Will they get it? A review of the Native Plant Garden at NYBG by Susan Cohan

July 30, 2013

in Articles, From the USA, Garden Reviews, Reviews

This is an interesting review of a garden – and, as all good reviews do – it raises an interesting question. You don’t need a postcard to let us know what your answer is….. but you do need to view the post in your browser rather than in your email. (click the link…)

Anne Wareham, editor

 A review of the Native Plant Garden at New York Botanical Garden by   

Susan Cohan:

When a new garden destination opens, I always like to wait a bit and let the crowds simmer down so I can explore it in peace. I need that space to process my ideas and to really see a place. The Oehme, van Sweden designed Native Plant Garden at The New York Botanical Gardens opened in May to gushing and effusive reviews.

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The hand of ‘The New American’ garden style attributed to Oehme van Sweden is evident throughout the 3.5 acre site that comprises more than 100,000 plants native to the Eastern Seaboard.  It is contemporary and has flashes of genius.  It is, to my eye, a clearly designed space that wants to also be natural. Vignettes abound that never occur so frequently in the wild. Some are painterly and others are dramatic. This is a garden, after all, and a teaching one at that.  It covers a lot of regional and geographic botanical territory and includes mature and new plantings.  Some areas are so densely planted that they have little room to grow and the maintenance will have to be intensive for garden crews or they’ll look awful in very little time. My favorite places were those in and bordering the woodlands that combined structural punctuation points with soft underplanting.

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The garden’s central water feature is contemporary and at first I thought it looked too jarring. After exploring the garden and giving it some thought, I understand the design philosophy that clearly places our collective responsibility for these native and wild places in a contemporary context. Sustainable materials, storm water recycling and bio filters are all unseen yet declared parts of this feature. Other areas provide shelter and food for wildlife. Signage indicates and explains natural communities in an engaging way.

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As a designer, I appreciate the subtlety of another designers hand, but wonder how many visitors will notice the details.  In some ways the garden is too natural and I suspect some won’t get it at all.  They’ll think that this is just what’s out there in the real world, when in reality it’s not.

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If the garden is to be a success, people have to stop and read and listen and look carefully to see the details.  When viewed as a whole, it could be perceived as just another messy, unmanicured space that so many find threatening because they are so far removed from the wild.

Susan Cohan, APLD

images Susan Cohan portrait






Susan Cohan’s website. Susan Cohan is a co-founder and editor of Leaf magazine. (you will find Veddw in the Spring 2012 edition…ed.)

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Antoine Artois June 19, 2014 at 7:40 pm

I live in NYC and visit the NYBG several times a year. The new native plant garden is an abomination. It looks like a sewage station was dumped right in the middle of the NYBG. It simply is too big. It doesn’t connect to anything else in its vicinity. The ‘bio purification’ system is a cruel joke on the unfortunate NYBG workers – I observed them this Spring, waist deep in the slimy muck – in an effort to clean out the ponds. Thankfully, the collection of Rosebay rhododendrons was left intact. They offer a most welcome buffer between the native forest and this disastrous ‘design’ for lack of a better word. Dull. Boring. Irrelevant. Misleading.


Kevin Barnett August 4, 2013 at 9:19 pm

is it going to be natural or another example of mans thumb suppressing and manipulating natures randomness ?


David Bowen August 1, 2013 at 1:47 pm

I’m not sure that the shorthand “contemporary” is useful, especially in reference to the water feature. The whole garden was only opened in May, so it is all “contemporary”. I think that references to materials (concrete, wood?) or shapes (too rectangular?) would be more useful. Also, perhaps, some recognition that chained ponds have been part of Eastern planting since beavers; continued in town ponds, and farms.

I guess I am also suspicious of “100,000” plants: who counted them? It sounds like a bite from a press release or brochure. How do you count plans that reproduce on runners? How do you count grasses?


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