The leafy gardens liberally scattered throughout New York belie the notion of the city as an asphalt jungle. Green spaces large and small, formal and casual, public and private are tucked into corners of all five boroughs. New York has a history of philanthropy and a public commitment to parks and open spaces. This winning combination has resulted in two of the world’s greatest botanical gardens, landscape architecture masterpieces, and a verdant reclaimed railway line. Read on for the best gardens in New York City.
Brooklyn Botanic Garden
Image: Brooklyn Botanic Garden/Flickr
The Brooklyn Botanic Garden is a 52-acre slice of green alongside Prospect Park and the backdrop for the Brooklyn Museum. Its delights are many, including one of the largest bonsai collections in the world, an experiential Discovery Garden, and conservatories showcasing habitats from diverse climatic zones. The BBG’s Cherry Blossom Festival is a must for many New Yorkers. This year's fest marks the 35th anniversary of Sakura Matsuri, with over 60 events and performances that celebrate traditional and contemporary Japanese culture. The 2016 event takes place on Saturday, April 30th, and Sunday, May 1st, but note that the fest doesn’t always coincide with peak bloom time—the trees flower according to the weather, not the calendar.
Central Park’s most formal plantings can be found in the Conservatory Garden, entered from Fifth Avenue and 105th St. The central axis is a formal lawn bordered by allées of flowering crabapple trees spanned by a monumental pergola dripping with wisteria. To one side is a round sun garden planted with masses of tulips and daffodils in spring and annuals in the summer and fall. The other side is a shade garden, sheltered by huge magnolia trees, with a contemplative pool at its center.
In medieval times, a garden was more than something beautiful to look at. It was a pharmacy, a supermarket, a spice rack, and a hardware store. The gardens at The Cloisters, which house the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s medieval collection, are filled with these useful plants. They are also beautiful, with fruit trees pruned into elaborate shapes to maximize the yield and delight the eye.
There is a magical playground shaped like an ice cream cone just seven minutes by ferry from Manhattan. Governors Island, a military base since the Revolutionary War, is now a park open to the public during the summer. Delights include rotating art installations and musical performances, Hammock Grove, a Teaching Garden, and The Hills—newly constructed manmade peaks with 360-degree views of the Statue of Liberty, Manhattan, and Brooklyn.
Unless you're in New York City on Christmas Eve or a guest at the Gramercy Park Hotel, you are unlikely to see the inside of Gramercy Park, which is locked the rest of the year. Only key holders—residents of the 39 buildings surrounding the park—are allowed access to the private park. Even so, the perimeter of Gramercy Park is popular with walkers and joggers, who can peek through the iron fence at a Calder sculpture amid lush plantings.
Heather Garden in Fort Tryon Park
John D. Rockefeller handpicked the 67-acre Hudson River bluff that comprises Fort Tryon Park (which surrounds The Cloisters), and purchased the land on the NJ side of the river to ensure unobstructed views in perpetuity. He hired the sons of Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted to create an equally beautiful environment. In addition to the park’s wild landscapes, Rockefeller commissioned a garden consisting solely of heathers and their close cousin the heaths. More than 500 species were planted originally, and now the Heather Garden also includes a dramatic perennial border.
The High Line
One of New York’s favorite attractions, the High Line is a garden disguised as a park. More than 500 species—many native—are planted along this 1.45 mile former elevated train line. Though only 30 to 60 feet wide, the High Line is cleverly designed to create a myriad of different environments and gathering spaces, all framed by trees, shrubs, and flowers.
New York Botanical Garden
The New York Botanical Garden is the city’s other great horticultural resource. Five times larger than its Brooklyn counterpart, the NYBG invites you to roam through fields and forests. The NYBG’s crown jewel is the Enid Haupt Conservatory, a magnificent Victorian glasshouse, featuring seasonal attractions including an Orchid Show as well as permanent installations of plant specimens from around the world.
Horticulturists come from far and wide to visit the exquisite gardens at Wave Hill, perched on a bluff overlooking the Hudson River. But this former estate in Riverdale—a swanky enclave of the Bronx—has more to offer than plants. The sweeping lawns, stunning views, art gallery, and cafe are well worth the one-hour subway or train ride from midtown Manhattan, made easy by free shuttle service from the 1 subway line and Metro North trains.