In a Dark Time: The Skeletal Garden

These are dark days indeed.

All traces of life slowly fade from the landscape as the hours shorten and shadows lengthen.

The autumnal dance now done, the trees lie brittle and bare to the sky. The last perennials splay and shiver like a ghost army defeated by the rain and wind.

Planting Design_Jan Nussbauer_Photo credit_Jiří Tvaroh Planting Design_Jan Nussbauer_Photo credit_Jiří Tvaroh Planting Design_Jan Nussbauer_Photo credit_Jiří Tvaroh

But with this kind of darkness, there is nothing to fear.

Far better to welcome the dying of the light. And accept how time strips away the layers to expose the spectral forms and bones at the root of it all.

Pensthorpe_Design Piet Oudolf_Photo Imogen Checketts

You want it darker

We kill the flame

  Leonard Cohen

De Pullenhof_Photo by Helma Sjamaar

The power of negation

Radiant blooms and bright bolts of colour are only memories now. Instead, something perhaps deeper takes hold.

Pensthorpe_Design Piet Oudolf_Photo Imogen Checketts

A lonely quiet haunts the air: the spider webs lie vacant while the insects are long gone to ground or hiding. The birds of winter are left to quarrel amongst themselves.

For the gardener who embraces this fading dark, it unlocks an otherworld of possibilities. The essential structure of the garden space reveals itself: a final metamorphosis into a kind of ethereal sculpture park.

Planting Design_Jan Nussbauer_Photo credit_Jiří Tvaroh De Vlinderhof_Design Piet Oudolf_ Photo by Hans van Horssen Pensthorpe_Design Piet Oudolf_Photo Imogen Checketts

In the New Perennial garden,

this darkening

pushes us to

reimagine our concept

of what beauty

in a garden can be.

Planting Design + Photo by Guy Henderieckx Planting design and Photo by Guy Henderieckx Planting Design + Photo by Guy Henderieckx

We are all Dutch dreamers

Always better to show than tell.

With this in mind, I’ve asked some of my favourite designers, plantsfolk and photographers to show how they capture the light in this transformative time of darkness.

Kasteel Geldrop_Planting Design + photo by John Schoolmeesters

We’re all connected via Dutch Dreams, our shared Facebook group dedicated to exploring the latest currents in New Perennial and naturalistic design.

The group is international and intergenerational and serves as a forum for designers, photographers, and gardeners to share and discuss their latest work.

Jakobstuin_Planting Design + Photo by Jaap de Vries Jakobstuin_Planting Design + Photo by Jaap de Vries Jakobstuin_ Planting Design + Photo by Jaap de Vries

Their artistry is so inspired and timely that I thought to share it here. Our members may be from all over the world, but our common link is as Dutch Dreamers, a shorthand way to describe how we think about gardens and planting design.

Each individual uncovers beauty in the darkness in a different way. I invite you to glide your cursor over each photo to learn the names behind each incredible image.

There’s plenty more where that came from.

Change in the air

No secateurs please. That is not our way.

Leave everything in place for the wind to rasp, for the frost to suspend, and the snow to bury.

It’s a sweet slow decay of gnarled, eroded leaves, and hollow stems, their life-force draining.

The plant’s entire being collapses and distills into the micro-capsule of pod or seed, ready to split and crack when its time comes.

De Vlinderhof_Design Piet Oudolf_ Photo by Hans van Horssen Planting Design_Jan Nussbauer_Photo credit_Jiří Tvaroh

The last juices retract into its basal crown, thickening into a resin that keeps the perennials ticking on bare life support through the winter.

This is what all that growing was for. As each generation falls, dying to live again.

Planting Design_Jan Nussbauer_Photo credit_Jiří Tvaroh

De Pullenhof_Photo by Helma Sjamaar

In a dark time, the eye begins to see,
I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;
I hear my echo in the echoing wood –
A lord of nature weeping to a tree. 
 
American poet, Theodore Roethke (1908–1963)

 

Special thanks to these Dutch Dreamers for permission to share their work:

Jan Nussbauer

Jiří Tvaroh

Hans van Horssen

Guy Henderieckx

Jaap de Vries

Helma Sjamaar

John Schoolmeesters

Imogen Checketts

Piet Oudolf

17 thoughts on “In a Dark Time: The Skeletal Garden

  1. Lovely pictures and words. We have just had the best autumn colour here in the SW uk for sometime. A cold snap is showing the grass and perennial seedheads exquisitely, with the sun being so low in its arc through clear blue skies. A sight to be gazed on for as long as one can.

  2. Wow – what beauty in skeletons and wonderful photography to capture that beauty. Meanwhile on the flip side it is all colour and light – that could be a thought for your dead of winter New Perennialist edition.

  3. Such a beautiful tribute to this magical time of year when colour fades and frost covered structure sparkles in the sunlight.

    I’m a fellow Mono resident and have been following your site for a while. My burning question is: why aren’t there images from your garden in this post?

    • That is a great question. My first home garden here in Mono is still in its infancy, just planted this year with more work to do next spring. I’d hope that a year or two from now with a chance to mature, it will also shine this time of year. Good to meet a fellow Mono resident!

  4. These winter images, like so much inspiring garden photography year-round, remind us of the heightened beauty best seen with rising or setting sun. Let’s resolve to bundle up and enjoy those fleeting moments more often. And, with such effective smartphone cameras at our disposal, let’s share more of this beauty to those who have yet to be awakened to winter magic that may or may not include snow or frost.

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