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Required Reading: The View From Federal Twist

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Required Reading: The View From Federal Twist

November 23, 2021

Retiring corporate writer plans to buy a decent house with a good garden. Instead he finds a great house with an impossible garden, the floor-to-ceiling windows hemmed in by a scrappy forest of junipers. He thinks to himself, “I will make a garden here.” He just has to learn how to garden first, and he’s not fond of digging.

The View from Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature and Ourselves recounts this novel position author Jame Golden found himself in some years ago, but it is also a digest of the most forward-reaching garden ideas of our time. Being a writer and thinker, Golden learned how to garden from the best (for instance Noel Kingsbury, Piet Oudolf, and Dan Pearson) through their books. At the Garden Museum in London recently, James sat on stage with Dan Pearson, who asked him how he came to map out his garden. To which James replied that he had been “reading the land,” a phrase he had learned from—Dan Pearson.

Fifteen years later, the house is part of a clearing in the woods, the kind of situation that is well-known to many Americans, as well as holding cultural significance around the world. The junipers were not part of an ancient forest but the result of previous clearing. Once 70 of them had been felled, James was able to start reading the land—and creating a garden on a ridge over the Delaware River (in New Jersey), visited by hundreds of horticultural pilgrims on open days, and experienced through his long-term blog, View from Federal Twist.

Above: James Golden’s house was built in 1965, with a slightly Japanese aesthetic and views on all sides.

Although James Golden is a popular blogger, any speed readers are forced to slow down when digesting his thoughtful approach, his own education in gardening having been shaped by an innately enquiring and unflinchingly philosophical mind. The view from the house at Federal Twist is one of protected wilderness, with James’ garden sitting modestly within a very small portion of it.

Above: The view from the terrace, with the main part of the garden in shadow. “The changing light is one of the beautiful aspects of a clearing in the woods,” said James at a Garden Museum talk earlier this month.

James talks about his house and garden as being a “classic prospect-refuge setting” in common with the needs of our forebears, who required sight lines for safety, around a bolt hole in the wilderness. Set amid thousands of acres of preserved woodland, the garden’s edges merge into its surroundings: it is also a classic case of a borrowed landscape.

Above: The reflecting pool flanked by some Wave Hill chairs, adapted in 1960 (from an earlier Dutch design) by the landscape architect Lester Collins.

Federal Twist is not designed, having come about slowly in response to the lay of the land and the very wet conditions. But it is gardened—though not strictly by James. He communicates his ideas to Milton Najera, who from the very beginning has translated conversations and drawings into pools, paths, stone walls, and one and a half acres of planting. In a garden with no formal structure, the reflecting pool (above) is a gesture toward orientation, carefully sited to face the points of the compass. Due north is on the right-hand side of this view.

Above: A view of the property that includes the chairs and reflecting pool, facing south-east. There are no clear views from within the garden in summer, since it is planted with tall and wide perennials.

“You haven’t scarred that place; you’ve worked on it gently, making incursions,” commented Dan Pearson at his talk with James Golden recently. Having been greatly influenced by books such as Planting in a Post-Wild World (by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West), James made a point of inserting new plants into the existing landscape. “I was careful never to open the ground,” he says. His choice of perennials and grasses tends toward the out-sized, so that visitors need to stick to the meandering paths, and hope for an eventual way out.

Above: The entry circle, demonstrating the draw of texture, line and shape, and minimizing a need for color.

Legibility in a garden like Federal Twist is essential for recognizing order in all the green—no matter how complex the planting. Some people call it “editing a garden” while James refers to his own experience of the growing season as “gardening by subtraction.” “In May the plants start to grow, and by June they are bounding out of the ground,” he says. “We start removing plants and it continues, all season.”

Above: Seen from a drone, the garden’s layout is more like a forest with a meandering river.

Has the appeal of the garden now eclipsed the house, one might ask? Not a bit of it: “So much of my enjoyment of the garden is intrinsic to the house,” says James. Part of his “irrational” decision 15 years ago to make a garden in heavy, wet clay, in a forest, was the setting of the house: “The building had an intimate relationship with the woods, even in their unkempt state.” The house would be integral to the garden and it still is. The  garden gives a different experience from inside the house, and from every tall window, on every side.

Above: The View from Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature and Ourselves by James Golden, is published in the UK by Filbert Press and is available from Barnes & Noble and other US booksellers.

For more recent garden books to check out, see:

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