August 1, 2012

The Bressingham Garden Turns Five

For the 150 people who were there, August 3, 2007 is one of those days they’ll remember for a very long time.  The temperature was in the upper nineties, the humidity was unbearable, and the sun beat down relentlessly.

The 'souvenir' yellow shirt
given to everyone who
worked that day
That was the day the Bressingham Garden at the Massachusetts Horticultural Society was born.  And those 150 people weren’t there to dedicate the garden.  They were there to build it.  I know all this because I was one of them.

Most gardens are built over months or even years.  The acre-plus Bressingham Garden was planned to be built in a single day. (It wasn’t, and more about that in a moment.)  The idea of the garden came together over several months.  To better acquaint Americans with the spectacular cultivars being developed by U.K.’s Blooms of Bressingham, renowned plantsman Adrian Bloom had hit on the successful idea of creating small demonstrations gardens around the United States.  ‘Small’ meant approximately 4,000 square feet, such as one at Ohio State University, also completed in 2007.  All were built in a day by volunteers.

In the spring of that year, Mass Hort approached Adrian about creating one of his signature gardens at Elm Bank, and Adrian agreed.  Sketches were exchanged and the project grew.  A 4,000-square-foot garden became a 10,000 one, and then 20,000.  By the time Adrian arrived in Boston to oversee its construction, the ‘canvas’ had become 45,000 square feet; slightly over an acre.

The site was a pancake-flat field of grass, part of which had once been a clay tennis court.  In the days before those 150 people assembled, that field was sculpted into sinuous mounds of earth and hundreds of truckloads of soil were brought in.  Boulders were added as visual anchor points and a handful of specimen trees were planted.

At the end of day one, less than half
of the garden had been planted
(double-click to see the photo
at full-screen size)
The scale of the project can best be summed up with numbers: 100+ trees, 300+ shrubs, and 8,000 perennials.  For each item, a hole had to be dug, the item conditioned and planted, then the area raked and watered.

There were a few unforeseen problems with the project. First, 150 people cannot be properly employed at one time in a one-acre site.  They bump into one another and step on plants.  Second – and this was both good news and bad – Adrian Bloom came with one plan on paper, but devised a better one as he saw the site.  Implementing this better plan meant that Adrian would walk around, look at an area, and say, ‘get me fifty of those (fill in the name) perennials’.  A runner would fetch the plants, a spotter would carry a plant to the starting point specified by Adrian, and then the fifty plants would be arranged according to his specification.  Areas would be left blank so that he could come back an hour later, evaluate the look of the bed, and then call for thirty of a different plant to complement the adjacent area. 

A third problem was that the searing heat baked the top inch of the loam into which we were to plant those perennials and shrubs to the consistency of terra cotta pottery.  My enduring memory of that day was jumping up and down on a shovel, trying to break though that outer shell.

The Bressingham Garden
in 2012.  Mature, yet
subtly changing
The net result was that at the end of the day, less than half of the garden had been planted.  The accompanying photo (above) shows the site at the end of day one.

Thirty of us came back for a second day, and this time we started at 7:30 a.m.  We were now ‘seasoned’ volunteers who knew what we were doing, or at least we followed Adrian’s directions to his satisfaction.  And, there was a new secret weapon added: several power augurs capable of making a hole a foot wide and a foot deep in about twenty seconds.  By the end of day two, we had more than 6,000 perennials in the ground.  Not bad for heat-stricken, sunburned volunteers.

It would take several more weekends of work to complete the garden according to Adrian’s plan.  In the intervening years, much more work has been done on the garden (including accounting for the pesky remnants of that clay tennis court). 

In early July, Adrian was back at the Bressingham Garden as part of a tour of Elm Bank by the Perennial Plant Association’s national convention.  Today, the garden is thought of as mature yet, even in its maturity, it subtly changes.  Seeing and appreciating those changes are what make it worth coming back to, year after year.

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