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A Woodland Garden for the Ages

| Bob Hill
A Woodland Garden for the Ages

Story originally published by The Courier-Journal

As spring approaches in green slippers, consider an emerging woodland garden as musical theatre. Its spring-time overture the cheerful opening of a delightful play; the long-awaited flowers, shrubs and trees bursting out three-dimensional color, texture and song.

Then add the fourth dimension: Time. A woodland garden slowly reveals itself, then repeats the story again and again. Every year. Old, new, old, new and ever more grand for tens of thousands of giddy patrons.

So it will go with the Moss Gibbs Woodland Garden at The Parklands of Floyds Fork, a roughly 15-acre theatrical prodigy that mixes existing native plants with about 47,000 new plantings from tiny plugs to 15-foot ornamental trees.

Its initial public opening is now scheduled for Friday, May 10—the opening number marked with a brief press conference and ceremony at 10 a.m.

Years in the making, the production required about 15 nurseries and landscape firms providing plants, design and installation. About 200 species and cultivars will be carefully spread on a 170-foot rise of wooded land once thoroughly tromped by a farmer’s cattle.

“It’s all about creating a garden in an already beautiful existing woodlands,” said Tom Smarr, Parklands horticultural director who offered the musical theatre analogy.

Smarr knows of what he sings. His background includes Garden in the Woods owned by the New England Wildflower Society, the Rose Kennedy Greenway near the Boston Harbor and the heavily-praised High Line, a 1.45-mile elevated garden created on an old railroad spur in New York City.

It was the awakening promise of The Parklands that drew him from New York to Louisville, our diverse, user-friendly almost 4,000-acre park system that stretches about 19 miles along Floyds Fork from Shelbyville Road to Bardstown Road.  Things have gone so well their annual attendance has reached more than 3 million.

The concept – “creating a garden in an already beautiful existing woodlands” – sounds simple enough. Yet the ever-changing production has included directors and set-designers who have collectively walked the hillside for hundreds of hours, adjusting the original score, creating a mile of stone and soft woodland paths. Some of the paths are open, others curl into shaded hidden spaces, nooks and crannies revealing pieces of garden art.

Stones and greenery spiral into a sinkhole creating artwork that combines the garden's natural and man-made elements.

Those places come with aptly descriptive names such as Big Woods, Cathedral of Cedars, Glade Garden and Glen Garden.

Near the top of the garden, where controlled rainwater will tumble down a deep ravine, will be a watery swale and meadow grasses. The overall variety of garden plants will delight the native plant literati and invigorate the newcomers. Among the selections are sedges, ferns, wild ginger, marsh marigold, iris, hellebores, jack-in-the-pulpit, fox glove, amsonia, yucca, milkweed, turtleheads, stokesia and asters.

The shrubs and trees – native and introduced – will include redbuds, dogwoods, yellowwoods, bottlebrush buckeyes, paw paws, beech, magnolias, blue ash, yellow buckeye, oak, button bush, sweetgum, hornbeam, hop-hornbeam, cedars rhododendron, azalea, sumac, and native hydrangea.  

Remember, this is a partnership between the existing plant world and the new. The prime operating script mandated those 47,000 plants, paths and hidden places be added while causing as little damage to the existing natural woods as possible. Also included was an irrigation line to be buried through the center of the garden. Among the visitor rules: No bicycles allowed.

 
Native Twin Leaf blankets the aptly named Twin Leaf Ridge that overlooks Floyds Fork. 

 

The existing native plants on the site include pachysandra, hydrangea and Twin Leaf or Jeffersonia diphylla, a rare and very interesting plant named by native plant pioneer John Bartram for the Master of Monticello – and more on that later.

The total Woodland Garden cost will be several million dollars, all of it from donations or foundation grants. The first change to be made was to The Parklands’ original plans for its Cliffside Center—the welcoming playground, sprayground and picnic area now on the flatlands closest to Bardstown Road. Originally, this now popular destination was to be further up on that Woodland Garden hill.

But then Dan Jones, Chairman and CEO of The Parklands, and Jim Walters, president of the architectural firm Bravura who has spent almost a decade working on various Parklands sites, repeatedly walked the hill. They took in the existing variety of trees, the native wildflowers and the rugged beauty of that defining ravine and decided to create the Woodland Garden there.

Enter the legendary Rick Darke, author of, go figure, The American Woodland Garden, who traveled from his Pennsylvania home to develop the hillside, its rich, colorful veins of karst interwoven with limestone, for the woodlands garden.

He first walked the site in spring, was taken by the wildflower display, especially the twinleaf. The possibilities were right there at his feet.

“It was very visually exciting,” said Darke, whose words flow like off-the-cuff poetry even when discussing land once trampled by cattle, “My habit is not to destroy anything. You start off with an assessment. Boots on the ground. Do not erase and take back.

“My primary idea was to use this already rich site to edit and create spaces and paths and destinations to reveal to visitors how much wonder there is in Kentucky woods, fields, streams and river edges.”

So be it. Visitors to the already heavily-used Cliffside Center will now enter the Woodland Garden through a lower savanna area and up through a hedgerow to another Rick Darke idea: “The Kentucky Coffee Tree Rondel.”

  

Then: Project designers mark out the future Kentucky Coffee Tree Rondel in January 2017. Now: Visitors gather in the completed rondel on opening day.

 

The rondel is a flat circle of concrete art, its edges already planted in Kentucky Coffee trees. Their dark, gnarly limbs will rise above comfortable benches spread out below them in summer shade.

It’s one of three rondels Darke planned in the garden. The other two, both higher up into the garden, are the Scarlet Oak Rondel with brilliant red fall color underplanted with orange-yellow fothergilla and the Redbud Rondel with its ‘Merlot’ cultivar of burgundy leaves. Each of the two with floors of carefully laid natural stone with grass pushing up in-between, or carefully sculpted earth.

“Rick Darke was very passionate about these rondels,” explained Smarr, “because they provide a sense of a portal of entry or escape from a space. Then you’ll walk into that space.”

Higher above The Kentucky Coffee Tree Rondel is a grove of 100-year-old cedar trees, The Cathedral of Cedars if you will, placed next to another seating area, “The Circle of Stones.”

Always mindful of the terrain, the garden’s designers have placed other native stones in odd and fun places just because they could. In one area previously given to rampaging honeysuckle, the new plants on the block are thick green ferns, purple asters and yellow sedge accented with a circular piece of stone art that disappears down a sinkhole – a little bit of Alice in Wonderland just off Bardstown Road.

Much of the early Act 1 Woodlands production was led by Louisville landscape designer Patrick Henry. He walked the land with the others, felt the excitement of the project and brought his sketches to marathon group sessions to hammer it all out.

The process included slide shows, days of discussion and finally a message from on high: “Look, we have been talking about this for years now let’s get something built.”

Along with expediting the plantings, Henry’s role was to find ways to place 500-to-600-pound stone slabs into trail sites without tearing up the landscape, a process that came to include moving the five-foot slabs from skid loaders onto dollies and placing by hand.

“Landscape guys at times could care less,” said Henry, “but they bought into this. It’s probably the most satisfying project I’ve ever done. It was fun working with the others. The park is the most amazing place to be in the city of Louisville. It’s just beautiful when the sun is coming up.”

Moving further up the hill is the Venerable Oak. Over 125 years old, the bur oak reaches in solemn, open-armed majesty above the trail. It rises above a clearing, the trail around it all carefully laid by hand to avoid root damage. The oak’s presence comes as a surprise; the eyes first down on the trail taking in ginger, asters, fern, may apple and native pachysandra, then suddenly rising up to take in the oak.

Wow!

Applause. Applause.

More of the same is due a few moments later when reaching the Roman Arch Bridge built by Cecil Aguilar and his family crew. It stretches 60 feet across the steep ravine with hundreds of tons of individual sculpted slabs and individual stones and no mortar.

This one is more like: “Surprise, Surprise.” Who figured this to be way out here?  It’s all ancient, hands-on skill, art and gravity in partnership where the walking path divides toward Hydrangea Falls and the Palisade Forest, and a view of Floyds Fork sliding below.

The other path leads to the Paw Paw Passage and eventually the Redbud Rondel, which will also include native redbuds and dogwoods around its edges. Future plans in this area include the Garden of Whimsy; playful garden sculptures to be changed with the seasons.

 A wooden deck with benches further up the ravine offers a fine view of the arched bridge, but the story lines here are the “Twin Leaf Ridge” on the far side of the bridge, and the Glen Garden and Glade Garden hugging the center of the walk below it – the Woodland Garden Act II if you will.

For the true native-plant lover, Twin Leaf Ridge will steal the spring landscape show. It offers long-stemmed, blue-green leaves divided into two lobes that produce a single, short-lived, pure-white cup-shaped, eight-petaled flower with leathery, pear-shaped fruit capsules that spill seeds on the ground.

Considered endangered in many areas, it has happily spread into a rare, almost-quarter acre patch in The Parklands site. Its seeds are normally spread by ants–a show in itself–but in the case of The Parklands, it’s also getting a lot of human help with transplanting from other nearby Parklands sites.

“We had to transplant Twin Leaf out of the pathway location,” said Smarr, “and when we did, we added another big section. We’re transplanting what’s on site. We’re trying to really keep this to be authentic.”

The Glen Garden is a 300-foot shaded section between two wooded hillsides. It’s fed by an intermittent stream, has a stone pathway meandering through the bottom. It’s a fun place area where patrons can literally walk up the ravine on carefully-placed stepping stones; Mom, Dad and the kids.

Designed by Richard Weber of Springhouse Gardens of Nicholasville, his pick of favorite Glen Garden plants included Round-leaf Ragwort, Pennsylvania Sedge and Blue Moon Woodland Phlox – all unsung natives worthy of song.

“The stone pathway offers numerous opportunities to highlight moisture loving native plants and allow the visitor to get up close and personal with so many beautiful plants,” said Weber.

The Glade Garden further up the path was designed by Tracey Williams of Greensleeves Design in Louisville. She also first walked the land with the others, was excited by the possibilities, admired the horticultural practices involved in preservation, including using “air knifing” using a high-pressure stream of air to first loosen compacted soil.

The Glade Garden brought another set-design challenge: Full Sun.  Her mission was to focus on summer color, create some pop” in the production using an interesting palette of native plant species. Her inspiration was to mix people, plants, pollinators and paths; figure out how to bring them all together.

Her solutions included lead plants, indigo bush, false foxgloves, asters, turtle heads, beautyberry, bayberry, calycanthus, clethra, yucca, chokeberry, red-and-yellow stemmed dogwoods, staghorn sumac, amsonia and goldenrod. She did it thinking of the smaller cast members required in any outdoor production.

“The emphasis on the summer plantings offers a feast for the pollinators,” she said, “and I’m keenly aware of the insect life in a summer garden and the myriad of opportunities for blooms to provide the most worthy of feasts.”

The theatre continues upward from there. Closer to the top and its East Entry Garden are dogwood drifts, meadows and a boulder garden. At the top – and the path can certainly be walked downward from the upper parking lot toward the Cliffside Center, too – is the swale with wetland native plants such as native hibiscus, button bush, sedges, iris and bright red cardinal flower. From there it’s a short walk to the upper parking lot.

The entire Parklands has always been in it for the long haul. Its history goes back more than 200 years to land owned by Squire Boone – Daniel’s brother. Its planners are looking well into the 22nd Century.

In keeping with that script, the Woodland Garden will never be completed, its curtain never closed. The cast, characters, songs, flowers, shrubs and trees will forever be changing.

Its creation has already brought joy and satisfaction to its creators – all who understand this work is not just for us, but our children and grandchildren and their children.

One of those creators, Jim Walters, whose name appears in many Louisville projects, sees the Woodland Garden, as “close to being my swan song, a good thing that I have been able to do.”

“It makes me feel alive,” he said. “I just hope other people enjoy it that way. The place is beautiful. I would hardly change a thing.

“When I’m out there at the golden hour, the blue sky, the beautiful light, I don’t want to go home.”

About the Author

Picture of Bob Hill

Bob Hill

Former Louisville-Courier columnist Bob Hill is a historian for The Parklands of Floyds Fork. He travels Floyds Fork writing of the people, the places and the history of the stream within the 20-mile park system - all of which is to be preserved in the Filson Historical Society. Some of Hill's stories appear in A Landscape and its Legacy, the commemorative book for The Parklands of Floyds Fork project. Hill has also compiled a Floyds Fork “Places & Faces” presentation that adds imagery to the words.

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