How does the BMA garden grow? Better than it did

June 20, 1993|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,Art Critic

Things have improved in paradise, but there's still room for more improvement.

Five years ago this month, when the Ryda and Robert H. Levi Sculpture Garden opened at the Baltimore Museum of Art, it offered a significantly different and beautiful concept. Unlike the usual urban sculpture garden, essentially a platform with trees (such as the museum's Wurtzburger garden), the Levi occupied a 1.6-acre natural setting in which landscape architect Joseph -- Hibbard of Sasaki Associates had designed what he called a "controlled wooded setting."

The garden had been designed to retain existing trees, especially beeches and tulip poplars, which provided a high canopy overhead. Under this, the sculptures had ample space in which to be visited and contemplated. There was room to wander and to mingle with art and nature.

When the garden opened, it was not finished, in terms of nature or of art. It was created for the collection of contemporary sculpture assembled and donated to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. Levi. When it opened, 13 of the sculptures had been installed -- including works by Joan Miro, Louise Nevelson, Isamu Noguchi, Anthony Caro, Tony Smith, Mark di Suvero and Ellsworth Kelly -- with about a dozen more to come. And the newly planted garden, under its canopy of trees, had to mature. Mr. Hibbard suggested coming back for another look in two years.

But by 1990 the garden looked worse, not better. Seven trees, six beeches and a tulip poplar, had died due to root damage from construction, leaving the western part of the garden looking especially bare. A drought in 1988 killed many of the original plants, some of which had been replanted two or three times. Other problems remained, such as soil with a high clay content, water in the lowest part at the center of the garden and an incomplete staff of gardeners.

But the museum had hired a full-time horticulturist, Sheen Roos, who was working diligently to bring the garden to its potential. She suggested having another look in another three years.

Today the garden looks considerably improved, especially in certain areas. The di Suvero sculpture, "Sister Lu," occupying the northwest corner was turned 180 degrees in the fall of 1990 to a better alignment, and a curving line of evergreens has been planted behind it, giving this area a much-improved overall appearance.

The arbor in the north side of the garden's main circular walkway was originally planted with Dutchman's pipe, which didn't grow. It has been replanted with wisteria, which has grown splendidly; it now completely covers the arbor and bloomed this spring for the first time. Moreover, the hill behind this arbor now has complete ground cover.

Unlike the appropriate iron post fence that borders the garden on three sides, an ugly chain link fence was installed along the northern border to save money. This has been planted with vines, to obscure the fence and the vehicles parked on the Johns Hopkins University side of the fence. The vines don't provide complete cover yet, but they're coming along.

Staff has grown, too

The gardening staff, which now includes three full-time and several part-time people, has added 14,000 plants in the last three years, from amelanchier (shadbush), white redbud and kousa dogwood trees to rhododendron and azalea bushes and 2,000 daffodils. Other, less-visible efforts include lightning protection and an attempt to restore the soil's proper pH balance, fertilizing and pruning.

Most important, perhaps, is that no more trees have died; and to restore the once-lovely canopy, seven new trees, including oak and tulip poplar, have been planted. Several others that have sprung up spontaneously have been allowed to grow.

Trees do not grow overnight, of course, and although the oaks have achieved a height of up to 20 feet, even if all goes well it will be years before they reach their potential. To give an idea of how long, Ms. Roos says, "In five years we will have the start of a complete canopy."

Other problems persist, and Ms. Roos and her staff continue to grapple with them. Because of water and soil conditions, the center of the garden is still a problem, with too many weeds and too little else, although redbud trees and swamp azaleas have been planted.

The ground hasn't become adequately covered with green in a number of places, especially under the existing beech trees to the west of the garden's center and just below an overlook at the entrance. In an effort to encourage ground cover in another area, along the northern hill, last summer Ms. Roos planted buckwheat there, which she said acts as "green manure" for the soil. The buckwheat, an annual, died with the coming of frost, but it had the effect of nourishing the soil, and, as a result, the desired ground cover has flourished in that area this year. So Ms. Roos is going to try the buckwheat in other places.

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