May 30, 2013

Going Native in the Bronx

The entrance to the new
Native Plant Garden 
It took two false starts but, this past weekend Betty and I finally made it to the new Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden.  The consensus opinion?  Two very solid thumbs up for a garden that is as intelligent as it is low key.
NYBG has had a ‘native plant garden’ for decades and it was always in the same place, adjoining the Rock Garden.  It was a product of a different era; one that displayed plants in the same way that zoological parks once displayed animals.  Here is a tiger, here is a bear, here is a stand of caryx grasses.  We last visited the ‘old’ native plant garden in probably 2003.  It left no impression despite the fact that Betty has a strong affinity toward using natives in our own garden.
This 230-foot-long pond is central
to the garden's ecosystem
The ‘old’ native plant garden closed in 2009 and a board fence went up around the site.  If memory serves correctly, the original opening date was spring 2012.  Somewhere along the line, that became 2013.  The garden formally opened in early May.
The first impression is that the place is huge.  It is three and a half acres, but it looks even larger by designing out to the full borders of the site and ‘borrowing views’ from adjacent gardens.  It is billed as a ‘cutting-edge’ installation.  That definition is almost an understatement.  To create the garden, its designers went back to a blank slate; reimagining the site as a shaded woodland; a dry, open meadow; and a wetland.
Yellow trillium - a mid-Spring-
blooming native - have been
planted in among grasses
The aspect of the garden that is – at least to me – most jaw-dropping is the underlying, invisible engineering.   A visitor sees a central water feature; a dramatic 230-foot-long pond surrounded by wetlands.  Rising from the pond is a meadow and the woodland.  What is invisible to the eye is a vast system of recirculating pumps that push 600 gallons of water through the garden every minute.  (You may want to re-read that last sentence and think about 600 gallons of water – almost all of it recirculated – flowing every minute). 
The water feature is, in reality, a man-made bit of ecology.  Water is pumped into the wetland where it is pushed up through layers of sand, gravel and plant roots to reach the upper basin, then over a weir to reach the lower basin.  Underground cisterns collect excess rainwater for release as needed.  Natural processes keep the water clean, filtering out excess organics and maintaining oxygen levels. 
Mature oaks provide a canopy for
the garden's shade plantings
There are nearly 100,000 plants in the garden, arranged with intelligence as well as an eye to inspire home gardeners.  There is harmony as groupings of cultivars give way to new groupings, and the groupings promise to change with the seasons.  In late May, we were treated to sweeps of yellow trilliums, rue-anemones and lady slipper orchids.  The meadows were rife with a carpet of Sisyrinchium – blue-eyed grass.  The flow is visually inventive; a delight, and NYBG promises that the plant color palette will change with the seasons.
The choice of plants is also designed to showcase that ‘nativars’ can be as attractive as any exotic import for a home garden.  The perennials we saw featured bright colors (and based on Betty’s acquaintance with them, long bloom periods).  The NYBG Shop in the Garden carried an excellent assortment of the plants we had just seen.
The garden is also about native trees.  Mature oaks were left in place to provide shade to stands of rhododendron and understory trees and shrubs.  We found a stand of amalanchier with an explanatory text to tell why they’re also called ‘shadbush’.  There was also a great specimen of a mature oxydendrum (sourwood) that should be glorious in late summer.
The carpet of sisyrinchium.  By
being at the garden at 10 a.m., we
had the place to ourselves for
much of our visit
What we did not encounter was a crowd.  NYBG opens at 10 a.m. and, when visiting, we make a point of being in line at the main parking area when it opens at 9:45.  As members, we’re waved into the entrance which means we’re in the garden proper at ten.  We made a bee-line for the Native Plant Garden and were its first visitors.  We saw the garden at our leisure, exploring each of the side trails with opportunities to linger over especially interesting vistas or plants. When we departed the garden an hour and a half later, there was a steady flow of visitors entering.
Five days after our visit, the Native Plant Garden is still vivid in memory.  What stands out the most is its tranquility (too-loud music coming from a birthday party at the adjacent ‘Children’s Adventure’ area notwithstanding).  In the rhododendron glade, the paths are very narrow and winding; you can’t walk it briskly.  Gazing out at the dry upland meadow, we saw an unbroken expanse five hundred feet wide and seemingly just as deep (the depth is something of an optical illusion).

In short, it’s a beautiful addition to the New York Botanical Garden.  In the parlance of the Michelin Guide, it’s worth a journey.

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