Park Slope, Brooklyn, was my home for seven years. Tuesdays were (and still are) free days at the nearby Brooklyn Botanic Garden, and it was then that I’d take myself on a cheap date. In spring, I’d walk beneath the creamy magnolia blossoms in Prospect Park — the masterpiece that Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed and built after practicing on Central Park — then through the majestic Grand Army Plaza whose victory arch reminds me of Europe, and up Eastern Parkway where finally I’d step inside the BBG’s 52-acre fairy tale replete with cherry blossoms, magnolias, lilacs and tulips all in bloom.
Inside, I’d shed the buzz of my busy life by soaking up the Zen of the Japanese garden, listening to the rustle of leaves on the breeze, watching the bees alight on the camellias and inhaling the heady fragrance of the rose garden. Here, I could find my center and be alone with my thoughts, while at the same time, sharing walkways with people I might otherwise never encounter. Once I observed the chaste courting ritual of a young Hasidic Jewish couple, chaperoned by a broad-rimmed fur-hat-wearing elder on a sweltering June day. In the garden, we are neighbors without borders.
The BBG was my touchstone, as it’s been for Brooklynites since an urban coal-ash dump was reclaimed and the BBG was founded in 1910. Over the ensuing six years, then-director Dr. Charles Stuart Gager would lay out the Native Flora Garden (how the area appeared prior to human settlement) and oversee the construction of the Children’s Garden, the Japanese Hill-and-Pond Garden and the Rock Garden. None of these had examples at other public gardens to stand as guides, and each became a prototype within the American botanical-garden community.
That pioneering approach to garden design — which also placed education on par with science and horticultural display — is still evident as the BBG puts the final touches on its relocated and expanded Herb Garden, the first major new installation since the Fragrance Garden, designed for the sight-impaired by landscape architect Alice R. Ireys, opened in 1955. Says BBG president Scot Medbury: “Out of respect for the mission of the institution, our team did not look elsewhere for models. We found our solution organically, by asking what fits the site and our programming needs.”
The design phase began in 2007 and takes the idea of an herb garden to another level, interplanting major and minor food plants from different parts of the world among the herbs and ornamentals, creating a world vegetable garden that reflects the many cultures of Brooklyn’s neighborhoods. Plus, visitors will see an array of fruit, berries, medicinal plants and vegetables presented as both ornamentals to be incorporated into an edible landscape, as well as edibles within the classical potager. A Learning Plaza will serve as an open-air classroom.
The new garden will also help draw visitors to the southern end of the property, spreading out some of the 725,000 annual visitors who tend to cluster at the north end where most of the signature collections are located. “We have the highest single-day attendance of any American public garden,” cites Medbury, who points out that the cherry blossom festival alone has brought in as many as 36,000 people per day. “A sad day for us would be to have to turn people away,” he says.
Regardless of the roster of impressive Centennial Projects planned to take the BBG into its second century — which includes a LEED certified Visitor Center and the expansion of three crowd-favorite gardens (the Herb, which formally opens this summer, Discovery and Native Flora Gardens) — at its core, says Medbury, “the garden is connected to the community.”
“One of the things that I find inspiring,” he says, “is that in the garden, people are so respectful and courteous to each other. Here, you become your best self.”
For a full list of tours, workshops and special events, go to bbg.org.