The last time I visited Indianapolis was the early 70s. My one-week stay didn’t start out so hot. Perhaps it had something to do with the paranoia of being a longhaired hippy musician in Middle America, coupled with my first (and only) tequila hangover. Did I mention it was Easter Sunday?
This year was different. I was back in Indy for the annual Garden Writers Association (GWA) symposium, and aside from my soulful karaoke rendition of Joe Cocker’s You Can Leave Your Hat On, there were no reportable shenanigans.
This was my fourth GWA event and I have to say that each trip has been better than the previous one. There was a big turnout: We were dubbed the Indy 500, attending sessions covering everything from publishing e-books to the benefits of beneficial insects. The exhibit hall was packed with vendor booths sharing hot new products and services you’ll be reading about soon. And these annual meet-ups always provide opportunities for “the tribe” to reinvigorate old friendships and germinate some new ones.
Lest you think we spend all our time indoors, the host committee for each city always organizes tours of private gardens and estates, public spaces, and educational facilities. That way we have stuff to write about and share with our readers – sort of like this article.
One of our obscenely early morning tours took us to the Indianapolis Museum of Art, housing over 50,000 works representing a variety of cultures and 5000 years of art history. But I’ll have to take their word for it. I spent my time trying to make a dent in the horticultural offerings contained in 152 acres of gardens, woodlands, wetlands, lake shore, meadows, and even their parking lot.
My interest was piqued the instant our bus rounded the curve into the museum’s driveway. Looking out the bus window, I noticed a bold stand of grasses simulating the native prairie and recalling the ecology of the Great Plains. And beyond, gracing the museum buildings, a hint of the forested grounds I would later explore. Whoever conceived this landscape had a deep knowledge of context and place, and excelled at translating that understanding into the design. I’d later find out that much of what I saw was the design vision of Chad Franer, Manager of Horticulture at IMA.
Filing off the bus, camera in hand, I was conflicted: My fellow GWAers headed to the museum café for a welcoming talk, hot coffee and breakfast. Yet there I stood in a beautifully landscaped parking lot while clear, golden rays of morning sunlight cast the spell garden photographers live for.
I took my first picture, wondering about the kind of institution that devotes this level of design and care to the place where visitors leave their cars. The obvious answer is that, to the Museum, beauty, in all its forms, is a priority. Joanie Mitchell almost got it right…I was in a paved paradise.
It wasn’t just the broad brush, lean approach to the plantings that caught my eye. The construction work was of the finest craftsmanship, as evidenced by this out-of-the-way, who’s-gonna-see-it retaining wall between the street and the lot. I can’t say I’ve ever seen chisel work like this before.
I know from reading Fine Gardening Magazine that for many of you, hostas are ho-hum, but we can’t grow them worth a damn in SoCal, so I felt compelled to squeeze off a few frames. This picture was taken along the farthest edge of the parking lot, where a massive earth berm blocks the sight and sound of the busy street. Most designers would consider this a throwaway area and fill it with something low maintenance, cheap and easy. But here grew a bed that most home gardeners would proudly show off. And for me, it’s a great teaching moment demonstrating how bold combinations of contrasting foliage create a pleasing composition.
One of the humbling things about attending GWA events is visiting gardens and being reminded that I don’t know nearly as many plants as I think I do. Here I stood, alone in a blacktop and green wonderland, confronted with these gorgeous candy-colored berries, and not a clue about what I was lusting over. But that’s why they invented Facebook. I posted this image earlier today and a nano-second later received a dozen confirmations that this delightful shrub is Callicarpa dichotoma (Purple Beautybush). Alas, it doesn’t stand a chance in any of my Left Coast clients’ gardens.
FINALLY! A plant I knew and actually use in my designs: Anemone hybrida (Japanese anemone). In fact, yesterday I opened an e-mail from a client thanking me for using this plant in their garden. Extra bonus: late season blooms that lend a woodland effect.
Leaving the lot to catch up to the group, I glanced back for one last shot. This long axis with a strong, yellow-green terminus view is placed where people will see it as they return to their cars. It’s a classic use of a focal point, reinforced with a simple three-element planting: an allee of trees, a sweeping understory of fountain grass, and the brightly foliaged shrub glowing at the end.
After exhausting my photographic creativity in the parking lot, I started the next leg of my adventure. I heard great things about the strong, contemporary style plantings that surrounds the building. What greeted me was this boldly planted central bed in the traffic island. Unlike the casual naturalness of the parking lot, this bed sat like a floral centerpiece. The columnar Liquidambar trees punctuate the bed like fireworks, while mounding forms and strong foliage contrast boost the complexity of the composition.
There were plenty of magical garden moments beyond the surprisingly rich parking lot. Lemme sort through a few hundred more photos and we’ll meet back here for round two.