May 16, 2010

Cloistered Gardens

One of the things I am sorely missing in my garden is a backdrop to garden against.

Garden design is about creating tension --- the loose splay of flowers against a hard stone wall, or the pop of a wildflower gleaming in the deep shade of the woods.  Or the intensity of shrubby, leafy borders interrupted by a spot of open grass and a view beyond.

Our May trip to The Cloisters in northern Manhattan made me really think about tension in the garden.  

The Cloisters is part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the whole museum is completely devoted to the art, buildings and gardens of medieval Europe.  The artifacts and tapestries of the 1400s kept us occupied for hours.  Then we headed out into the gardens.  So different from the raised borders and curvy beds we strive for in our yards!

The tension between the shady stone archways and the sunny bright spaces bursting with plants is strong.  These enclosed gardens use hardscape and vegetation, shade and sun, human architecture and nature's will in highly controlled contrast with each other.  Because the ancient monks and architects got the balance and scale so right, the overall sense of this visual battle is one of serenity.

Some of the courtyard structures and buildings are recreated, modeled on specific European castles and monasteries, others are the actual stoneworks removed from ruins in France and preserved at the Cloisters

I struggle with creating the visual backdrop I need on a flat(ish) open lot surrounded by a field of weeds.  I end up creating my gardens up against the house.... foundation plantings and strip beds along walkways.   It's nothing close to the enclosure and volume of these gardens, where the building includes the garden and the outdoor area is part of the building, and it's all one space.
(Those are hops growing up the supports along the archway; the monks had to have their beer.) 

The Bonnefort Cloister, or kitchen garden, was my favorite.  In addition to hops and herbs and medicinal plants, this garden had several quirky quinces (I just like to say that out loud).  These quinces are not the Japanese ornamental shrubs (Chaenomeles japonica) we have in our gardens, these are Cydonia oblonga, the true fruit trees that bear yellow pear-like quinces.
They're hardy to zone 5, growing well in Manhattan, and in addition to their fruit, they have wonderful branching that is interesting.  This would be a great small ornamental tree by a patio. The shadow on the trunk in this photo is hiding a mottled, sinewy, twisty rope of joined trunks.  The whole tree is a joy to look at.

Years ago I was served a cheese and cracker platter that included a slab of quince paste, like a thick jelly.  I thought it odd, but the tangy jam was nice with the cheeses.  At The Cloisters I learned that the medieval cooks prepared quince that way; a quince fruit is too tart and hard to eat raw like a pear, so it was always cooked down into a paste.  It has high pectin content, so it made a firm brick of sweetness, and was the traditional way cheeses were eaten, with quince paste.

In the small cloistered spaces, fruit trees were espaliered to provide the most crop in the smallest space.  This is a Cornus mas, Corneliancherry, that is very old and not as tightly pinned to the wall as a young espalier in training would be, but it still retains its highly sculpted branching:
The Corneliancherry dogwood has red fruits that are edible, again in jams and jellies.  I just planted a Cornus mas sapling that is about 18 inches high, sitting in the middle of an open bed, never to look like this architecturally constrained statement against stone arches, but I hope mine will at least grow into an interesting shape.

The ultimate tension between man's control and nature's wild world is seen from the wall of the Bonnefort cloister: standing inside the garden at the corner of the wall, surrounded by tightly pruned fruit trees, intensively tended herbs, and trained vines, you see the open Hudson River gliding by, and a forested riverbank on the far side:

Yes, we're in New York City.  But we're also in Europe, in a cloister, sharing quince paste and cheese with beer drinking monks in 1495 as we contemplate the George Washington Bridge in the distance.  The tension between the two worlds is oddly calming.

This man standing in the cloister chapel is not a monk.  He's not.


  1. What a gorgeous place to visit. I really liked your analysis on contrast and tension - so true!

    Great photos! :)

  2. I have often coveted those cloister walls. Instead I have vines growing over the hideous chain link fencing and huge shrubs for a wall. Slowly yet surely cloistering. I must have been a nun in another life. Ha.. Your tree will be marvelous and you can prune it to a great shape.

  3. I really enjoyed this post! I could see myself there with the monks! My grandmother use to make a quince jelly which was delicious. I haven't tasted it since childhood, but I wonder if the quince paste is similar.

    You are right about a garden needed some containment and structure. I have a lot of space, and i am still trying to achieve that perfect tension you speak of.

  4. Garden Ms. S, thanks for taking this tour with me.

    Lisa, chain link fences aren't quite the same as stone arches, but the idea's definitely there!

    Deborah, thanks. It really is a challenge to create that tension when you have a lot of space.

  5. What a wonderful place. I've seen a Quince tree before on the NCSU campus and it was lovely.

  6. Ahhh ... to be able to create a cloistered garden such as those in your beautuful photos. Somehow aluminum fences just don't offer the same weight, history, or textures as stone structures. Thanks for the tour.

  7. Sweet bay, The quince surprised me, I'd only ever seen the Japanese flowering shrub, and wondered how they made much from those fruits.

    Joene, I agree, there's nothing like huge stone structures. Thanks for joining me on the tour.


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