Planting design 101, courtesy Lynden Miller

I thought I’d take you through a public but not so well-known planting and describe why it works so well. 

These are the colourful gardens in Wagner Park, which is located in Battery Park City in Lower Manhattan.  This spot is primarily comprised of large lawns that overlook the Hudson River and the Statue of Liberty.  These  hidden gardens are planted within a courtyard that is set back and more secluded.  You can get a good sense of the size and placement of this series of gardens here.

The pedestrian and loiter friendly space was designed by Laurie Olin, a landscape architect from Philadelphia, Rudolfo Machado, an architect from Boston and Lynden B. Miller, the New York City garden designer.  It was opened in 1996 and I had the good fortune to visit it about four or five years ago, not quite ten years after it was made.


 There are many reasons why these plantings work so well.  Let’s go through them:


What I mean by structure has to do with the form and shape of all the elements in the garden, from the plants to the non-living materials.  For example, the clean, crisp form of the stone edgers that create the garden borders.  The crisp seams on the irregular walkway pavers.  The emphatic shapes of the evergreens, regularly trimmed to keep their shapes even tighter and within the proper scale.  The solidity of the benches and a large, squared boulders that appears here and there within the colourful planting.

Above, look at the way in which the purple barberry hedge (lower right) was placed so that it mirrors both the shape, solidity and colour of the building in the background.  And the planting (Carex, Liriope?) that edges the barberry is a counterpoint to its static presence.

And notice how the cedar hedges and pyramidal cedars have been impeccably and routinely pruned so that their rigid shapes also contrast with the more casual presence of the flowering plants.

Miller has worked hard to make relationships happen.  A way to achieve this is through:


We can see repetition in shape, texture and colour in this photo.  As an example, the dark grape colour of the purple-leaf sandcherry in the background is echoed with the purple barberry in the middle ground and the purple coleus near the front.  In order to maximize its effect, purple’s complementary colour (yellow or gold) is used in several places, chiefly the yucca and golden sweet potato vine in the foreground and the various coreopsis, rudbeckia or helianthus in the background.  Grasses and grass-like plants are also repeated.

Pinks in graduated shades are repeated with silvers, both in flowering plants in various heights, habits and densities and also simply through the use of foliage.

And then there is the value of:


If there were not such an appealing variety of colour in this planting, the viewer would not be as attracted to it.  Let’s face it, although shady plantings are usually all about shades of green (except in the spring), sunny plantings can demonstrate an unlimited colour palette. 


There are a myriad of plants showcased here:  trees with ornamental foliage, large shrubby rose of sharon, evergreens like cedars, boxwood and juniper, large perennials (like Phlox, Hyssop, Helianthus and various grasses), structural feature plants like Yucca, interesting textural highlights provided by blood grass and donkey tail spurge and then tender (Dahlia) and annual plants (Alternanthera, Coleus and Ipomoea). 

A glance at Miller’s plant list on her website confirms that her plant palette is a lot more varied than it first appears.  She is also the driving force behind the design and creation of the Conservatory Garden in New York, which I blogged about earlier.


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