James Golden's blog View from Federal Twist is one I've followed for years, but James has been a follower of mine for longer - he read my 1996 book The New Perennial Garden when no-one knew what a blog was.So it was with great interest I drove up last week from Philadelphia just over the Delaware into New Jersey.
I feel honored when gardeners follow my ideas and I love seeing what they do with them. The garden at Federal Twist is very much what I have in mind when I write – a journey through lots of rambunctious vegetation. Its the end of the season so the grasses dominate, miscanthus varieties especially, but some Aster tartaricus hanging on, the native asters and even ironweed having gone to seedy silhouettes. There's a big Inula which has self-sown a bit, and I can't help feeling I'm glad it doesn't with me. We are surrounded by forest: tall maple, beech and oak, and the colours are magnificent, the perfect setting for a glade of perennial seedheads.
I wander around with James, talking about the various people in the garden world he comes across through his blog. Strong sunlight makes every shade of dead grass and perennial glow. I try to imagine it with flowers, but realize that I'm not that bothered, this late-season look is good enough for me.
These forest glade gardens are very American. So much of people's living space is carved out of forest – most of it secondary or tertiary growth after being cleared in the 19th century. Woodland here has the most remarkable powers of recovery. There are huge problems with invasive exotic species, but I can't help the feeling that if a property is abandoned, the forest will just envelop it, and eventually shade out everything that doesn't belong. Its a feeling we don't have back home. It makes Federal Twist seem very temporary, almost a gesture against the wind, which is perhaps how a garden should be.
James visits every weekend, so I should imagine maintenance is pretty light. He leaves it standing and burns it all in spring - "stand back when the Miscanthus catches fire" he warns. He's lucky he can, as fire departments can get pretty uptight about this in many areas, which is a pity as burning is such an effective and natural way of getting rid of dealing with dead herbaceous vegetation and with aggressively spreading exotics. I write this visiting another colleague, whose garden has been overrun with something he calls Chinese stilt grass, which is the most horrific spreader, shade tolerant and smothers native vegetation. I am sure burning would be the most effective way of dealing with it but he can't. I'd been to a fantastic conference earlier in the week, organized by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, where we end up listening to Neil Diboll, of prairie nursery, whose extremely lively presentations always end with praise for the burn as an essential annual maintenance tool. “There are three conditions to be met regarding my place of residence” he says, “to be able to leave my keys in the car overnight, to pee off my own deck and to burn my prairie”.
The PHS conference is a fantastically lively event, the energy of 560 gardeners and landscape professionals is warm and positive. People are surprised when I tell them that we don't have events like this back home. There's piles of nursery catalogues to pick up and browse through, and the glories of the Scott Arboretum to explore during break-out time and afterward. Everything is very well maintained and very well labelled, it must be a wonderful place to learn about gardening.