May 8, 2011

Among the Azaleas

The New York Botanical Garden does not do anything by half measures. It has a sufficient number of deep-pocketed supporters to fund simultaneous construction projects that most gardens would contemplate once in a decade.

Saturday morning, Betty and I had the pleasure to be among the first to see the culmination of the NYBG’s most recent undertaking: the creation of an 11-acre azalea garden. Four years in the making, its 3,000 azaleas and rhododendron are just the tip of a statistical iceberg that includes 70,000 new plants (40,000 bulbs, 28,000 woodland perennials, 3500 trees and shrubs) put together by a roster of horticultural ‘names’ working with a $5 million budget.

Seven years in the making, the garden is as thoughtful as it is gorgeous. While the azaleas are the stars, it’s the ground covers that are going to steal the show when the azalea blooms fade. There are dozens of cultivars of epimedium, hosta, grass, iris and other shade-tolerant plants that both frame the azaleas and provide a background palette of color and texture. A few were familiar names; many more were new specimens we’ve not previously encountered and will seek out for our own garden.

The garden comprises six distinct areas: a low-lying woodland dell; a rocky knoll that evokes a North Carolina bald; a summit meadow featuring bulbs, grasses and perennials; an elevated overlook that allows visitors to see the sweep of the azaleas below; an azalea bank with bands of different color azalea; and a wooded old-growth grove into which deciduous native azalea have been incorporated. There is nearly 50 feet of elevation in the garden; the change is steep enough that one area incorporates stairs.

Traversing these sites and encircling the garden are a mile of paths and overlooks; many of the pathways with low stone walls as borders. The gravel paths bend and circle in such a way that, when we retraced our way along the inner trails, we felt we were walking a different garden.

When you have access to the breadth of financial and horticultural resources that the NYBG can tap, the fear is always that ‘the money has to show’ and, as a corollary, fealty must be paid to those who supplied the funding. There are a few areas of NYBG where naming rights trump visual sensibilities. The new azalea garden is not one of them. It is glorious place.

Granted, we saw it at its most tranquil. We were in the azalea garden before 10 a.m. and, for a few minutes, had it entirely to ourselves. By noon (when we left), the character of the garden had changed significantly as crowds descended on it. When you go, make it early. For whatever reason, New Yorkers aren’t early garden goers.

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