Most people go to New York for the shopping, or to watch a Broadway show, or to scout out locations from their favorite sitcoms. Not me. I went to New York City for the gardens.
Of course, I was curious about the city itself. I made my pilgrimage to the Met, wandered Park and Madison Avenues, and ate Lox and bagels in Brooklyn. Despite its concrete jungle reputation, New York City has incredible public spaces. Among them, sensational public gardens.
So, when I finally got my act together and booked a flight out to New York City last June, I had a generous list of gardens to visit. At the top of the list, Wave Hill in the Bronx.
I first heard of Wave Hill through Ken Druse’s 1996 book ‘The Collector’s Garden’. This glossy book with its incredible tales of domestic plant collectors through the last decade of the 20th century inspired me with the potential joys of a plant obsessive’s life. And it offered Wave Hill as the epitome of what a plant lover’s public garden could be. The photos captured my teenage imagination - flaming autumn sumacs spilling down towards the Hudson, hot-colored tropical borders blazing with scarlet ‘Bishop of Llandaff’ dahlias, dramatic potted vignettes dripping with honey-colored brugmansia and gawky bristling Pachypodium lamerei higher than an adult’s head.
Twenty years after the publication of ‘The Collector’s Garden’, I woke at 7 and dragged myself to the closest subway station from the friends’ apartment in Brooklyn where I was staying (thanks, Casey & Matt!). Two trains, two bus lines, a few weird conversations with strangers, and a I found myself in a leafy lane in the Bronx, disgorged from the bus along with a crowd of pastel-clothed churchgoers.
A short stroll later, past picket-fenced houses and overgrown hedges, I found the gate to Wave Hill. When I emerge through the shrub-masked parking lot, I’m thrilled by the expanse of lawn sweeping out towards the river view (Here’s a map in case you’re as easily disoriented as me). To my right, the Flower Garden is spread like a glorious three-dimensional carpet. Directly in front of me, framing the edge of the bluff, is the pergola overlook. To my left, woodland. It’s a spacious and endlessly interesting view.
Plant nerd that I am, I turned instantly to the Flower Garden. Four powder-blue obelisks rise above pillows, mounds, and cushions of bloom. The standout plants are Hydrangea arborescens (I’m guessing ‘Anabelle’), iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule), siberian iris, and black-whiskered white-star nigella. Flickers of blue and white larkspur rise above the mass of rounded plants. Sweet peas and clematis twine around the obelisks.
While the in-ground plantings are lovely and varied, the stars of the Flower Garden are the potted vignettes. Being early summer, the cool-season annuals are still in full bloom. Sherbetty iceland poppies (Papaver nudicaule), canteloupe-hued California poppies (Eschscholzia californica), nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus), and pansies were full of vibrant bloom. One of the most intriguing vignettes was composed of dark red and brown-hued plants: a dark chocolatey-flowered nasturtium (I’m guessing ‘Black Velvet’), a purple and green fingered coleus, chartreuse cut-leaf sweet potato vine (could be ‘Illusion Emerald Lace’, ‘Solar Power Lime’,‘Goldfinger’), and - star of the show - a rich brown nicotiana.
I’m guessing, since this is Wave Hill, that these may be the legendary ‘Ken’s Coffee’ strain selected by Ken Druse. I’ve grown a few of the weirder nicotianas and am especially interested in the dark-colored strains. ‘Hot Chocolate’ is an older strain, veering towards more burgundy hues. Chocolate Flower Farm has their own special selection called ‘Chocolate Smoke’, which is supposed to be more clearly brown. I haven’t grown Ken’s strain, but these plants at Wave Hill had a rich color and stunning green eyes. Please, somebody, do a comparative trial of these different chocolate varieties.
After my investigation of all the treasures in the Flower Garden, I was lucky to wander the rest of the garden with my friend, the always phenomenal Lindsey Kerr (now curator and garden manager at Lord & Schryver Conservancy in Salem, Oregon). Lindsey gave me great insight into the secrets of fine gardening on the East Coast. We marveled together at the incredible edited self-sown annual combinations in the wild garden. Glowing golden verbascum towers and blue larkspur wands sparkle through the contorted stems of the sprawling sumacs that I’d fallen in love with years ago in those “Collector’s Garden” photos.
I came to Wave Hill hoping to find an inspired and inspiring collection of plants, arranged for aesthetic delight. The garden gave more. It’s gardened with a light and joyful hand. It’s playful to a degree that I’ve rarely seen, and which is incredibly hard to achieve. It more than lives up to the promise that I’d gleaned so many years ago. And it’s at the top of the list to return to on my next visit to NYC.