Creating a North Country Garden that belongs in its world
‘A sense of place and a sense of time’–
–captures that vast spectrum of images and feelings which make a particular locale unique, evocative and special, both for the people who live there as well as for those who visit.
Here in the ‘North Country’–New England and northern New York– we celebrate our tight-knit communities and a rich history of working the land. And iconic images of this world–from classic white churches and clapboard houses, to tall silos and weathered barns, tidy farms and spectacular forests, mountains and valleys–all engender a sense of belonging and connection.
In other regions and in other countries, the defining images are, of course, completely different. Think about the American Southwest (which I love to visit) with its wind sculptured rocks and deep canyons as well as the most amazing plants that thrive in the desert. Or the villages of Southern England (where I grew up) where villages with ancient stone churches and compact brick houses abound, and the countryside is a patchwork quilt of fields and hedgerows carelessly draped across the land.
Gardens ‘at home’ in their world
Wherever you live, the images of your larger world can also inspire you to create a garden which belongs–a garden with a sense of place and sense of time.
Each of these North Country gardens is a unique creation but, in its own way, each connects with the story and atmosphere of its locale.
Engaging the right side of the brain
So much of our garden-making revolves around satisfying specific tangible needs–such as where to place a flower bed or vegetable patch for the best growing conditions, or how to set up a path. This primarily requires analytic thinking, which is when the left side of the brain takes charge.
But, in parallel to considering the tangible aspects of creating a garden that works, I suggest you also engage in some ‘right-brain thinking’. Using intuition rather than analysis, and pictures rather than words, let’s look at how to create a garden with a sense of time and place–one that belongs in its wider world.
And if your are not sure how this happens, here are three starting points:
— Ask yourself what is special about your site;
— Draw on the history of your locale;
— Let the imagery and ecology of the wider landscape guide your garden making.
LET’S LOOK AT EACH IN TURN:
Capture the specialness of the site
All properties offer a unique ‘something’ to draw upon. But sometimes it takes fresh eyes to see what this might be!
My suggestion is to set aside some quiet time and just walk your land. React to its special features and than imagine how these might become an inspiration for your garden.
What special features you see?
Is there a protruding rock or ledge which could be further revealed, as on the right side of this picture?
Often the best aspects of the site are not on the property at all, but dramatic features visible on a neighbor’s property or even off in the distance. Perhaps you can incorporate such a view to become part of the visual experience within your own garden. The Japanese call this a ‘borrowed view’.
The site as inspiration for the garden
As an example of how a site can inspire a new garden, let me share with you the beginnings of our garden. When Dick and I first moved to our Goshen home twenty years ago there was just a small front lawn to the west of the house and a long empty expanse of back lawn (really more of a meadow) to the north of the house.
But, as I wandered around contemplating what we might create here, three things stood out:
Standing on the back lawn and barely visible behind a jumble of trees, I could just discern the fuzzy silhouette of a mountain to the west;
A small pond sat at the north end of the back lawn;
An enormous rock, flanked by two smaller rocks, separated the front and back lawns.
The starting point was to remove a swarth of trees around the north-west corner of the lawn, and so reveal and frame the mountain. From this simple step Mount Moosalamoo is now a stunning ’borrowed view’, as in this picture.
Then, to separate the back garden from the road, we thinned the remaining trees, leaving just some beautiful white birches (Betula papyrifera) and the lower growing native wild roses (Rosa blanda).
Fom here, with the birches as a backdrop, it was an easy decision to add a large flower bed along the western edge of the lawn.
Next we made a small surprise patio on top of the big rock, accessed from either direction by half-a-dozen simple stone steps. And, to make it feel part of the garden, we surrounded the rock with a couple of smaller beds.
Finally we enlarged the pond. At the far end, we were delighted to discover another large rock which became the perfect platform for a garden bench that now casts its reflection in the water. A river birch behind the bench completes the picture.
Rooted in time
Many of our most powerful images of locale come from previous times..whether an immaculate little village or the realization that people have farmed this land for generations. And our gardens can also honor the people who came before us, and help us maintain the memories of how they lived.
Sometimes it is enough to use a small garden to draw attention to a lovely old house.
Other times weathered elements from a previous generation can become a part of today’s garden–such as this a old bench at Cady’s Fall’s Nursery in Morrisville.
In other cases it is more about reusing the historic features of the land. Some of you may know of Gordon and Mary Hayward’s lovely garden in Westminster, Vermont which is rooted in the farming history of the area. The Haywards open it to the public from time to time and we had a chance to visit a few years back.
Like the Haywards, our garden was also once part of a large farm, and it has given us tremendous pleasure to restore the hundred-year old barn foundation and ‘cave’ where the milk cooled at the base of a spring. This handsome wall now edges the east side of the garden.
Gardens in harmony with the wider landscape
And finally the third component for creating a garden with a sense of place and time is to take our cues, both visual and ecological, from the wider landscape.
The magic of our Vermont landscape has intrigued generations of photographers and painters, including my husband, Dick Conrad.
And this is the imagery that I carry in my subconscious as I think about creating a garden that truly belongs in our unique part of the world, as in these three photographs of Dick’s.
And in my gardener’s eye I transform these shapes into winding paths and curving flowerbeds:
Next, as we examine the structure of our northern forests, we see they are composed of distinct layers— tall canopy trees, smaller understory trees and then shrubs. And the ground is completely covered with spring wildflowers and ferns.
And each of these layers provides valuable food and shelter for different types of wildlife.
Used on a smaller scale in our gardens, this same layered composition—tall trees, shorter trees shrubs, and shade-loving plants on the ground—provides strong visual interest for people while also creates crucial habitat for insects and birds.
Now look at the open areas along the roads and around the fields. Here a wide mix of sun-loving wildflowers—fleabane, black-eyed Susans, ox-eye daisies, asters goldenrod, milkweed, and Joe Pye Weed— thrive among the grasses.
Taking these images as my guide, in the garden I use an informal planting style where the perennials and garden grasses are intermingled together, and there is no bare ground to be seen.
Our gardens can be part of the ecological continuum of the wider landscape and home to a wide variety of pollinators and other wildlife.
While it is not within the scope of this article to enumerate all that this entails, here are a couple of suggestions to consider:
Native plants form the lowest tier of the food web!
For example: this bluebird has just found a caterpillar which he will soon deliver to his young.
And research has shown that since specific native plants are the diet of choice for the majority of caterpillars. So, when laying their eggs, butterflies will seek out the appropriate native plants where the emerging caterpillars will find the food they can eat.
And finally, this concept is repeated over and over again with many different kinds of insects. So, indirectly, having a variety of native plants in our gardens will help feed many different kinds of creatures that are a bit higher up the food chain.
Providing food and cover
in my garden this cedar waxwing enjoys the fruit of the serviceberries, crab apples and wild raisin bushes (Viburnum cassinoides), all of which also provide cover for nesting.
And from late summer onwards certain grasses and perennials provide abundant food for seed-eating birds such as goldfinch and song sparrows. Good choices include purple coneflowers, Black-eyed Susans, switch grass, tussock grass and purple moor grass. And I usually leave the stalks standing until spring for a continuing winter food source.
To learn more
On April 9 as part of the day-long Fifth Annual Garden and Landscape Symposium hosted by Fort Ticonderoga I will be giving a talk called ‘A Sense of Place and a Sense of Time: Gardens that Celebrate the Natural Landscape’. Other speakers include Sarah Salatino of Full Circle Gardens, UVM’s Dr. Leonard Perry and Peter Hatch Emeritus Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.