Parks, plants, and people Beautifying the urban landscape

Lynden B. Miller

Book - 2009

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New York : Norton c2009.
Main Author
Lynden B. Miller (-)
1st ed
Physical Description
206 p. : col. ill. ; 27 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • All over town: the conservatory garden and other projects
  • Elements of a successful public space
  • The art of garden design: mixed plantings for year-round interest
  • Soil
  • Maintenance
  • Volunteers
  • Advocacy
  • Private funding and benefits for business
  • The power of plants and parks.
Review by Choice Review

Miller (urban design, New York Univ.) has an aesthetic foundation as an abstract artist, horticultural training, and a lifelong endeavor of designing gardens both as a volunteer and entrepreneur. Here, the author brings her eclectic background to the task of writing a mostly how-to manual for creating urban gardens in environmentally challenged public spaces. She writes for a broad audience and uses the first person throughout. She postulates that landscaping helps society adapt to its self-inflicted urban environment and its often "brutalistic" architecture. The book offers effective instruction on funding, designing, and even advocacy of urban gardens. The author's less then rigorous mixing of sociological theories with beautifully applied horticulture weakens an otherwise inspiring text. Miller's ideas are an effective reaction to the engineering marvels of Robert Moses, the minimalism of public capital budgets, and the austere modernist movement in architecture. This book has color photographs throughout, an accessible text, a resource directory, a list of plants, and for all urban dwellers, a touch of hope. Summing Up: Highly recommended. Academic, professional, and public libraries, all levels. D. E. Cleary York College

Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by New York Times Review

WINTER is setting in, our gardens are full of dried stalks of whatnot and our backs are just beginning to recover from the miles of rows we hoed, right? Be honest now: how many of you actually put in those vegetable gardens we kept reading about last spring? I thought so. Book publishers seem to have made a collective decision that they asked too much of us. Everywhere you turned, it was helpful advice and more than a dash of sanctimony - in the service of raising everything from gourds to goats. This winter, it seems we are to plan our vacations instead. Japanese gardens are making a good show, with four new books devoted to an art form that has been cultivated and refined over 14 centuries. I find Japanese gardens stunning in their austere beauty, but I can sympathize with people who want to know where the garden is, exactly - you mean those rocks? For a swift but interesting overview of the arcane and elegant discipline of placing stones and capturing water, turn to INCOMPARABLE JAPANESE GARDENS (IBC, $24.95), by the photographer Gorazd Vilhar and his writing partner, Charlotte Anderson, who have been based in Japan since 1985. In her introduction, Anderson acquaints the reader with the Sakuteiki, the oldest known aesthetic gardening text, written nearly a thousand years ago, which outlined the essential considerations - waterfalls "should always face the moon" - for the design of gardens that can still be viewed today. "Incomparable Japanese Gardens" is a book to buy for its pictures, with nearly 200 pages of arresting images from Kyoto, Tokyo and beyond. These are uncaptioned throughout, a deliberate decision, I assume, to leave viewers to their meditations. But I couldn't shake my Western rationalistic manner and had to know what I was looking at, which meant much flipping back and forth to the caption section at the end. Having gone to all that trouble, I wish I'd been given more than a sentence of explanation for each picture. One way to prod a clod like me into a place of metaphysical receptiveness is to induce exhaustion. THE JAPANESE GARDENS: Kyoto (Ple, paper, $34.50) is nearly incomprehensible in its organization. I had that sinking feeling you get at the end of a trip, when you flip through your haphazard deck of souvenir postcards and realize you can't remember what went with what. I gave up trying to figure it out. Still, it was worth ambling through the pages to stumble on "Poets' Gardens," a charming essay by Hidetaro Sugimoto about the Ryoanji rock garden. "Smiling, weeping, laughing, playful," he notes, "in their many faces, gardens are just like people." Marc Peter Keane is the undisputed American master of Japanese garden scholars; he is also an educator and garden designer in his own right. Two of his previous books, "Japanese Garden Design" and "The Art of Setting Stone," are indispensable. His latest, THE JAPANESE TEA GARDEN (Stone Bridge, $59.95), opens with an evocative scene of people arriving for a tea ceremony. "The important thing is that a guest be neat and clean as an expression of respect for the host and of purity of mind. No one wears jewelry or uses perfume or cologne, those being too worldly and distracting." Since tea gardens have had a major impact on the design of Japanese gardens in general, this book is a necessary addition to the library of any serious student. The rest of us will enter with humility - mindful of the small door through which one must crawl into the tea room - and sip slowly. The sweeping historical ambition of this work emphasizes the connection between social and economic change and the development of tea gardens. In the 16th century, for example, moss was a sign of decrepitude and poor housekeeping; that it went on to become a revered element in Japanese gardens represents "a paradigm shift," Keane notes, "as to what constitutes beauty." We learn that stepping stones not only create beautiful patterns on the ground and keep feet dry but also slow the visitor's pace. It's impossible to be in a hurry and expect to understand anything about Japanese gardens - a lesson that holds for understanding life in general. Yin, yang and yen: Those rocks really do it for me. I'm enchanted by the contemplation of precisely raked waves of sand and pebble, and I don't think it's just because I'm in awe of the meticulous housekeeping required to maintain such tranquil vistas. It is, rather, my yearning response to all forms of minimalism: Oh, for the simple life, undisturbed by the hyper-stimulation of modernity, unattached to material possessions, untouched by messy reality. "In this newly induced state of mind," Stephen Mansfield writes in JAPANESE STONE GARDENS: Origins, Meaning, Form (Tuttle, $24.95), "the essential symbolism of the garden elements, stones standing for the eternal structure of the universe, sand and gravel for the temporary nature of the phenomenal world, reveals itself." How can you not be enthralled by the Kyokusui no Niwa (Garden of the Undulating Stream), which "takes its name from an ancient Japanese ceremony called Doll Floating, in which dolls were sent down rivers on miniature boats, carrying off bad luck with them." Though I do wish photographers wouldn't shoot in the glare of noon, this survey of the best of Japan's stone gardens may send you into the sort of fugue state in which you wake up to find yourself floating through the airport, boarding pass in hand. Those whose sensibilities are roused by the splashy exuberance of mixed borders will welcome the release of the revised edition of HIDCOTE: The Making of a Garden (Norton, $45), by Ethne Clarke. Hidcote, along with Sissinghurst and Great Dixter, is one of England's most beloved - and most-visited - gardens, welcoming more than 100,000 tourists yearly. Some claim that it's the most influential garden of the 20th century, and in the face of the politely intense snobbery of which only English gardeners are capable, it's particularly delicious that Hidcote was created by an American, Lawrence Johnston. Hidcote was, as Ciarke relates, the first property to be taken on by the esteemed National Trust on the strength of its gardens alone, thus preserving it for the future. My only complaint with this book is that the pictures are perversely mingy. The occasion of a second edition, 20 years after the first, is the discovery of persona! information pertaining to Johnston, a confirmed bachelor whose circle included Henry James and Edith Wharton. Hidcote combines informal, almost naturalistic planting with the more formal structure of the Italian garden, with its green rooms and strong visual axes. But an equally fascinating axis revealed in this book is the one that connects mother and son. This Eden was created by a shy, enigmatic man who, when lost among the roses, could shake off the "short rein" on which his formidable mother held him. Tree lovers lucky enough to visit Hidcote will never forget the sight of the glorious cedar of Lebanon around which the entire garden was planned - not that we get a good look at it in this book. It's surprising how rarely garden books actually focus on trees; rather, they become just another consideration of landscaping. But there's nothing more satisfying than planting a woodland garden, even if you have to plant the woodland first. For gardeners who want to incorporate trees into their designs, I highly recommend the new SiBLEY GUIDE TO TREES (Knopf, $39.95). David Allen Sibley is the artist and author responsible for several excellent bird books (mine are well thumbed), and his tree guide holds its own against the Audubon series. His paintings manage the neat trick of being both evocative and accurate; the telling details are clearly articulated. Top, a characteristic visual axis from "Hidcote"; above, a diagram from an old gardening manual in "Japanese Stone Gardens." Trees are in the front line when it comes to suffering the effects of climate change. Consider, for example, the thousands of acres of lodgepole pines in Colorado and Wyoming that are being consumed by the relentless pine-bark beetle, a pest that is thriving in our milder winters. This is a good time, then, to become more sensitive to the enriching presence of trees. "Our lives are intertwined with trees in countless ways," Sibley writes, "and they remind us that we are not simply neighbors, but part of an integrated community." EDITH WHARTON and Henry James did get around. We bump into them again in BEATRIX FARRAND: Private Gardens, Public Landscapes (Monacelli, $60), by Judith B. Tankard. Farrand, who was Wharton's niece, created some of the most important gardens in the United States, including the spectacular rose garden at the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx (on whose board I serve), the East Garden at the White House and Dumbarton Oaks in Washington, D.C. Her client list reads like a Who's Who of the early 20th century: she worked for Theodore Roosevelt, J. Pierpont Morgan and Abby Aldrich Rockefeller. She also consulted on gardens for Yale, Princeton and the University of Chicago. Tankard chronicles Farrand's childhood in the New York society Wharton probed in her fiction and charts Farrand's success in what was essentially a man's world. This book brings to life the gardens of a nascent and grand American landscape style, influenced by European gardens, modified for the nouveaux riches. You might want to get out a magnifying glass to view Farrand's meticulous plans, a trove of inspiration. For English majors, this book does double duty as a companion to Aunt Edith's novels. In 1899, Farrand wrote in an article about parks, "Their great artistic value is not as yet fully recognized, especially by those who have charge of our municipal finances." Echoing that sentiment, still urgent more than a hundred years later in these times of severe budget cuts, is Lynden B. Miller, author of PARKS, PLANTS, AND PEOPLE: Beautifying the Urban Landscape (Norton, $49.95). "Beautifying your city brings environmental, social and economic benefits," she writes. "But to create successful public spaces you need energy, determination and above all a belief in the powerful connection between people and nature." Miller has directed the design and restoration of countless public gardens; she has seen firsthand how green spaces simply make people happy. I remember all too well the experience of crossing Central Park in the late 1970s; it was so dicey that I resorted to roller-skating to get through faster. The park's transformation, briefly chronicled here, is remarkable, a valuable case history in the power of public-private partnerships. Trained as an artist, and then a horticulturist, Miller was responsible for reviving the lost Conservatory Garden at 105th Street and Fifth Avenue: "I had inadvertently stumbled on a key to successful public space: a planting design for four seasons." She is correct. When I recently dragged my reluctant sons into the park for an autumnal walk (it was so much easier to get them into gardens when they were strapped into buggies), I could tell, in spite of their grumbling, that they were enchanted by the riot of Korean mums spilling from the deep beds. So were thousands of bees. Miller was also responsible for the generous perennial garden at the New York Botanical Garden. Her recent work on that garden's "Ladies' Border" (as it's been called since the 1920s) experiments with plants that are pushing the limits of the region's hardiness zones. Miller's authoritative book should be required reading for any study of urban planning, but it's equally relevant to the home gardener. It's full of useful design and planting advice, clearly and unpretentiously presented. Many of us feel that we can go all the way around the world only to find what we were looking for in our own backyards. With all due respect to Japanese monks, when we're digging, a rock is a rock is a rock. For those of us who can't wait to get our mitts on our spades but need something to dream by until the spring thaw, I highly recommend Anna Pavord's fascinating BULB (Mitchell Beazley, $39.99). It warms the blood. This is the most beautiful garden book of the season. Quite apart from its liveliness and wit, "Bulb" is handsomely produced, full of ravishing photographs by Andrew Lawson and Torie Chugg, and, appropriately enough, positively biblical in its binding. (There's even a ribbon to mark your place - when was the last time you saw that in a garden book?) Pavord is justly revered for an earlier book, "The Tulip." This new one, garnered from notes taken over years of cultivating her own gardens in Dorset, is a selection of 600 plants, organized alphabetically, along with tips on cultivating "the most glorious group of plants on earth." A warning: "Bulb" is enough to induce lust in the most abstracted Zen gardener. I was converted by the time I got through Brimeura ("Think bluebell, seen down the wrong end of a telescope. Then take away the thuggish element of bluebells.") By the time I was united with my personal favorite, fritillaria, I was a goner: "Part of the charm of fritillaries lies in the way they are made - the hanging bell suggesting a kind of bashfulness which is very appealing." A few moments with Pavord is worth a few hours with a psychiatrist. "Sadly for gardeners, many fritillaries seem determined to die. . . . The death wish seems embedded in their souls. 'Why?' I asked the ghost of my Fritillaria pallidiflora. 'Why can't I make you happy?'" So that's the attraction, eh? Pavord is a bulb evangelist. "One of the few infallible rules of gardening," she insists, "is that no garden can have too many bulbs. Splurge. It is the only way." The section on Arum (Arum nigrum: "the whole thing is very weird and splendid") will have you reaching for your credit card; you will be deep in debt by Zephyranthes, which "bursts from its papery sheath to produce a flower of pristine whiteness." Broke you may be, but also buoyed by happiness and hope. For the person taking timid steps toward the toolshed, the American Horticultural Society's NEW ENCYCLOPEDIA OF GARDENING TECHNIQUES (Mitchell Beazley, $45), edited by David J. Ellis, Fiona Gilsenan, Rita Pelczar and Graham Rice, provides a considerate nudge. This is a book to turn to over a lifetime of garden misadventures. My copy, when it arrived, mysteriously flipped open to a section on my favorite veg, brussels sprouts. But there's plenty here for the would-be flower child, whether her heart is in cultivating water lilies or propagating woody shrubs with suckers. Instructions are exemplary throughout; the illustrations have the charm of a children's book, showing only the androgynous gardener's (pinkly clean!) hands or legs clothed in baggy blue trousers and green wellies. This is a book for expert and beginner alike. And, let's face it, every spring, like it or not, we are all beginners, all over again. Dominique Browning writes an online column for the Environmental Defense Fund. Her new book, "Slow Love" will be published next spring.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [December 6, 2009]