When I first began reviewing garden books on this blog, many readers left comments about their own favorites and one recommended the books of Julie Moir Messervy. I finally got a chance to follow up on that recommendation recently when I borrowed one of Messervy’s books, The Inward Garden: Creating a Place of Beauty and Meaning (Little, Brown and Company, 1995) from the public library.
When I ordered the book (the library had to get it from another branch), I was expecting a garden memoir or book of garden essays; so I was surprised when I picked it up to find myself holding a big picture book full of gorgeous color plates. In the acknowledgements, Messervy describes the book as a hybrid: “part personal memoir, part design manual, part philosophy text.” (p. 7) For me, it has been the most useful garden design book I’ve ever read; by the time I was halfway through it, I had gone online to search for a copy I could buy.
Messervy, a professional garden designer, uses the metaphor of a journey to make principles of garden design accessible to the lay gardener. The book itself is presented as a journey where readers begin by remembering the loved landscapes of childhood, learn how to identify the types of landscapes that resonate for them, and then are guided through a process of applying these insights to their own garden designs. I was surprised to learn that I am strongly attracted to cave-like spaces with a sense of enclosure and to “harbors,” anchorages with a view out onto the world. Understanding this helps to make sense of why, when I was looking to buy a house, I fell in love with a heavily wooded property at the end of a dirt road with a strong sense of privacy and enclosure. It also helps to explain why my favorite place for looking at the garden is the “harbor” of the screenhouse on the back deck.
I have always designed my garden one small area at a time, without any clear overall plan; so Messervy’s approach was particularly helpful in getting me to think about the big picture. I especially liked her chapter on gardens as “stroll journeys” and “mind journeys.” Stroll journeys are the ways that we physically move through our gardens. A stroll journey consists of a departure point, a destination point, paths that connect the two, and events along those paths. My garden has two kinds of departure points: entrances into the garden for those arriving from the driveway (the stairs up the back slope and the stairs into the back garden) and entrances into the garden for those going out from the house. The deck and the front entrance to the house are destination points for those arriving from the driveway but departure points for those going out from the house. In the back garden, where a walkway connects the stairs up from the driveway with the deck, a side path leads to another destination point, the serenity garden with its garden bench. In the new front garden, the walkway from the top of the steps to the front entry will have a side path leading to a patio. Thinking about the garden this way made me realize that none of these paths will take a visitor into the lower part of the new front garden, confirming the vague sense I’ve had that this garden will need another departure point from the driveway, with a long curving path that leads through the lower garden and up the slope to the patio (the destination point for this stroll journey). It also helped me to realize that I want to have a path along the far side of the house (away from the driveway) that connects the front garden to the back garden.
Mind journeys are the mental, aesthetic journeys we make through space from a stationary vantage point or viewing position. These viewing positions are often the destination points of stroll journeys (e.g., the garden bench in my serenity garden). In addition to the viewing position, which is the departure point for a mind journey, mind journeys also need frames for the pictures they make, and a focus (the mental destination point). Thinking about my garden this way helps me to think about the best arrangement for furniture on the new patio in the front garden. What will frame the view from this spot? What will the focus of that view be? Messervy points out that views from windows are also mind journeys, with the window providing the frame. I will need to think about how to design the new fragrant garden outside my large bedroom window so that it not only provides a pleasing event on the stroll journey through the front garden but a coherent mind journey for those looking out from within.
Because both stroll journeys and mind journeys are ways of moving through the garden, Messervy follows her presentation of these two types of journeys with a discussion of movement in the garden, and particularly the importance of balance and scale in creating movement. In the past, I have thought about balance and scale in specific flower beds, but not in relation to the garden as a whole. I found Messervy’s instructions for thinking about balance in terms of triangles a revelation. When I did so, I could see that my house and the new retaining walls for the patio are two points on a big triangle that anchors my new front garden. But what is the third point on that triangle? Without one, the whole composition “leans” heavily toward the driveway. Balance will require a fairly large planting area on the opposite side of the front yard near the road; I think a planting of shrubs on the west corner of my property may be just what this composition needs.
Reading The Inward Garden has been a powerful journey for me, one that has moved my understanding of garden design to a new level and also moved me forward in the process of designing my new front garden. This book is going to occupy an important place in my collection of garden books, and I think others may also find it a valuable resource.
The vernal equinox may mark the official start of spring, but it will be a while yet before spring gets to Maine. As I write, I’m watching snow float down outside my study window, and there are still big piles of snow everywhere – some of which won’t finish melting until late April.
Nevertheless, there are subtle hints that spring is coming, if you know what to look for.
Unlike in February, when the snow just kept getting deeper and deeper, March’s longer days and strong sun have brought melting, even on days when the temperatures don’t get above freezing.
|Muddy ruts have begun to appear in my dirt road, precursors of the dreaded ‘mud season,’ when the road may become impassable for as long as two weeks.|
|Previously buried garden features, like this tarp-covered bench and garden sculpture, have re-emerged.|
|Snow has begun to melt away from the foundations of the house,|
|And here and there under the trees, patches of bare ground have appeared.|
Along the roadsides, broken mailboxes and street signs, casualties of the winter’s plowing, are appearing from under the snow banks.
|But there are sweeter signs of spring’s approach. Around my neighborhood, taps have appeared on sugar maple trees. This is Maine Maple Sunday, when farmers open their sugar houses to visitors and ply them with various maple sugar treats.|
And a close look reveals new growth on deciduous trees.
I am linking this post to Donna’s Seasonal Celebrations at Gardens Eye View.
Yesterday I gave a presentation on garden blogs at the McLaughlin Garden in South Paris, Maine. Several people asked for a list of the blogs I referenced during that talk. If you click on the image below, you can download a pdf version of my PowerPoint presentation for the talk. You can then click on any slide in the presentation for a link to the corresponding blog.
It has been a snowy day in Maine – a warning that we should not be lulled by recent spring-like temperatures and melting into thinking that winter is over. More than a foot of snow still covers my garden, so I remain reliant on indoor plants for blooms.
My ever-reliable potted cyclamen (below) continue to flower, although they are beginning to slow down. Only the oldest of these plants is still producing new buds. As this plant has grown over the years, the number of corms in the pot have increased and they have gotten out of phase with one another. The result is that different parts of the plant go into dormancy at different times and it almost always has some flowers in bloom.
For the past two weeks, blooms on one of my potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs, ‘Charisma,’ have been a joyful presence on my living room window ledge. I took these photos on a sunny day earlier in the week to capture the beautiful markings on its translucent petals when they are backlit by the sun.
One thing I am missing this year are the vases of cut Forsythia branches that I usually force into bloom. The new addition on my house now sits where the brassy gold forsythia used to grow. I did take a small rooted piece of the softer yellow one that grew in my Gettysburg garden and planted it outside my study window, but it is too small to bloom yet. It is currently buried under snow, and it remains to be seen whether this variety will be cold-hardy in Maine.
Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is the lovely invention of Carol at May Dreams Gardens. Although it will be another month before I have spring flowers in my garden, you can visit her blog to see what is blooming this month in many places where spring has already arrived.
The long winter months when my garden is dormant provide a time for me to seek inspiration from garden books. One important source of inspiration this winter has been Rick Darke and Doug Tallamy’s The Living Landscape (Timber Press, 2014). Darke, a horticulturalist, and Tallamy, an ecologist, have combined their talents and perspectives to consider how we can create home gardens that are both beautiful and ecologically functional.
The book is organized into five chapters, but it may make most sense to think of it as having two major parts: Chapters 1-4 lay the conceptual groundwork for Darke and Tallamy’s approach, while chapter 5 (which makes up almost half the book and is longer than first four chapters combined) applies these concepts to the home garden.
Chapter 1 is devoted to the key theoretical framework of the book, the idea that landscapes (both wild and domestic) can be understood as a set of interconnected layers, including vertical layers (canopy, understory, shrub, herbaceous, ground), horizontal layers (e.g., edges), and cultural layers. A richly layered landscape, they argue, is both aesthetically pleasing and ecologically functional. Chapters 2 and 3 focus on ecological concepts, the interrelated community of living organisms and the ecological functioning of layered landscapes. Chapter 4, “The Art of Observation,” focuses on how we can better see and read both wild and domestic landscapes. Chapter 5, “Applying Layers to the Home Garden,” brings all these ideas together in an analysis of how to create richly layered, beautiful, and ecologically functional gardens.
The Living Landscape is not a how-to book with a set of foolproof steps for creating functional layers in the home garden. It is primarily a conceptual volume, providing us with tools to see and think about our gardens in new ways. It felt to me like the more advanced sequel course to Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home (see review here), a book that completely changed how I understood the presence of insects in my garden. In saying that this is a conceptual book, I don’t mean to imply that The Living Landscape does not provide practical advice; it does. This a big, gorgeous picture book, and every idea is richly illustrated with lush photographic examples (mostly by Rick Darke). There are also important pieces of garden design advice. I found this guideline for creating biodiversity in the home garden particularly helpful:
One potential down side of plant diversity in gardens is that it is often concentrated at too small a scale. For the love of plants, gardeners sometimes group too many species with distinctly different growing needs into areas that are too small or not diverse enough to sustain them…. Looking to healthy natural habitats as models is a reminder that while the overall plant diversity of a landscape may be high, in any given space or localized ecosystem there is considerable repetition of a few key species.
When designing for diversity, it’s important to aim for the highest supportable biodiversity overall but to avoid unsustainable variety in any one spot. (p. 151)
Practical information is also provided in a series of appendices (organized by region of the United States) that list the landscape and ecological functions of plants that could be used for the home garden.
Darke and Tallamy live and garden in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, and their analysis and examples are based primarily on the deciduous forests that characterize the native wild landscapes of that region. This means that their analysis is most relevant for those who garden in conditions similar to that of the mid-Atlantic states. My own home in New England is a geographical neighbor to the mid-Atlantic region, has a similar deciduous forest native habitat, and includes many of the same plants, so the book translated well for me. As you get further afield from the mid-Atlantic region, however, either geographically or ecologically, the specifics of The Living Landscape become less useful. Although Darke and Tallamy do include some examples in the text from other regions of the country and even the world, the book privileges the mid-Atlantic states. The plant listing for the mid-Atlantic region takes up 32 pages, compared with much shorter listings for the Midwest and mountain states (14 pages), the southeast region (10 pages), New England (8 pages), the Pacific Northwest (7 pages), and the southwest region (5 pages). And, of course, Darke and Tallamy have not attempted to analyze the landscape and ecological functions of native plants for other parts of the world.
Despite these inevitable limitations, I think Darke and Tallamy’s conceptual framework would help gardeners anywhere to look at and think about both their native landscapes and their gardens differently. For those in the United States mid-Atlantic and neighboring regions, the book is a goldmine of information and is likely to become an indispensible reference.
To many who live in northern latitudes, the phrase “winter light” may seem like a contradiction. But in my Maine home, just south of the 45th parallel, winter is a light-filled time. There are a number of reasons for this. Winter is our longest season, beginning fairly early but lasting many months. We typically get some snowfall six months of the year – November, December, January, February, March, and April – and it is not uncommon to have continuous snow cover from late November until early April. This means that winter begins shortly before the darkest day of the year, the winter solstice, but lasts until after the spring equinox.
In many ways, February is the heart of winter here. It is a cold, snowy month (especially so this year!) and spring is still many weeks away. But by the end of the first week in February, we have already journeyed more than half the distance from the winter solstice to the spring equinox. By the last week of February, the hours of daylight are increasing dramatically. Today the sun rose at my house before 6:30 a.m. and it won’t set until almost 5:30 p.m. – giving us more than 11 hours of daylight. This is only one hour less than the equal day and equal night of the spring equinox, and it is a big change from the less than 9 hours of daylight we experience at the winter solstice.
But it’s not just that winter is a time of increasing daylight. The winter weather patterns here also make this a season of light. New England is not a place where winters are gray and dreary. Instead, our weather pattern is one of alternating low and high pressure areas. The low pressure areas bring us snow; the high pressure areas that follow bring us days of blue skies and brilliant sunshine. And all that white snow cover reflects and enhances the sunlight.
Sunlight reflected off snow at mid-day can be blindingly bright. (I can’t count how many times this month I’ve gone into a room to turn off a light that I had left on only to find that there were no lights on; the brightness I was seeing was reflected sunlight.) My favorite times for winter light, however, are morning and late afternoon. In the morning, the trees across the road from my house, in the west-southwest, are lit with the rosy glow of the rising sun. By late afternoon, it is a golden glow that lights up the trees in my back garden.
This has been an arduous winter in New England, and I will be happy to see the snow melt and green shoots appear as March turns into April. Meanwhile, I will continue to enjoy the winter light.
So far, February in Maine has been much colder and snowier than average. We have been getting snow every three days, and temperatures have averaged more than 10 degrees below normal for this time of year. February is mid-winter here. The mild days of fall are just a fond memory, and spring is still many weeks away. And we’re all starting to get just a bit tired of snow. Happily, recent storms have followed a track that takes them out to sea south of here, leaving us on the northern fringes; as a result, we haven’t been hammered with record-breaking snow the way Boston has.
There’s not much to see in the snow-covered garden. The blue tarp that covers my garden bench is barely visible. But the garden is happy to be covered by more than two feet of snow. The snow is a great insulator that protects plants from the cold temperatures, and its melting in spring will provide them with moisture to support new growth.
Two of my potted amaryllis (Hippeastrum) bulbs have sent up flower buds, promising more colorful blooms in the weeks to come.
|I think this one will bloom in February.|
|And this one gives me something to look forward to in March.|
Garden Bloggers’ Bloom Day is the brainchild of Carol at May Dreams Gardens and is hosted by her on the 15th of each month. Visit her blog to see what’s in bloom this month in gardens around the world, including colorful summer flowers from our garden blogging friends in the southern hemisphere.