Rich in horticultural and historic interest, The Ladies' Border can be found at the eastern side of the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, adjacent to the Nancy Bryan Luce Herb Garden. A long, deep border filled with tender plant gems, it is unlike most gardens found in the Northeast. The plant selection pushes the limits of what would normally be considered hardy in this area, so visitors will see many plants that are not usually grown in the New York City region.
Approaching the Ladies' Border from the Herb Garden, the entrance is marked with a pair of crape myrtles (Lagerstroemia 'Muskogee' and L. 'Choctaw'). The ramp to the lowered walkway along the border and the descriptive signage indicates the beginning of the garden. To the left along the walkway is the Charles Totemeier Iris Collection, honoring the Vice President of Horticulture at NYBG from 1985 to 1990, whose leadership and enthusiasm helped to revitalize NYBG.
The NYBG Women's Auxiliary Committee, created in 1914, was instrumental in membership-building and public relations. One can imagine the many "garden parties, where the ladies served tea, lemonade, sandwiches and cake" hosted by this dedicated group of women. By the 1920's, the women were influencing the features, collections and aesthetics of the gardens at NYBG. The idea of a perennial garden, where the Ladies' Garden now exists, materialized in 1920. The newly named Women's Advisory Council asked well-known garden designer and landscape architect Ellen Biddle Shipman to plan the garden. Money was raised and Shipman's innovative, complex garden was finished in 1933. The garden was referred to as the Perennial Border, the Hardy Border, the Council Border and the Ladies' Council Border. The garden staff, informally, called it the Ladies' Border and that was the name that finally stuck.
By the year 2000, Ms. Shipman's original work in the Ladies' Border had disappeared and, with a gift to celebrate Tracy White's marriage to Lakshman Achuthan, NYBG decided it was time for a renovation in the spirit of the original design. Garden designer Lynden Miller, who had recently redesigned the nearby Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden, was chosen to create a newly innovative garden (see the Jane Watson Irwin Perennial Garden Guide for more information on Lynden Miller.)
Beyond the enjoyment and beauty of the Ladies' Border, an understanding of Plant Hardiness Zones fosters further appreciation of the distinctive aspects of Ms. Miller's design of the Ladies' Border. One aspect of plant evolution is adaptation related to extremely high and extremely low temperatures. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) has created a Plant Hardiness Zone Map for the purpose of plant selection for a particular geographic region. The USDA zone of NYBG was updated from 6A/6B when the garden was planted to 7A/7B in 2012.
The position of the Ladies Border on the eastern, sheltered side of the conservatory creates an even warmer microclimate, where the climate differs from the surrounding area. With gradual climate change, plants previously untried might perform well. This inspired Ms. Miller to experiment and showcase a border vastly different than her neighboring Perennial Garden.
Concentrating on winter and spring interest, Ms. Miller searched for plants considered "half-hardy", including Mediterranean plants. Plants were chosen from as far away as New Zealand and China and as close as the southern United States and California. Many cultivars included in her design have been hybridized especially for cold hardiness. Drainage was improved for the two hundred sixty foot long by thirty foot wide border to prepare for the planting of 1,366 individual herbaceous plants and 267 tree and shrub specimens.
Crape Myrtles (Lagerstroemia sp.) are small trees native to Asia that are valued for year-long beauty. During the summer, there is wide color variety of showy, long-lasting blooms in dense panicles. Fall leaf colors are just as diverse, turning bright yellow, orange and red. The bark on the multi-stemmed trunks peels to reveal warm colors of beige, cream, pink, red and cinnamon, fading to green-gray and red. Once considered a southern climate tree, there are six hardier cultivars, including a dwarf grouping, in the Ladies' Border.
Winter jasmine (Jasminum nudiflorum), native to China, bears beautiful but non-fragrant yellow flowers from November to March, providing welcome, winter color. Chinese paperbush (Edgeworthia chrysantha), used to make medicine and paper in China, produce fragrant, sun-like clusters of yellow flowers in late February. Amur adonis (Adonis amurensis), with single, yellow flowers borne on feathery leaves, is a member of the buttercup family (Ranunculaceae) that blooms from winter into spring. Blood-twig dogwood (Cornus sanguinea 'Midwinter Fire') has an especially vibrant bark of yellow, orange and red that lights up the garden in winter.
The Japanese apricot (Prunus mume 'Peggy Clark'), with unique, rose-pink flowers, is among the first of the cherry genus to bloom in the garden. Evergreen, spiny-leaved leatherleaf (Mahonia bealei) attracts bees, butterflies and birds with fragrant yellow sprays of flowers that turn into powdery, blue-black, grape-like berries. Sweetbox (Sarcococca hookeriana var. hookeriana) grows in dry shade with black or bright red berries forming after miniature, yet powerfully fragrant, flowers. From February though April, masses of stinking hellebore (Helleborus foetidus) display clusters of greenish-white flowers on deeply divided, dark green, evergreen leaves. One of the many spring bulbs, Portuguese squill (Scilla peruviana) has 6-inch, globe-shaped, flowers with one hundred, lavender-blue florets.
Although not a yucca, red yucca (Hesperaloe parviflora) attracts hummingbirds with tall spikes of deep, rose-pink flowers that bloom continuously until winter. Variegated Japanese aralia (Fatsia japonica 'Variegata'), an evergreen shrub, spreads its bold, palm-like, multi-colored leaves during the summer and blooms with balls of star shaped, white flowers from fall into winter. With yellow or white blooms, flecked with darker colors, South American lilies (Alstroemeria 'Casablanca' and A. 'Third Harmonic') give a non-stop performance all summer long. The citrus-smelling, orange blooms of Sundance Mexican orange blossom (Choisya ternata 'Sundance') are a bonus to the greenish-yellow, glossy leaves that provide year-round color. Annual tobacco plant (Nicotiana mutabilis) can reach heights of eight feet and blooms continually with white flowers aging to pink and then rose.
Rising above two foot, sword-like leaves, the fragrant, star-shaped, white flowers with purple throats of Abyssinian gladiolus (Gladiolus murielae) bloom from late summer into fall. David viburnum (Viburnum davidii) is a low-growing, evergreen shrub with glossy, dark green leaves and metallic, turquoise blue fruit. The brilliant burgundy foliage of Harbor Bell heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica 'Jaytee' Harbour BellTM), develops in the fall and remains throughout the winter.
On the far end of the Ladies' Border, camellias (Camellia), also native to Asia, are known and loved for their large flowers, ranging from whites, to pinks, to reds with generous amounts of yellow stamens in the center that provide interesting contrast. These shrubs and small trees have been carefully placed in the Ladies' Border because they need to be shaded from the winter sun and protected from the winter wind. Camellias are providers of winter interest as the different cultivars bloom at various times from late fall through spring and have large, glossy, evergreen leaves.
Although a magnificent garden for anyone to enjoy, the constant experimentation and testing of the limits of new plants in the Ladies' Border will be of particular interest to creative and courageous "plants-people" for years to come.
by Louise Edeiken