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garden guide new york city susan lowry nancy berner

Garden Guide: New York City

To open a little book called Garden Guide: New York City revised edition (W.W. Norton & Co.) by Nancy Berner and Susan Lowry and photographs by Joseph De Sciose is to open a treasure box of gardens – over 100 of them.

They are carefully chosen among many hundreds for their history, culture, artistry, ambience, personality and magical qualities that elevate the spirit, temper the beast and put a smile on your being.

With 424 pages, this big, little book is 4 ½ inches wide x 6 tall x 1 inch thick and easily fits in a purse, car or night table like a good guide book should, making it a cinch to plan a garden visit.

Chapters are divided by boroughs with enticing photography and 16 pages of useful appendices including Not-To-Be-Missed Gardens, Best Vegetable Gardens, Fall Gardens and so many more. From botanical gardens to community gardens, green roofs, parks and urban farms, all are open to the public.

Armchair garden lovers can read this book front to back like a novel or just crack it open anywhere. Each listing has the requisite details. A description follows – be it how the Bronx County Courthouse got its 10,000 square-foot roof top meadow; or how a traffic island in Greenwich Village came to be and how its designer, the “formidable” Pamela Berdan, after being hit by a car on her way to the garden’s ground-breaking, directed its planting from her hospital bed; or how the gardens in South Cove at Battery Park City replicate centuries-old history of the Hudson River and the teamwork of an environmental artist, architect and landscape architect.

Or Wave Hill, whose destiny began about 200 million years ago with the formation of the New Jersey Palisades – its famous view that drew illustrious occupants and visitors such as Mark Twain, Darwin, and President Theodore Roosevelt who lived there as a child. The description of Wave Hill demonstrates how history builds upon itself to create a sense of place and a place of the senses, forever woven with extraordinary, contemporary talents. The fascination is almost too strong to stop!

So just who is this duo of garden sleuths who wrote this mini-tome of New York City gardens?

Susan Lowry grew up in Montreal where a thin line separates city and country and where her father forced her to plant tulips. After attending Bryn Mawr (she didn’t know it, but Nancy Berner was there, too) she was a TV News assignment editor in Montreal, then Boston and Virginia where she planted pelargoniums and tulips.

“We had a little house with azaleas in the front and the first year I planted a whole bunch of pink tulips. It looked spectacular the next spring so I was hooked.” Soon after, she decided to change fields. Back in Toronto at Ryerson University, Lowry got a diploma in landscape architecture.

On moving to New York City in 1995 with three kids and a good job, she started volunteering at the Conservatory Garden in Central Park while flirting with freelance garden design. “But I was more interested in writing and thinking about gardens than in designing them for other people.”

Little did Lowry suspect that, like Wave Hill and the Palisades cliffs, meeting Nancy Berner was destiny.

Berner grew up on Long Island, “on a part with terrible, sandy, ungrowable-anything-in-it soil,” but where she watched her determined mother try to garden. When they moved, the soil was better and Berner jumped in to help. “It (gardening) does have more connection with my family than I thought. When I came to gardening, it was a relief from the part of the city I didn’t like very much.”

Later, Berner, who worked for a literary agent, took over her deceased mother-in-law’s garden (there was nobody else) and so began a learning curve of how to work with plants. Then one day it happened. A friend took her to New York Botanical Garden. “It was a revelation to see this extraordinary garden – and The Cloisters. If only I could be in a garden all the time, I wouldn’t feel so closed in by the city.”

Berner volunteered at the Conservatory Garden and, of course, met Lowry. “It was talking about gardens with Susan and the city and the different neighborhoods.” And off they went to the Heather Garden, their first great garden together.

“People didn’t know about it. Fifteen years ago people were not thinking about gardens being special to the city. I thought, ‘I want people to know about this.’ We thought this was a project that would be really fun,” Berner says.

Their first book was Gardens of the Hudson Valley (The Monacelli Press), a coffee table book of 25 gardens of American landscape design. The Guide was first published in 2002 and revised in 2010. Now the due is working on a New Jersey book titled Gardens of the Garden State to be published in spring 2014. Twenty-five public and private gardens will be profiled in this coffee table book.

“The only thing Susan and I have talked about a lot and still do is a really important idea – discovering a city through its gardens. It happened for me in New York and when Susan and I went to Paris together. I wish I could go to many more cities.”

Says Lowry, a Trustee of both the Garden Conservancy and Greenwood Gardens, NJ: “When I first started looking at gardens I was looking for formal excellence- pretty, well planted interesting palette...but more and more what interests me is the personality that comes through, I am drawn by gardens that speak of the people who made them --and ones that evoke that elusive sense of place which is often missing in the most perfect of professionally planted gardens but comes through in surprising places.

"For example, in Staten Island at the Tibetan Museum there is a small terrace between the two buildings one of which is a replica of Tibetan monastery. The garden is kind of a mess, the planting fairly ordinary but the experience is sublime. Nancy and I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what it is that gives a particular garden that dimension.”

Perhaps it is tapestry. The Garden Guide: New York City is thick with a rich and colorful text by two women who followed their idea-turned-passion of tracking down gardens with the appeal of history, place, passion and delight in the senses.

Buy it. You’ll use it.

Susan Lowry and Nancy Berner’s website:

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published April 03, 2013

Photos to enlarge

Garden Guide: New York City & Gardens of the Hudson Valley, photo courtesy Nancy Berner & Susan Lowry

Blithewood at Bard College, Gardens of the Hudson Valley, Sue Daley & Steve Gross photo

The High Line, Garden Guide: New York City, Joe De Sciose photo

Susan Lowry, photo courtesy Susan Lowry

Nancy Berner, photo courtesy Nancy Berner

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