Monday, August 19, 2013

Secrets of the Garden

One of the benefits of living in Spanish Harlem is that I'm 5-minutes' walk from the top end of Central Park. I spend a lot of time in one of the real jewels of the park, Conservatory Garden. Most folk hang out in the much tromped-through lower and mid sections of the park and never get up to this series of gardens tucked just inside the Vanderbilt Gate on Fifth Avenue.

Since I had the day off, I took advantage of a new offering from Central Park Conservancy, a docent tour of Conservatory Garden. It was an opportunity to learn about the history of the Garden through the eyes of its curator, Diane Schaub, and included how seasonal displays are designed, planted, and maintained to shape unique sensory experiences throughout the year. 


The tour started at 10, a time I'm rarely in the park - I'm usually there late afternoon - so I literally saw it in a whole new light. We met at the Vanderbilt Gate, which is the actual gate for the old Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth Avenue (on the site of what is now Bergdorf Goodman), and leads into the expansive lawn, fountain, and wisteria-twined pergola.

Conservatory Garden isn't original to the Olmstead-Vaux design .From 1898-1934, it was the site of glass houses (conservatories) for various park flora). By the 1930s, the conservatories were in lousy shape and were torn down. The infamous Robert Moses had a hand in getting the garden going, with help from WPA workers for the construction and planting. Fun factoid: the planting plans for the garden were created by the aptly names Betty Sprout. Conservatory Garden opened to the public in 1937.  

The garden is divided into three types: French (northernmost, with my favorite young girls of the Untermeyer Fountain), Italian (center, the lawn and fountain), and English (southernmost, or Secret Garden), with the lovely crab apple bowers dividing them. 

Diane has curated the garden for 19 years, so she was the perfect guide for its history and seasonal plantings. She described the designing and planting as choreography, since everything has to constantly showcase seasonal color, texture, fullness, and height. She shared drawings of the current season's plantings, carried out by six staff gardeners and many capable volunteers year-round.
Perennials and annuals (and bi-annuals) are used, but always removed as the season demands (yes, even the perennials). The plants, seeds, and bulbs come from nurseries on Long Island, upstate New York, and New Jersey, many from seeds and bulbs gleaned from whatever's planted in Conservatory Garden.

I can't remember the names of all the plants Diane pointed out, though I do remember a couple of things. I liked learning that the tree-lined bowers on either side of the Italian Garden is made up of crab apple trees - two different types on either side of the walkways. They provide beautiful shade most of the year, but winter really shows off their twisty, multi-branch trunks. Also (and unsurprisingly), many of the plants are edible (Swiss Chard and varieties of sweet potatoes are used in the garden for color and texture of their leaves). And I didn't know that milkweed is an attractor of monarch butterflies (though it repels most insects). 

If you get the chance to join Diane's guided tour through Conservatory Garden, just do it. Make it a point to get to the northern third of Central Park to spend time in each of the sections of the garden. It is a Quiet Zone and bikes/scooters/skateboards aren't allowed. I love that you can find a shady bench, surrounded by spectacular plants, flower, trees, and fountains, and just think or read. Yep. Right in the middle of busy ol' New York.

Join the dance of the Conservatory Garden's plant choreography. You'll be swept off your feet.


1 comment:

Toby said...