Berkshire Garden Style: A Season for M/Napping
The icy Viridissima meadow sparkiling
Last month the blog featured the Japanese calendar of microseasons. I found this consideration of the land week by week very inspiring and grounding. I thought it would be delightful to start each blog post with a list of the month’s microseasons, which read like a poem when listed altogether. Here’s what’s happening in January and into the first week of February: Wheat sprouts under snow. Parsley flourishes. Springs thaw. Pheasants start to call. Butterburs bud. Ice thickens on streams. Hens start laying eggs.
January is for going slowly. It is a time for pausing, stepping back, evaluating, considering, reconsidering. In January, we rest, pause, sleep, and dream. I dream while awake as much as when I’m asleep.
Pruned Witch Hazel branches forced indoors for winter joy while I dream.
January is a time for pruning: fruit trees, lilacs for structure. But remember: only take a third at most. If you take too much all at once, the plant will respond with wild, excessive regrowth. Or worse: it might respond by dying. You need to coax the plant gently and slowly into the shape you want with frequent little snips and clips. Pruning is the opportunity to reform an old structure, but you have to do it carefully, with patience.
January is like reforming an old structure. Right now, gardening is less action, more consideration. It is the perfect time of year for seeing the bones of the landscape – especially if there is no snow. How inviting it is when there are just bones! This allows me to do the foundational work of manifesting a successful garden space, which is seeing the lay of the land, where the shadows fall (and where they may fall throughout the year). All of this takes careful observation, a soaking-in. And when there is snow, this is also revealing: I get to see the footprints, where people walk. I can consider the circulation of a property and how the people move through it and use it.
Like January, beginning work at a new property requires a time of quiet consideration. I always advise homeowners to not rush into anything. Generally, when I’m asked to bring beauty to someone’s landscape, to create a new garden, it’s rare that I even want to talk about plants at first. There’s so much that comes before the plants in a good design. It’s one thing if a client wants a perennial garden. But more often than not, when I begin at a new property, the homeowners have said something like, “I have this area in the back of my house that isn’t working for me.” And so, my job is to help them enjoy this space, to make it a better reflection of who they are and how they engage with the land.
For better or worse, I’m not always a good starter. But I am a great thinker and dreamer! And yet, I have to start somewhere.
The practical very beginning when I start at a new property is just showing up and being present. I like to be a sponge on my first visit. I won’t produce much initially; I’m just there to absorb the experience of my client's home and garden. The first thing I take note of is the experience of my arrival. Even if I’ve been hired to do a few container gardens, I cannot help myself: I notice the driveway. What is my experience when parking my car? Do I know which door to use in order to find the people inside the house? My experience at any property starts upon arrival. As I’m driving or walking to a property, I’m experiencing the landscape, in the natural world of the Berkshires – a place many people choose because of its natural beauty. Then I zoom into this home within the landscape. When I enter a property, I want to know I have arrived. I want a clear sense that I’m at not just any home, but at someone’s home.
We just design & plant seasonal windowboxes. for this cottage hidden
in the heart of Stockbridge, but I am always dreaming up the big picture
I notice the arrival, and I start evaluating the landscaping. What kind of trees grow here and how are they cared for? Are there gardens and how are they cared for? Tidy or weedy? I can usually tell if someone has had a gardener or not. What impressions do I get from the color of the house? Then I meet the client. Are they an individual? Couple? Family? Do they have pets? What kind? What colors are they wearing? What colors do I see in their decor? What kind of artwork, if any, adorns the space? I almost don’t even want to see the garden until I’ve seen the view from the kitchen sink out the window. I want to look out all the windows. So, on that first visit I’m getting to know who the inhabitants of this space are, how they use the space, and what aesthetic experience they themselves evoke.
I really always am dreaming/thinking ... I have a full design in my head
for this sweet Becket home, just in passing by as a neighbor
In addition to this physical assessment, I also do a remote site assessment using software to look at the sun, how it moves over the property, looking at the location of the property from a broader context. Satellite images can give a gross idea, but, of course, nothing beats feet on the ground. For example, just the other day I was on a new property and I had no idea it would be so wet. As soon as I saw all the Ranunculus growing in the lawn and the moss throughout the property, I knew it had a high water table. So, there’s a lot of information to absorb at the beginning, but then all the nuances come as I get to know a property more. For example, a tree that I thought would cast a shadow actually has a sparse canopy because it's sick. So, there’s a lot to absorb at first, but then it’s slow steps.
The dead hedge at Viridissima, out most rustic and ever-evolving project
On a new property, I might plant a few shrubs and cut a few downed trees. I might decide what to do about a few oddly situated evergreens. If nothing else, we might plant a few containers to give some instantaneous gratification. A few strategically placed containers can enhance a space and provide the sense that something has begun because working with the landscape will be gradual. Then the property might sit for a few months. I’ll visit every few weeks and do design exercises. Have meetings with the client. All the while I’m driving up and down the driveway, turning around, walking up and down the paths, and observing how a client and I move together through their landscape. I ask where they park, how they get to the front door, where they sit, their favorite window to look out of.
One client sent me pictures of a garden and there was an outdoor chair in it. The picture was taken during the lush green season, and the chair was sitting right in the sun. That chair showed me so much! It showed me that this person wanted to be close to these raised vegetable beds they had. They didn’t necessarily want to engage with the garden, but just be with it. So, instead of planting trees and shrubs, I said, let’s build a deck. Let’s make it easier for you to be in the space where you enjoy being. She was asking for something beautiful, but who cares about beauty if you can’t access it? The part she wanted to change was on the north side of the house. She has to walk down a set of stairs to get to it. It’s a quirky layout with not a lot of space. So my thought was: don’t invite yourself to walk into treacherous terrain – just sit above it and look at it.
This passage at TurnPark Art Space makes for a clear and exciting arrival and departure.
I joke that my clients love to say: “I hired you to plant flowers and now you’re building me a driveway?!” But what enables us to appreciate beauty is the ability to look up from the easily navigable path and see the beauty. If you can’t leave a driveway without worrying about hitting a car and doing a seven-point turn, then you have more time to notice the beautiful landscape. If you’re worried about falling on your face as you descend a staircase to get to a lovely garden, you’re going to be so stressed out by the time you get there! So, my thought is, we are making it beautiful through making it functional. You’ll know how beautiful it is, and you’ll be able to fully appreciate that beauty, because it works.
An inviting staircase must have the right cadence
You can’t consider its beauty until it works. Until the whole experience works – not just a single, beautiful thing on its own, but in context with what’s around it. Something is beautiful when it flows, functions, and feels good. And it can take time to get it right. Like pruning, being overzealous can have dramatic effects. Reforming a structure must be done carefully. Big moves must be made thoughtfully, with intention. But when we’re in a stress-free state we can see more and take more in. When we do get it right, we feel good in the space.