Get Growing: Annuals do a star turn in a New York garden

  • Coleus, hosta and elephant ears surround the trunks of saucer magnolias. FOR THE GAZETTE/MICKEY RATHBUN

  • Azalea, caladium, hosta and Solomon’s seal at the base of a Stewartia tree. FOR THE GAZETTE/MICKEY RATHBUN

  • belchonock—Getty Images belchonock—Getty Images

For the Gazette
Published: 10/11/2019 1:00:29 AM
Modified: 10/11/2019 1:00:18 AM

Last week I was in New York and happened to step into the intimate, shaded garden tucked in behind the Jefferson Market Library in Greenwich Village. Opened in 1974 by neighborhood volunteers, the garden was in its relative infancy when I moved to the city in 1983. The garden happened to be just a block from where I lived. But I had never stepped inside. Back then I was always hurrying to get somewhere else.

As I walked up 6th Avenue, a bevy of spectacular dahlias — huge pink, white and orange blossoms — beckoned for my attention through the garden’s elegant wrought iron fence. I found my way to the gate on the other side of the garden, where I was greeted by a pleasant volunteer staffing an information booth. Much of the garden stands under a canopy of mature trees that includes a Stewartia, crabapples and saucer magnolias. It occurred to me that most of these trees were newly planted when I lived nearby and that the garden might have been in full sun back then. Forty years makes a big difference in the life of a garden.

The garden is less than half an acre, but a lot is packed into that space. At one end of the garden is a lily pond fed by a gurgling waterfall. Bullfrogs sun themselves at the pond’s edge and silver and orange-splotched carp glide lazily among the lily pads. Appointed with a variety of whimsical birdhouses and feeders, the garden also provides a much-appreciated sanctuary for urban birds. I watched a flock of sparrows taking turns splashing in the tiered basins of a cascading stone birdbath. Benches are tucked in along the paths, inviting human visitors to linger awhile. Somehow, despite the dense plantings and bustle of activity, nothing in the garden feels crowded or cramped.

As I made my way along the stone paths that wend through the space, I began to pay more attention to the plants themselves. I noticed that among the boxwoods, hydrangeas, hollies, hostas, ferns and other permanent fixtures that make up the garden’s framework, are many unusual annuals that I’m not accustomed to seeing in perennial borders.

When I think of planting annuals in a perennial bed, I tend to think of flowers like zinnias, petunias, New Guinea impatiens and other plants that add a dependable pop of color throughout the season, backstopping fading perennials. But in the Jefferson Market Garden, the stars of the show are the annuals prized more for their foliage than their flowers. These include a diverse collection of coleus in shades ranging from neon lime to magenta to deepest purple, purple heart (Tradescantia pallida), bright purple Persian shield (Strobilanthesdyerianus) and a host of delightfully gnarly rex begonias. I was dazzled by the seemingly endless possibilities offered by these foliage-forward plants. The garden is a series of brilliant vignettes highlighting the contrasting colors, textures, shapes and sizes of all the garden’s magnificent flora, perennials, shrubs and annuals all mingled together to create a spectacular effect.

I suspect there are garden purists in the world who would rather die than introduce annuals into their perennial beds. But a visit to the Jefferson Market Garden might open their eyes to some intriguing possibilities. It certainly opened mine.

By the way, the library building is well worth a visit in itself. It’s one of the most gorgeous buildings in the city. Built in the 1870s as a courthouse, the ornate red-brick and limestone structure is a fascinating assemblage of facades, pinnacles, gables and lead-paned Gothic windows topped with an elaborate clock tower. Guidebooks refer to its style as “High Victorian Gothic.” In 1958, the building was slated for demolition. Fortunately, a group of people mobilized to save it and repurpose it as a public library. It’s now a National Historic Landmark. Thank goodness for architectural preservationists.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

BBG Harvest Festivalthis weekend

Just a reminder that this celebratory autumnal event will take place at Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge on Sat. and Sun., 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. There will be lots of children’s activities, pony and hayrides, a farmers market, plant and tag sales, vendors, live entertainment and more. Adult admission is $7; free for children under 12. Proceeds benefit BBG’s horticultural and educational programs.

Art opening inthe Berkshires

On Oct. 18 from 5 to 8 p.m., Berkshire Botanical Garden will host the opening of an art exhibit of works by Cynthia Wick titled “The Shape of Color.” Wick moved to the Berkshires from Los Angeles 10 years ago and her art synthesizes both worlds into abstracted landscapes and bouquets using oil, acrylic and painted paper collage. “My way into a painting is always color first,” she said. “Color is everything to me and I continue to find surprising combinations of color and shape by combining paint and collage.” The show is in BBG’s Center House Leonhardt Galleries and will run through Dec. 1, 2019.

American Craft Fairat Tower Hill

On Oct. 19 and 20, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston will host an American Craft Fair, a juried craft show in collaboration with the Worcester Center for Crafts. The show will feature more than 30 artisans in ceramics, jewelry, wood, metal, glass, painting, fiber arts and more. Admission is included with admission to the garden. Parking is likely to be tight for this event, so carpooling is appreciated.

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