Painting with Plants
Posted 09/30/2016 01:33PM

Lynden Miller '56 has often quoted her motto – "Make it gorgeous and keep it that way" – and professed her deeply held belief that "people from all backgrounds will love and respect a place when it is alive with plants, well-designed and well-kept." In 1982, she rescued and restored the Conservatory Garden in Central Park. Since then, she has designed over 30 other gardens and parks in all five boroughs of New York. "The unspoken message in public gardens," she said, "is that we did this for you and you're worth it – now help us take care of it. And that's what people do."

Before becoming a public garden designer, Ms. Miller was a painter for eighteen years. "Because I was a painter," she said. "I can visualize in my mind what [the garden] is going to look like. I use line, texture, color, form, repetition— I call it painting with plants." She added that in planning her gardens, she takes into account various elements such as the garden's location, the needs and wishes of the public, and the effects of weather changes over the course of the year. "I use plants that are sustainable and maintainable. Over time, they grow and develop, and I try to make public space look good throughout the year. In the 97th Street Park Avenue Mall, for example, I chose the plants because I knew that they would be tough, have good foliage, bloom in different times of year, and be easy to maintain".

Often, Ms. Miller also confronts issues of unequal funding and resources for gardens in different boroughs of the city. "My big campaign has been trying to get New York City officials to put up enough money for the Parks Department to maintain 1,700 parks all around the city," she explained. "Many of the Manhattan parks have been done with private money. When you go out into the outer boroughs, there's no maintenance, no money. That's wrong, but it's very hard to get the city government to see this as a priority."

One of Ms. Miller's most well documented and widely appreciated projects was the Daffodil Project, a "living memorial" created in honor of those who died during the September 11th attacks. "When 9/11 occurred, I got a fax from a Dutch bulb grower from whom I had bought a quarter of a million bulbs. He said, 'I'm so distressed, I wish there was something I could do.'" If you say something like that to me, I will think what you can do," she laughed. "So I asked if he had any extra bulbs. He wanted to send me tulips. I said, 'You can't send me tulips because the squirrels will eat them.' Within a week, he sent a million daffodil bulbs."

During the fall of 2001, collaboration with the NYC Parks Department resulted in the planting of these daffodils across the city by ten thousand volunteers. "I wanted them to be in places where they haven't seen a flower in years, to raise people's spirits," said Ms. Miller. She added that the project continues to this day with 6 million daffodils planted. New Yorkers for Parks, a parks advocacy organization, arranges for volunteers from all over the city to pick up the bulbs and helps them with plantings. "This connection with nature brings communities together and shows them the importance of their parks and open spaces," she said.

While Ms. Miller's Chapin days are now behind her, she credits her early education with instilling in her a strong sense of duty. "I was telling my own granddaughters the other day, that at Chapin, through Miss Stringfellow in particular, you were taught that women could make a difference, that it was important to be a woman. Essentially," she stated. "At Chapin, I was taught that it was important to do the right thing to make life better for others."