The property is ten acres with a nice rolling aspect, some very good old trees, and a dark deep pond for fishing. The assortment of buildings include a Victorian farmhouse, a big party barn, and random log cabins and cribs. I’m the second owner of this historic and picturesque place. The original family had it in possession since about 1800.
Designing a garden here was going to be a different thing than my home garden in the city, with its paths and borders, rooms and site lines, fountains and arbors. Penelope Hobhouse visited my home garden once—she said it looked “just right.” That’s the moment I gave up on that garden and started searching for new land. I’m not sure I want a “just right” garden. The point here at the farm was to make a garden that would feel wild still, and old, and honor the character of the place.
This is a rural looking area about twenty minutes east of Atlanta, in a part of the exurbs that somehow has escaped being scraped clean of its agrarian character. Klondike, as it’s known, is home to a magnificent piece of granite desert, Arabia Mountain—technically a monadnock, an isolated rock dome that rises above the piney woods. The old farms here have been captured by preservation and parks.
Many of those old farms had pre-twentieth century pastures, all native grasses and forbs. And that’s where I began. The garden, on many acres, was to interpret that agrarian landscape, including stripping down and presenting the old buildings as “objects” and creating a huge dry garden mulched with local granite that would mimic the mountain and establish sweeping open meadows.
I leaned quickly that creating a “meadow” in my part of the country is more subtraction than addition at first. The wetland adjacent to the pond has deep watery muck for soil and once the mowing ceased, plant life quickly presented itself. Native grasses became evident early, followed by goldenrod, aster, ageratum and fleece flower—with some daisies like Senecio and Sylphium popping up here and there. But also popping up were kudzu, privet, alder, red maple, loblolly pine, sweet gum and huge colonies of blackberry. The Piedmont is a forest. Nature doesn’t think in terms of meadows here.
In the meantime, up the hill a bit, and in much dryer conditions, I plowed up the old lawn and began planting a dry meadow without anything that looked like assistance from nature. It was important that this planting be perfectly aesthetically compatible to the wild part of the garden, as the areas are only separated by a meandering strip of mowed lawn and I wanted the views from the house to the pond be of an uninterrupted scene of drifted grasses and punctuating flowering things.
Broom sedge and Panicum selections were planted in large groups along with Miscanthus (I’m not afraid of Miscanthus!) and an assortment of other great grasses. Then the perennials came—some native and some not. Our locally indigenous Georgia aster runs together with Euphorbia ‘Blue Daze’ and large drifts of Chrysanthemum share the scene in late fall with Helianthus. This is a garden, not a restoration.
As the wet meadow matured and annual burning pushed the woody invasion back to the forest, I started adding in some intentional planting. I planted a big ass clump of Miscanthus giganteus right in the middle of the deepest part of the meadow. It gets to 12 feet tall by summer’s end and explodes like rockets during the spring burn. (Don’t worry, native hand-wringers, its sterile!) It anchors the entire planting and gives an air of intentionality to what might be otherwise perceived as “wild.”
Also a truckload of water-loving Irises of various sorts and other wet feet perennials got mashed into the mucky ground. The irises win the spring, but the other plantings have a hard time gaining ground here.
With two kids and a business to run and another house and garden to live in and neglect, it is important to note that management of this huge space is done sparingly, in fits and starts. Some years we burn, others we weed-eat, the latter resulting in more diversity. The grasses that we cut to the ground in the dry garden get left there for mulch. I sometimes spray kudzu and blackberries; I sometimes hoe. I often don’t do either.
I’ve learned to appreciate the ornamental merits of some weeds like dog fennel and pokeweed, though I’ve had a harder time appreciating goldenrod—it’s my biggest thug.
But it’s all better than mowing grass.