Wave Hill is on virtually every advertisement for the northwest Bronx, but rarely has its horticultural grandeur been bound to a book.
Sounds like a hard task, too.
With an unrivaled view of the Palisades and an artistic, specialist reputation, it’s no wonder the garden has achieved the egalitarian yet distanced moniker of “The Frick of New York gardens,” versus “The Met” that is the New York Botanical Garden.
And only now has the 50-year-old cultural institution and famous garden published what appears, at a quick, uncultivated glance, to be a coffee-table decoration. Yet the garden’s horticulture director, Louis Bauer, considers the book “Nature Into Art” something much more.
“The book engenders a wider appreciation for the garden,” Bauer said. “The book is an invitation. When people visit, they will realize it’s much more than a garden.”
“Nature Into Art” was released last September in partnership with Timber Press. It details the year-round changes to the garden and its flora with verdant photos by Ngoc Minh Ngo and prose by gardener, horticultural journalist and author Thomas Christopher.
“It was the last surviving estate in New York,” Christopher said of Wave Hill. “No place is quite as unique.”
Although the exquisite homes started rising from the West 249th Street and Independence Avenue property in the 1840s, it wasn’t until 1960 Wave Hill was deeded to the city by the Perkins-Freeman family, which made their money in the 19th century through insurance, steel and banking.
Its uniqueness is high praise from Christopher, an author whose work includes a decade-long tenure as the horticulturalist for Olmsted Brothers Estate on the Hudson Palisades, right across the stony river from Wave Hill.
“I was approached by Timber three years ago,” Christopher said. “I’d been relatively familiar with Wave Hill since the ‘70s, but when they told me I’d be writing about it, I was only too excited.”
For Christopher, it was clear the book’s production was vastly different than other garden books he’d worked on.
“With most gardening books, the photographer has less time to work,” Christopher said. “But with this, Ngoc visited the garden over the course of 18 months.”
The book itself showcases Ngo’s work in brilliant detail, illuminated by Christopher’s carefully formatted words smoothly coinciding with the photographs.
It was a formatting overseen by Bauer and his assistant, Marilyn Young, who endeavored to combine the elements of word and image into a cohesive vision.
“I had only been to Wave Hill once,” Ngo said. “The more you experience a place, the better you can come to understanding it. Over those 18 months, with all the wonderful gardeners I spoke with, I tried to balance their knowledge and work with how I photograph in order to really show the garden as it is.”
She focused on both weather conditions and the light, although she admits the sky is not always important. “Fog or snow or a light rain can make a great picture.”
Yet there would be no “Nature Into Art” without a very special patron to Wave Hill — the late Beverley Frank — whose donations also permitted its sleek website among numerous projects at Wave Hill. When she died in 2013, her final donations contributed directly to the book.
“No one argued about what we would be doing in relevance to Frank’s wishes for the book,” Bauer said. “Her vision, we felt, was the binding point for such a long project. The book itself was very thoughtfully planned. When it came out, I simply felt happy. This wouldn’t have happened without Frank.”
Louis Bauer has been a gardener at Wave Hill since 1994, originally working under the tutelage of the garden’s original director, Marco Stufano.
“Wave Hill is all its own thanks to Stufano’s ideas,” Bauer said. “The garden is large, but its individual sections are relatively up to scale with a regular backyard. In Stufano’s mind, it was necessary for that connection to be maintained. It helps Wave Hill feel like a sanctuary.”
And that’s exactly how Ngo and Christopher framed the book: “It’s a book about Wave Hill,” Bauer said, “but it’s also a book about gardening.”
It was clear to both Ngo and Christopher that the gardeners were among the garden’s finest features — the technicians that keep the garden a state-of-the-art environment, with roots in the past, yet always looking toward the future.
“Wave Hill already had a tradition of preservation, even before there was a garden,” Bauer said. “But we’ve been employing so many young people — people with degrees in painting, design. Even I have a degree in architecture. But those of us with degrees in horticulture balance the experimental visions of recent graduates with our traditions. That’s rare in a garden of this scale.”
The three-year cultivation and blooming of “Nature Into Art” has been a journey for those involved, and the end result is something each says they are greatly proud of. Ultimately, the book has become its own gateway into Wave Hill.
“I hope the book alerts a lot of people,” Christopher said. “I hope it clears up some misconceptions, opens the garden up to future visitors, but also shows that you don’t need to be a gardener to enjoy the garden.”