Without a doubt, one of my very favorite places in New York is the Conservatory Garden in Central Park.
This was my first time visiting this garden, and I wasn’t in much of a hurry to do so as I mistakenly thought it would be yet another formal garden filled with the predictable evergreens, fountains and acres of lawn. Pretty, but probably not the most inspiring.
Wow, was I ever wrong.While, yes, it is a formal garden (complete with lush lawn, intricate topiaries, splashing fountains and the most beautiful wisteria covered pergola I’ve ever seen), once I realized it was designed by one of my favorite designers, Lynden B. Miller, I knew it would be so much more. Ms. Miller is also the designer behind the Heather Garden, and similar to that garden, this one also has its share of breath-taking planting beds.
Like most of the public gardens that I saw, this one was also visited by every imaginable walk of life, ranging from nuns enjoying an afternoon walk, to Hasidic Jews with toddlers in tow, to tired teenagers (yes, that would be my daughter) and, of course, plenty of insects and birds everywhere. To see so many types of people enjoying this garden reiterates the important role gardens play in everyone’s lives.
It seemed that everywhere I turned, there was one example after another illustrating the concepts I’ve written about in my latest book, Refresh Your Garden Design with Color, Texture and Form.
Even my daughter (who tends to tune me out) commented on the amazing color echoes that she saw. And yes, I couldn’t believe she actually said the words ‘color echoes.’ Here are some of the highlights:
One of the most impressive things about this garden is Lynden’s absolute mastery of color. For example, while slowly strolling through the garden you’ll notice subtle color echoes everywhere, thanks to pairing unusual sources of color (such as stems, berries, and grass variegation) with the more common foliage and flowers.
However, a garden filled with nothing but subtle color echoes runs the risk of lulling the viewer to sleep. Not to worry here, for around every corner is an eye-popping color combination, adding a little jolt of excitement to the vignette.
One of my favorite things to see was unusual colors being used in the garden. It’s easy to use blue, purple, chartreuse and green. But ochre, butterscotch and salmon are a whole other game…
While color reigns supreme in this garden, texture is almost as impressive. Whether coming from the nubby, unopened buds of a Rodgersia, the fuzzy smoke from a Cotinus, the dangling seed-heads of a Northern Oats grass or the feathery fronds of an Artemesia, there’s no doubt about the powerful allure of texture.
Shape and Form
Shape and form can often be the most difficult concept to intentionally incorporate into the garden. Does your garden need something upright? Cascading? Mounding? Add on top of that where to create shape echoes or shape contrasts? It’s no wonder this is often the last frontier for many gardeners.
One of the things I admire most about this garden is the creative use of grasses. I’m a big fan of grasses and almost always use them in my designs, so I really enjoyed seeing how they were used here.
The Miscanthus adds such a soft, yet substantial fountain shape in the back of borders, while lower-growing Hakone add a cascading effect to the front of borders. I particularly liked the low, upright Leymus grass adding its cool, blue color to this maroon and lavender combination. One thing I noticed was her fondness of combining the round, fluffy hydrangea heads with the shorter, upright astilbe.
In fact, I noticed similar combinations in the Heather Garden and Madison Square Garden (that she also designed.) Don’t you love discovering a designer’s secrets? I just wish I could grow Astilbe here (alas, it’s just too thirsty for my climate).
Another knock-out combination mixes the feathery, snake-like flowers of the Bugbane (Actaea simplex) with the globular flowers of the Allium.
If you love this garden as much as I do, you’ll be even more impressed by the story of its creation. As if Ms. Miller wasn’t talented enough, in the 1980’s she was also the driving force behind the rejuvenation of New York’s many tired, threadbare and neglected public parks. This video (complete with truly dreary before photos) does a much better job at telling the story than I can, so click here and enjoy!