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An Intern’s First Peek into Helen S. Layer Rhododendron Garden

Mon., Jul. 12, 2021

By Yuhan Ji, Landscape Architecture Intern

Many things can be found in Helen S. Layer Garden. There is a bright reflection of the waterbody coming through the woods, a shady path under the oak and maple canopy, and breath-taking rhododendron blooms in the spring awakening forest. This summer, there is a new addition to the garden, a landscape architecture intern. I will be here for my 10 – week internship, discovering the beauty and greater potential of this garden, and imagining its future appearance.  Coming in with very minimal knowledge about this garden, I separated my internship into three parts: site discovery, concept development, and schematic design. Five weeks into the internship, it is time to share some thoughts.

Two processes shape a garden. Natural processes, and the effort of humans. An attractive garden first needs one person to dream, then design, with the familiarity of observing and using nature. Then, prepare the soil, lay the pipes, and plant the plants. Then it takes years of continuous maintenance and care to reach a mature look. The first thing I did was to understand all of this in the Layer Garden. To learn more about the genus Rhododendron, I went to the David G. Leach Research Station (Fig.1), which is where Holden’s rhododendron breeding program takes place. There, in addition to studying the habitat and configuration of the rhododendrons, I heard a fascinating story about David Leach, who spent much of his life traveling to places where rhododendrons grow on multiple continents and brought them back to the United States for his breeding project. He explored the cold Himalayas and also the beautiful New Guinea. His story inspired me to find out what was so special about rhododendrons that attracted him to devote his life to rhododendron hybrid breeding and allowed Holden to continue his research. All those efforts are to bring more species of rhododendrons to the sight of people. I hope that through the present and future design of the garden, this notion could be explored further.

Fig.1 Photo taken in David G. Leach Research Station, at 9 AM. This is also where David Leach lived and conducted his research.

With the knowledge above, I developed my first idea for the design of the garden: I want to explore the potential of the site, to show people how the large rhododendrons discovered on the hillside and along the water edge have attracted generations of people to explore them, to bring their beauty from the mountains to people, to adapt them to more climates, and to share the inspiration and passion they get from those bright flowers to more people. Therefore, I plan to closely examine how well the narrative about rhododendron is presented around the garden, to suggest adjustments with my understanding and share this with future visitors.

Then let’s look at the natural environment of our garden. This land itself is especially attractive. Olmsted Brothers, one of the earlier landscape architecture firms looking at Holden Arboretum, wrote in a report in 1958:  “We know of no other arboretum in this country with such an enormous potential for development: … the attractiveness of the terrain, the sweeping vistas, the varied water features, the existing woodlots … “. These words precisely describe the 20 acres of rolling hills, various vistas, and three interconnected ponds in and around the Layer garden. (Fig.2) I will be examining if the potential of the site is fully appreciated. For instance, if there is a great experience standing in the shade of a large red oak by the water’s edge, looking across the pond to a scene not yet revealed to the visitors? What other vistas of the Arboretum are hidden in the Layer Garden?

Fig.2 Looking at Beech Knoll from across Hourglass Pond.

Fig.2 Looking at Beech Knoll from across Hourglass Pond

With great intention to build a rhododendron garden here, there are a lot of efforts made to maintain this garden. This is the challenging and interesting part of managing a garden – we have what we want, and nature has its plan. Many times you won’t know what will happen to a planned flower bed until establishing it — if it will get wet or dry, or if a heavy snowstorm will hit the garden, breaking the major branch of an 80-year-old rhododendron. It could be more terrifying, the beech leaf disease might be attacking Beech Knoll, which is a pleasant beech grove in the garden. What happens if the disease does attack, and all of the beech trees will soon vanish? There needs to be a plan. My job is to propose changes in the garden in areas where the design intention and the site reality are proven to not match, while having the narrative of the entire garden in mind, so a continuous experience could be presented to the visitors.

Despite the big changes that could take a long time to prepare for, I’m also working on small changes in the garden. Maybe a bench is better facing east than north. Maybe a great vista could be revealed by cleaning two or three understory trees or adding a small path. I will be identifying these places and propose changes accordingly.

This is a summary of my first five weeks of exploration, and I’m so excited to move towards the next stage of interpreting these goals in the actual design.

Yuhan Ji

Yuhan Ji

Landscape Architecture Intern

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