The Garden, Inundated

This article is published in the Winter 2017/Spring 2018 issue of The Boston Society of Landscape Architecture Fieldbook magazine, entitled “Gardens”.

I thought the sound would have been more like the pop of a suction cup as my foot pulled out of the tan clay mud, leaving my sneaker behind. Instead, an eerie gurgle escaped the hole that quickly closed up over my laces, with just enough time for me to reach in and dredge out the fallen soldier. It had rained the night before, leaving puddles and silt over fresh concrete paths of the park we were building along Buffalo Bayou in Houston, TX.

I was standing on a mucky 3:1 slope, staking the locations of 194 trees to be planted at Lost Lake, one of four gardens that Reed Hilderbrand designed for the park. Already installed and looking gorgeous were two other gardens, Eleanor Tinsley Garden and Jane Gregory Garden, and the garden at Wortham Fountain was just about complete as well. Visitors were using the bike paths that led from Shepard Drive all the way into Downtown. At times, a Houstonian would peer into our construction site, asking when it would be open. Pallets upon pallets of perennial ferns, sweetspire, palmetto, and azalea would soon create a vibrant carpet under the trees, and at the water’s edge, iris and water lily would spread and bloom in the sunshine.

This was early May, 2015. Two weeks later, on Memorial Day, just before the park’s opening, Houston would see eleven inches of rain in less than 24 hrs. That is nearly one quarter of the annual rainfall in Houston — and it all arrived on one day. This may seem atypical, but it is hard to know what is “typical” for Houston. Over the last twenty years, Houston has experienced a cycle of cataclysmic drought and flooding. At Buffalo Bayou, a primary drainage feature of the city, the flood stage is 28 feet — that day the water crested at nearly 34. A colleague sent me a clip to a video that pointed directly at Lost Lake where we had been standing. The trees we planted were completely invisible, their tops several feet underwater. Our gardens…were they gone?

A few days later, the water would recede, revealing minimal horticultural casualties — besides some mud to clear, not much else was damaged — the tenacious plants held by our fortified soil and subgrade structure had survived. It felt like nothing short of a miracle to me, but it was resiliency by design. The park’s opening party was delayed due to the maintenance effort, but when the celebration finally took place, you would never know that where the guests were mingling would have been deep under the flood.

The gardens we build, whether in expanding cities or along fluctuating coasts, will see ever intensifying floods and devastating droughts. In Buffalo Bayou, Reed Hilderbrand (working with SWA) demonstrated that our gardens will perform just as resiliently as the large areas of meadow, wetland forest, riparian zones of the park. Hurricane Harvey covered the park in water, and in some areas, up to seven feet of silt. The Bayou crested at 38 feet in this area, engulfing even the pedestrian bridges. Yet I still have no doubt that when the cleanup is complete, our gardens will thrive.

With recent hurricanes Harvey, Irene, and Maria dominating the news, there has been an outpouring of articles written by landscape architects advocating for the power of urban green infrastructure to mitigate the adverse effects of climate change. Landscape architects have been gaining in their reputation as leaders in the realm of climate change innovation for years, often through their involvement in large infrastructural projects. Many of those incorporate coastal resilience, stormwater infiltration, urban heat island effect reduction, ecosystem preservation, and environmental justice. It is this work that dominates the public’s understanding of our contributions to the creation of the sustainable city. Less often a part of this conversation is our work as the designers and builders of gardens. Buffalo Bayou Park, at 160 acres, performs a myriad of ecological functions, and yet its four gardens are not always recognized for their role in a sustainability strategy.

In Elizabeth Meyer’s article “Sustaining Beauty,” the landscape architect and renown educator argues for the integration of aesthetics into the discussion of sustainability, and herein lies the argument for gardens. She writes, “A beautiful landscape works on our psyche, affording the chance to ponder on a world outside ourselves. Through this experience, we are decentered, restored, renewed and reconnected to the biophysical world. The haptic, somatic experience of beauty can inculcate environmental values.”

Gardens do not always demand the same newsworthy attention as larger scale infrastructure, and indeed, there is something about the word “gardening” that insists upon its superficiality. Certainly, the might of a hurricane quickly shows the fragility of a garden. But gardens not only can be designed to withstand climatic and weather events, they can inspire care for our built spaces, and offer a greater understanding of how the environment functions, working on the psyche of the visitor.

Each of the four gardens of Buffalo Bayou has a distinct character. The garden at Wortham Fountain is the most civic, with formal semi-circles of Mexican sycamore that center on a well-loved fountain. Jane Gregory Garden is the more intimate of the perennial gardens, with a palette of plants more adapted to the heavy acidic soils of Texas’s coastal plains, while the Eleanor Tinsley Garden is grander in scale and references more cultivated Houston landscapes. Lastly, the garden at Lost Lake represents the abstraction of Houston’s ravine landscapes: through the compression of space heightened by the plant combinations, the upland character quickly transitions down to the wetland gardens.

The references these gardens make to ideas and ecosystems beyond their immediate surroundings fit them to the larger park while making them a discrete destination of distinct character. They offer experiences that elicit memories of familiar plant communities or create new associations.

Doug Reed, founder of Reed Hilderbrand, made the specific selection of loblolly pines and native azaleas for the Jane Gregory Garden, in reference to his childhood memories of southern landscapes: “There is nothing quite like the spatial form and character under Loblolly Pines (Loblolly means mud puddle, the acidic clay soils of the South are its growing medium) — a soaring and majestic canopy of strong vertical trunks that produces the ideal growing conditions on the ground of light, filtered shade, and acid soils for the native azalea. We grew up with these familiar plants of the southern woods and also experienced them as an integral part of domestic gardens.”

The gardens at Buffalo Bayou certainly were designed with the experience of beauty in mind. But it is not just their colors and scents, their shade and calm, the slowness of pace in the gardens compared with the speed of the bikeway that connects them that has the power to move the needle on conversations about sustainability and climate change. The more expansive naturalized areas — the meadows, berms, and designed wetlands — move the water, soak it up, resist pollution, and provide homes for flora and fauna and the same can be said for the gardens. When the gardens are inundated, they are reminder of the fragility of our aspirations, and we wait hopefully for the water to recede. We know there will be work to do, but we do it, and with as much care towards their functions as to their beauty. We build gardens because we are optimists, because they show us the kind of place we want to live in.