Tucked behind an old farmhouse lies a beautiful garden
Tucked behind an old farmhouse in Connecticut lies a garden. It is a sublime composition of color and texture where shrubs interweave with perennials, shapes interplay eloquently, and the spectrum of hues is explored to its fullest. Like many gardens, the place is transporting. But unlike any other garden, what happens in Lynden B. Miller’s landscape has touched 8 million people or more. She is the powerhouse behind many of New York City’s most prominent public spaces. But she discovered the secrets of horticulture on the five acres around her Connecticut home, and she puts plants through their paces in her own garden before letting them loose in The Big Apple.
It all began in 1979 with a "perfectly hideous" swimming pool on an abandoned farm in Connecticut purchased by Lynden and her husband, Leigh. As a trained artist, Lynden held strong opinions about beauty, and the cracked cement swimming pool did not measure up. She had already spent a few years studying horticulture and "going to every garden I could lay my hands on" in Britain while her husband was on assignment in London. Following the couple’s return to New York City with their two young sons, she was taking design courses at the New York Botanical Garden when the time came to whip the Connecticut weekend house into shape. "I looked at the land and saw a curved hedge," she recalls. And once the yew hedge was installed, Lynden went nursery-hunting for a palette of grays, pinks, purples, and burgundy that could entertain brilliantly and harmoniously throughout the year in front of the evergreen backdrop.
That was Lynden’s initial effort to reach beyond the obvious. From the garden’s inception, she experimented with shrubs, perennials, bulbs, and annuals—paying keen attention, learning from mistakes, and trying many different approaches to design. The garden radiates from the hedge. She orchestrated a formal herb garden to lurk seductively around the bend—the only prim area on the premises—beside a tool shed/belvedere. Like brushwork, vistas were lined by crabapples and underplanted by a battalion of early daffodils and, later, daylilies. There’s a tapestry-dense meadow dissected by long paths and overlooked by destination benches. And alongside the (now renovated) pool lies an emerald green wildflower dell that bursts into blossom every spring. By the time she was finished (although gardens are never really completed), she had tackled 2½ acres. When you think about it, that space could easily be the dimensions of a public garden.
But public gardens weren’t on her radar at that time. All Lynden wanted was a change from her painting studio (she was a fine art painter for 18 years) when Elizabeth Barlow Rogers, city planner and Central Park’s first administrator, came to her with a request in 1982: "I want you to restore the Conservatory Garden up in the northern end of the park." Lynden was overwhelmed by the magnitude of the project, but agreed to check it out. That initial reconnaissance was not a stroll in the park. With funding for city parks slashed since the ’70s, entering the gates of the garden required a security escort in 1982.
To see a space quickly transformed, say eyesore within Lynden’s hearing. Once glorious, the then graffiti-riddled and crime-pocked section of Central Park at 105th Street and 5th Avenue in East Harlem spurred her to action. She created an updated scheme based on the original garden plan. By April 1983, the Conservatory Garden was again open to rave reviews—especially from the neighborhood.
It was just the start. There was the triumph in Bryant Park—"five acres of degradation" before Lynden proved naysayers wrong. Then there was the 97th Street/Park Avenue Mall, Madison Square Park, Wagner Park, Red Hook Waterfront Park, and on and on. In all, Lynden Miller has worked on 30 public spaces in and around New York City.
And it all started with a farmhouse in Connecticut. Although the borders, the daffodil allée, and the dappled carpet in the woodland garden offer a place to stroll, explore, and feast all the senses as a respite after a long week rushing around gardens in the city’s five boroughs, Lynden Miller’s garden is much more than just a place of personal solace. Tidbits from her home garden can be found all around the city. Prone to downplay her own personal pursuits, Lynden sums up her garden as "my plaything." True enough, she has a lark in her own backyard. But every New Yorker has benefited.
Photography: Matthew Benson
Colorful Lined Walkway
Lynden Miller’s "day-daff" walk blooms first with muscari and 75 varieties of daffodils, then fills in with daylilies.
Pheasant’s Eye narcissus peek out from the edges of the walkway.
Gated Garden Entrance
Pencil-pruned Thuja occidentalis "Emerald" trees stand guard at the day-daff walk entrance.
Rich Tulips and Snowy Narcissus
"Gavota" tulip and double narcissus punctuate the scenery.
Over a 30-year period, this area has become a confection of scilla, mertensia, hosta, and chionodoxa.
Garden Potting Shed
The plantings around the potting shed are accented by urns that cradle dianthus
Yellow tulips bloom bright against a stone backdrop.
Textures add interest to the garden.
The Daffodil Project
Lynden B. Miller, with her far-flung public landscape projects, is the dynamo responsible for helping to improve the quality of life for 8 million New York City residents. But on September 11, 2001, as she watched the smoke rising from the ruins of the World Trade Center, she was beside herself with grief. Then, in her darkest hour, the fax machine started chattering with an offer from a Dutch bulb grower/friend: "What can I do to help?" In Lynden’s Connecticut garden, a long strip of daffodils pops up every spring as a symbol of hope. So she didn’t miss a beat. "Do you have any extra daffodils?"
Read on for the rest of Lynden’s story.
The Daffodil Project
When New York harbor finally reopened late that September, one of the first ships to come in was laden with a million daffodil bulbs for the city. "Let’s plant them in places that haven’t seen a flower in years," the no-neighborhood-left-behind garden designer decided. Ten thousand volunteers came to help get those bulbs in the ground. The next spring, New York City was circled in golden blossoms. And it didn’t stop there. The Daffodil Project—as it’s now called—is responsible for planting 5 million bulbs to date. Lynden’s goal is to ultimately plant 8 million daffodils—one for every New York resident.
Shady Garden Sitting Area
Garden furniture sets up a dialogue with the crabapple tree in the long perennial and shrub border behind the house. Bleeding hearts, clipped boxwood, ‘Montgomery’ spruces carved into orbs, and a pageant of perennials introduce nonstop intrigue.
An armillary can always be counted on to lend an air of classicism to the garden.
A palette of pinks, grays, purples, and burgundies harmonizes throughout the year in front of an evergreen backdrop.
Good Fences Make Good Neighbors
In this farmhouse setting, a rail fence and a picket fence, both painted white work well together.