September 15, 2011

In a Dramatic Garden: The Shapes and Colors of September

The first thing that struck me when I entered the space of my friend Chris Esten's remarkable garden were the gorgeous bright green leaves of the Robinia 'Frisia' tree, a type of locust. It captured light, and within the framing arch of its leaves were hostas and hydrangeas welcoming me to the rich colors and textures of September in northern Vermont.

Chris designed her garden as though she were an artist faced with a huge and complex canvas. There are large forms to anchor the composition; geometric forms to add clarity and looser ones for grace; colors change and repeat to create rhythms; a variety of textures enliven the whole. (click on the image above to see an enlargement of the garden overview)

Although late in the season, the garden is full of color, with sedums and Joe Pye weed, autumn crocus and anemones, hydrangeas and heleniums. Chris is partial to large plants, and there are many that towered over me as I wandered the paths; there are also lower growing large leaved plants such as the one you can see in the smaller foreground garden.

The grandest plant of all in this garden, which made me exclaim in total wonderment, is this Paulownia tree, a plant that looks as though it belongs in a tropical clime, or even on the mythical planet of Pandora, certainly not in northern Vermont. It grows 20 feet in a season and dies back in winter....

and forms a stunning backdrop to other large plants, such as grasses and hydrangeas.

The large leaves of different ligularias and silphiums are a strong presence throughout the garden, and many are now blooming. This is a silphium, Prairie Dock.

This garden is not only a place of grand gestures; there are many smaller moments that ask for our attention in more intimate ways. A beautifully shaped ceramic container raised on a pedestal holds a variety of succulents and cacti...

while a large pot set amid sedums adds an homage to craft. Alongside it is a boulder, on which balances sparkling glass objects and for a bit of fun, a garden gnome.

A small garden of succulents is set with paving stones and small pieces of blue and white china; the variety of color and texture is dazzling.

Chris has paid great attention to contrasts of texture throughout the garden. When I saw this patch of frothy grass, I immediately bent down to stroke it, thinking it would have the gentle softness of moss; I was sorely mistaken...ouch!

But then there are the gentle, hairy lamb's ears. I loved this tiny composition: a small piece of wood, balanced on a rock, supports the red fruiting bodies of lichen, a piece of woodland growth brought into the cultivated garden.

The seeds of autumn add another element of drama to the garden landscape; their clear forms, expressing the geometry of the Golden Mean, make us aware that amid all this fecundity is an abiding order.

❋❋ For my local Vermont readers: Chris Esten and Boots Wardinski, as The Green Reaper have plants for sale at the Capitol City Farmer's Market each Saturday in Montpelier. For more information, including contact info, go to the vendor's page of the market, here.


  1. What a garden! Most definitely designed with an artist's eye for color, pattern, scale. Do they have a greenhouse? Because I am assuming that is an agave in the raised planter. Interesting to see the Paulownia in a home garden. Olbrich Botanical Gardens uses this in the Thai Garden here to give that tropical sense. You can't find many plants that grow like that in your climate. And they have a blooming Acanthus! Had that in our old garden growing next to a blacktop driveway which made it bloom. Thanks Altoon for sharing and thanks for using photos that we can enlarge. You don't want to miss the details in something this wonderful!

  2. Ms. Wis., yes they do have a couple of small greenhouses and have some vegetables from them during winter, too.
    I'm so glad you liked this garden; I think it's astounding.

  3. I've just discovered your blog and really enjoy the mixture of nature walks, gardening and art, all presented with a thoughtful voice. It makes me think of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I am envying the quality of your photos - do you mind sharing what camera you use? (Not to detract from the photographer's skills, of course!)

  4. thanks so much, Amy; I'm glad you like the blog. I like Annie Dillard's writing, so appreciate that thought.
    I use an older Nikon Coolpix 8700 and love its ease of use and nice lens.

  5. Really beautiful! I love the textural contrasts and mix of verticals and horizontals. Thank you!

  6. Thanks for sharing this wonderful garden. The overall vision and small details are both so well- designed and lovingly attended. Love that red lichen; I always photograph it at my mom's in northern Indiana. Note of caution to your readers: both the Paulownia Tree (at least on Martha's Vineyard) and the Prairie Dock (in Midwest) can be extremely invasive.

  7. Oh Altoon, what a wonderful pictorial tour of Chris Esten's garden. Gorgeous plantings, a wonderful sensitivity. I've seen her cards at Boots' booth but didn't make the connection....small world. Thanks always!

  8. thanks Nancy, Julie, Maggie; I'm pleased that you like this beautiful garden.
    Julie, thanks for the caution on Paulownia; I'd never heard of it, but have since heard from several people that it grows wild around NYC.

  9. Do you ever paint scenes from your beautiful garden?

  10. Anonymous, this beautiful garden isn't mine, and at any rate, no, I am not interested in painting plants.