The View from Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking about Gardens, Nature and Ourselves by James Golden - review by Tim Richardson

Tim Richardson

All the Leaves Are Russet

The View from Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking about Gardens, Nature and Ourselves

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Fashionable gardening nowadays consists of doing nothing and letting your plants die. This will be welcome news to reluctant horticulturists, and is only slightly larding it. The ‘naturalistic turn’ in high garden style over the past few decades has led to an emphasis on autumn as opposed to early summer as the peak moment in the garden, with grasses and tall perennial flowers turning russet, silver and purple in their death throes (enthusiasts don’t like to use the word ‘brown’). Piet Oudolf, the Dutch designer who is the high priest of the look, has opined, ‘The only good plant is a plant which dies well.’

All this is reflected in The View from Federal Twist, a remarkable meditation on the creation of a curiously named garden in the wilds of western New Jersey. James Golden has made his name over the past fifteen years as a blogger who writes with unique (for the internet) insight and subtlety. The book’s premise may be the biggest cliché of all – it’s basically ‘how we made a beautiful garden out of a wilderness’, complete with plot points familiar from the stories of how Sissinghurst and so many other great gardens were created: the ad in the paper, the visit with an estate agent, the tangled undergrowth, an intimation of possibility, a moment of madness. But the author approaches the topic backwards (the chapter on the entrance to the garden comes at the end) and sideways (the first half of the book is a series of extended digressions and perorations).

Yes, he subscribes to most of the pieties of naturalistic planting design – ‘rough, damaged, imperfect, the late autumn plants exhibit amazing character’ – but he does so in a questioning manner, with none of the tiresome certainty of the ideologues who tend to operate in this field. For

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