Gardening at Ginger: My Seven-Year Obsession with Designing and Planting a Personal Landscape [NOOK Book]


Seven years ago, James Raimes and his wife bought a country home on nine acres in upstate New York. In the tradition of their family, who once owned a cottage named Fred, this larger property became "Ginger." Inspired by the natural beauty of the land and a desire to learn how to be a gardener, Raimes found himself obsessed with such questions as why gardeners keep moving plants around, what the names of the lawn grasses are, and how one can ...
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Gardening at Ginger: My Seven-Year Obsession with Designing and Planting a Personal Landscape

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Seven years ago, James Raimes and his wife bought a country home on nine acres in upstate New York. In the tradition of their family, who once owned a cottage named Fred, this larger property became "Ginger." Inspired by the natural beauty of the land and a desire to learn how to be a gardener, Raimes found himself obsessed with such questions as why gardeners keep moving plants around, what the names of the lawn grasses are, and how one can impose order in a garden and at the same time make it look natural. What, in fact, defines a garden?

Gardening at Ginger is full of successes and failures, aches and pains, frustrations and delights. But more than that, it's the story of a great discovery: as we try to shape a landscape to reflect who we are, we find that who we are has been reshaped in the process.
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
This perceptive memoir about tilling the soil and watching the wildlife at a country house in upstate New York is a quiet charmer.
People Magazine

A very charming, inspirational story about learning the ins and outs of design and planting.
Garden Design Online

Gardeners of all ages will connect with the timeless quality of the essays. National Garden Clubs

Written in a lively style... very accessible even for novice gardeners.
Contra Costa Times

James Raimes has written a memoir that every gardener must own.
Capitol Community News

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780547345994
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
  • Publication date: 5/24/2006
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 1,287,973
  • File size: 256 KB

Meet the Author

JAMES RAIMES was the assistant director of Columbia University Press. He lives with his wife, an author, in Brooklyn and Chatham, New York. Before undertaking gardening at Ginger, he spent most of his city lunch hours enjoying the Ramble and other landscapes in Central Park.
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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1 Ginger

The place has a street address, a name, and a nickname. Ann and I learned the street address when we called the owners, who had placed the ad for it in the New York Times. We learned its name only after we had bought the place, and the nickname came later.
We had for a long time owned a cabin called Fred near Catskill, in Greene County, New York, and we had decided we should graduate at last to a house house, one that we could live in year-round instead of just visiting on weekends in the warm months, and one where I could garden, something I had been wanting to do for a long time.
We had bought Fred in 1971. It was spacious, with two floors, but thrown together some years before for no money and in disrepair from not having been used for five years. It was full of dust and critters, and it was leaking. When we first saw it, we thought we had driven a long way for nothing, but when we walked around to the back, we stopped in our tracks and said “Wow.” The people who built the place must have said the same thing when they first saw this spectacular view. Both floors had huge windows looking out to a big stretch of the Catskill Mountains. They were four miles or more away, but looked close enough to reach out and stroke their hairy slopes.
Why the name Fred? While we were negotiating with the seller, we invited an architect friend to look at it with us. He walked around it, tapped the walls, jumped up and down on the floors, shook his head, and finally climbed through a hole in the floor to a crawl space underneath to see what he suspected: its joists were too far apart and spanned too great a distance, and the whole place was badly anchored to the sloping ground. He pronounced a quick and final judgment: it was a dog. In England, where Ann and I had grown up, we had never heard that term applied to things, but we got the message. The place was worthless; no way should we buy it. But we loved its wooded acreage, its casual character, and that spectacular view. And the price was ridiculously low. We bought it, and we proceeded to have three decades of great times there on weekends and during summer vacations. It had electricity and running water, but no phone, no TV, no radio, and no address.
But the place we loved needed a name. At that time we were in the habit, for some reason, of calling all dogs, and especially dogs that chased our car, Fred. Well, if all dogs were Fred, and our cabin was a dog, then our cabin must be Fred. It was of course a nickname, which in the spirit of the early seventies we treated as a name. To the straightest people and officials, we referred to “our cabin,” but to our daughters, Emily and Lucy, and to all our friends and all of their friends it was always Fred. Lucy owns it now, and it’s still Fred.
So now (that is, seven years ago and nearly thirty years after we bought Fred), real estate agents were leading us around houses in much better condition than Fred. We were in Columbia County, which our close friends Roberta and Viki in Kinderhook loved, but so far we had been disappointed in what we had seen. Then I remembered I had in my wallet a tiny New York Times ad that described a place within minutes of Chatham, which we knew was near Roberta and Viki, and also within minutes of the Taconic Parkway. It was more expensive than the houses we had been seeing, but the ad also mentioned “perennial gardens,” which was the reason I had kept the ad. I felt that we couldn’t not at least see the place, so we called the owners, got the street address, and agreed on a time later that day to look at it. Ann and I promised each other that we wouldn’t even consider buying anything that expensive unless we said “Wow!” at first sight, as we had at Fred.
“Street address” is something of a misnomer, because in the two minutes it takes to drive there from the Taconic, the roads become rapidly smaller and more treed, until finally you are on a wooded dead-end dirt road, and the property is the last house on the left at the end. When we drove up the driveway, we felt we had entered a secluded domain deep in the country.
We parked at the end of the driveway under an enormous weeping willow. There was a swimming pool to our right, a garage straight ahead, and a ranch-style house up a little to our left. Thin strips of garden surrounded the end of the driveway, the pool, and the house. The gardens were small and the house was modest, but as soon as we got out of the car we felt good.
We walked up one of the two sets of steps to a large wooden front deck and entered the house through a front door with glass in it. The owners took us from an entrance hall to a spacious living room with a large picture winddow on one side and on the other, a French door with many windows on either side of it, opening onto the same front deck we had come in from..... The living room flowed into a dining room, with a sliding glass door leading to a back deck, and it also flowed into a kitchen with a door with glass in it, also leading to the back deck. There were no doors between these four central rooms, only doors to the outdoors. The doors that did exist indoors gave privacy to the bedrooms and bathrooms on either side of these central rooms, but the master bedroom had a sliding glass door onto the back deck and many windows, and its bathroom had large windows and a huge mirror up against one of them, so we looked at an outdoors doubled in its reflection. Ann had been yearning for a house with a lot of light, and here was a house whose many big windows and glass doors made it lighter than almost any conventional house we had walked through in our lives. Ann writes textbooks, one of which has been very successful and several of which need constant revision. She could see one of the guest bedrooms doubling as her office. When she looked up every so often from her computer, she would look out onto lawn, trees, and birds.
The gardens were very pleasant, but to me they were exciting — as probably any well-cared-for gardens with plenty of different plants in them would have been to someone itching to get his hands dirty in soil. But what attracted us most about the place was its siting. The buildings and gardens were in the middle of four acres of sloping lawn. Woods surrounding the lawn gave a sense of enclosure, but within that enclosure the place was open. From the entrance hall and living room at the front, we couldn’t help looking through the large windows downward (which was to the north) across a calming seventy-five-yard expanse of green. There was a similar seventy-five- yard view up a slope (to the south) from the dining room, kitchen, and master bedroom, and yet another to the west from windows on that side of the living room, master bedroom, and bathroom. The lower lawn expanded at the bottom to a width of a hundred and fifty yards, and the upper lawn contracted at the top to about twenty-five yards. The setting was parklike — on a small scale, but definitely parklike. When we got back in the car under the weeping willow, turned on the engine, and started driving out of earshot of the owners, we glanced at each other, raised our eyebrows, nodded, and said a quiet “Wow!” to each other.
We learned the name of the place some hours after we had bought it. We were walking around the empty, echoing house with the sellers after the closing when we casually asked them whether the place had ever been called anything. They were quite surprised that we didn’t know. We had inspected the house and the grounds in minute detail, but somehow we hadn’t noticed the sign on a wooden post at the entrance: Willow Hill. “Oh, okay,” we said, and looked at each other. “Hmm.” Later, when the sellers had left, we realized we had both had the same thought: much as we loved the place, we weren’t crazy about its name.
It was certainly appropriate for the place, which is on a slope, with a line of fourteen big, beautiful weeping willows at the west side of the lower lawn, and that magnificent weeping willow in the very center of the property, where you park your car. But there was something — we weren’t quite sure what — wrong with the name. Maybe it gave an impression of grandeur, which the place didn’t have, or maybe it sounded too suburban for a secluded place at the end of a dead-end dirt road in the country. Or maybe we felt that if the place had to have a name (which it didn’t, as the street address was perfectly adequate to identify it), we didn’t want someone else’s name, we wanted to name it ourselves. Isn’t giving a name to something one of the great joys and responsibilities of ownership? Children’s names, so intimate and at the same time so public, are one of the most important decisions parents make in their lives. Naming pets clinches the bond between owners and their dogs or cats or tortoises. A home, for us, was in the same category, and we would never have named this place Willow Hill.
But what would we have named it? Should we change it? If so, what to? We had no ideas. The previous owners had left us some bathroom towels with the name Willow Hill embroidered on them, like the name of a bed-and- breakfast. Their color suited the guest bathroom. Should we keep them there, hanging over the bars so that the name was displayed? Or use them for more mundane, domestic clean-up jobs until they wore out?
Then, some months later, when the name of the place was still a subliminal irritant, a woman knocked on our door and told us that she had grown up on the property thirty years earlier and wanted to revisit her childhood haunts. Could she look around? We spent a pleasant hour, hearing how much the place had meant to her, seeing her venture into her old bedroom, which hadn’t changed at all, and into the kitchen, which had changed completely, and learning all sorts of things about the place. We asked whether her family had had a name for the place. “Oh, sure,” she said, “and it made me feel really good to see it still there on the wooden post at the entrance. My dad thought of the name and put the sign there. I’m so glad you have kept it.” So now it seemed we had some obligation to keep the name. Well, it was relatively harmless.
When we mentioned the name to Emily and Lucy (great names for great people, though we say it ourselves), their reactions were, successively, politely negative and openly scornful. Lucy started calling it Willy Hill, which I liked a lot, but it wasn’t long before she came up with an even better name. Ann loves the Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, and a close friend had given us for our twentieth wedding anniversary a poster of twelve stills from that classic, romantic “Cheek to Cheek” dance sequence in Top Hat in which Ginger Rogers wears the feathery white dress that Ann considers the best dress ever worn by a woman in the history of the world. Lucy had herself given Ann a birthday present of what looked like a photograph of Ann dancing with Fred Astaire. She had digitally grafted Ann’s head onto Ginger Rogers’s body. Obviously the new house should be called Ginger.
That sounded good. It must be that our family just doesn’t like traditional names for houses. We wouldn’t have dreamed of calling our cabin Mountain View. Willow Hill remains its official name, but we have never made it a part of our mailing address, and when I give directions to people visiting for the first time, I tell them there’s a street number on a metal 911 sign at the entrance and don’t mention the sign with the name on it. Ann has been somewhat slower than the rest of us to adopt the nickname as a name, but she’s halfway there. She calls it W.H., indicating that she can’t quite get her mouth around the official name. Neither of us would want to throw out the bath towels with the old name on them. And I notice that I haven’t removed the sign at the entrance.
But there’s another reason for my playing down the original name. (Confession hour.) Since I have been gardening passionately in this place for the last seven years, I have become aware that there are several outstanding gardens with the word “Hill” in their names. North Hill, for instance, about which its owners Joe Eck and Wayne Winterowd wrote a book that I keep picking up to learn or relearn something about gardening, knowing that I’m going to enjoy their prose, their photographs, and their passion every time I do so. And Wave Hill in the Bronx, a destination for over a hundred thousand garden lovers a year. Compared to places like that, ours will for many years be way down in the minor leagues. It’s a very good looking place, and we love it, but if ever I were to call our place Willow Hill when talking to other serious gardeners, I don’t think I could keep those ironic quotation marks out of my voice. But then I probably wouldn’t call it Ginger when talking to them either, let alone Willy Hill.

Copyright © 2006 by James Raimes. Reprinted with permission by Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Table of Contents

Introductions 1 Ginger 3 2 Digging into the Past 11

Activity 3 Moving Plants 25 4 Digging in Clay 37 5 Making Lists 44 6 Smelling the Roses 56

Projects 7 Walking in the Woods 65 8 Learning the Lawn 75 9 Flowers of Grass 86 10 A Garden Can Just Happen 96

Creatures 11 Keeping Them Out 109 12 Indoors and Outdoors 117 13 Outside the Windows 129

Design 14 Dreaming in Color 139 15 Green 146 16 Masculine Flowers 156 17 A Little Bright Red Is Enough 159 18 Thin Straight Lines 163 19 Sitting and Siting 168 20 The Long View 174 21 Open and Closed 180

Rewards 22 Why Do It? 191 23 Where to Find Inspiration 200 24 Roger’s Wood 209

Life After Death 25 Weeping Willow 221 26 Elm 226
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