How do you open a $15 million public garden, New York-style?
You invite a tramload of benefactors, give them an elegant lunch in a historic stone barn, and when you cut the ribbon, you sing a couple of verses of “America the Beautiful” — with the help of an international opera star — in this case, Simon O’Neill, a tenor also tackling Wagner at the Met.
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.
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.
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.
With aplomb, they called their style “the New American garden” and evoked images of a lost prairie. Their designs were not necessarily new or American, but they were using massings of grasses and perennials to create blocks of color and texture in a way that was novel and gained attention. About half the plants were of American origin, although some had been given legitimacy in Europe. Payne likens it to jazz, which had to go to Europe to be fully appreciated in its homeland.
Oehme died in 2011. Van Sweden, in declining health, retired two years ago.
In the 1980s, Brady was working for a major landscape architecture firm in Alexandria and came across an image of a seaside garden Oehme and van Sweden had designed on Long Island. “I really loved working with plants. I don’t know where that came from — maybe because I worked in the garden with my mother,” Brady said. One of seven children, she grew up in Westchester County, N.Y., but moved to Bethesda when she was 13. “So I had seen this incredible image that went right to my fine arts background. I wanted to use plants in a more painterly way. I called them up.”
In her interview with van Sweden, she found someone who also looked to modern art as a way to think about plant groupings. They both were drawn in particular to the color field paintings of Helen Frankenthaler.
As Brady, Groft and Delplace forged ahead, they found themselves well placed in a profession that has become far more ecologically driven, plant friendly and focused on designs that cool the city, trap and clean stormwater, and reduce energy use. Through the years, Brady and her colleagues have broadened the plant palette, brought in more native flora and put them together in more complex and layered schemes.
This is especially found at the Chicago Botanical Garden, where Brady led the design of two major areas.
Her work there helped convince the New York institution to award what was a plum contract to OvS amid stiff competition. The botanical garden occupies 250 acres in a green oasis in the Bronx. OvS was selected because of its long history of using plants boldly, Forrest said, but it was “Sheila’s recent work that sealed the deal,” he said. “It was only going to be successful if the plants read beautifully.”
Purists talk of using “indigenous” plants found close to a given locale, but Brady and Payne freely used plants from Virginia to Maine.
The interface of ecology and horticulture is often a fractious one. Native plant advocates argue that the widespread use of introduced plants — burning bush, privet and wisteria, for example — has led to the degradation of natural areas and the wildlife food web by invasive exotics. But the new garden is meant as a positive example, Forrest said, not as some sort of gardening imperative.
“If it was a scolding idea, we would have impaired our ability to inspire people,” he said.“It’s our generation’s contribution to the institution’s 120-year history of engaging people with plants of the Northeastern United States,” Forrest said.
Its contemporary design anchors it in its time. Brady said when future generations look back on the garden, she hopes people will see it as “the real integration of ecology and site and design and horticulture.”