New Garden at Mount Auburn Cemetery Celebrates the Father of American Botany

The new Asa Gray Garden at Mount Auburn Cemetery commemorates the father of American botany through a carefully planned layout that honors his contributions to science while introducing a tranquil oasis, enjoyed by everyone, that is elegant and beautiful in every season.

View of new fountain and Asa Gray Garden with Story Chapel behind. (photo by Jo Oltman)

View of new fountain and Asa Gray Garden with Story Chapel behind. (photo by Jo Oltman)

A History Worth Celebrating
Considered to be the father of American botany, Asa Gray (1810-1888) served as a professor at Harvard University during 19th century and is known for discovering the similarities between the flora of Eastern North America and Eastern Asia, advancing the science of biogeography.

The Asa Gray Garden celebrates his legacy through the careful placement of paired specimens. Rather than being located side by side, the North American and Asian varieties are strategically scattered throughout the space to create a dynamic and beautiful experience that encourages visitors to explore the garden and discover the differences and similarities between the plants, from their leaf and flower structures to color variations.

View of Asa Gray Garden in July (photo by Jo Oltman)

View of Asa Gray Garden in July (photo by Jo Oltman)

Thoughtful Design Leads to Exciting Discovery
Visitors will be delighted as they wander through the space to discover that this beautiful garden also tells a larger story about the man for whom it was named.

Halvorson Design worked closely with the horticultural staff at Mount Auburn Cemetery and the Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University to develop a plant list that would highlight Asa Gray’s work and provide the proper palette of color, texture, seasonal interest, and height.

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Featuring 175 different species of trees, shrubs, perennials, and ornamental grasses from Asia and North America, this four-season garden is a showcase of horticultural and botanical achievements as well as a model of tranquility and beauty.

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The Asa Gray Garden serves as an essential element in Mount Auburn’s entry experience and sets the stage for the unfolding vistas, landscapes, and monuments that wait beyond. As visitors enter through the Egyptian Revival Gatehouse, a grouping of cherry trees line the road, drawing them into the garden while a grove of Nyssa on the opposite side helps to frame Bigelow Chapel, which overlooks the garden.

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The focal point of the garden is a large redesigned fountain that pays homage to Asa Gray and the legacy of Mount Auburn’s funerary art, while also speaking to the spirit of today. In profile and in detail, the fountain is rooted in more contemporary forms; its centerpiece uses an abstract botanical motif to evoke the legacy of Asa Gray’s scholarly achievement.

Shaded benches provide areas for people to sit and reflect. (photo by Jo Oltman)

Shaded benches provide areas for people to sit and reflect. (photo by Jo Oltman)

Surrounding the fountain, an expanse of lawn offers a welcoming space for reflection, complemented by the soothing sounds of water. Concentric rings radiate from the center, with the inner circle comprised of mostly sun-loving perennials while the outer ring is formed by small shrubs in the middle that extend to taller trees at the outermost edge.

Pathways weave through the space, taking visitors to secluded, shaded spaces with commemorative benches surrounded by fragrant perennials that provide contemplative “outdoor rooms.”

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In order to achieve the sense of radiating expansion and movement, the garden’s central elements are reoriented to align with the recently completed Caroline’s Path, which leads from Story Chapel. The garden’s low walls are similar in material and design to those of Caroline’s Path. Existing planting beds have been redesigned to offer more open areas of lawn that invite visitors to explore. Important view corridors to and from Story and Bigelow Chapel were maintained through the careful placement of trees, shrubs and perennials.

View looking toward Caroline’s Path and Story Chapel. (photo by Jo Oltman)

View looking toward Caroline’s Path and Story Chapel. (photo by Jo Oltman)

The strategic use of texture and color plays an important role in the Asa Gray Garden, resulting in a four-season experience that invokes the Asa Gray story throughout the year. During the spring and summer months, color plays an important role in the excitement generated by carefully timed blooms. In the fall, as the trees change colors and leaves begin to fall, the garden transforms with a bold palette of color that blankets the garden and provides seasonal interest.

Rendering of fountain in winter (Halvorson Design)

Rendering of fountain in winter (Halvorson Design)

Meanwhile, in the winter, when the fountain goes still and the garden is covered in a layer of snow, texture becomes the central feature. Ornamental grasses, perennials that hold their flower/seed heads, and shrubs or trees with textural and interesting bark become the highlights of the garden. Witch hazel planted on the hillside provides a pop of color in the winter when other trees have lost their leaves for the season.

A Storied History
Visitors to Mount Auburn cemetery may recall that this isn’t the first iteration of the Asa Gray Garden. Originally conceived as “The Lawn” by Alexander Wadsworth in 1850s, the garden was named for Asa Gray in 1942. Prior to the design completed by Halvorson Design in 2018, the most recent renovation was conceived in the mid-1960s by Shurcliff and Merrill.

Twenty years in the makingthe concept for the new Asa Gray Garden was developed by Halvorson Design founder Craig Halvorson, working with cemetery leadership and horticulture staff. Inspiration came from four existing Japanese maples that were transplanted from the Boston Public Library in 1999 and remain on the edges of the garden.

The team strived to pick up on Mount Auburn Cemetery’s existing rhythm, textures and structures to connect the garden with its larger context. The design focused on a variety of themes to accomplish this feat: punctuation, movement, texture, color, seasonal interest, and winter structure to create a four-season garden that would transform the entry experience and greet visitors with an eye-catching, welcoming garden.

View from July with Bigelow Chapel in background. Bigelow Chapel reopens December 1st.

View from July with Bigelow Chapel in background. Bigelow Chapel reopens December 1st.

It took the hard work and dedication of many individuals, who championed the project for decades and worked tirelessly to bring it to life.

Introducing New into an Established and Beloved Place
The challenge of introducing a new garden into an historic landscape like Mount Auburn Cemetery needed to be carefully addressed. Mount Auburn is the first garden cemetery in the United States and a Class 3 Arboretum. Visitors come not only to pay respect to loved ones but also to experience this historic, cherished space, encounter a variety of birds who are known to frequent the cemetery, and explore the horticultural highlights for which Mount Auburn is known.

Halvorson Design’s goal was to create an elegant new experience carefully integrated into the site so that it would seem as if the garden had always been there. The formation picks up the rhythm of the cemetery, creating a timeless design that will remain relevant for the next 50+ years. As stated by founder Craig Halvorson, “you don’t notice the plants, in the best way possible.”

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What differentiates the Asa Gray Garden from other gardens like it is the way in which it uses subtlety to tell a powerful story. Where most landscape design projects focus on finding the perfect specimen, the Asa Gray Garden’s charm can be found in its imperfection and asymmetry. In a sense, it strives to be imperfectly perfect. Our goals was to design a beautiful garden that also happens to tell an amazing story.

From the beginning of the project, Mount Auburn Cemetery wanted to create a garden that could be enjoyed by everyone, from the horticulturalist to the home gardener and all the visitors in between. It was important for the design to get the structure and balance right before the color and texture of the perennials were added.

You can listen to an interview on Cultivating Place with Dave Barnett of Mount Auburn Cemetery and Ricardo Austrich of Halvorson Design via the link below.