The great thing about New England is that there are the four distinct seasons that can be enjoyed throughout the year. After growing up in Maine and spending the last five or so years of my life in greater Philadelphia, I’ve definitely noticed that changes of seasons are less pronounced further south and can often blend together. I recently spent a weekend up in Massachusetts just west of Boston for a family gathering and had the urge to visit a garden that I had only previously seen in the fall. It was only four miles away, and because it specialized in native plants, I was interested in seeing healthy communities of native woodland spring ephemeral and under story plants. There’s usually a short window to experience the awakening of these species before the tree leaves in the canopy above emerge to create shade, and I was maybe a few weeks late here in the beginning of June. Even so, what a remarkable celebration of life to look forward to every Spring!
I’ll add the important note that this garden I’m referencing is Garden in the Woods, the display garden of the New England Wildflower Society. It’s tucked into a suburban neighborhood that has clearly developed around it over the last century and represents 45 beautiful acres conserving and promoting the region’s native plants to ensure healthy, biologically diverse landscapes– according to their mission. I last visited the garden two years ago in the fall, and it was glorious to view the warm yellows, oranges and red hues battling the chlorophyll and also showing themselves through berries and flowers. Before I begin with my highlights and observations, I’ll make a plea to all to experience the gardens and outdoor spaces we love and cherish during the entire year and throughout all the seasons and even weather events [think rain gardens!]. The fact is that most gardens in northern climates are deserted [if not closed] in the colder months, and i think the amazing thing about natural habitats are the contrasts in texture, vegetation, light, and space during these periods.
Now, on to the highlights:
- Very nice arrival experience. A quite, narrow woodland drive leads to a visitor center and excellent native plant nursery. The garden has a deliberate, natural aesthetic to it and clearly puts the emphasis on the plants. This is a plantsman’s garden and the main goal of the visitor should be to learn about native plants in the area.
- Pleasing circulatory experience. With the visitor’s task to learn about these plants, the garden has done a great job assembling the gardens spaces and paths like a teacher would create a lesson plan. Crafted along a 1-2 mile loop are a series of themed gardens of various native communities showing exactly how habitats like bogs, ponds, shaded hillsides, woodland understories and rocky outcrops should look in Massachusetts. The student can enjoy and learn about a habitat through the signage and plant labeling, file that information away, and then move on to the next space. Each transition of space has a fun journey within itself, usually encompassing changes in topography, and lots of natural stone.
- While this is a plantsman’s garden, it also celebrates natural materials, and this concept is applied wherever possible. I loved the arts + craft style benches made from found tree branch materials as well as the use of stone in simple ways to provide seating.
- Look out Andy Goldsworthy! I loved the woven-branch serpentine spline navigating the hillside behind the nursery. Clearly to be enjoyed as an artform, but i also suspect it has some stormwater management properties, almost functioning as a check log of sorts.
- Some gardens go “Disney” with their children’s gardens, and others focus on learning, and GITW thankfully does the latter. Great spaces here for gathering large groups of students, plenty of demonstration pieces, and decent signage to encourage visitors to read.
If there’s a takeaway with this post, it’s to visit GITW in the spring and fall and don’t be afraid to explore year-round when possible. You’ll appreciate everything just little bit more…