Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The New Azalea Garden at The New York Botanical Garden

photo by Angel Franco/The New York Times
This week The New York Times wrote a glowing review of the newly renovated Azalea Garden at The New York Botanical Garden.  I worked on the design for that garden while at Oehme, van Sweden and Associates. 
The assignment was one of the most complex planting projects I’ve worked on.  The New York Botanical Garden was in the process of redesigning the eleven-acre azalea gardens in house, but they hired OvS to design a complete palette of herbaceous plantings to compliment the sprawling shrub garden. 

The challenge was to provide seasonal spectacle throughout the year, not just around Mother’s Day when the garden attracts thousands of visitors.  Designing a perennial garden with year-round spectacle is hard enough; but doing it in deep shade and underneath and around 3,500 azaleas was an especially daunting task.  How do you plant around, under, and next to so many azaleas?  And how do you use perennials to blend and soften the jarring bubble-gum pinks, corals, oranges, and fuchsias of the azaleas?

We worked closely with the talented staff of The New York Botanical Garden who was designing the layout of the azaleas.  If you are a landscape architect, making recommendations to a botanical garden like NYBG is like a computer programmer making recommendations to Bill Gates or Steve Jobs.  The Garden’s staff—led by Todd Forrest and executed by Jessica Arcate Schuler, Deanna Curtis, Kristin Schleiter, and Travis Beck—has some of the most knowledgeable plantsmen in the country. 

photo by Angel Franco/The New York Times

The site itself ultimately provided the solution.  The Azalea Garden is located on eleven acres of rolling forest, complete with massive hardwoods, granite outcroppings, and stunning vistas. The OvS concept divided the garden into seven character zones and matched herbaceous plantings to these zones.  Perennials along the perimeter road, for example, were massed in larger groupings so they could be seen from the trolley; perennials along the dark entry walk featured brightly-colored foliage and more intricate blooms visible at a pedestrian scale.  The site’s highest point used grasses and wildflowers to evoke the feeling of being in a high elevation bald. 

The strength of these evocative character rooms was praised by the Times:
Nothing could be more artificial, yet it will eventually seem to have almost casually evolved out of the natural landscape, presenting a microcosm of the world’s azaleas and rhododendrons that just happened to display themselves for our pleasure, shifting character with season and age. This is a garden designed to display the suitability of plants to place, while demonstrating the inexorable passage of time — and that may be the most natural phenomenon of all.

I left OvS before the construction of this Garden.  So did Ching-Fang Chen who inspired much of the early concept and added systematic rigor to our detailed plantings.  Principal Sheila Brady and project manager and designer Hilary Oat-Judge saw the project through construction.  Ultimately, however, it is NYBG who edited, designed, purchased, and laid out the herbaceous plantings.  The craft and skill of their staff created one of the most inspired and interesting Azalea Gardens in the world. 


  1. Wow! Wonderful. Here's a video.


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