The Art of the Garden: Cornell Botanic Garden

story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

The Cornell Botanic Gardens may be the best-kept secret in the Finger Lakes Region. I’m convinced its gardeners have channeled Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, O’Keefe and van Gogh – because here, the art of the garden comes to life. And by summer, it’s bursting with color.

You don’t have to be an artist to appreciate these gardens. As you enter, it’s easy to fall under their spell. Watch as daises and dianthuses bounce provocatively in the breeze and tease you with come-hither gazes. Then look closely to catch calendulas, coneflowers, and coral bells fluttering their petals and wafting seductive fragrances that draw you and the bees to their beds. From every corner and cranny the gardens beckon. Can you resist? Do you want to?

Of course you don’t. If you love flowers, trees, gardens, mysterious fragrances, stone walls, split-rail fences, ponds, walks through beautiful and open parkland, and inspiration for your own garden, this is the place for you.

Formerly known as the Cornell Plantations, Cornell Botanic Gardens are part of the Cornell University campus in Ithaca. One of the five largest gardens in the United States, it features 25 acres of botanical gardens and the 150-acre F.R. Newman Arboretum.
Since the gardens are part of the university, they offer courses and programs for students but open to the community are lectures, classes, events, and guided tours and walks. Part of the mission of the Botanic Gardens is to educate and encourage good environmental practices, sustainability and the cultural heritage of gardening.

It’s fair to assume that its gardeners – associated with an esteemed research university with a prominent agricultural program – would be technically and scientifically expert in their craft. And they are. Their artfulness is an added bonus. Gardener Pam Shade, who maintains the Herb Garden, explains, “When arranging plants in a garden, I try to visually achieve balance and a sense of rhythm with color, texture, height, shape and line, similar to other art forms.” You may think she’s describing three-dimensional art, but it’s really five-dimensional. The fourth-dimension is time, because a wide variety of plants need to come together aesthetically simultaneously. The fifth-dimension is the most subtle – fragrance.

The Gardens

To begin your visit, stop at the beautiful Nevin Welcome Center to figure out what you want to see and how to get around the large arboretum, the many gardens and other attractions. You will learn that the gardens fall into two geographical (and aesthetic) areas: fairly-compact traditional gardens and the expansive arboretum. Many of the 12 traditional gardens are located nearby including the Herb, Flower, Hillside, Rock and Winter Gardens. Several run continuously in a 25- by 110-yard rectangle.

The Herb Garden features 17 themed beds including Herbs of the Ancients, Bee Herbs, Culinary Herbs, Dye Herbs, Edible Flowers, Herbs in Literature, Medicinal Herbs and Herbs of Native Americans. In all, you’ll find over 500 herbs, each labeled with its identity and use.

As you stroll through the gardens, retrace your steps. In doing so, you will learn in one visit what took me several to understand – the gardens are a living and ever-changing art gallery. You will begin to process and perceive how the plants – layered in foreground, mid-ground and background arrangements – reveal a variety of visual interactions that emerge and coalesce in different designs of blossoms, colors, seed heads, leaves and stems, depending on where you stand and where you look.

Here are some of my favorite garden walks.

• From the back of the Lewis Building, walk along the outside of the wall to the back-corner catalpa trunk, where a bell hangs in a tree-trunk portal. Go up the steps and stand behind the water garden. Turn and look back at the Lewis Building for a full view of several gardens, walls, fences and arbor.
• Go to the Winter Garden and try to imagine it five months from now, under a few inches of snow.
• Upon your return to the parking lot, take another look at the Rock Garden in front of the Welcome Center, paying close attention to the densely planted area in what seems to be a creek bed. It’s the latest innovation to replace expensive and often intrusive storm sewers, and naturally control runoff from a parking lot. Called a bioswale, it uses a wide variety of moisture loving (and mostly native) plants strategically positioned in a specially prepared swale to absorb and clean storm water runoff from the parking lot.

Innovation doesn’t stop there. Across the street from the Winter Garden, the Climate Change Demonstration Garden shows how plant ecology – your garden – could change under the different environmental conditions predicted with climate change, like rising temperatures, heat waves, heavy downpours, and droughts.

The Arboretum

Lovely as the gardens are, they are dwarfed in acreage and plant size by the F.R. Newman Arboretum. Many people love the grandeur of large trees and the massive bounty of flowering trees. Director of Horticulture Rhoda Mauer admits that given a choice between garden flowers and trees, she’ll take trees. They intrigue her. “There’s something about the presence of trees and how they transform through the seasons that really appeals to me.” But what really gets her talking is the overall Arboretum space. “The variety of topography, the microclimates, and the genetic variety is what makes it so wonderful.”

Like many of the beautiful public parks in the Finger Lakes, the arboretum can trace at least part of its ancestry back to the Great Depression and the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). For six years in the 1930s, the CCC cleared and improved the land and planted thousands of trees. But it wasn’t an arboretum yet. Floyd Newman provided the funding for that in 1981. Building on the work of the CCC, the arboretum was completed and dedicated in 1982.

To best appreciate the arboretum, stroll along its paved walkways or meander through the path cut into the waist-high summer meadow. You will find collections of crab apple, dogwood, maple, conifer and nut trees; ponds with geese; cattails and wild iris; and paved pathways leading you to many of the arboretum’s delights. A playful sculpture area and (my favorite) the shrub garden complete the arboretum at the lower end. The flowering tree collection at the lower end is best seen in late April.

With its walls, benches, gong, and above all, a panoramic view of the arboretum, the Newman Overlook is a great picnic spot or place to relax. You may see Rhoda having lunch there, although she thinks there’s a better time to visit. “Evening is amazing,” she says. “The way the light falls on the landscape and trees is absolutely beautiful.” If you perch on the overlook wall, you can almost feel yourself soaring over the ponds and majestic trees spread below. (Or you can puzzle over why the bluestone used to construct the overlook area is called llenroc.) But don’t leave the overlook without swinging the hammer against the gong!

It’s hard to appreciate these vast gardens in just one trip or season, or even at one time of day. But now that you know your way around, you can really enjoy your next visit.

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