Episode 136: The View From Federal Twist with James Golden

This week’s episode features James Golden, talking about the naturalistic garden he’s built around his home in New Jersey. James’s garden has been created intuitively over time and sits perfectly within the landscape, in fact is a landscape in its own right. Sometimes baffling, sometimes threatening and without utilitarian purpose, the garden is nonetheless life-affirming, vital and dramatically beautiful in different ways from one moment to the next.

Dr Ian Bedford’s Bug of the Week: Harlequins

Please don’t forget to rate, review and share the podcast!

What we cover

About the garden at Federal Twist

Would the garden be as successful from a horticultural and aesthetic standpoint if James had plotted the garden on paper, particularly the planting?

Visitors often seem to get lost in the space and can’t find a route through it – so who did James design the garden for, himself or was it always meant to be shared with visitors?

James’s stone circle, which serves no purpose other than an aesthetic one

James on being a fearless and philosophical gardener

How long is long enough to make a garden?

How do you create a garden which varies so dramatically from one season to the next?

What inspired the garden

About James Golden 

“James Golden’s garden design has been featured in national and international magazines, in The New York Times, and in several books on garden design. He has been the recipient of national awards and is widely known in the gardening world through his garden blog View from Federal Twist (www.federaltwist.com). James’ Federal Twist garden regularly appears on tours of the Garden Conservancy, the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society, the Hardy Plant Society, and on numerous private tours. Recently retired, he has started a garden design practice.” https://federaltwistdesign.org/about


The View from Federal Twist: A New Way of Thinking About Gardens, Nature and Ourselves by James Golden – Filbert Press, 2021

The View From Federal Twist

Federal Twist on Instagram 


James Golden 0:00
First thing, my house is in my garden, so I live in the garden. It’s an extremely naturalistic garden. We bought a house in the woods, there was no open space. There were sort of a more monoculture of juniper trees. Behind the house, there was an open field when the house was built in 1965. So our first task was to cut 70 or 80 trees and make open space. The garden has very difficult soil, heavy, heavy clay very wet, which limits the range of plants I can use. It also means I have to use what some people might consider to be rather coarse plants. For example, I had dreamed of having a Piet Oudolf like garden. But his plants can’t survive. In my garden, simply the conditions are too difficult. It’s quiet, it’s isolated in the woods. It can be a bit frightening at night, because it’s so dark. It’s full of wildlife, we have lots of eagles, raptors, hundreds of frogs, because of the wetness. And I guess the other another major characteristic is that it’s a very immersive garden. The plants grow tall and large, by mid summer, there are many winding paths that intersect, you can’t make your way through the garden in one pass you make have to make choices and go different directions. Some people even get lost in it, though it’s relatively small, it’s only about one and a half acres, which I think is something less than one hectare. But the impression it gives is being very large. And I could show you some photographs of why I consider it to be a landscape garden, I’m trying to define what I mean by that, because it encompasses the sky, the trees surrounding the clearing in the woods. And you can achieve certain effects that make it appear to be immense at times.

Sarah Wilson 2:54
I when I was reading the book, one of the things that struck me is that you said about the fact that you can get lost in it, and how you created the paths through the garden. But there isn’t sort of a defined start and end to it. And it made me think, you know, who did you design the garden for? Was it for yourself to get lost in? Or did you always have at the back of your mind that you might accept visitors to it?

James Golden 3:23
Well, it took me years to come to this conclusion. I think probably I designed it so that I could get lost in it. And then I saw virtue and other people getting lost in it.

Sarah Wilson 3:37
The other thing that interested me reading the book was the type of gardener that you are.

James Golden 3:44
I’m certainly a minimal interventionist gardener. When I started the garden, you know conditions were rather rough. We cut trees We mowed, but I didn’t remove any of the weeds or indigenous vegetation. I have been reading a book by Noel Kingsbury one of his early books called the new perennial garden. And in that book, he had a section titled planting directly into rough grass. I have been struggling with how to how to approach putting a garden into this wild rather coarse landscape and Noel recommended planting very large specimens of highly competitive plants directly into the existing vegetation. This isn’t a new idea. It’s something that has been repeated many years later by Thomas Rainer and Claudia West in Planting in a Post Wild World when they talk about green mulch, that is large plants gradually shaded out much of the indigenous vegetation and took control. So that’s their method of controlling the ground and controlling the garden. I also paid a lot of attention to keeping the ground covered at all costs, which is one reason I didn’t try to remove existing vegetation because it gave a certain stability and any, any removals any opening of the ground, would introduce instability of it, allowing for seeding and new things. So I just, if I had the ground covered, I kept it covered with whatever was there. Plants, of course, not mulch or artificial things. We had a lot of, I think what is considered in in Britain to be a pernicious weed, Equisetum, mare’s or horsetail. In spring, it comes up and covers large areas of ground. And I think it’s an extremely beautiful plant. It doesn’t harm other plants, it doesn’t retard their growth and simply fades into the background. So I use techniques like that I kept what I could, and what was necessary to try to control the garden.

Sarah Wilson 6:36
I think reading the book, it struck me that the garden very much developed, naturally, intuitively. And I wondered if you felt that if you’d sat down and plotted the garden on paper, particularly the planting, would it be as successful from a horticultural and an aesthetic standpoint

James Golden 6:59
I do not think it would have been as successful if I had planned it on paper. I did plan on paper to the extent that I tried to judge distances, because since I was removing trees and pushing back the the wetland edge, I got the survey of the house and tried to get a feel for how far back the woodland edge needed to be pushed to allow room for the garden and to give me pleasant and practically workable proportions. But the planting itself – I did not plan on paper at all it was I would say very intuitive and to some extent, because we do not have fabulous nurseries like you do, I was very limited in my plant selection. I used to at the time I was working in the in the city and going out on weekends and staying long weekends. And I would go out and spend hours driving from nursery to nursery just hoping to discover something that would suit my needs. I needed large plants, you know, two or three or even larger gallons in size. One of the first plants I found is Rudbeckia maxima. After that I decided to try the some of the prairie plants from the American Midwest, the various plants with large leaves. And they’re very tall, some grow six to 10 feet tall. So that’s the direction I took.

Sarah Wilson 8:51
Yeah. And do you think actually it was a good thing that you are limited in your plant choices because sometimes I know I can be like a child in a sweet shop and I will just pick things. But actually, if you’ve got a limited palette, maybe you have to work harder to get it to work.

James Golden 9:06
It was very fortunate that I was limited. Monty Don visited my garden a couple of years ago. And one of the things he remarked I think in his magazine, I’m not sure, was that he thought the garden was better for having been so constrained in plant selection. And I think that is the case.

Sarah Wilson 9:32
So it seems as if you’re quite a fearless and philosophical gardener and you are ready to to try plants, you’re ready to let them be and to fail and to remove them if they don’t work.Do you think that you are like that quite, you know relatively laid back and hands off and just see what happens?

James Golden 9:53
Yes. I do not care for the act of gardening, for the labour of gardening. So it’s easy for me to be hands off. That doesn’t mean I don’t work at the garden. And I used to work much more but I’ve gotten older now. I’m quite philosophical about gardens and I have always been since I developed an interest in gardens. Like many people, my favourite garden in the world is Rousham, which I consider to be quite a philosophical place. The garden is bound up with by life and my beliefs, and my thinking patterns and the way I live in the world, and how I think about the world. With my emotions. I think our gardens are very emotional places. They’re places where you play out, it’s the place where I play out my life. I don’t mean that I don’t leave my garden and have other aspects to my life. But it’s very much the centre of my life, and my thinking. And now my writing.

Sarah Wilson 11:17
It’s your artistic expression.

James Golden 11:21
I should say that when I graduated from college, I planned to move to New York. Get in an MFA programme, get a degree in poetry and become a poet. That didn’t work out. I discovered I had to get a job in order to live. And yeah, this is a late blooming rebirth of that, that earlier interest. That also goes way back. After my first year in college, I was very fortunate in being able, I grew up in Mississippi, which is not not a place of great culture. After my first year of college, I was fortunate enough to be able to go to Europe work for six weeks in Germany with a friend. Then we got a Eurail pass and travelled to Vienna and Salzburg, and then Venice and Florence and Rome and France, Paris and London. And I was introduced to a different culture, subculture centuries old. With many touchstones, you know, like St. Peter’s in Rome. I was just introduced to a whole new world. And that has really influenced my thinking about gardens. Just the vast range of Western culture that hadn’t been available to me as a boy and Mississippi in the Deep South.

Sarah Wilson 13:12
Given that gardening is this process of observation, and there’s an element of waiting, how long is long enough to make a garden?

James Golden 13:26
Well, I think there’s never enough time to make a garden because the garden making never ends. But very practically speaking, I would say…It took me six or seven years to have a garden that I felt I would be happy to show to someone. Because I couldn’t depend on hard structure or interest at the time. Though, gradually, we built several 100 feet of stone walls and I added pools and a big stone circle. Initially, I just had to grow a lot of plants over what was for me a substantially large area. And it took several years to do that. And I had to have time to experiment. I had begun planting large physical plants, I tried experimenting with broadcast seeding. I added many of my large prairie plants by simply throwing the seed out and letting it come up. So it took six or seven years to get to that point.

Sarah Wilson 14:52
So speaking about your stone circle, I was just enthralled by the idea of it because it serves no other purpose than an aesthetic one. And I wondered if that is something that came about because you’ve got, I know you say your garden is relatively small, but I suppose to us here in the UK, that’s a relatively big garden. So I wondered if your stone circle came about because you have the luxury of space to play with. I mean, it just seems quite extravagant. To me as a gardener from a small island where garden features quite often have to be multifaceted. You know, I’m intrigued by this idea of this stone circle that just sits in its space as a work of art really.

James Golden 15:36
Well, we’re, I was very fortunate in that there’s a lot of native stone. The land around, though it is forest now has been farmed. At least once in the past, perhaps several times, I don’t know there are very few signs up. Except that if you walk through our woods, you will come to rows of stone, intersecting rows of stone. So obviously, someone put in tremendous amounts of labour collecting the stone, and then putting it at the edge of fields creating these large rectangles. And both of the sides of our property had many, many tonnes of rock available. And of course, from the beginning, I wanted to use that rock in the garden. The circle itself. Initially, I planted three Japanese willows, the Japanese fantail willows, the name fantail because the limbs fasciate, they are flattened in beautiful patterns. The botanical name is Salix udensis ‘Sekka’. The three there were small when I planted them, and they grew to be large. And I had wanted to use the stone. And it occurred to me that a circle would be an ideal visual compliment for those trees. So I really did the opposite of what one might expect was, which would have been to design the feature designed the circle, build it, plant the trees and let them grow, I did the opposite. I did that. I don’t want my garden to have any sort of utilitarian purpose, in the sense that American gardens are rife with outdoor kitchens and barbecues and ball fields and play equipment and swimming pools, I wanted the garden just to be garden. The circle was a symbol. And I mean that I use the word very vaguely, because I think people can interpret it in many different ways. And I wanted it to evoke a sense of mystery, perhaps the gathering place for people. And you might imagine many different stories. I think back to Hawthorne, and even before Hawthorne, that the the early American religious settlements, that punished I guess you would have to call them sinners, adulterers, the Salem witch trials, where people were actually tried and convicted and some were even hanged. That there could be very dark stories associated with a circle but there are much more much happier stories, like Sunday worship service in the woods. I wanted it to be a prod to thought and emotion and memory. But I wanted it to be open to interpretation. So it is a purposeless circle. But it has probably some extremely valuable purposes. They’re just not material or practical.

Sarah Wilson 19:39
Thinking about the garden, although it it doesn’t have kind of material uses as you say, as such, or maybe not traditional ones. It is the ultimate use of space because it’s very much you know, distinct seasons in the garden and you seem to have four gardens in one but then, as I was reading, I thought actually no you don’t, you have 365 gardens in one year, maybe many, many more than that dependent on the quality of the light and the weather that you have. So did you set out to make a garden that varies so dramatically from one moment in time to another?

James Golden 20:17
You’re reminding me of the work by Dan Pearson and Midori to about the Milennium Forest. I think in Japan, they have 72 or 76 seasons. It just came to mind. Yes, I think I did. I think I learned in the initial years that being located on a clearing in the woods, that there were changes every day, the weather changes how the garden looks, fog changes how the garden looks, rain, sunlight shadow, and there’s also that seasonal change. And because I cut the garden to the ground, once a year, there’s that major change so that much of the garden grows out of the flat earth. So, you know, by May, the growth may be one to one and a half feet tall. By July, it may be you know, some plants may be 10 or 11 feet tall. And then they’re the seasonal changes with colour. I actually hadn’t put it myself the way you spoke of this. So thank you. Thank you for giving me that.

Sarah Wilson 22:01
You’re welcome. So thinking about the Millennium Forest, obviously, that is built with a 1000 year timescale in mind. So what is the future for Federal Twist?

James Golden 22:15
I think my garden will end when I do. I can’t imagine that anyone on Earth would want to buy our house. And my garden. It’s so personal, it requires knowledge that I have learned living in it. I’m sure someone else could do that. But the likelihood I could find someone who can afford the house and buy the land and would even want to do it is very, very small. I really, really think of my garden as a garden that will exist until I die and then it will feed back into the woods. I actually have given some thought to it and maybe at some point I want to just cut it down and and plant trees and start a reversion to some kind of woodland garden, more akin to what was might have been there under ideal conditions in the past. I really don’t know that. That would be a hard decision to make. But definitely right. As I see it now it ends when I when I end.

Share this Podcast!

Related Podcasts