A true, living museum, the Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden at NYBG is a half acre of herbaceous perennials inter-planted with shrubs, bulbs, biennials, ornamental grasses, annuals and small trees, ensuring a lush garden and botanical interest for the entire year. Like a collage, this exciting garden is full of surprise, balance and flow, utilizing plant color, shape, size and texture. As when walking through a museum, the focus in the garden is constantly changing to reveal something new. Areas with an almost jungle-like appearance move delicately into more formal, quiet sections. Intense colors resolve into a more soothing palette. Masses of plantings end in a single focal point. Different heights and shapes of plantings create a visual flow. Changing seasons provide a constantly shifting landscape.
Visitors have much to do besides admiring the design, beauty and fragrance of the garden; plants are labeled for those interested in learning, benches are available for resting, photography is encouraged and tours are available. For fauna lovers, hawks soar above, while hummingbirds dart about below. Butterflies, bees and praying mantises enrich the experience.
Summer is peak season and the garden pops with color utilizing a different palette for each section. Because every flower color imaginable is present, and leaf colors of red, green, yellow, silver-grey, blue and purple are abundant, it is through the use of organized design and artistic structure that the garden achieves unity and clarity.
Fall brings a new set of colors as leaves change to reds, yellows and browns with a stunning array of both bold and muted colors. Fall flowering plants bring new yellows, purples, reds, pinks and whites into play. The proof that summer is over is the maturing seedpods and berries that add another layer to the portrait of the garden.
Winter brings a new beauty to the garden. Designed to have tremendous winter interest, especially on snow-covered days, the “bones”, or foundation plantings, of the perennial garden seem to have their own rhythm. There is a great variety of tree bark and plant shapes that might be missed during the growing season. While typically a restful, quiet time in the garden, there is still color and structure in the evergreens, deciduous tree and shrub branches, persistent herbaceous seed stalks and the rare winter bloom, to brighten even the dullest winter day. Look for expanding, colorful buds of spring bloomers throughout this season.
Spring in the garden is awash with swatches of colors as the promise of warmer weather arrives. Masses of colorful tulips, daffodils and other ephemeral bulbs are surrounded by shrubs and trees with emerging leaves of green, red and yellow announcing the end of winter. Perennials start pushing up from the clean, brown beds and clusters of flowers emerge on early, spring, flowering trees.
Modernist landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley originally designed the Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden, along with several other gardens surrounding the Conservatory Building, in the 1970’s. He created an ordered, geometric garden based on a grid of squares. The plantings were organized around plant families, emphasizing their botanical relationships. In 1975, the garden was dedicated to the memory of Jane Watson Irwin. A partial redesign in 1982, by David T. Scheid and William H. Einhorn, simplified the Kiley garden and renewed the plantings.
The garden that exists today owes its vision to Lynden B. Miller and two major renovations since she became the principal designer in 1987. Ms. Miller is a masterful horticulturist whose knowledge of plants and the conditions in which they thrive, from soil improvement to maintenance, helps bring success and vitality to the garden. But it is Ms. Miller’s background as a painter and her vision of garden creation as art that have made her a successful public space garden designer. She paints with plant colors and sculpts with plant forms, treating the garden as a three dimensional composition. Using the garden and its surroundings as a canvas, Ms. Miller brings together contrasting elements to form cohesion. For example, a pruned, round shrub is placed next to something tall and columnar, a softer shape next to a more defined shape, a bold color next to it’s opposite complementary color, or large leaves next to smaller ones. Repetition of plants ties the garden together. Symmetry of plantings near entranceways or walkways provides structure and formality.
Ms. Miller redefined each section or “room” of the garden, highlighting them in a unique way inspired by traditional English perennial gardens. A yew hedge was planted to frame the garden and define the space. Glancing into the garden from the entrance on the Conservatory Plaza, one can see into the middle of the gardens to an armillary with a grapevine growing on it in the “Hot Room”. Continuing through the garden down the walkway towards the “Ladies’ Border” and past the lush, shade garden on the right, the observers eye is drawn to the end focal point, an enormous terra cotta pot. The third walkway, separating the “Hot” and “Cool” Rooms, starts and ends with symmetrical shrubs and has a more formal feel with its repetition of Japanese holly and annuals.
As in all gardens, Ms. Miller and the garden staff tweak and rethink planting decisions when needed, continually nurturing the plants and the design. But in 2003, Ms. Miller consulted on a major renovation of this garden resulting in newly paved paths, reconfigured beds, 2,000 new plants and even a new entrance from the Conservatory walkway. Water and irrigation systems were also replaced.
Entering from the Conservatory Plaza, the first room, the Fall Room, is designed for peak performance of color and texture in the fall.
The smallest of the rooms, with only four small beds, is the Bog Room. Originally designed as a garden for moisture-loving plants, the Bog Room now utilizes the same design aspects found in the other rooms, with an emphasis on adding native plants and increasing plant diversity.
With its center island armillary as its focal point, this bold garden is ablaze with drifts of red, orange and deep yellow flowers or foliage brought out by dark blues and grey foliage.
Shaded by a large white pine, the flowers and foliage of this garden are pinks, blues, purples and grays, with, again, dark red foliage. The shady areas especially depend on foliage and form as well as bloom.
The Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden is a showplace where home gardeners and garden lovers alike can enjoy and learn about the diverse, complex plant world.
by Louise Edeiken