Day One. Saving Topsoil

The first, beautiful pile of topsoil

The first, beautiful pile of topsoil

Well we’ve finally begun.  The first step, before actually digging, is to scrape up the topsoil and put it in piles to be used when we start planting the garden.  This is the first pile.

Isn’t it beautiful? (if you like that sort of thing). But it’s more than beautiful.   It turns out to be wonderful soil.  I had it tested a few months ago in, I think, 5 places, and was so pleased  I was expecting very alkaline soil that I would need to amend a lot. It turns out to be a lovely pH 6.8 – very lightly acid.   I was expecting really heavy clay.  Instead the soil is a slightly clay loam.  And it is about 7” deep. So I won’t be buying any topsoil.  How nice.

Was all this always here? Or…I am nature’s handmaiden.

Many years ago, when I was first making my own Brooklyn garden, I had an afternoon garden party- office friends, neighbors, acquaintances.  Most were people who didn’t know a lot about plants or gardens, but knew I had been spending every spare moment on the garden, studying landscaping, selecting plants, placing them just so.

So when a guest who did not know I had been doing this – and obviously knew even less about plants – walked out and exclaimed “This is gorgeous.  Was all this always here?  Is it all natural?” there was a collective gasp. My other guests probably expected me to draw blood.

But perversely, I was pleased.  First of course I explained to him that there had been NOTHING here before.  It had been an Ailanthus-filled, overgrown, weedy, trash-strewn empty lot.  Everything he saw and liked was man (or woman)-made.

But still I was pleased.  Because if it looked as if it had always been there, it looked natural, comfortable…as if it belonged.  And that is exactly what I was (and still am after all these years) after.

What had been there originally also looked natural I suppose.  But it would never have drawn the “this is gorgeous” response.  He knew it was beautiful.  He saw that it was right, somehow.  And that is what I wanted to accomplish.  Not a duplicate of a natural landscape, but a stylized version that has a kind of beauty nature almost never achieves.

As a designer, I use the tools and materials of nature, but to my own purpose.  I create compositions, seasonal changes, color blends and contrasts.  I try to control the way the eyes move through a space and the way visitors are invited to travel.  It is nature…but controlled.

I am proudly nature’s handmaiden.

In the garden, vs. on the outside looking in

I realize that if I have a design philosophy, it is this:  To appreciate a garden one should be WITHIN it.  Of course just looking at a good garden can certainly be enjoyable.  There can be pretty scenes, lovely compositions, brilliant plant combinations.  But unless you are surrounded by the plantings, no matter how wonderful they are, they always have a certain distance.   Just as having your nose pressed to the window looking into a joyous gathering is not like being there, walking through a field of wildflowers is very different from looking at it from across the road.

A garden is a three dimensional art form and treating it as something to be looked at from the outside turns it into two-dimensions.

At Timshala paths in every direction will take you through – not around – the different gardens areas.   Even the patios and seating areas will be within a garden.  There is a clearing deep in the Woodland Garden.  A triangular seating area acts as a transition between the Meadow, the Perennial Garden and the Woodland.

Even at the house itself becomes part of the garden.  Long pergolas lead from the main entries.  The moment you walk out the door you are directed, inevitably, along a path into the garden.

Look at the plans here to see what I mean.  Schematic design of Timshala

I am an on-paper designer…


I have met people who are able to design a garden without drawings… on the ground so to speak.   They walk around a site and can create something right there on the spot.  They know just where they want to put a flower border, trees or shrubs, a patio, a walkway.  I can’t do it that way.

I plan everything out on paper (or, nowadays, on the computer).   I start out taking measurements and photographs of the site.  And then I start to sketch out my ideas on paper.  I see the result of the ideas in my mind’s eye as I work…and sometimes as I’m creating spaces and paths, in my imagination I become a tiny person walking through the garden.  I feel as if I can reach out and touch the trunk of a tree, walk down a stairway, through a pergola, see what the view is in front of a bench or on a patio.  So I guess in a way I am testing out the design ‘on the ground’… but if something doesn’t work I can change it as go.  I redraw and take another walk.

That’s the stage I am at with the gardens at Timshala.  The design – verysketchy – is on paper and ready to be fleshed out.

 First Schematic Design

I’ve laid out areas for a Woodland Garden; a Crabapple Orchard; a Grassy Meadow sparkling with red poppies in the spring; a Perennial Border; an area for Winter Color to be seen from the bedroom window; an Herb Garden; some Rough Lawns; a Shade Garden on the north side of the house.

I’ve also laid out the paths that wander through the different areas…a woodland walk, a mown path through the meadow and the orchard, stepping stones connecting the house to the major paths.

A Stroll Garden

With about six acres to play with, I feel free to create spaces with so many different kinds of experiences.   From open and expansive, to sheltered and comforting, to exuberant or relaxing.  We can have places to play; to sit quietly and read; to dine; to enjoy the changing displays of plants for their own sake.  There will be vistas to enjoy from inside the house and views back to the house.  Stopping places to sit on a comfortable bench.

A great book by William H. Frederick Jr, The Exuberant Garden and the Controlling Hand, gave me the name for this kind of garden.  Timshala will be a Stroll Garden.  As he says, “The visitor there strolls about …enjoying a series of experiences, primarily aesthetic.  The route taken is usually a circuit, with the same view or activity never repeated.”

And so I’ve begun by laying out a schematic plan.  Here a woodland walk.  Then a grass meadow.  A flowering orchard.  Pergolas leading from the house to guide the beginning and direction of the stroll.  There are walks along the shrub borders that frame and screen one part of the garden from another.

There are some choices as you stroll – forks in the road – that let you choose to walk toward a sudden, sunlit opening or toward the flowering exuberance of a perennial border.  The moods change.  And of course the seasons change.  So one area is designed specifically for colorful winter interest – berries and bark – to be seen from the house.  There are trees and shrubs that retain the shape of the gardens, and continue to show the pathways, even in the leafless winter.