Magazine

A Place Where Hope Blooms: The Healing Nature of the Conservatory Garden

Something radical is happening in Central Park. After taking root six inches below the ground over the course of a long, blustery winter, 20,000 tulip and daffodil bulbs are poised to bloom en masse in the Conservatory Garden.

This miraculous, colorful display is made possible every year by months of thoughtful planning, design, and planting by the Central Park Conservancy’s gardening team. As the Park transitions to spring, the staff at the Conservatory Garden wait (somewhat) patiently to see the results of their labor. Gardening, after all, is impossible without hope for—and trust in—the future.

The sweeping curve of the circular garden crowded with purple and yellow blooms.

A Park visitor soaks up the magenta and yellow tulips and periwinkle pansies in the North Garden last spring. Starting as bags and buckets of bulbs, the Conservatory Garden’s tulips and daffodils are planted en masse each fall in preparation for spring.

Hands in the Dirt

Over the course of 40 years, the Conservancy’s gardening team has witnessed the transformative power of the spaces they create. The Conservatory Garden— located on the east side from 104th to 106th Street—is one of them: a sprawling, six-acre formal garden featuring ornate, whimsical fountains, expertly manicured hedges, and a wrought-iron pergola lined with thick, draping wisteria. Divided into three sections, it features a French-style North Garden, an Italianate Center Garden, and an English-style South Garden.

Diane Schaub designs the Conservatory Garden’s iconic landscape each season in Central Park. After training at the New York Botanical Garden, she began working for the Conservancy in the early ‘90s.

The entire feel of the area is calming, as is time spent with the team that cares for it. Under the leadership of Diane Schaub, the Conservancy’s curator of gardens, staff work diligently year-round to prepare for and celebrate each season’s blooms. Ask any of them and they’re quick to share gratitude for life’s winding paths that lead them to the Conservancy.

Gardener Shinichi Harada waited tables at a Japanese restaurant in Manhattan before deciding on a career change. He took horticulture classes at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and soon began working in the Park. Assistant Curator Joe Gamache had a similar start. After nearly 20 years of waiting tables, teaching ballroom dancing, and working in construction, Joe found the Garden calling his name. “I was living in East Harlem, and I got to know this Garden pretty well,” he muses. “One day, I noticed all the Conservancy shirts, and I thought ‘I can get my hands in the dirt!’ The rest, as they say, is history.”

Sprayed lines in the dirt serve as a guide for planting bulbs.

Daffodil and tulip bulbs look and feel remarkably like garlic and shallots. Staff and volunteers plant them by the thousands several inches below the ground each fall in diamond formations.

Common Ground

For Park staff, volunteers, and visitors alike, personal and collective history plays a critical role in how they experience the Garden. “I can’t tell you how many times somebody has approached me with a tiny infant in their arms and said, ‘I wanted this Garden to be the first place that my child went to,’” says Diane, who has worked in the Garden for nearly 30 years. “What could be a better testament to how important this place is, in good times and bad?”

In the Garden, Diane and her team have witnessed many cycles of tragedy and triumph over the decades. “After 9/11—I can remember the very day—people were streaming through the Park to go home, looking for that sense of confidence about the future.” The Garden’s reassuring effect during the COVID-19 pandemic has been no different. “We have to be reminded periodically that these moments convening with nature are important for us to seek out.”

With the Untermeyer Fountain in the foreground, Park volunteers are seen working the flowerbeds.

Conservancy volunteers planted thousands of bulbs in diamond formation on a crisp fall day. As the Park transitions to spring, the staff at the Conservatory Garden wait (somewhat) patiently to see the results of their labor.

A Slice of the Pie

On bulb-planting day this past November, the Conservatory Garden’s North Garden buzzed with socially distanced excitement as a small group of masked volunteers and Conservancy staff gathered for the incredible amount of work ahead. They were to plant 20,000 bulbs by hand—equipped with rakes, trowels, gardening gloves, and hand sanitizer—all in pursuit of the next show-stopping bloom.

Gardeners Enrique Mendez and Claudia Fugalli created perfectly spaced holes in the soil as Shinichi followed, lining out hundreds of daffodil bulbs in straight rows. Assistant Curator Paul Serra carefully adjusted any bulbs that had rolled over. Each gardener formed the visual that would eventually emerge from the ground: diamonds of pristine, white “Stainless” daffodils against diamonds of pink and green “Greenland” tulips. Just one bulb out of place would make the picture incomplete.

The morning grew sunnier as volunteers and staff joyfully planted their allotted bulbs, and after a few hours, Diane called for a break by the Untermyer Fountain. Smiling under her mask, she graciously thanked her small-but-mighty crew, presenting two homemade apple pies she had baked the night before. Each awaiting their turn, the planters approached the makeshift table for a slice of the pie, a brief sense of normalcy amidst what has been a trying year. The Garden, as always, provided that space.

A delicious slice of apple pie on a paper plate, with Conservancy volunteers toiling in the background.

A small group of volunteers and Conservancy staff broke from planting thousands of bulbs for some homemade apple pie, baked the night before by the Garden’s Curator, Diane Schaub.

TURN! TURN! TURN!

After a quiet winter marked by record snowfall, gray skies, and bare branches, spring will be ushered in by budding elm trees, familiar robin song, and, if all goes to plan, thousands of tulips and daffodils blooming brilliantly.

To Diane, the dependability of this seasonal change helps to contextualize moments of grief and isolation. “Isn’t it interesting how the word ‘ground’ both means the soil, the earth—and also that place in us? This place is about getting rooted, getting grounded,” she explains. “People need to see that life is going to continue, that plants bloom for one more year.”

And bloom they will. At the Conservatory Garden this spring, visitors can look forward to the blossoming of over 20,000 bulbs in the North Garden, the result of hundreds of hours of planting, nurturing, and patience. “It’s reassuring every spring when the plants start to bud,” says Diane. “You know they’re going to do it, but still, when it happens, it’s like it happened for the first time. It’s that beautiful.”

The Conservancy worker is shown confronting tall, yellowed stalks of miscanthus.

Conservancy Gardener Shinichi Harada started working in the Park’s Conservatory Garden after studying at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. To prepare for the spring season, he cuts back miscanthus, an ornamental plant from Japan, in the South Garden.

Creating Goodness

In her essay “Showing Up with Hope,” author Anne Lamott writes, “We create goodness in the world, and that gives us hope. We plant bulbs in the cold, stony dirt of winter and our aging arthritic fingers get nicked, but we just do it, and a couple of months later life blooms—as daffodils, paperwhites, tulips.”

To Anne, to Diane, and to the Conservancy staff and volunteers, this hope is a “radical act,” a show of resilience and faith in what’s to come. If the blooms at the Conservatory Garden are any indicator, the future is looking bright.

Learn more about the Garden and our Conservancy team at our website, via staff interviews on our YouTube channel, and through our Weekly Walks. You can also honor someone special with bulbs planted in the Park. To share your springtime reflections of hope and gratitude, tag @CentralParkNYC and use the hashtag #myCentralPark on social media.