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WEEKDAY MAGAZINE – Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill

Wave Hill Gold Border (Ngoc Minh Ngo)

by Elisa Valentino

August 9, 2019

Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill – A New Book About One of the Bronx’s Greatest Public Gardens

Nothing warms my heart more than the news of yet another Bronx site getting its proper and well deserved recognition for what it offers not only to the Borough or the City of New York, but to the world.

The Book cover features the Flower Garden looking west toward the Hudson River (ngoc Minh Ngo)

Last week, there was fun and festivities to celebrate the publication of Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, a new book from Timber Press. Written in an eloquent manner by Thomas Christopher, with exquisite photographs by Ngoc Minh Ngo, this book is a testament to the beauty of one of the best public gardens in our great state and country. 

Initiated by Timber Press, who has brought other public gardens around the United States to the forefront with previously published books, Nature into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill was made possible through a collaborative effort of an enthusiastic publisher, an eager Wave Hill and two talented creative artists. 

As the author of several books with Timber Press, and a horticulturist himself, Thomas Christopher was asked to pen a glorious narrative and detailed description of the history and unique features of Wave Hill and its expansive Gardens. 

Having spent a great deal of time in The Bronx training as a horticulturist at The New York Botanical Gardens in the 1970’s, Mr. Christopher has always loved the beauty of Wave Hill, visiting frequently throughout the years, and was happy about being a part of this project.

He weaves an engaging story, taking the reader through history, and of course, bestowing a plethora of information about the Gardens and their seasonal transformations. From the 18th Century, when it was home to a number of successive American notables, even hosting the Queen of England, to the early 1900’s when it became the expansive 28 acre estate of financier, George W. Perkins, whose family would reside there through 1960, when it was donated to the city of New York, the book is an interesting and enjoyable read.

Complementing the delightful text are an assemblage of photographs capturing the myriad of plantings of the Wave Hill Gardens and their diversity in each of the four seasons with spectacular perspectives taken by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

One could say that the birth of the Wave Hill Gardens that exists today, came about during the 1960’s under the direction and loving care of its then-horticulturist, Marco Polo Stufano and his small staff of three gardeners. These individuals created an oasis of plantings, the likes of which this country had never seen. 

According to Mr. Christopher’s text, “The country had never seen a public garden like this: intimate, personal, rich, and dynamic. And Wave Hill remains unique. The gardeners there practice a kind of classic horticultural craftsmanship unrivaled among other public gardens in the United States. The skill and commitment to detail of the Wave Hill staff is legendary.”

Marco Stufano was determined to create a garden on par with the great American and English gardens and he succeeded in his mission. Wave Hill is one of the last surviving country estates in all of New York City’s five boroughs, containing acres of glorious retreat.

Amidst the harried metropolis of The Bronx that surrounds Wave Hill, one can find peace and solace in these diverse gardens which are situated in one of the most scenic of locations in the city, overlooking the Hudson and the Palisades, offering locals and tourists alike, an opportunity to experience a totally different glimpse into The Bronx and city beyond.

The first to arrive on the scene for this creative project was Ngoc Minh Ngo, who began photographing the plantings and their surroundings eighteen months prior to the book’s author beginning his writings. Generally speaking, Ms. Ngo advised that it is the writing that precedes the photography on her projects, but in this instance, it was imperative for her to begin sooner than later since she was charged with capturing the gardens during each of the four seasons. 

Having had two books published on flowers, her challenge with Nature into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill was to capture the unique nuances of the landscape and floriculture of Wave Hill, which can literally change overnight. With a lead time of 18 months, Ms. Ngo was afforded two Springs and two Summers with which to photograph. And that’s exactly what she did. In her own words, “I photographed what I saw.” 

Ms. Ngo was no stranger to Wave Hill either, having previously visited for her love of flowers and when contacted by the Wave Hill team to join this project, she remembered well the location and gardens and happily accepted. According to the photographer, “One of the nicest things was to be able to explore in-depth over time, as that’s what gardens are about – not the single moment. It’s about the seasons and they change constantly and it was wonderful to go back to the same place and see the changes.”

Mr Christopher credits the beauty and ongoing success of the Wave Hill Gardens with the continuity of its gardening staff. Beginning with the hands-on training by Stufano, so too did he create a sense of family among the gardeners that still exists today and is one of the factors that has led to their long employ. As a result of this continuity and the development of a true craft for horticulture, the consistency has proven tremendously beneficial, according to the book’s author.

One may ask what makes Wave Hill different from say, The New York Botanical Gardens? Christopher himself, who began his horticultural training there, sings its praises, but points to a few key differences that make Wave Hill unique. 

Wave Hill invokes a more “flexible” philosophy and its location lends itself to doing things a bit differently. For example, they are very clever in exploiting the micro climates at Wave Hill. That is, the features in the landscape that create their own climate. Up on the hill over the Hudson, it is breezy and dry, which allows for growing things that wouldn’t necessarily grow elsewhere at Wave Hill.

Another example of Wave Hill’s uniqueness is their allowance of volunteer seedlings, which is essentially letting the garden replant itself, not imposing as much control as many gardeners employ. Not imposing such control allows for a non-planned out garden, which adds new variety all the time and creates a avery lush feel – a very flexible approach.

“It was a wonderful assignment,” says Mr. Christopher, “having visited Wave Hill through the years and admired it, here was a chance to visit more regularly to see how it changed through the seasons and be able to follow the gardeners around, so it was a real education for me. I learned so much and they were so patient and answered all my questions “

Ms Ngo added that while she has photographed many gardens and has enjoyed meeting many gardeners from all over, she found Wave Hill’s gardeners to be some of the most talented of all with their work exhibiting “beautiful combinations and beautiful plants” making the book project a great pleasure with which to be a part. 

In speaking about the collaboration between himself and Ngoc, Mr. Christopher said, “it was fun working with Ngoc. Sometimes there can be an unwritten competition between writers and photographers, however, this was far from the case. Ngoc brought out beauties and features of the gardens of Wave Hill that I had never seen from her tremendous insight and talent.”

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Elisa is co-founder of Travelin’ Cousins travel blog, A native New Yorker, Fordham graduate, and world traveler, she is passionate about The Bronx as a travel destination for locals and tourists.

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To submit writing for publication on WEEKDAY MAGAZINE, click here.  Fiction, non-fiction, commentary, news, news analysis, and poetry are welcome.  Bronx slant always preferred.

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