In gardens as in life we get to constantly make choices. Making a garden look effortless and natural is a great compliment, but effortless it is not. Once you stop seeing the choices that are made in a garden and instead feel how whole and natural the experience is you know you are in the company of greatness.
I think of my young forays into ballet and remember realizing somewhere along the line that the difference between me and the prima ballerina was at least 15 to 20 years of training for several hours a day. Gardening can be the same kind of endeavor. It is an accomplishment in slight of hand usually. You want the visitor of the garden to forget you were there at all, but in truth every single moment was carefully practiced hundreds of times before.
With Peit Oudolf‘s garden at Battery Park I wanted to spend a few minutes just appreciating some of these magic moments. When I think about a master at his level, someone who searches out plants on foreign continents and works in collaboration with other plantsman to grow new varieties to expand the expressiveness of his garden pallet, I can feel a little overwhelmed. But these are humble choices. Choices that you make for a love of the materials and the experience. Choices that you get to observe if you love the materials and experience too.
I started really thinking about this by the memorial in the park. Large granite tomes with the names of the remembered sit facing the setting sun, from behind a huge dark bronze eagle is their protector. This sculpture is at the center of the park and opens the park to light as much of the park is protected by trees. This lighting effect draws your eyes in, and your feet follow. Somber colors flank the platform, and the pink halo of the Heucheras soften the scene like rose tinted glasses.
Another architectural element in the garden at a distance from the memorial is carefully hidden. Large vents in the center of the beds bring fresh air into a by building. All evidence of this is obscured, however, by mounding plants all along the sides, leaving only small views of light gray bars, reminiscent in shape, length, color, and matte texture to the wide crushed rock pathways.
The pathways, deep and wide, seem to serve another purpose besides grounding and carrying people. They also seem to tame the beds and elevate the sense of refinement. The paths feel like white value on a canvas balanced against the green. It creates a kind of necessary tension since the only other main structural elements are the large Sycamore trees holding up the forest canopy.
With these wide esplanades you can also see the drifts of grasses and flowers cascading over and brushing the edge of the walk. This is perhaps where the eye first becomes aware of the shape of the grasses in soft outline against the gravel. Flowers too jut out as you walk along the softly turning corners to experience their beauty isolated in relief for a moment. Massed inside the bed are drifts of Echinacea ‘Sunset’, Agastache ‘Apricot Sprite’, and faded giant Alliums.
The edge of the walks are lined with an 18 gauge sheet metal that helps to create the flowing sinuous lines between the flowers and the gravel. Just enough of a rise, maybe 4” keeps the gravel and feet from straying. I have recently been experimenting with sheet metal as bed liners and for box steps back filled with gravel and have been so happy with the easy lines 24 gauge makes.
Sunlight filters down from above and lights up a Perovskia complementing some of the same hues as the distant background. This play of color between foreground and background makes the space feel lighter and more dynamic. It almost has a reflective quality, reflecting the colors of the background.
A quick look inside one of the beds you see wonderful bold stokes of blue-green grass. Whites glance off the grass leaves pulling it together with the Perovoskia. A playful mint with purple hued pompoms is the cherry on top for this visual treat.
Perovskia in mass takes on the wave qualities of a grass and creates a solid wall that just hints at the kiosk behind it. The rusty red of the bed liners and the kiosk show up beautifully against a restful plant pallet.
Dreamy combination of Heuchera ‘Caramel’ and the green velvet sheen of its chevron neighbor Persicaria filiformis ‘Lance Corporal’. All the photos look like they are in soft focus but Piet Oudolf has actually created a whole garden in soft focus. Below you see the same plants again but this time combined with the lovely bark of a Sycamore trunk and Euphobia myrsinities. Even the Euphorbia with its smooth leaves manages to have that soft matte quality to it.
Another plant besides the Euphorbia that did well under the Sycamores were the Hostas. This plant seem to love the humidity of the east coast, these huge blue gray leaves were stunning under the elephantine Sycamore trunks. They were the water lilies floating on the grasses in this landscape.
The Hosta’s create a visual resting point at a distance from any achitectural element like the water fountain. But the feeling of water is everywhere.
Like Hostas, Heucheras can be very compact and full. Without their blooms Heuchera ‘Caramel’ in a mass can be difficult to seg way into a soft fine grass. Here you see it combined with an elegant addition.
Notice below how the pink stems help to tie the two plants together, while the long st0cks and paw shaped green leaves pull the height and color of the neighboring grasses in. Without this mystery plant there would be no flow between the two plantings.
Large rough hewn stones line the outer edge of the park like masiv bulk heads on a river.
The rounded battery in the background. A reminder of keeping safe those things we cherish.
The lapping sound of cool water hitting the pavement. A circle of benches surround the fountain filled with contented spectators. Somehow getting to see the honey colored light grow more fiery and the long shadows grow taller, while in the company of friends, signals a day well spent. I like to imagine Piet Oudolf knew this too.
p.s. The View from Federal Twist blog site by the excellent James Golden has more photos and plant names from a visit he made to the park in August 2008. Recommended.