Lynden Miller, a New York-based public garden designer, was honored alongside Amy Goldman, Charles and Kathleen Marder, and Thomas Woltz during LongHouse Reserve’s Landscape Awards Luncheon on Saturday, September 21.
We recently caught up with Miller, who took on The Conservatory Garden in Central Park, and has also designed projects in Bryant Park and The New York Botanical Garden, to learn more about her spectacular works.
Why did you decide to focus on public gardens?
LM: Well, because first of all, I started in public garden, I was my own gardener and I had my own garden. I began in The Conservatory Garden in 1982, which is a public garden. And then I just kept going with that. Then I realized that lots of people were doing private gardens, but I really felt strongly about trying to make New York more beautiful. So, I prefer to do the public. I’ve just always turned down any opportunity to do any private.
You’ve worked throughout all five boroughs. What are some of the challenges of working in the City?
LM: The soil, it’s often terrible. It’s a challenge to get some money into the contract for the soil. In Madison Square Park I couldn’t because there wasn’t time for it. So, I just mulched all the planted areas, I planted 20,000 plants in Madison Square Park. I mulched all the planted areas with two to three inches of straight compost. The next year, everybody looked very healthy. Not bureaucracy, really, because by and large, I’ve worked for private, public conservancies, business improvement districts, that sort of thing. I have worked with the Parks Department, but never for the Parks Department. I’ve just been an advocate for public space, and I didn’t want to have to be involved in working for them. But, I I made a little park at the top of Park Avenue, between 96th and 97th, by working with them, but I donated my time.
Do you have a favorite project or project that stands out?
LM: I love Madison Square Park. Well, The Conservatory Garden, of course. I have two sons and I will say that’s my third child. I’ve been 36 years involved with that. But, I love Madison Square Park. And then I love this little park I did at the upper end of Park Avenue between 96th and 97th. The trains come out from Grand Central at 97th Street there. But, it’s a little park, it’s not like the rest of Park Avenue, which is just a grassy lawn with some trees and a place for annuals. It’s a little quarter acre oasis there.
What does it mean to you to be able to bring an oasis to a place like New York City where lush greenery is certainly lacking?
LM: Oh, it means so much to me. I feel so passionately about it. I’ve seen so many examples over the years of how it has improved the lives of people. It’s improved neighborhoods, it’s made people happy, strangers talk to each other. There’s something really quite wonderful about being able to bring up connection with nature to people, especially who live in a city.
Central Park is such an iconic location. Could you speak a bit about your work within The Conservatory Garden?
LM: Well, it’s a very six acre formal garden, very different from the rest of Central Park, put in under Moses in the 30s. It was in terrible condition and was considered dangerous, although it wasn’t. The City was very polarized. And so when the Central Park Conservancy, it’s called The Conservatory Garden because they were conservatories there. The names are very similar. But, the Central Park Conservancy, which was at that time, unique public private partnership was restoring all of Central Park. They were doing work down at the far end, where all the rich people and the money was. But, I was asked to do this garden, which is up here in East Harlem. I felt it was very romantic and overgrown. I thought it was a wonderful challenge. Although, at first, I told my friend she was crazy. Who thought I could do that? But, I was a painter for 18 years, and I did a lot of horticulture training. So, I ended up starting it in 1982 and have been there ever since.
What are you working on at the moment?
LM: I teach at NYU, The Elements of Successful Public Space. I just put in part of some new landscape at the Columbia campus that I’ve been working on for 20 odd years. I’ve done the whole of the main campus, but this was the last part that hadn’t been done yet. Put some beautiful Magnolia grandifloras in there. I work at the New York Botanical Garden. I’ve done that for 36 years. I go up there to work about every two or three weeks. I did work on saving the Frick garden. The Frick is doing a lot of expansion and I worked on saving the garden. I lecture, I write, I’m just busier than a beaver, it seems. And trying to keep my little 97th Street Park watered.
What does it mean to you to be honored by LongHouse with the Landscape Award?
LM: I think it’s wonderful, especially since it’s a garden that’s all about art. My life is a combination of having been a painter and a garden designer, but I believe that garden design is a form of art. You use many of the same elements. But there are exciting things about doing things with live plants; there’s soil and weather and time that you have to contend with. So, in many ways I find it much more rewarding. I’ve been doing it, I gave up painting 36 years ago, but I think LongHouse is a wonderful combination of art and gardens and plants and nature. So, I’m delighted!
For more information on LongHouse Reserve, visit www.longhouse.org.