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Between the Rows

Between the Rows: Monks Garden magic

Last week, I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to meet the noted landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg and hear him speak about how he approached the challenge of redesigning the Monks Garden. He said that Isabella Stewart Gardner herself acknowledged that she was never satisfied with the small, walled garden she called the Monks Garden. “That gave me the confidence and courage ... to make a garden for the future of the museum.”

Certainly the Monks Garden has been transformed. The last time I visited, a year or two ago, it seemed very bare and brown. In fairness, it was a gray early spring day and my mood may not have been the best. Now, the Monks Garden was a sun-dappled woodland, with groundcovers of hellebores and ferns. It was a surprise to enter this enchanted space that is so different from the structured geometry of the interior Courtyard.

Van Valkenburg said, “I wasn’t trying to channel Isabella Stewart Gardner ... but her museum is not a practical place. The garden doesn’t have to be a practical place. The paths are not practical. They don’t have to take you from point A to point B. They don’t have to take you anyplace.” He wanted the garden to be a place where you could get lost.

Anne Hawley, director of the museum said, “Michael responded to the spirit of the museum, which is totally mad. It is just a romp.”

Hawley later explained that the final decision to choose Van Valkenburg came after she visited his own garden on Martha’s Vineyard. She said it was ‘beguiling.” I was certainly beguiled, gladdened and delighted as I wandered through this magical woodland. The 7,500-square-foot garden feels spacious even though it is hemmed in on one side by the Palace and by a curving high brick wall on the other two.

The undulating dark brick paths, subtly brightened by schist blocks, often wind close to each other and sometimes actually kiss, and yet you can rarely see across the planting bed to the opposite path. As I walked the paths, I soon began to notice that there were subtle changes in grade. This garden was not flat. The dark brick paths narrow and swell, but they also rise and fall. I think this is another one of the elements that make this garden seem so much larger than it is.

There are many kinds of ground-cover plants from the hellebores that will bloom, to evergreens like Christmas fern and European ginger with its shiny leathery leaves. When these plants have settled in and put out their own new growth, visitors to the garden will have an even greater sense of privacy.

Amazingly, the Monks Garden was installed just this year. It is a very new garden. Van Valkenburg talked about the ephemerality of a garden. We gardeners know that a garden is never the same from week to week. Certainly, when early spring arrives next year and the bulbs, hepaticas and hellebores come into bloom, no one will remember this fall’s sheen of newness.

Van Valkenburg said one of the goals of the plan was to stretch the seasons. Although there was only one brave hellebore blossom last week, there will be flowers rising through the ground covers over a long season. Four varieties of camellia, in shades of white and pink, will bloom spring and fall. Several stewartia trees will come into bloom in July with their camellia-like flowers. Daylilies and tall cimicifuga will follow. Several climbing hydrangeas have been planted against the brick wall, another rich variation that will grow over the years.

The small, slow-growing trees will bring their own color that will carry even into winter. The foliage of the paperbark maples and stewartias provide good autumn color. In the winter, the paperbark maple has beautiful exfoliating bark in shades of cinnamon and reddish brown, the gray birch has chalky white bark, while the stewartia has a subtly mottled bark providing substantial interest.

The one large tree in the garden is an ancient katsura with rough gray bark growing against the brick wall, lending an air of majesty to this very informal garden.

Van Valkenburg has designed large parks and urban sites. He has won prizes and awards for his work, including the 2003 National Design Award in Environmental Design awarded by the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and the 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects Design Medal. Still, he says he always remembers the advice given him when he was beginning his own business. Kevin Lynch, the noted urban planner and designer, told him to make as many gardens as he can. Along with large projects like the 85-acre Brooklyn Bridge Park, which is still under construction, he has always maintained a consistent focus on small-scale gardens.

And that brought him to the end of his talk with a beaming smile as he invited us into the Monks Garden saying, “I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun making a garden.”

Readers can leave comments at Pat Leuchtman’s Web site: www.commonweeder.com. Leuchtman has been writing and gardening in Heath at End of the Road Farm since 1980.

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