Brooklyn Botanic Backyard Turns Over a New Leaf

Only a skeletal staff in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden witnessed the cherry blossom snowstorm that was scattered by the spring breeze during the pandemic. Delicate wisteria blossoms fell over pergolas and plump roses unfolded with no recognized fans to say “Oooh”.

The garden reopened daily to a limited number of socially distant visitors in August. Now that the lively, eye-catching presentation of autumn begins, the meadow and forest gardens that were completed at the beginning of last winter are finally coming into their own. They are the culmination of years of development as the garden turns a new leaf with the selection of Adrian Benepe, a former commissioner for the New York Department of Parks and Recreation, as its new president and executive director in September.

Botanical gardens have long been an ideal of civilized, cut off, and classified nature. The Brooklyn Botanic Garden has not ditched taxonomic collecting or spectacular flower displays, but has given its intimate 52 acres an ever more ecological ethos. The new groups of plants are comparatively disordered, harboring insects and birds, and are constantly changing, with flowers, seed pods, and leaf colors constantly popping and fading.

A long-neglected 1.25 acre hillside became the Robert W. Wilson Overlook. It is now home to a winding path lined with white concrete retaining walls. It zigzags in the middle of a mature meadow that looks like calligraphic brushstrokes.

The hillside arose from excavations for the adjacent Brooklyn Museum in the early 20th century. The two glass pavilions that form the entrance and visitor center on Washington Avenue were wedged into the slope in 2012 by architects Marion Weiss and Michael Manfredi. When designing the lookout point, the architects repeated the waving grass roofs of the pavilions in the garden. The vantage point brings together attractions on the upper level that surround the museum with the core of the garden extending to the south.

The walkway also eases the three-story slope of the hillside for disabled visitors with a ramp that is gentle enough that tight railings are not required. The 680 foot serpentine path is thought-provoking as it soars gently above 26 feet. “The garden slows you down,” said Ms. Weiss.

Textures and colors are subtly improved in this way. “Grasses are prominent,” explained Tobias Wolf, the landscape architect of the lookout point. Tiny intertwined flowers, leaves, and stems hug the ground, including wild strawberries that fall over the retaining walls. Mr. Wolf compared the planting idea with “very fine, interwoven threads”, which practically created small ecological habitats. “Even in winter there is an architecture of interlocking plant stems and seed pods,” he said.

Crepe myrtles float like totems from the layers of low plantations, their summer cracker blooms are ready and their leaves are turning rusty red. The viewpoint expands its small collection with 12 new varieties. They have grown in popularity as climate change has expanded their reach north.

The Botanical Garden opened in 1911 as a collection of plants put together for appreciation and scientific study, and the new myrtle species continue that mission. At the same time, they frame views of rest stops en route to famous destinations like Cherry Esplanade and Cranford Rose Garden: formal set pieces that are reflected under the Beaux Arts splendor of the Brooklyn Museum now fenced in by wilder ones. shaggy clouds of vegetation in contrasting textures and hues.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Elizabeth Scholtz Woodland Garden, which saves an ignored corner of the Botanical Garden and redesigns it as an intensified version of a north-eastern edge of the forest.

Landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburgh created a varied understanding of shade-loving plants on the swirling paths in Brooklyn Bridge Park and his other outstanding works. The feeling is familiar yet strange, as the plantings, like at the lookout point, mix the natives with the cultivated. Elegant Asian conifers distribute their lavishly needled branches next to youthful American hardwoods. The plantings are dense and the rooms intimate with brief vistas, including the museum’s dome.

Historically, botanical gardens were created to “take you from one tableau to the next,” said Van Valkenburgh. “What we’re doing is like redesigning a museum collection,” enriching the sample exhibitions and blurring the lines between them. “We find the idea of ​​the Botanical Gardens pretty forgiving,” he added. “You can find what speaks to you.”

What at first glance looks like a roofless ruin seen through a tangle of linden trees is a walled terrace designed by Mr. Van Valkenburgh’s team. “It’s a romantic idea,” he said. “We wanted to surprise you.” Paths wind around the delicate branches of a variety of magnolia called Green Shadow. His hand can be seen all the way to the south gate on Flatbush Avenue. On more winding paths, it draws the visitor around the majestic trees of the Native Flora Garden and into a new exhibition of maple trees from Japan and China that protrude from hills with low herbaceous plantings. Younger trees that turn light yellow stand out against the still green backdrop of old trees.

In a previous project, Mr. Van Valkenburgh improved Belle’s Brook, a stream that drains the pond of the Japanese garden and runs along the western edge of a park-like lawn. The turmoil of the leaf shapes and color tones of his water-loving plants contrasts with the sober procession of collections of trees on the eastern edge – a contrast between traditional botanical splendor and fictional but authentic nature. “Although the stream looks natural and native, there are plants from all over the world,” he said. “They can be French, North American, or Japanese, but they can play together.”

The stream culminates in the Shelby White and Leon Levy Water Garden, a naturalized focal point for the Discovery Garden and Kindergarten near the southern entrance. The water garden project includes a filter system that returns the water from the stream to the Japanese garden pond, saving millions of gallons of fresh water annually.

The Woodland Garden is completing a $ 124 million master plan designed by former Botanical Garden President Judith Zuk and its former chairwoman Earl Weiner in 2000, and largely executed by Scot Medbury, who departed in January . He was replaced by Mr. Benepe, who most recently came from the Trust for Public Land.

“My first obligation is to be true to what has been done here,” said Benepe as he walked through the garden. He examines how the facility can perform when the coronavirus has made gardens and parks “more important than ever for physical and mental health.” Parks across the country are facing financial crises.

The extensive educational programs of the Botanical Garden will be continued via video. It sends plants to children to educate themselves. Mr Benepe would now welcome school children in small groups in the garden. “Science tells us that it’s safer outside than inside,” he said. The schools and the state government have not yet implemented the plan. So it’s up to the parents to bring them here to see and touch the magic.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden

990 Washington Avenue, Brooklyn; 718-623-7200, bbg.org. Advance tickets are required to participate.

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