“A real wasteland.” “An abandoned forest.” And: “A little scary.”
When you hear James Golden recount those early impressions of the land from which he got his famous garden, Federal Twist, you have to wonder: why did you ever buy a place like this?
It was the mid-century house in western New Jersey that captivated Mr. Golden: a long, low, two-bedroom house on a ten-foot (3-meter) high riverbank. But even on that first day in 2004, when he checked it out with a real estate agent and caught a glimpse of the terrain beyond from the wall of windows in the future weekend retreat, he could see the obstacles. A dense clump of Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) seemed to want to flood the house. Beneath the riverbank rose trees ensnared by invasive multiflora in a daunting world supported by rough, heavy, wet clay soil.
There couldn’t be a traditional garden here, he knew instinctively, even before he fully understood how inconvenient this place was. Any idea of printing beds and borders using traditional methods must be abandoned, and quickly.
for mr. Golden was the first of many acts of acceptance, amounting to years of advanced course in that old gardening adage, “Don’t fight the site.” This kind of terrain fights back and repeatedly reminds the gardener who’s boss.
And yet the 1.5-acre garden in Stockton, NJ, has welcomed grateful visitors to Garden Conservancy Open Days since 2013 (and again this year, on Sunday, June 12). It was shown in 2020 on “Monty Don’s American Gardens”, for BBC Two. And it’s the subject of Mr. Golden’s recent book, “The View From Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature and Ourselves.”
At first, however, it was daunting to even think about what could be possible. “I knew it was a horrible place for a garden,” recalls Mr. Golden. “But I also knew that I would make a garden here.”
It would be an extremely ambitious undertaking, as Mr. Golden was approaching retirement age. He had enthusiastically grown orchids in the Brooklyn home he shared with his husband, Phillip Saperia, where they had a small garden. But Mr. Golden calls himself ‘a book gardener’, educated not so much by great practical gardening as by reading, especially books on the naturalistic design of practitioners such as Wolfgang Oehme or, more recently, Thomas Rainer.
Also in his mind’s eye were images of the gardens of Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, emphatic sweeps of grasses and flowering perennials with multiple seasons of presence. But those gardens, he knew, weren’t made in mud—not in earth like his, where every hole you dig will remain full of water for days.
“It almost had to be an ecological garden by default,” he said. “I had to figure out what I could grow – plants adapted to this ecology. I could almost say I was dragged kicking and screaming at the term ‘ecological garden’ because I couldn’t think of another term to describe what to do.” .”
He had to match the plants to the place.
The imaginary prairie
But first he had to make room.
Task One: Open a clearing in that forest of red cedars and let in some light. He hired help to remove some trees, and in doing so, the ground sounded a stern reminder that he was not inclined to seep through or otherwise cooperate.
“It wasn’t until I saw how deep the equipment in the ruts sunk into the mud that I realized how filthy the clay is,” said Mr. golden. “It’s like wet plastic.”
The idea of tillage or other conventional tillage seemed hopeless, even counterproductive. But something he’d read in a book by Noel Kingsbury, the British naturalistic garden designer and author who worked on books with Mr. Oudolf, had stuck.
“Noel had written about planting directly into rough grass,” said Mr. Golden. “About making a kind of rugged prairie by digging big holes and planting big, competing plants in them.”
The hope was that they would settle down and shade out some unwanted undergrowth, gradually giving the desired plants a head start.
And so the experiments began. The new clearing was mowed and there went the first trial plants, many of them prairie natives from those inspiring books. However, not all of them withstood the conditions, and what did survive was not the same as a garden.
It was more like “an unfolding chaos,” Mr. Golden said. “I actually had a mowed field with a wild array of plants in it.”
One summer day, frustrated, he stepped out of the mower and cut a winding path down the middle.
“And that was just… it was like a revelation,” he said. “Suddenly the garden started to come alive and I felt that I knew the place for the first time.”
He even started referring to it differently. “I started calling it the prairie garden — my simulacrum of a prairie, an imaginary prairie,” he said, recognizing that his approach isn’t just for natives.
But as a natural community of prairie plants, the vegetation grew denser, with the species that survived knitting together. Those who failed, failed. It was survival of the fittest.
Among the winners: the rose-flowered queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra Venusta) and the giant black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia maxima). Head plant, compass plant, and prairie dock (Silphium perfoliatum, S. laciniatum, and S. terebinthinaceum) also did well. Heather grass (Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea Skyracer) and various Miscanthus also passed the test.
“I quickly discovered that it was easiest for me to grow large, tall, competitive plants,” he said.
From them came not only the real beginning of the garden, but also a sense of place.
“From that contrast of the openness of the trail and the almost impenetrable quality of the plantings, the ideas started to evolve,” he said. “From a seething mass of perennials pushing back a bit.”
His view of what a garden could be, he said, expanded to “a landscape garden,” another way he now describes Federal Twist: “More and more I wasn’t just focusing on that flat, prairie-like area. I also thought of the trees on the edge and beyond – and the sky.”
As the network of plants grew, so did a network of paths.
“The garden is designed to be immersive, to compel visitors to meet the plants,” he said. Season to season, the “open-closed-open experience” changes guise again and again.
A place where two chairs invite a visitor to sit and enjoy the view over the garden in the spring, it becomes an almost hidden room once the surrounding plants reach their summer scale of eight and sometimes ten feet. You are swallowed up; the way out, or through, is hidden.
It’s not a big yard, but when Mr. Golden was about to welcome visitors, someone approached him and said they were lost. Hearing that repeatedly, it finally dawned on him and he rediscovered a long-ago boy version of himself in Mississippi.
“It brought me back to very powerful childhood memories and how I loved getting lost in the vegetation,” he said. “So I think that was an unconscious driver, and it gradually became more conscious as I became a more conscious gardener.”
Finally, when fall comes, the garden shifts again, triggering the big reveal — and one of Mr. Golden’s favorite moments. The trees are defoliating and other plants are also letting go. There is openness again.
“The garden is getting bigger,” he says. “It’s like it’s breathing, opening up to the environment, and you can’t tell the difference between the planted garden and the unplanted landscape beyond.”
Out, Out damn Petasites
Other gardeners may be chasing tender moments of peak blooms, but Federal Twist honors fallen fall and later plants as well.
“It’s my favorite time, because the garden turns into winter,” Mr. Golden said. “After living with my immersive garden all year, I welcome a little nothing.”
He also welcomes “the beauty in dead plants,” an appreciation he attributes to Mr. Oehme, especially for Inula racemosa Sonnenspeer, or elecampane. “It’s sort of like a scepter of death—an atmospheric, skeletal black—but not depressing or frightening at the same time.”
Most gardeners would be terrified of the presence of horsetail (Equisetum arvense), a native fern family whose rhizomatous nature makes it extremely difficult to manage. But Mr. Golden is celebrating his presence and that of other native volunteers, including sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and fern fern (Pteridium aquilinum). They help him “control the soil surface,” he said, forming the connective tissue — a living green mulch — between the things he’s planted.
One thing he’s planted isn’t planted right now: Petasites, an alien butterbur with huge leaves and a brutal demeanor.
He loved the bold texture, but it has reached its day of reckoning. And as he recently approached his 77th birthday, Mr. Golden found himself thinking, is this what I want to leave behind?
And so the cleanup of the space it filled has begun, and with it the next installment in the horticultural experiment that is Federal Twist.
Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A way to gardenand a book of the same name.
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