Off-Season Visits to New York's Newest Naturalistic Parks and Gardens by Harry Wade

The First in a Four-part Series on Seeing Garden Design In the Light of Winter

Article by Harry Wade

I'm delighted to introduce Harry Wade to Grounded Design. Harry and I started corresponding last fall about naturalistic gardening. For me, it was one of those thrilling exchanges with a keen mind who understood the naturalistic garden trends in terms of their broader artistic and cultural contexts. I invited Harry to write a few posts for this blog, and he graciously accepted. Harry Wade is a part-time student in the New York Botanical Garden’s Certificate programs for Landscape Design and Horticulture and has a small residential garden practice with his husband focusing on agrarian-inspired design in Schoharie County in upstate New York. 

He has a Master’s in Critical Theory from The University of California at Irvine, has directed a number of award-winning documentaries, and is currently a communications consultant for the healthcare industry in New York City, where he lives.  He says “I've worked with a lot of brilliant experts in all kinds of fields, and the best of them always welcome an outsider’s perspective.” Hoping you enjoy this series--Thomas

Hibernation Hermeneutics

There are many things that occupy gardeners and designers in the wintertime, though they rarely include time in gardens considering design.

Instead, as gardeners, we tend to displace this time of year by thinking about other times – reconsiderations of past seasons and plans for what we will do next.  For designers, it too easily becomes a time to dwell in the abstract, pushing through imaginary planning or theoretical agendas, but rarely spending time with gardens themselves.  And while it is a near universal experience to be awe struck by snowfall or stark winter tableaux, these are more emotional reactions to natural forces, not design.  

But there is another side to a garden in winter – a way in which it conspires against us in small ways to undo our warmer weather certainties and linear productivity to insist instead on its own slightly alien autonomy.   In the garden, winter’s effect on perception and thought is gradual, accumulating meaning in layers, like the season itself.   

As best as I can make out, winter changes our awareness of gardens in three phases.  First, like the old design chestnut about black and white photography revealing the deep structure of a garden, winter eliminates many transitory details.   But since it exists in four dimensions, winter clarifies much more than a photo, allowing us to walk among the chiaroscuro lines and curves, feel how wind amplifies negative spaces, how ice activates small textural contrasts, how cold and fog reveal the shifting optics of atmosphere.   Who would not benefit from a greater awareness of these nuanced dynamics?  

A second effect that winter works on awareness is more related to our own physicality than the landscape –
the sheer stress that the season can put on our skin and bones, making us clench and resist the environment and resent our own limitations.  Winter individualizes us, eliminating any romantic and sultry sense of “losing ourselves” in the landscape and shaking our confidence that we are in control of the situation.    Understanding is rare in the winter garden, if we are to be honest with ourselves.

But no garden visit ends there in the cold.  Sooner rather than later, we head back indoors to warm up, and there by the fire – actual or figurative – the final wave of winter sweeps over our mind.   Comfortable, groggy and a little unresolved by the garden, we are more likely to allow the experience to linger without closure, more willing to give the garden speculative time to lead our thoughts to new contexts and references, rather than wrapping up the exchange ourselves with a couple of polemical conclusions. 

To put this whole process in a simpler way, winter can create a kind of interpretive receptiveness that can free us up to surprises – new details and dynamics for design, contexts in which the garden finds meaning that we had never thought to consider, lines of inquiry that we had never had time for because they are not in line with our in-season thinking. 

Of course, those more familiar and productive pursuits always return and we thaw out.  It is naïve to think that we could ever shed them, even for a winter’s day.  Nor would we want to.  They make up who we are and what we want to achieve.  

But the seasons have many lessons for us, not the least of which is the importance of periodically setting aside what we know about gardens and letting them reveal something else.

At least that is the proposal here.

In the Bleak Midwinter Garden

To test this approach, I have been spending this winter with three exceptional gardens that represent the newest and most compelling naturalistic design in New York City, one of the country’s great winter settings.  Over the coming months, I will post an article on each, striving to follow the lead of the garden, not my own concepts and prejudices.  

To make things even more challenging, I have chosen gardens that articulately engage the dominant discourses of naturalistic, ecological design and urban planning.   They are important mainstream work and I do not mean to dispute these contexts or their relevance.  But these are also multi-layered gardens that seem to have minds of their own, at least during this slower time of year.  These gardens deserve to be approached with a little uncertainty.

These are the three gardens I am visiting this winter, and some of the tangents they are taking me on:

Left: Design & drawing by James Corner Field Operatons. Right: photo by Harry Wade

Muscota Marsh Park, designed by James Corner Field Operations for Columbia University’s Campbell Sports Center in the northernmost Manhattan neighborhood of Inwood, just opened to the public in January 2014. Muscota, which is the Lenape word for a meadow near the water, or ‘where the reeds are’, is a small and unassuming park, perched on the bank of Manhattan’s last remaining estuary, which it will help to restore amid one of the densest collisions of original, natural, semi-natural, industrial and crassly cosmetic features to be found in the borderlands of the City’s urban sprawl.  When mature, the park seems likely to provide a critical distance from this pile-on of a site, providing New Yorkers with a timely glimpse of how waterfront access is changing for a city with a history of elitist restriction and a future of flood planes in crisis.

Left: Pine Barrens, photo by Albery Vecerka/Esto; right: Coastal Plain Meadow, photo by Stephen N. Severinghaus

The expansion of The Brooklyn Botanical Garden’s Native Flora Garden, designed by Darrel Morrison and opened in June 2013.  Morrison’s additions include authentic recreations of two distinct and threatened regional ecosystems, a pine barrens and a coastal plain meadow – all managed comfortably into a single acre alongside the century-old native woodland, one of New York’s favorite gardens.   As in much of his work, Morrison creates gently displaced natural environments that create a kind of nostalgia similar to 20th century ‘auteurs’ of landscape-filled films like Michelangelo Antonioni, John Ford and Andrei Tarkovsky.

Design by Oehme, van Sweden & Associates; photo by Robert Benson Photography

The New York Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Garden, designed by  Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, opened in April 2013.  This is the NYBG’s grandest investment yet in naturalistic and native design, prominently sited along the main entrance allée, with flirtatious mixed borders that divert visitors from their old favorite spots, a dedicated education center, and an elegantly modernist pond that channels the site’s groundwater, and the crowds of admirers. The garden gives some purists pause, while those less familiar with nativism do more than just pause in this pivot point in the development of mainstream naturalistic design.

But this is getting ahead of the gardens. They deserve diverse dialog from many different perspectives, so please consider this series of posts as a venue for counter-visits, response and feedback.  Dress warmly.

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