Beauty in the heart of New York: the Brooklyn Botanical Garden is well worth a visit

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The Lily Pool Terrace is one of the most popular features at Brooklyn Botanic Garden and leads to the Fragrant Garden, Magnolia Plaza and Shakespeare Garden. (Handout/Brooklyn Botanic Garden)

Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to visit quite a few of the world's great botanical gardens.

Last year, I was in Padua and Pisa, two of the world's oldest botanic gardens, and this spring, I visited Oxford and Wisley in England.

I've also had the pleasure of wandering around the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London and the botanical garden in Montreal.

Last week, I was in New York and took the opportunity to visit Brooklyn Botanical Garden, which sets the standard for botanical gardens as innovative educational institutions, and has been impressive in so many other areas, especially plant classification and preservation.

But I was particularly keen to see it, because I knew it had a great reputation and also happens to be about the same size as Vancouver's VanDusen Botanical Garden: Brooklyn is 52 acres; VanDusen is a little bigger, with 55 acres.

What I immediately noticed, on entering the garden from the Eastern Parkway entrance after taking a subway from midtown Manhattan, was how well maintained the borders and pathways are.

I discovered the garden has twice as many full-time gardeners as VanDusen - 23, including a hands-on administrator, compared to only 10 full-time gardeners at VanDusen.

Another difference is the use of volunteers. Brooklyn uses its volunteers to work in the garden, pruning trees, cutting back ivy banks and other basic maintenance projects.

VanDusen, by comparison, is not allowed to use any of its more than 16,000 registered volunteers, except for tackling some invasive weeds and a little "ivy busting".

VanDusen director Harry Jongerden says he would love to see the union "loosen up" a little to allow volunteers to do more.

He says when he was head horticulturist at the Royal Botanical Garden in Hamilton, Ont., volunteers were allowed to contribute much more to help maintain the garden, even though there was a strong union presence.

Another interesting similarity is that both Brooklyn and VanDusen like to have art shows in the garden. VanDusen had a successful second show of sculptural art from Zimbabwe this summer, but Brooklyn did something I thought was even more creative for its centennial this summer by inviting stick sculptor Patrick Dougherty to do a major installation.

In just two weeks, Dougherty built a series of nestlike "stick houses" from tightly woven branches and woody material, mostly collected from a park on Staten Island.

Perhaps this is an artist VanDusen could invite to do an installation one summer.

Brooklyn Botanic is a triangular-shaped garden with a children's garden at one end and a beautiful Italianate formal garden at the other.

The formal Osborne Garden contains 10 wisteria-draped pergolas over paths around a central lawn. The borders are lined by crabapple trees underplanted by evergreen azaleas. The path leads to a huge water basin, measuring 17 feet across, on a brick patio.

From this point, I wandered down an elegant series of broad steps to a secluded native flora garden, featuring all the most common woodland plants that grow well within a 100-mile radius of New York.

From here, it's only a short distance to the Cranford Rose Garden, the botanical garden's most popular feature, containing more than 5,000 bushes covering about 1,400 varieties.

Vancouver still doesn't have a rose garden of this size and quality, despite excellent work being done at the rose garden in Stanley Park.

What is impressive about this garden, in addition to the vast range of roses, is the stylish white fencing, arches and pavilion, as well as the charming scaling of the stroll paths and the fastidious labelling.

In fact, labelling throughout the Brooklyn garden is excellent and sensitively done, making it always possible to know precisely what you are looking at.

The botanical garden is famous for its "gardens without the garden", but the beauty of the layout is that the transition from one area to another feels natural and seamless.

Separating the rose garden from a formal Japanese garden, for instance, is an attractive "cherry esplanade" consisting of two allees of neatly spaced 'Kwanzan' cherry trees, the kind you see everywhere on the streets of Vancouver.

With a large lawn area in the centre, this spot is, naturally, home to a popular cherry blossom festival every April.

The Japanese garden gives Brooklyn Botanic the equivalent of what VanDusen has in Livingstone Lake - a beautiful, serene expanse of calm water in which the exquisite fall colour of Japanese maples is reflected.

While I enjoyed the way the series of interconnecting paths allows you to stroll at your ease and experience a variety of landscapes, I especially liked the series of gardens near the main visitor centre: a fragrant garden, Shakespeare garden, magnolia plaza and formal terrace with rectangular lily ponds.

I've written about how it is possible to make a garden out of plants known to Shakespeare - ragged robin (Lynchis), monkshood (aconitum) and so on - but I had never seen one.

This one was no disappointment. It is beautifully planted and maintained with labels naming plants, as well as giving the relevant references to Shakespeare's works.

The fragrance garden next door is a fun mixture of aromatic plants all crammed closely together.

Vancouver Sun

Organizations: Kew, Botanical Garden

Geographic location: Brooklyn, New York, Vancouver Padua Oxford England Royal Botanic Gardens London Montreal Eastern Parkway Manhattan Hamilton Zimbabwe Staten Island Stanley Park Livingstone Lake

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