked for this sense of wildness and also the site?
James: I have a lot of grasses; they’re very important. And I wanted to use lots of American grasses like Panicum. But I discovered, at least until now, I haven’t found many native grasses that can do well over the long term in my highly competitive conditions. Panicums do well for a few years. And the larger ones like ‘Dallas Blues,’ which is pretty big, last a lot longer, but they seem to be more, less resilient and more inclined to be invaded by other plants from the side, and then they just gradually disappear.
So one grass I have almost too much of is Miscanthus, Miscanthus of various sorts. And it may be a Japanese grass, but it looks to me entirely appropriate in this place. There’s a lot of Miscanthus giganteus for screening some areas. I have a deer fence, so I need to screen the deer fence at different times of the year.
Margaret: I use the giganteus. I have a big mass of it, and I use it to screen my compost heap and those sort of work areas and the far driveway. So when I’m looking out across the garden, it’s like a seasonal wall. And it creates invisibility beyond. So yeah, it’s great for that. The good thing about that one for me is I’m farther north than you are; I’m a Zone 5. I think you’re a little bit warmer but not warm. Is that it doesn’t seed in. That’s not one that I’ve ever, ever, and I’ve had it for more than 25 years, I never had a seeding problem with it so that’s good.
James: I have had one plant seed in from the giganteus. The others do seed in and, I just have to keep an eye out.
Margaret: Yeah. No, I know.
James: Move them while they’re little.
Margaret: I know. Any other, like the way that Filipendula is such a strong character in the garden, any other particular favorites among the forbs, among the flowering plants?
James: Silphium perfoliatum [above]. Silphium terebinthinaceum. Silphium laciniatum [top of page].
Margaret: I can’t remember. One is the cup plant. One is the, I can’t remember the common names of the silphiums.
James: Perfoliatum is the cup plant. Terebinthinaceum has the big shovel-shaped leaf that feels like sandpaper. And laciniatum has the tall, has the deeply cut, huge leaves. Some like in my garden, 30 inches long, and some are 8 to 10 feet tall. They always fall over eventually but.
Margaret: And these are prairie natives as well, from our American prairies, the silphiums.
James: They are. And one plant that looks very well with them is not a prairie native at all, it’s an Inula racemosa ‘Sonnenspeer,’ which was, I think, introduced by Wolfgang Oehme of Oehme and van Sweden Associates.
I read something about him. I know he was a sort of wild and crazy plantsman, and I read something about his using this plant and I found it in a little nursery in British Columbia, I think it was called Bluestem. I ordered a couple one year just as an experiment. And lo and behold, they seed like crazy, which might frighten many gardeners, but I’ve discovered if you pay attention, you can keep the plant from escaping.
And I think they seed like that for a reason because they tend to be sort of short-lived plants. They grow up to be, some I think are 12 and 14 feet tall, but that’s the extreme, but they get very large. And then each year they get smaller. I think they have short lives, but the plant is beautiful, and it’s a beautiful winter plant [above, after it fades in fall, with Miscanthus]. It has a fabulous structure. It’s very sculptural in the winter. They sort of turn this skeletal black—very, very atmospheric. It’s one of my favorite plants.
Margaret: Well, we’re almost out of time, and I just wanted to not fall victim to the thing that Monty Don forgot to ask you about apparently at your interview, which is that you say you hate gardening. Is that a true thing? Is that true [laughter]?
James: I don’t like the labor of gardening. I grew up in the South so I should be used to heat, but I like gardening from a distance and having someone to do what I want done.
Margaret: Yeah. I’m getting to the help… I like having help, too. I still like rooting around and I still like, I love weeding but I think that’s not your thing [laughter].
James: Sort of enjoy pulling Japanese stiltgrass.
Margaret: Oh, boy. Yes. Let’s subdue that wicked devil. Yes, yes, yes. Yeah. Yeah. That’s interesting. Well, the book is lovely. Did you take the pictures?
James: I took all of the pictures except for the cover, which was done by Claire Takacs.
Margaret: Ah, yes. Well, it’s beautiful. As I said at the beginning, it’s just making me think about exerting less control and letting the place speak to us. And I think very, very, very… It’s full of very good philosophical advice as well as practical advice and plant inspiration. So thank you. And thanks for making time, James, this morning to talk. I appreciate it.
James: Thank you, Margaret. I enjoyed it very much.
(All garden photos by James Golden from his new book.)
more from james golden
- his virtual talk for Wave Hill Feb. 16, 2022
- his virtual talk for Innisfree Garden March 2, 2022
- his blog, View From Federal Twist
enter to win the new book
I’LL BUY A COPY of James Golden’s “The View from Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature, and Ourselves” for one lucky reader. All you have to do to enter is answer this question in the comments box farther down the page:
Is there an aspect of the place that is your garden that you had to accept, and not try to control? Is there any wild-ish aspect to your garden? (For me, it’s being on a steep hillside–a place where formal lines and perfect symmetry just aren’t going to happen!)
No answer, or feeling shy? Just say something like “count me in” and I will, but a reply is even better. I’ll pick a random winner after entries close at midnight Tuesday, February 22, 2022. Good luck to all.
(Disclosure: As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.)
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MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its 11th year in March 2020. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the February 14, 2022 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes/Apple Podcasts or Spotify
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