Amid this cultivated scene one recent Friday, you might have noticed a petite woman in a black dress, a lime-green scarf and with piercing blue-gray eyes. She seemed both joyful and a little detached, as though she were an artist taking it all in, which, as it turns out, she was. “It was just a whirlwind, and really great,” said Sheila Brady, the designer of the New York Botanical Garden’s new native plant garden.
Brady is a Washington-based landscape architect who has spent much of the past five years working on the garden with her colleagues at Oehme van Sweden Landscape Architects — OvS — alongside a team at the botanic garden.
Together they have created an exemplary garden — important to the institution and significant to the cause of contemporary landscape design and horticulture.
The garden rejects a conventional idea of presenting native flora as replicated eco-systems and instead gathers American plants with a gardener’s eye for color, texture, combinations, seasonal peaks and other aesthetic ambitions. The planting schemes are complex, and besides the mind-boggling number of plants involved — 90,000 perennials, grasses, bulbs, shrubs and trees in a 31
2-acre area — Brady and her collaborators have used varieties bred for improved garden performance.
For Brady, the project is a huge professional milestone. In Washington, the firm’s high-profile public work has included the National World War II Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and the diplomatic campus in Van Ness known as the International Chancery Center.
The new garden sits on the site of a wildflower garden that has origins in the 1930s. Over the years, various habitats in miniature lost definition and coherence. “The inspiring display went out the window,” said Todd Forrest, the botanical garden’s vice president of horticulture and living collections.
The idea driving the new garden might be clear, for all its novelty, but its execution was anything but simple: Brady and Jody Payne, director of the native plant garden, pored over lists of as many as 3,000 species before whittling them to less than 500. Over two years, crews have installed such familiar fare as goldenrods and asters, and others known only to the cognoscenti. Brady points out a carpet of a wispy grasslike sedge that grows in dry shade and whose botanical name tells of its origins: Carex appalachica. “This is the finest textured of all the carexes,” she said.
In the woodland in particular, where plants have to be aggressive to flourish, the key was to pair flora that would play nicely together. This might mean picking a fern that clumps rather than spreads by rhizomes, or replacing a common species of mountain mint with a more demure one.