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28 September 2020

Q & A: The Queen of Inspiration: Wave Hill's President Karen Meyerhoff

Wave Hill

We’ve been doing Q&As with garden gurus at Janet Mavec Jewelry for about a year. When we ask them to pick a public garden that rocks their worlds, the answer is nearly always same: Wave Hill. That led us down a path to Karen Meyerhoff, president of the Bronx’s garden. Where does she get inspiration for the 28-acre spread that’s inspired dozens, if not hundreds, of landscape designers and garden aficionados and tourists?

First, let’s talk about the USDA Hardiness Zone where Karen grew-up: the rarish Zone 3A, shared with chilly places like Alaska, North Dakota, the highlands of Colorado, to name a few. The Minnesotan remembers a hometown “where the winters lasted eight months per year with temperatures reaching -40°. Now, as she puts it, “she gets to walk barefoot across the grass to her office” and wanders the grounds with a tortoise that has adopted her. Karen, welcome to Zone 6B! 

Janet Mavec: What are some of your favorite plants?

Karen Meyerhoff: There is nothing like a really brutal winter to make one appreciate spring, so it is not surprising that some of my favorite plants are the native woodland flowers that bloomed as soon as the snow started to recede like Snow Trillim and Hepatica.

JM: What garden institution has influenced how you manage yours?

KM: I learned about native wildflowers by visiting a wonderful place in Minneapolis called the Eloise Butler Wildflower Garden, the oldest public native-plant garden in the country. The intimacy of that place, the feeling it had of being my own secret garden and its sense of discovery made a deep impression on me. And now years later, those are all qualities we strive for at Wave Hill.

JM: Since the reopening in July and during a pandemic, what are visitors seeking at Wave Hill?

KM: They want to find a quiet spot to sit on their own and soak in the solitude. It is never too crowded to find an empty bench or drag a Wave Hill chair to a quiet spot and curl up with a book. Here are few great spots:

If you want to feel like Cleopatra on the throne go to the stone bench at the end of the Aquatic Garden.

Wave Hill

View of the Aquatic Garden

The bench in the Henrietta Lockwood garden makes you feel like you live at Wave Hill and you can easily imagine having tea brought to you there.

A bench in the Elliptical Garden is a great place to sit when the sun starts to go down. That garden used to be a swimming pool. It’s all native plants and very lively with birds at that hour.

If you want a spot where no one will ever find you, sit on the stone bench at the bottom of the hill near Glyndor House next to the copper beech at the edge of the woodland.

Wave Hill

The edge of the Woodland Garden

Another underused area is the terrace and lawn behind Glyndor House enclosed by a hedge with an old fountain at its center. I like to walk my tortoise there in the good weather. Yes, you heard that right, a tortoise who lives in my office and wanders the garden with me.

Another secret spot is a rough-hewn log bench under a tree at the foot of the Conifer Slope. You can’t see the bench until you sneak under the bower of the trees branches. It is dedicated to a woman who used to head education here.

I hope people will go to find these spots and sit and enjoy the last light of late summer.

JM: What are visitors’ favorite space?

KM: The view that takes everyone’s breath away is of the Hudson River and Palisades seen through the pergola. It is never the same from one day to the next with the changing mood of the river and sky and the shifting light on the rock face. Everyone wants to linger. People propose marriage there and get married there. Even children understand the awesome power of that spot.

Wave Hill

The stunning view of the Hudson River through the Pergola

JM: Why do you think everyone LOVES Wave Hill?

KM: It is the intimacy of scale and the delicate beauty of the gardens that pull you in and captivate your senses. Wave Hill feels like your own private garden. It’s extraordinary because the deep personal connection makes you feel like like you belong there. It is like coming home.

Wave Hill

The Herb and Dry Gardens

JM: Any changes to Wave Hill in the coming months?

KM: The Head of Horticulture Louis Bauer led the creation of a new site plan. It doesn’t change a hair on Wave Hill’s head, but it subtly and ingeniously addresses ADA accessibility and the connectivity of pathways throughout. Some of the improvements include changes to the entry area, the woodland area and the visitor center.
For example, an elevated accessible walkway will rise from behind the conservatory curving up through a relatively unused area. All visitors end up on the hilltop in the Henrietta Lockwood garden where they will be treated to a wonderful view of the gardens and the Hudson River from a new perspective. The woodland will add a pavilion, accessible pathways and a rain garden. It will also develop the meadow as a wild native-plant experience. The asphalt in front of the visitor center will become a stone patio—not only more welcoming but better for the environment by managing run-off and helping to conserve rainwater. Louis also envisions restoration of an historic pathway on the lower lawn making that viewpoint accessible. An improved entry area with a new gatehouse will be accomplished before the end of the year if all goes well. If I am only able to see a few of these accomplished during my tenure I will be very happy.

Wave Hill

Steps up through the Wild Garden to the Gazebo

JM: What gardens have you visited recently that you loved?

KM: Wave Hill’s Friends of Horticulture Committee is made up of talented gardeners who love and support Wave Hill. Visiting their personal gardens is a great way to get to know their personalities. One garden will focus on structure and formal organization; another will be all eclectic exuberance; another gardener may be obsessed with one particular kind of plant and collect it in depth.
Listening to someone talk about their garden is like hearing their life story, family history, and creative vision all rolled into one. And every gardener I talk to is still learning, always hungry to know more and discover new things.
Most of these private gardens are included in the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days each year, open to the public.
I also greatly admire what Stephen Byrns is accomplishing with the restoration of Untermyer Gardens in Yonkers. It was a needle park before he rescued it and transformed it into a spectacle of wonder. He is utterly devoted to the task.
Whenever I travel, anywhere, I seek out public gardens and historic houses. I have visited them on five continents in countless places, dating from many different points in time. I am not looking for the grand gestures and spectacular displays of fountains and tight formal arrangements. For me, the most memorable are those that express the qualities that we treasure at Wave Hill. I want to sense a personal touch, the feeling that someone in particular thought about this little corner of the world and worked on it with their own hands. I want to feel as if I were an invited guest wandering through a garden just waiting to be enjoyed and understood.

JM: What’s a sign of respect that you give to nature’s green beings?

KM: I pay attention to the plant. I try to observe things closely and appreciate nuance and complexity. I marvel at the myriad of details from the seed pods to the leaf structure to the overall architecture of a plant. My windowsills at the office are overflowing with dried artifacts picked up on the grounds.

JM: What plant is underused and why should we pay more attention to it?

KM: One of my first experiences of creating a garden was helping to initiate a natural dye garden at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum with a group from the local weaver’s guild. At first there was a lot of resistance to the idea because so many dye plants are considered invasive. But in a way that is the beauty of it. Dye plants are everywhere around us. With the use of mordants (a substance that fixes dyes), you can achieve a whole spectrum of colors from the ‘weeds’ right outside your door. Examples include Goldenrod, Yarrow, Pearly Everlasting, Burdock, Mullein, Plantain, Smooth Sumac, Weld, Bloodroot, it’s a long list!

JM: Why did you pick the cicada from the jewelry collection?

KM: Growing up in the Midwest, the cicada was a symbol of summer. The whir of their wings brings me back to the Minnesota prairie. The jewelry is very well rendered, a perfect homage to this wonderful creature.

Wave Hill

JM: What is coming up for you in 2020?

KM: Well that is the question of the hour isn’t it!
Wave Hill was thriving when Covid hit. We were just about to host Fergus Garrett for a lecture; our book “Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill” had been published; we had just launched our new website; and, I was in the process of raising a substantial sum of money to fund Louis Bauer’s future plans for the garden. When the pandemic hit, we were forced to close. We did our best to keep in touch with everyone through digital engagement. But with a garden there is nothing like the real thing.
We reopened at the end of July and we are very grateful to those who helped support us through this. I think we learned how much gardens matter. We came out of this with a renewed conviction of the value of natural places and a firm resolve to protect and preserve them everywhere.

Wave Hill

All photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo