How the Worst Site Can Become the Best Garden

“A real wasteland.” “A derelict wood.” And: “Sort of frightening.”

Hearing James Golden recount those early impressions of the land from which he has coaxed his celebrated garden, Federal Twist, one has to ask: Why did you ever buy such a place?

It was the midcentury house in western New Jersey that charmed Mr. Golden: a long, low two-bedroom perched atop a 12-foot bank. But even on that first day in 2004 when he viewed it with a real estate agent, glimpsing the terrain beyond from the wall of windows inside the weekend-home-to-be, he could see the obstacles. A dense stand of Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana) seemed to want to engulf the house. Below the bank, trees tangled with invasive multiflora rose in a daunting world underpinned by rough, heavy, wet clay soil.

There could be no traditional garden here, he knew instinctively, even before he fully grasped just how tricky a spot it was. Any notion of imprinting beds and borders by traditional methods must be surrendered, and fast.

For Mr. Golden, it was the first of many acts of acceptance, adding up to a yearslong advanced course in that old garden adage, “Don’t fight the site.” This kind of site fights back, reminding the gardener repeatedly who is in control.

And yet the 1.5-acre garden in Stockton, N.J., has welcomed appreciative visitors on Garden Conservancy Open Days since 2013 (and will again this year, on Sunday, June 12). It was featured in 2020 on “Monty Don’s American Gardens,” for BBC Two. And it is 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 even to think about what might be possible. “I knew it was a horrible place for a garden,” Mr. Golden recalled. “But I also knew I would make a garden here.”

It would be an extremely ambitious undertaking, because Mr. Golden was approaching retirement age. He had enthusiastically grown orchids at the Brooklyn home he shared with his husband, Phillip Saperia, where they had a small garden. But Mr. Golden calls himself “a book gardener,” schooled not by major hands-on garden-making so much as by reading, especially books about the naturalistic designs of practitioners like Wolfgang Oehme or, more recently, Thomas Rainer.

In his mind’s eye were images of the gardens of the Dutch landscape designer Piet Oudolf, too, emphatic sweeps of grasses and flowering perennials with multiple seasons of presence. But those gardens, he knew, had not been made in the muck — not in soil like his, where any hole you dig remains filled with water for days.

“It had to be an ecological garden, almost by default,” he said. “I had to figure out what I could grow — plants that were adapted to this ecology. I would almost say I was dragged kicking and screaming to the term ‘ecological garden,’ because I could think of no other term to describe what I had to do.”

He had to match the plants to the place.

But first, he had to make room.

Job one: Open a clearing in that forest of red cedars, and let in some light. He hired help to remove some trees, and in the process, the soil uttered a stern reminder about its disinclination to percolate or otherwise cooperate.

“It wasn’t until I saw how deeply the equipment sank into the ruts in the mud that I realized how mucky the clay is,” Mr. Golden said. “It’s like wet plastic.”

The idea of tilling or other conventional soil preparation seemed hopeless, even counterproductive. But something he had read in a book by Noel Kingsbury, the British naturalistic garden designer and writer who collaborated on books with Mr. Oudolf, had stuck.

“Noel had written about planting directly into rough grass,” Mr. Golden said. “About making a kind of rough prairie by digging big holes and planting big, competitive plants right into it.”

The hope was that they would settle in and shade out some unwanted undergrowth, with the desired plants gradually getting an edge.

And so the experiments began. The new clearing was mowed, and in went the first trial plants, many of them prairie natives from those inspirational books. Not all of them could handle the conditions, though, and what did survive wasn’t adding up to a garden.

It was more like “a developing chaos,” Mr. Golden said. “I basically had a mowed field with a wild array of plants growing in it.”

One summer day, in frustration, he got out the mower and cut a curvy path across the middle.

“And that was just … it was like an epiphany,” he said. “Suddenly the garden began to come to life, and I felt I knew the place for the first time.”

He even began to refer to it differently. “I began to call it the prairie garden — my simulacrum of a prairie, an imaginary prairie,” he said, acknowledging that his is not a natives-only approach.

But like a natural prairie-plant community, the planting grew increasingly dense, with the species that survived knitting together. Those that failed, failed. It was survival of the fittest.

Among the winners: the pink-flowered queen of the prairie (Filipendula rubra Venusta) and the giant black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia maxima). Cup plant, compass plant and prairie dock (Silphium perfoliatum, S. laciniatum and S. terebinthinaceum) also thrived. Moor grass (Molinia caerulea ssp. arundinacea Skyracer) and various Miscanthus withstood the test, too.

“I quickly learned that big, tall, competitive plants were what I could grow most easily,” he said.

From them came not just the garden’s real beginning, but also a sense of place.

“From that contrast of the openness of the path and the almost impenetrable quality of the plantings, the ideas began to evolve,” he said. “From a seething mass of perennials that pushes back a bit.”

His view of what a garden could be, he said, expanded into “a landscape garden,” another way that he now describes Federal Twist: “More and more, I wasn’t just focusing on that flat, prairie-like area. I was also thinking about the trees at the perimeter 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 force visitors to encounter the plants,” he said. Season to season, its “open-closed-open experience” shapeshifts over and over again.

A spot where two chairs invite a visitor to sit and enjoy the view across the garden in spring becomes an almost-hidden room once the surrounding plants achieve their eight- and sometimes 10-foot summertime scale. You are engulfed; the way out, or through, is concealed.

It’s not a big garden, but whenever Mr. Golden would welcome visitors, someone would approach him and say they were lost. Hearing that repeatedly, it finally sunk in, and he rediscovered a long-ago boyhood version of himself in Mississippi.

“It brought me back to very powerful childhood memories, and how I liked to get lost in vegetation,” he said. “So I think that was a subconscious driver, and it gradually became more conscious as I became a more conscious garden-maker.”

Eventually, as fall comes on, the garden shifts once more, triggering the big reveal — and one of Mr. Golden’s favorite moments. The trees defoliate, and other plants let go, too. Once again, there is openness.

“The garden expands,” he said. “It’s like it’s breathing, opening itself up to the surroundings, and you can’t tell the difference between the planted garden and the unplanted landscape beyond.”

Other gardeners may chase tender moments of peak bloom, but at Federal Twist, gone-by plants of autumn and later are likewise honored.

“It’s my favorite time, as the garden passes into death for winter,” Mr. Golden said. “After living with my immersive garden all year, I welcome a bit of nothingness.”

He also welcomes “the beauty in dead plants,” an appreciation he credits to Mr. Oehme, especially for Inula racemosa Sonnenspeer, or elecampane. “It’s sort of like a scepter of death — an atmospheric, skeletal black — but at the same time not depressing or frightening.”

Most gardeners would be terrified by the presence of field horsetail (Equisetum arvense), a native fern relative whose rhizomatous nature makes it extremely hard to manage. But Mr. Golden celebrates its presence, and that of other native volunteers, including sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis) and bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum). They help him “control the ground surface,” he said, forming the connective tissue — a living green mulch — between the things he has planted.

One thing he planted is currently being unplanted: Petasites, an alien butterbur with massive leaves and a thuggish 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 clearing of the space it filled has begun, and with it, the next episode in the garden-making experiment that is Federal Twist.

Margaret Roach is the creator of the website and podcast A Way to Garden, and a book of the same name.

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