I’ll be teaching at Highland Park this afternoon. A break in the rain is a fine welcome-home.
|Spring at Highland Park, Carol L. Douglas|
Even though I’ve taught at Highland Park in Rochester countless times, I still needed to pace through it to determine the best place for my class. It’s chock-full of specimen plants. When they bloom depends on many factors besides the calendar date, as the organizers of the Lilac Festival know. This year, they were dead to rights. The festival (which closed this weekend) and the lilacs lined up perfectly.
Lilacs, like all mauve or blue flowers, make a difficult focal point for a painting. They recede just when they’re asked to take center stage, so they need architecture to support them. This the park doesn’t offer. Its lilacs are planted en masse, in a sloping forest, designed to overwhelm the wanderer with sight and smell.
|Lilacs are beautiful, but they need an architectural foil to compensate for their color. (Painting by Carol L. Douglas.)|
I looped through all my favorite haunts: the pinetum, the rhododendrons and azaleas, around the reservoir. With each turn, I remembered prior classes—Gwendolyn arriving from hospital in her robe, Sam eating a huge fried turkey leg among the flowers, Teressa wailing in frustration and then nailing a perfect drawing. Highland Park was the center of my teaching practice for many years.
The park was started on a twenty-acre parcel given to the city by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry of Mount Hope Nurseries. It came with restrictions, but also with the gift of plantings from what was then a world-class nursery. Landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted didn’t want the gig because the site didn’t include a natural water feature, but he relented when Seneca and Genesee Valley Parks were thrown in.
|Highland Park Pinetum, Carol L. Douglas|
What Highland Park does have is glacial topography. It sits atop Pinnacle Hill, a terminal moraine in an otherwise flat landscape. Olmsted used this to create the illusion of wilderness in this most urban of parks.
The Lake Plain on which Rochester is located is sopping wet during the best of years, and the city has been breaking rainfall records all spring. Plants are enormous and healthy. The result is a jungle-like shagginess. I was reminded that much of my gardening work in the so-called Flower City involved hacking back plants to keep them in some kind of control.
I stopped to see the gardens at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church, which I designed and planted (with much help, of course) back in the day. The gardeners-in-chief, Michael and Kathy Walczak, were hard at work replanting canna lily tubers. I then drove by my old house, and was pleased to see my plantings looking well.
|Redbud blossoms, Carol L. Douglas|
Gardens are cooperative art. Once you hand them over, you’ve ceded control.
There’s a break in the rain forecast for today, and Rochester’s normally heavy skies are expected to clear. I’ll be teaching this afternoon at my favorite spring spot of all, the path along the Poet’s Garden where the peonies meet the magnolias. It’s a fine welcome-home from my former town.