Paul Serra, assistant curator at the Central Park Conservancy, greeted us at the Vanderbilt Gate on Fifth Avenue; he would be our guide for the 90-minute tour of the Conservatory Garden. This six-acre enclave in the northern part of Central Park is really three gardens in one: an Italian, a French and an English garden, laid out in the particular style of each country.
First came the Italian garden, with a sweeping rectangular lawn and, in the distance, a spectacular jet fountain with a raised, semicircular wisteria pergola. Bordering the lawn on either side is an allee, a tree-lined promenade. Serra explained that this classic of European garden design comes with an American touch: double rows of crab apples, the inner rows white and the outer rows pink.
In the French garden, we walked along concentric circular hedges that slowly revealed the garden’s focal point: Three Dancing Maidens, a lovely bronze statue and fountain evoking the three graces cavorting in the water. This garden wears its seasonal colors like ever-changing French style. We were there just after the peak of tulip season. Some early rose bushes — carefree wonders — were just getting ready to bloom, little slivers of red just visible on the buds, a harbinger of the floral explosion that lines the circular paths in June and July. In the autumn, chrysanthemums run riot in this garden.
On the path leading to the English Garden, Carol spotted some lovely native geraniums, their flowers a vibrant purple. I know that we’ll be seeing those in our garden next year.
At the English Garden, a euonymus hedge, ideal for shade, offered multiple entry points. Beyond it, we were greeted by a wild profusion of color, highlighted by peonies, irises, foxgloves and echinacea, or purple coneflowers. At the center of the garden, surrounded by another hedge and shaded by a Japanese crab apple, is a hidden place, a haven inspired by Frances Hodgson Burnett’ s “The Secret Garden.” In this sanctuary, benches encircle a fish pond featuring a statue of a boy playing a pipe and a girl offering the birds water to drink.
The Heather Garden in Fort Tryon Park is a long ride north on the A train to 190th Street. This garden slopes down a rocky hillside toward the Hudson River in a series of terraces and feels more like a mountain sanctuary than a flower garden. Its name comes from the varieties of heath and heather that grow there. Heaths — just so you know the difference — flower in winter and spring, and heathers in the summer, and although they are evergreens, some of them turn shades of red and silver in the winter. Huge elm trees shade the garden, and interspersed among the heather are purple irises, azaleas, bluebells, phlox and peonies. Neighborhood folks were taking advantage of the lingering twilight. One of them, Lenore Snyder, 52, comes almost every day to enjoy the flowers and views of the Palisades across the Hudson. She feels lucky, she told us, to live so close to “one of the best gardens in the city.”
Hidden away behind a steel fence in Greenwich Village, we came upon the tiny Jefferson Market Garden, only a third of an acre. Named for the market that once existed at the site, the garden is maintained by a community group. Making great use of limited space, the planting beds along the circular path teem with alliums, rhododendron, lilacs and roses. Birch, magnolia, dogwood, crab apple and Japanese pagoda trees provide lots of shade. Next door is the Jefferson Market Library, a Victorian Gothic gem and former courthouse, now a branch of the New York Public Library.
At the Battery Garden on Manhattan’s southern tip, five acres of perennials compete for attention with the dramatic backdrop of New York Harbor. Tour boats blasted their horns as thousands of visitors wandered through the many monuments to veterans, explorers, inventors and World Trade Center victims, among others. This is one of the busiest places in the city during the day. As Sigrid Gray, director of horticulture for the Battery Conservancy, pointed out, “This is a very, very public park. There’s no wall around it.”
We walked through the lovely grove of plane trees, enjoying the mild weather and spying several kinds of alliums and lots of geraniums, pansies and irises. Like our entire New York garden tour, it was a bloomin’ delight.
Lee teaches journalism at Bucknell University.