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With Gardner museum’s new wing, landscaping makes a statement

With fresh plantings, the museum grounds are treated like an art form.

A view looking into the courtyard of the Gardner Museum’s new wing.

david l. ryan/globe staff

A view looking into the courtyard of the Gardner Museum’s new wing.

THE ISABELLA STEWART GARDNER MUSEUM’S new wing certainly makes a horticultural statement. By moving the entrance from the Fenway traffic to quiet Evans Way and replacing the old fencing there with new trees, open lawn, and a working greenhouse, architect Renzo Piano has created a connection with Frederick Law Olmsted’s Evans Way Park across the street.

“One of Renzo Piano’s goals,’’ says Gardner director of operations James Labeck, “was to have green facing green.’’ The result feels almost pastoral.

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And transparent. You can look into the new greenhouse along Evans Way and see staffers and students working with plants. Like the iconic Fenway Courtyard inside the palazzo, the new greenhouse is a showcase, but one that is deliberately exposed.

Museum director Anne Hawley “had the idea that people should see the vital workings of the museum, the nasturtiums being groomed and Japanese mums being trained for display in the courtyard,’’ explains landscape architect Ron Henderson. (Head gardener Stanley Kozak and his crew also have a new 10,000-square-foot greenhouse in Hingham.)

Near the new wing’s glass entrance lobby, tight groves of juvenile Chinese lacebark elm trees are planted in sunken containers and restrained in formal rows by traditional “guying’’ using bamboo and twine.

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“We want to create a dense agricultural effect more like a plant nursery than a finished landscape,’’ explains Henderson, the new head of the department of landscape architecture at Penn State’s College of Arts and Architecture. “This museum is curating its gardens as much as its art collection. . . . Anne Hawley has amplified the role of the gardens as an art form.’’

The trees can be so close together because the space is dedicated to temporary plantings. “After three years’ growth the elms will need to be dug up again and replanted elsewhere, perhaps in city schoolyards,’’ Henderson continues. Or else? “They will eat the building.’’

The skinny trees are underplanted with hundreds of young hybrid Jelena witch hazel shrubs with very early orange flowers. “We hope they will bloom when we open,’’ says Hawley, referring to the wing’s January debut.

New permanent plantings on the grounds include a “family tree of magnolias,’’ says Henderson. Five hybrid pink saucer magnolias similar to those famously lining the Back Bay are “running around having fun’’ near specimens of the parent trees from which they were bred, the Yulan magnolia and the Mulan magnolia. Three sugar maples have also been planted. Like most of the new trees they have vibrant fall foliage, chosen to complement the blue-green patina of the new wing’s exterior copper panels.

The glass corridor between the palazzo and the new wing is lined with mature American hornbeams and evergreen Chinese lacebark pines with mottled bark to provide winter interest. By shielding the corridor from sunlight, they prepare visitors’ eyes for the lower light levels inside the historic building.

An old wisteria still climbs the back of the palace, but most of the rest of the older plantings are gone. “Every director took an interest in redesigning the garden, so the reality was a hodgepodge,’’ says Labeck. What of the oft-redesigned Monks Garden? It awaits a 2012-13 makeover by a yet-to-be-named designer.

Carol Stocker can be reached at stockergarden@gmail.com.
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