Let’s play a game. I’m going to describe two scenes, and I want you to tell me which one feels more “natural.” Just close your eyes and take a deep breath.
In the first, you’re resting on a large, smooth boulder atop a sloping meadow of wildflowers. Birds surround you in song as the sun filters through the blue sky to warm your skin. Something smells sweet and old. In front of you, purple asters weave through yellow goldenrod and rainbows of little bluestem sway in the breeze.
Beyond the meadow, a chorus of pitcher plants and sweetflag punctuate a low wetland. There is a family of turtles in there; you watch for ripples in the still water. Further, a crowded forest bursts with mature tupelos, yawning dogwoods and a community of sassafras and sweetbay magnolias. Mighty oaks spread themselves throughout like chaperones at a junior high dance. The trees explode with autumn reds and oranges, their profusion carried into the ground through a carpet of flashing yellow Amsonia.
End scene. Now the second.
You’re on a suspended section of aluminum grating a couple of hundred yards from the Bronx River Parkway. You hear sirens speed by; looking up, airplane trails lead your eye and attention in the direction of LaGuardia Airport.
Below you, large angular walls of formed concrete rise from the ground. They create three staggered pools separated by geometric weirs, with dyed water continuously cycled through by way of an underground pump. Under foot, two 50,000 gallon cisterns receive water collected by the series of catch basins lining all sides of the concrete encasement.
Around you, over 100,000 plants have been spaced and placed intentionally by salaried designers. Everything is inventoried. I mean everything. The budget for this project is $15 million.
Welcome to the Native Plant Garden
Maybe you’ve already guessed: these are the Jekyll and Hyde faces of the same garden. It is the Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden, a 3.5-acre plot twist nestled in the arc of a 250-acre show. Opened to the public in 2013 after a decade of planning and installation, it is one of the boldest and most modern sites at NYBG. It is gorgeous; it is provocative; it is a gift to anyone who visits.
The New York Botanical Garden is open year-round, Tuesday thru Sunday, 10am to 6pm, as well as select Mondays.
I recently had the opportunity of walking around the Native Plant Garden with Brian Sullivan, Vice President for Landscape, Gardens and Outdoor Collections at NYBG. Brian is a dapper and even-mannered manager – the kind of person who makes you want to improve your posture.
“There were three pillars on which the idea for this garden was organized,” Brian told me as we strolled the black locust boardwalk, past a seed-bearing Franklinia. “It had to be educational; it had to be beautiful; and it had to be available to wildlife.”
Click, I heard in my brain. Something suddenly made sense in a way it hadn’t before.
Like most of us, I’m often prone to dividing the world between good and bad, beautiful and ugly, and so on and so forth. Among my favorite dichotomies is that of “man” and “nature” – hence the first half of this blog post. At times I’ve thought of the Native Plant Garden as a lovely “natural” vignette of paradise. At others, I’ve experienced it as an exercise in technological conceit, an example of humanity’s beautified disregard for the rest of life.
But what if (Click) that’s nonsense?
A Native Plant Garden With Urban Aesthetics
What if we could remove the veil of polarity between “man” and “nature”? What if we could re-position the actors here, recast them as partners instead of enemies? I think the Native Plant Garden may be an opportunity and example for exactly that.
In fact, it is inspiring to see the way that urban aesthetics are woven around familiar maples to educate today’s public. It’s enlightening to know how a highly engineered drainage system keeps that elegant parade of red Lobelia afloat. And it is humbling to think of the multimillion dollar endowment that finances the quality gardeners (shout-out to John and Meg!) who steward one of the Bronx’s only pollinator meadows.
The Native Plant Garden is, like so much in life, a place on which we have the opportunity to project our ideas about the meaning and value of nature, beauty and everything else. And it is also a real place that provides real resources to real living things. This place is for the birds and the bees as well as the schoolchildren of one of the country’s most densely populated urban environments. I am so grateful to the staff at NYBG, the landscape architects at Oehme van Sweden, and the Leon Levy Foundation, for the gift of this powerful and dynamic space.
Please come visit. This garden is important and it is beautiful.
Christopher Freimuth is a horticulturist and designer based in New York City. To connect, visit www.cwfreimuth.com or follow him on Instagram at @cwfreimuth.