This is a nerdy universe, but one that Brady has learned to navigate in her career. She speaks in a sonorous voice — you wonder whether she might have made it big in radio, or at least in corners of that medium in which pensiveness and sensitivity are valued.
The garden distills half a dozen habitats but also consciously interweaves time as well as space, with bursts of interests: the fleeting spring carpets of foamflowers, trilliums and Virginia bluebells; the impending flowering of the carnivorous pitcher plants and the blue star flower; the high-summer displays of gayfeathers and coneflowers; August days perfumed by a frothy grass called prairie dropseed; or the golden and ruddy tapestry of the autumn meadow.
(Ramin Talaie/RAMIN TALAIE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Bronx, New York: Trees in bloom at the Native Plant Garden at The New York Botanical Garden deigned by Sheila Brady.
(Ramin Talaie/RAMIN TALAIE FOR THE WASHINGTON POST) - Bronx, New York: Heartleaf foamflower flowers in bloom in the Native Plant Garden at The New York Botanical Garden deigned by Sheila Brady.
As innovative as the plant schemes are in this garden, it is its architectural framework that gives it a starkly contemporary character. The garden is framed by two ridges where Brady configured the paths to take the visitor past extraordinary rock outcroppings and provide framed views.
The dominant element is a water feature in the valley between the high ground, a series of three stepped basins with dramatically curved edges. The water element is edged by a wooden promenade — don’t call it a boardwalk — made from kiln-dried American black locust. The body of water (“pond” seems so inadequate a word) is cleansed by a wetland, and the water is regulated by an underground cistern. Sophisticated aeration systems allow ice levels in winter to look good without doing damage.
At this point in her career, Brady had little difficulty finding the scale of the water feature; finding the form was far less so, until she saw a winglike sculpture by Martin Puryear on show at the National Gallery of Art. “I went to see the show and bam, I got it,” she said.
Art as a source of inspiration has been an abiding facet of her work. After she graduated from George Washington University (many of her classes were at the Corcoran), she moved to Boston, where her husband, architect John Lederer, was working. Brady, then a graphic designer, one day saw a set of plans in her husband’s office. Intrigued that lines on a page gave life to a physical world, she decided to follow her husband as an architect. But then she stumbled across the Harvard Graduate School of Design and chose instead to become a landscape architect.
In the 1970s, it was a profession gripped with the ideals of modernism and the issues of postwar suburbanization. At best, plants were thought of more as architectural elements than organisms that could form ecosystems; landscape architects viewed themselves as design professionals, not gardeners.
“The profession was almost ashamed of the word ‘landscape,’ ” said Eric Groft, who now owns OvS with Brady and a third landscape architect, Lisa Delplace. The firm is headquartered in a former bank building next to the Marine Corps Barracks, in Southeast Washington. “There were firms who didn’t let their staff touch a plant, whereas Wolfgang was out there half-naked installing gardens,” he said, referring to Wolfgang Oehme, a German designer and plantsman who settled in Baltimore and later formed the firm with James van Sweden.