Monday, February 3, 2014

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.


  1. I look forward to reading more.

    1. Thank you for your interest, Layanee. I hope to benefit from your comments this winter. -Harry

  2. "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." Nicely said. Now, if only the other seasons could do that, too, we might bridge garden and the rest of nature outside the garden a bit better.

    1. Thanks for this, Benjamin. I don’t think I can completely resist the compulsion to ‘understand’ these gardens, or the urban nature that surrounds them. But I agree that it’s important to try from time to time. I hope you will help keep me honest on that count during this series. –Harry

  3. What a thoughtful beginning.

    Thank you Harry.

    John in California

    1. Thank you John. I will try to help keep winter alive for you, over there in warmer climes. Snow envy was a big part of my childhood and college day, in Texas and California, so I can relate. –Harry

  4. Hello, Thomas-

    Your blog has been one of my two favorites for a few years now; I enjoy Serenity in the Garden as well, for its simplicity. Thank you for your work. I'm sure you read that often though; let me share back story to give it weight.

    Design has been my life. I live and breathe it; it's my metaphor and lens.

    After giving birth to my child, Juniper, now 3, I went through two years of "not-so-great-stuff" as her father recused himself from our lives. I lost everything, including the freelance practice his wealth somewhat subsidized (advertising, marketing, website, newspaper column, etc). I haven't designed in a few years, grappling to reground and recreate security for then-1-year old Juniper and myself. I also lost my participation in APLD (Association of Professional Landscape Designers) which was a wonderful support system in developing my career. As my daughter is proving intelligent, delightfully independent and high spirited, her time at Montessori is freeing up mine. I look forward to this season and re-emerging.

    Your blog has been an intelligent connection to the culture of our field. I save reading it for time outside of computer obligations, when our attention spans are by necessity maybe 1-3 minutes!

    I look forward to the next few months of your winter design series. Please consider researching Lauren Springer-Ogden as you delve further into the naturalistic design movement. She has helped to discover for us Westerners and define for our region naturalistic design- through 3 books and two decades of work in the Rocky Mountains. She was a main player in the New West Renaissance of the 90s, spurred by our drought and growing demands on Western water. Her work sparkles through all 4 seasons and she has been the biggest inspiration in my own explorations. Watching her genius grow is exciting. Piet's explosion has been like manna to us. We're excited to see what we've been doing for decades finally take main stage in our field!

    Cheers, bravo & thank you! Genevieve

    1. Genevieve,

      Thank you so much for your comment. And for sharing your story. I can’t pretend to understand the loss and tremendous transition you have survived. You have my utmost respect and admiration. I have a three year old as well who has just started Montessori, and the freedom that has given us enables us to reinvest in our avocations in more meaningful ways. I can only imagine what that must mean to you as well.

      And thanks for the kind words on the blog. I’m glad you can see through the soap box rants and silly debates to the endlessly interesting world that is our engagement with nature, artifice, and the garden. I, too, am looking forward to Harry Wade’s series on NY’s naturalistic landscapes. His writing is thoughtful, moving, and honest.

      I have already reached out to Lauren. I completely agree with you about her pioneering role in western landscapes. I can’t imagine celebrating the new style in planting without honoring her contribution. I’m so glad you shared that.
      Wishing you the very best on your journey. You have inspired me.

      Happy gardening!


  5. Hi Harry,
    Great guest post. I wonder if you would ever consider starting a small meetup to create group visits of these spaces? Thought it might be a good way to bring the online world back into the 'real world.'

    1. Thanks Olivia. Real world park visits, even in THIS weather, are a top goal of this series, along with comments about the parks.

      Let's explore how to coordinate virtual and in-person discussion after the next post in the series, on James Corner Field Operations' Muscota Marsh Park, coming soon.

    2. Excited to hear more. Thanks Harry!

    3. Greetings, Olivia. I am revisiting your garden visit suggestion after posting a piece on Muscota Marsh Park. James Golden prudently suggests that we wait a bit for slightly warmer weather, so if you agree, I will propose details in a few weeks, as I post pieces on a couple more gardens before they enter full spring mode.

      Looking forward to seeing you,



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