Thursday, June 2, 2011


or At the Albuquerque Botanic Garden, Part II

The placement of public benches is an art form, and apparently, a tricky one to master.  I know a lovely roadside park in Vermont on a hilltop with panoramic vistas of Lake Champlain, the Champlain valley, and the Adirondacks beyond, where every bench in the park is angled to face the parking lot.  (I am not kidding.)  More than one hiking trail in New York's Finger Lakes area has a rustic seat myopically close to a wall of massive tree trunks, when a view of an open glade lies ten feet further on.  The picnic benches in my own neighborhood park here in Albuquerque roast in open, glaring sun, 20 feet from the closest shade tree.

CFS gives you a sharp eye for certain things, and resting places are high on the list.  I've become rather a judge of public benches over the last 15 years, based on their frequency, comfort, shadiness, and offered views.  They are my litmus tests of how much a park system cares about its visitors, of how well its designers understood how the park would be experienced.

Sometimes you find a place that gets it just right.  In this post I don't have any particular words of wit or wisdom to offer—it's just a pictorial "Ode on Sitting (with Explanatory Notes)", from a botanic garden that I love, where the benches do and say all the right things.

The bench in the title photo, with its comfortable, easy curves that defy you to sit up straight, nests in a southwestern take on an English country garden:  the design is relaxed but has formal-ish underpinnings and sports an armillary sphere, a traditional sculpture or two, and a rose arbor.  Its beds feature drought-tolerant but not completely xeric plants, the kinds a home gardener looking for "comfort plantings" might be inclined to try.  Most of the garden receives full sun, but the bench is tucked away under a shade tree.  No one yet has brought me iced tea in a pretty pitcher while I've sat there, but the feeling remains that they might.

Chamomile, columbine, roses, and yarrow.

Farther out, the gardens turn more "wild," with naturalistic plantings of big sage (Artemisia tridentata), yucca, and prickly pear.  Bridging the space between the desert garden and a conservatory, a ramada offers much-appreciated shelter from the sun.  Its roof is made of ocotillo stems—the shadows they cast on the bentwood chairs change with every season.  Feeders and flowers draw hummingbirds and other songbirds; roadrunners visit regularly, looking terminally worried.

I am always surprised at how much shade the ocotillo stems give.  In contrast, here is the view from the ramada out toward the sunshine:

(For the record, the chairs are uncomfortable but worth it.)

A winding path leads to the Camino de Colores, a series of concept gardens representing the four seasons.  One of the more successful is the winter garden (offered here for Diana at Elephant's Eye, with her own garden's Winter Chill).  It has the only bench that is almost never shaded—not too pleasant in late spring, but in winter, with the sun warming that red stone in the quasi-canyon, very pleasant indeed.

In a little cul-de-sac just prior to the Camino de Colores lies the curandera garden, which honors Spanish New Mexican traditions of folk healing.  At first I didn't care much for this garden, as nothing seemed to "happen" in it; then I came to love it for the same reason.  It is a tranquil, domestic place, with no particular sense of order, but offering a generous welcome in its open patio.  The comfortably worn arms and seat on the bench and the tile squares echo the sense of "hearth and home" that predominates throughout.

(Some winter damage from our February cold snap is still apparent here.)

This is a quiet enough backwater that I have sometimes seen a covey of Gambel's quail brave the patio, chasing their own topknots across it; a homey enough spot that dandelions are allowed to set seed:

And the bench invites you to sit in the quiet, in the dappled shade of its giant cottonwood—just to sit, and enjoy the garden.


As a P.S.:  All right, the tricycle isn't exactly public seating, but how can you not love a place that gives its gardeners such stylish transportation?


  1. Fascinating. It's strange how often benches are badly placed, when an ideal location is so close by.
    Given your obsession with seating and mine with signage, perhaps we should go into business together designing public parks!

  2. Nice that this park took the purpose of the seating in mind when the benches were placed. Unlike the parking lot lookout benches! Looks like they take a lot of pride in their garden. Must be a great place to visit.

  3. The ramada with ocotillo - looks so exotic. How obliging of the cactus to give (dead?) stems that are so straight and useful, and sculptural. But in a desert you must take what you can find. In South Africa we achieve the same slatted shade with slim poles. Now you have me wondering, I guess we use eucalyptus.

    Slatted shade which catches the breeze is SO much cooler than a solid roof!

  4. I've never visited the botanical gardens for as long as I've lived in New Mexico. Must make it a destination.

  5. Very interesting! I always pay attention to benches, but never thought about their location. Great article! Thanks!

  6. Landscape Lover, it really is odd. I suppose the builders go in with a "job to do" mentality--a set number of benches in a limited amount of space--and don't really step back to think about the overall, er, point. If you and I did design public parks, at least we would know that two aspects of them were done properly!

    Holley, those benches facing the parking lot still have me spluttering. But you're right--the botanic garden is a really pleasant place. If you're ever in Albuquerque, it's definitely worth a visit!

    Diana, ah, of course--a slatted roof would trap a lot less heat. Traditionally, people have used ocotillo stems as fence posts, encouraging them to root to make a (pretty formidable) living fence.

  7. Girl Sprout, it really is worth the trip from SF. The Botanic Garden is one of my two favorite places in Albuquerque (the other is the Rio Grande Nature Center). It's more of a pleasure garden than an educational or conservation garden--just a delightful place to ramble.

    Tatyana, I'm glad you enjoyed it--thank you!

  8. I forgot to say, I've always wondered if those bentwood chairs are comfy. Thanks for sharing!

  9. Great pictorial of benches. Your first image is really inviting. The color combos are beautiful together with a well worn wooden bench.