Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chelsea Cove's entry garden and its keeper

Yucca and catnip.

In the baking sun last week I visited the Lynden B. Miller-designed entry garden at the end of West 22nd Street, near the water. She also designed the Pier 44 garden in Red Hook, Brooklyn, whose yucca flowers I admired so much in June. I had not visited this section of the Hudson River Park before. Beyond this first garden - made up of raised islands of perennials and shrubs in a sea of concrete and pavers, is a gorgeously inviting, soft arc of lawn, right on the water, with raked sides, and beyond that, a rock garden planted with native perennials and willows, and then more piers, more trees. It was quite empty, with human traffic restricted mostly to the bike path beside the West Side Highway. Vince and I will return to that grass, with a picnic. It seems quite secret.

Imperata cylindrica "Red Baron", cogon grass. 

It was quite surprising to see in this different space, miles away from Red Hook, what may be a signature of Ms Miller's: the same burgundy berberis (which is, incidentally, highly invasive, like the grass above), the same catnip, the same Spiraea thumbergii "Ogon", as well as the same yucca, albeit a striped version. Ms Miller dislikes its flowers and prefers them to be cut back. Combined, the foliage of the golden-leafed spiraea and grey catnip is very striking, and the purple mounds of berberis rolling beside the filigreed, willowy spirea compelling, so perhaps it is hard to let go of something that works.

The use of Imperata cylindrica "Red Baron", above, while visually arresting, is troubling. It is a cultivar of cogon grass, which is classified as a noxious weed in the States. Perhaps this is a deliberately politically incorrect design? Hm. Time to talk to Ms Miller, if she'll have me.

Less successful are the panting hostas, parched lady's mantle and bergenia, and crispy heuchera: the site is in blazing, full sun, and unprotected from the ripping winds that tear off the Hudson in winter. These plants are deeply unhappy, and a very odd choice. It seems impolite to post their pictures.

I was there to talk to Mimi Jorling for "Growing Curiosity", my series of interviews with gardeners, for ShelterPop. You can read the main interview there, as well as learn more about the garden. For instance, why is it red, blue and yellow?

Mimi's official title is 'maintenance technician' of the area known as Segment 5, running along the Hudson from West 22nd to West 28th Streets. Maintenance technician? Mops, buckets, wrenches and electrical wires? The job title speaks volumes about the mentality that governs our parks. But I digress.

Spirea "Ogon"

Mimi is in fact a horticulturist, a gardener, responsible for the upkeep not of the electrical outlets which dot the entry garden so that you can plug in your laptop, but for the health of the wealth of plantings in Segment 5, which was rechristened Chelsea Cove by its super star architects, Michael Van Valkenburgh and Associates (who also designed Pier 1, Brooklyn Bridge Park).

Here's Mimi (who owns the most glamorous sunglasses in New York City). She is sitting in front of some Amsonia hubrichtii, which I must catch in bloom next spring. In fall it turns solid yellow.

In what zone were you born?

I was born in Silver Spring, Maryland (Zone 6b, minimum winter temperatures of -5 to 0'F).

When did you start to garden?

As a kid. And when I lived in Montana I transplanted weeds from one place to another in the garden. I could not afford plants, then, but just knew that the weeds were not working where they were and had to be moved! My neighbor was fascinated.

What is your favourite garden chore?

Even though I am not into lawns I like weeding them; there is something meditative about it.  But only for an hour. And transplanting perennials. With my own garden in Denver I did more rearranging than was good for them.

What is your least favourite garden chore?  

Deadheading. I like the result but I don't actually want to do it. Fortunately I have a lot of volunteers who like deadheading...

Where would you like to garden?  

That is what I like about gardening: You have to deal with the space. The challenge is to use those limited things and make it work.

Where is your favourite private garden?  

No one in particular. In the city I like looking at people's front yards. There's a block in Leffert's Garden, Brooklyn - different from all the other blocks, where there is nothing. On this block each stoop has its own plants and style. And the other day in the city I saw just one special tree, maybe a cutleaf maple, with wisteria growing up the balustrade nearby. Knowing that someone is putting extra effort and energy into that one tree feels good.

Which is pretty much how I feel about things, too...


  1. She loves Prospect Park! Didn't that just make your day?

  2. I am really enjoying your series about gardeners. I would buy a book if it ever were made into one.

  3. Well, since City Hall has loosestrife, why not the grass? Even I'm thinking about planting it!

    I feel pretty much like Mimi does.

  4. Did you ask the gardener why there are problems watering some of the plants? I have to say, your shots of the garden are absolutely stunning. Gorgeous design.

    As for the invasive problem, have you found either of these plants to be invasive in the city? I haven't though I wish they were.

    I think it would be great to have these plants join the mugwort, Japanese knotweed, garlic mustard, ailanthus, black nightshade, crabgrass, etc., etc., in the city's increasingly numerous abandoned urban edges and fringes. It would certainly add to the diversity and beauty of our local flora.

    Thanks, Marie.

  5. webb, yes it did! Quite unsolicited, I might add...

    CC - thank you! Well, I'd better get to work interviewing more gardeners :-)

    frank - about the compost?

    Homask - the water question is partially addressed in the interview on Shelterpop (sandy soil, not enough organic matter), also an issue with the wrong plants in the wrong place in some cases (hosta, heuchera etc in full sun), and the irrigation not being custom-tailored to individual plant groups' needs. Everything gets the same amount of water despite various needs.

    The berberis is very bad upstate and in the Catskills, where it takes over the understorey. It can't escape too much in the city, I guess, but birds do like the berries and birds migrate right through NYC. I'll look out for it. I'd rather our native 'weeds' took over the lots :-) Solidago, asters, etc. But I do like the Japanese knotweed for edible reasons.

  6. Thanks for the watering answer, Marie. Yup, I've seen Japanese barberry naturalizing outside the city too, but not here. There are many wonderful barberry species that aren't invasive though, and they can be such elegant, colorful city plants. There is a good collection in the Synoptic Garden at Planting Fields Arboretum in Oyster Bay. I also saw the beauty of Cornus racemosa there in its autumn glory. White fruit, red stems and burgundy leaves. Nobody uses this super-tough plant.

    Solidago sempervirens is common in local abandonded lots, cracks and edges. It's a lovely plant with good broad foliage. Asters are all about too. Aster laevis is very tough with large showy flowers.

    Speaking of wildflowers, a friend passed along this link about a local trek to visit the queen of them all:


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