July 21, 2009

A Double-Header in the Bronx

New York City is 210 miles from my home and, on a Saturday morning, it’s a leisurely three-hour-and-change drive. This past Saturday, my wife and I spent a beautiful day visiting two old friends – Wave Hill and the New York Botanical Garden. Both are in the Bronx, which causes people’s eyes to bulge (you went where?!). These two gardens are must-sees for anyone who is serious about horticulture.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Wave Hill is that it is there. You walk from a modest parking area around a bend in a hedge and there, before you, is a vista that ought not to exist. A vast lawn stretching hundreds of feet sprinkled with specimen trees, a magnificent pergola studded with plants, and a vista across the Hudson River to the 500-foot-high Palisades that is unchanged from two centuries ago.

But then Wave Hill has an extraordinary history and enjoys unusual support. Located in the Riverdale section of the Bronx, it began, in 1843, as the ‘country estate’ of a grandson of a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Theodore Roosevelt lived there for two summers as a boy and Samuel Clemens was a resident for two years while the property was owned by a wealthy publisher. In 1903, a financier purchased Wave Hill and began acquiring adjacent properties, ultimately assembling 28 riverfront acres. The property passed to the City of New York in 1960 and is run today as a city-owned ‘cultural institution’. But it is hardly an impoverished institution: as of their last annual report, Wave Hill held cash and marketable securities valued at $21 million.

The Great Lawn, with its flights of eminently movable, tall-backed wooden chairs, is the dominant feature when you first see Wave Hill. This is Riverdale’s ‘front porch’, so to speak. Dozens of people read books and newspapers or chat with friends, oblivious to the stunning backdrop. If there were no gardens, Wave Hill would be worth the visit, just for that glorious view of the river and the high-rise-free cliffs beyond.

But there are gardens. Imaginative ones large and small. The pergola is a study in the use of containers. It is a riot of colors and textures and much of it is provided by dozens of containers holding everything from full-grown fruit trees to cascading, flowering vines. In another part of the park is a monocot garden – one comprised entirely of plants such as grasses, grains, banana plants and taro that produce a single leaf from each seed instead of the more prevalent two – which in turn surrounds an aquatic garden. It is intelligent in its design and intriguing in its execution. There is a flower garden – tiny for so large a park but packed with hundreds of annals and perennials. The layout is a formal grid but plants spill over into walkways producing a glorious jumble. There is an herb garden and an elliptical garden, each a fascinating space. Perhaps best of all, there is a container garden filled with Alpine plants. The containers – concrete cubes mostly – would be plug-ugly except for the riot of tiny plants they hold and the imaginative arrangement of those cubes. They stack upon one another and spread out line an Alpine meadow. It is a wonderful space.

I have been to Wave Hill perhaps half a dozen times and each visit brings something new to explore. On this visit, for the first time, I explored a woodland trail that tacks down the hillside toward the Hudson. It brought me by an unmarked, half-acre-sized swatch of land that appears to have been given over to seed-eating birds. It is a mass of Rudbeckia, Vernonia noveboracensis (New York State ironweed), Solidago, and Echinacea. Every garden should offer something new with each visit. Wave Hill never disappoints.

The New York Botanical Garden may be the most exquisite public garden in the U.S. It is lavishly endowed and continually being renewed. Its horticultural staff has the funds to Do Things Right and its marketers continually dream up events to pull in the crowds. Every public garden that has ever bemoaned poor attendance needs to send someone to the Bronx to see how it’s done.

Seeing NYBG properly takes days. We had a limited itinerary: to see the Rockefeller Rose Garden in its summer glory and take a walk through the Rock Garden looking for ideas of how to improve our own.

During the interminable rains of June, multiple rose specimens were hit by fungal disease and the NYBG staff belongs to the when-in-doubt-rip-it-out school of floriculture. Seeing several linear feet of mulched, empty beds is startling in such a garden but a wise move on the part of those who tend the garden. The signs promise a return of new specimens. But the color of everything else made those empty beds almost unnoticeable. If there is a scheme to the arrangement of rose varieties in the garden it escapes me. It’s just a wonderful, formal space that no home gardener could or should ever try to replicate. It’s the reason why there are public gardens. It’s the reason why you have to see the New York Botanical Garden.

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