I visited an inspiring garden recently in rural Connecticut.Its owner, an artist, lives in a wooden cabin set in five acres and backed by mountains clothed in maples that seem to catch fire in autumn.
It’s laid out with his artist’s eye for peek-a-boo gaps and clearings that reveal themselves when you turn a corner. In one, a rusted grain silo has been sliced and turned into a giant firepit encircled by slices of trunks cut from dead trees. By the barn, he has arranged logs, rocks and stones as a rustic sculpture.
But it’s a garden that has largely been left to its own devices; its owner has widened and mowed existing paths made by wildlife and enjoys the vistas opened up where trees – mostly pine, black locust, walnut and tamarack, have been brought down by storms. As the years go by, he is defining the boundaries of the garden with loose stacks of undergrowth, like an informal withy.
All the plants in here are native to the region and the picture changes every season. As I wandered around it in August, Carpets of the royal fern, Osmunda regalis had sprung up from a network of underground streams. Giant, fluffy Joe Pye weed (Eupatorium purpureum) and strappy milkweed (asciepias syriaca)towered above spikes of soldago and purple loosestrife and the umbels of wild carrot. (The loosestrife has not yet become invasive, but he plans to make a raid on the Soldago come autumn.) The approach is to gently edit nature so that the less robust plants such as the Monarda (bergamot), and the North American cornflower (centaurea) so much paler and shyer than our own, can find their way up to the sun.
The only additions to the natural scheme are several Amelanchier lamarkii shrubs and a few annuals. Blood red sunflowers flank the side of the cabin, their colours reflected in the understorey of the Castor oil plant, Ricinus communis ‘Red Spire’. To one side, the brilliant orange flowers of jewelweed attract feasting hummingbirds and he grows sorgum, not as animal feed, but because he likes the rustle made by its huge leaves.
It’s a spectacular garden. Not showy, not ‘designed’ in the way we normally think of it. But easy to fall in love with.