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The Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Monks Garden at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

Last week I visited the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to meet the noted landscape architect Michael Van Valkenburg and hear him speak about how he approached the challenge of redesigning the Monks Garden. He said that Isabella Stewart Gardener herself acknowledged that she was never satisfied with the small walled garden she called the Monks Garden. “That gave me the confidence and courage . . . to make a garden for the future of the Museum.”

Certainly the Monks Garden has been transformed. The last time I visited, a year or two ago, it seemed very bare and brown. In fairness, it was a gray early spring day and my mood may not have been the best. Now the Monks Garden was a sun dappled woodland, with groundcovers of hellebores and ferns. It was a surprise to enter this enchanted space that is so different from the structured geometry of the interior Courtyard.

Van Valkenburg said, “I wasn’t trying to channel Isabella Stewart Gardner . . . but her museum is not a practical place. The garden doesn’t have to be a practical place. The paths are not practical. They don’t have to take you from point A to point B. They don’t have to take you anyplace.” He wanted the garden to be a place where you could get lost.

Anne Hawley, Director of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum said, “Michael responded to the spirit of the museum which is totally mad. It is just a romp.”

Hawley later explained that the final decision to choose  Van Valkenburg came after she visited his own garden on Martha’s Vineyard. She said it was ‘beguiling.” I was certainly beguiled, gladdened and delighted as I wandered through this magical woodland. The 7500 square foot garden feels spacious even though it is hemmed in on one side by the Palace, and by a curving high brick wall on the other two.

The undulating dark brick paths, subtly brightened by shist blocks, often wind close to each other and sometimes actually kiss, and yet you can rarely see across the planting bed to the opposite path. As I walked the paths I soon began to notice that there are subtle changes in grade. This garden is not flat. The dark brick paths narrow and swell, but they also rise and fall. I think this is another one of the elements that make this garden seem so march larger than it is.


There are many kinds of groundcover plants from the hellebores that will bloom, to evergreens like Christmas fern and European ginger with it shiny leathery leaves. Van Valkenberg said the garden “will be crazy  with hellebores in the spring.” When they have settled in and put out their own new growth visitors to the garden will have an even greater sense of privacy.

Amazingly the Monks Garden was installed just this year. It is a very new garden.  Van Valkenburg talked about the ephemerality of a garden. We gardeners know that a garden is never the same from week to week. Certainly when early spring arrives next year and the bulbs, hepaticas and hellebores come into bloom, no one will remember this fall’s sheen of newness.

Van Valkenburg said one of the goals of the plan was to stretch the seasons. Although there was only one brave hellebore blossom last week, there will be flowers rising through the groundcovers over a long season. Four varieties of camellia, in shades of white and pink will bloom spring and fall. Several stewartia trees will come into bloom in July with their camellia-like flowers. Species daylilies and tall cimicifuga will follow. Several climbing hydrangeas have been planted against the brick wall, another rich variation that will grow over the years.

The small slow growing trees will bring their own color that will carry even into winter. The foliage of the paperbark maples and stewartias provide good autumn color. In the winter the paperbark maple has beautiful exfoliating bark in shades of cinnamon and reddish brown, the gray birch has chalky white bark, while the stewartia has a subtly mottled bark providing substantial interest..

The one large tree in the garden is an ancient katsura with rough gray bark growing against the brick wall lending an air of majesty to this very informal garden.

Van Valkenburg has designed large parks and urban sites. He has won prizes and awards for his work, including the 2003 National Design Award in Environmental Design awarded by the Smithsonian Institution’s Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum, and the 2011 American Society of Landscape Architects Design Medal. Still he says he always remembers the advice given him when he was beginning his own business by Kevin Lynch, the noted urban planner and designer, to make as many gardens as you can. Along with large projects like the 85 acre Brooklyn Bridge Park which is still under construction, he has always maintained a consistent focus on small scale gardens.

Monks Garden at the ISG Museum

And that brought him to the end of his talk with a beaming smile as he invited us into the Monks Garden saying, “I don’t know that I’ve ever had more fun making a garden.”

Between the Rows    September 21, 2013

Wood Chips – O frabjous day!

Wood chips from Asplundh before I even finished my first cup of coffee.  I need them to lay over cardboard on my garden paths. I can never have too many wood chips.

Wood chips for the garden paths

I think I might even get a second delivery today!

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Bridge of Flowers – National Public Gardens Day Coming Up

Azalea and view of the Iron Bridge from Bridge of Flowers

The Bridge of Flowers is our local public garden, open and blooming every day from April 1 – October 30. Free! Universally accessible.

Carolina lupine


Wisteria, just beginning to bloom

Pink Primroses

Flowering cherry tree


Bleeding heart and snowflakes



Pink dogwood

I’ll be celebrating National Public Gardens Day, May 11 this year, with a stroll over the Bridge of Flowers. What will you do?

I’ve been almost Wordless, but for real Wordlessness this Wednesday click here

Urban Greenways


High Line in New York City 5-3-10

Annik LaFarge, author of On the High Line: A Walk Through America’s Most Unique Urban Park, which will be available in April, is also writing a blog In the blog he writes about many other elevated/railroad gardens including The Bridge of Flowers.

Since this photo in 2010, the High Line has been extended

I visited the High Line in 2010 and it is a fabulous space, but it has to be said that the Shelburne Falls Bridge of Flowers predates the High Line and all the other greenway projects by decades. Just goes to show that the women of the Women’s Club  were way ahead of their time. They continue to maintain the Bridge of Flowers  in beautiful bloom from April through October.

One of the most unusual greenways that Annik links to is the Delancey Street Underground. This planned project would bring sunlight to the 1.5 acre underground trolley terminal and turn it into green space. Gardens are growing UP and DOWN in NYC. What a town!

Bridge of Flowers - view to the west 5-24-11

Shelburne Falls is quite a town too.

All About the Bridge of Flowers

Queen of the Prairie

The Queen of the Prairie looks more like the Queen of the River in this photo. She is attended by hundreds of handmaids and courtiers.

As a member of the Bridge of Flowers committee many people ask me about when it is open and when is the ‘best’ bloom time.  Those questions are easy to answer. The Bridge of Flowers is open every day, all day from April 1 to October 30. There is no ‘best’ season. The Bridge is in full and glorious bloom all year long. Of course, some people might prefer the earliest perennials and bulbs, while others prefer the late summer garden with dahlias and asters  and other fall bloomers – but it is always beautiful. And always FREE!  There is no charge – although you are invited to leave a donation. And please do sign the guest book.

I love rose season, which is long and beautiful on the Bridge of Flowers.

The path is universally accessible on both the Buckland and Shelburne sides of the Bridge.

A beautiful garden is about more than flowers. The Bridge of Flowers includes handsome shade and foliage plants like these ferns.

Mosaic by Cynthia Fisher

The Bridge of Flowers is immortalized in  this mosaic by local artist Cynthia Fisher who created eleven other mosaics honoring the other towns in our area.  This is one of the things I tell visitors about when they ask what else to see in town. The mosaics are mounted on the walls on town buildings on both sides of the Bridge.

Of course, there are also the Glacial Potholes, beautiful crafts made by the skilled and talented local artists and artisans, and good eats. You can even dine while overlooking the river and the Bridge.

How do you get to the Bridge?  Unfortunately GPS systems do not seem to have found the Bridge, but if you get to Bridge Street in Shelburne Falls, which is on the GPS, you will see the Bridge. You can’t miss it!



Wordless Serenity

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Wordless Wednesday – Fall’s Colors


Northern Sea Oats

Parsley - still



For more Wordless beauties this Wednesday click here.