Growing Van Gogh

This summer, The Garden is growing Van Gogh, and it is no accident! Most years the Newfields Horticulturists all gogh their own way when designing their individual areas. Everyone is given a good deal of freedom to explore in whatever direction desire leads them. This year with the opening of THE LUME Indianapolis we thought it would be nice to have a bit of a theme for our designs based on the art of Vincent van Gogh. Newfields always overlaps the curatorial vision inside the IMA Galleries with The Garden, as well as the Culinary Arts Department, but this summer it is so intertwined, your visit to THE LUME Indianapolis is not complete without a visit to The Garden. No restrictions, beyond Van Gogh as our muse, were placed on the horticulture team, so we could choose from any of Van Gogh’s works, or be inspired by one or more elements in his art. More than one horticulturist could base their design on the same artwork, they could do a literal interpretation of a piece of art or a design simply inspired by a particular painting. The sky was the limit just let Vincent guide you a bit.  

The results were pretty amazing. Everyone selected at least one piece different from anyone else. You will find Van Gogh inspired gardens from the 38th Street Entrance to Lilly House to the Madeline F. Elder Greenhouse.  

Keep in mind not all areas of The Garden are Van Gogh inspired—areas of Van Gogh inspiration have signage with details     about the paintings and the Horticulturists’ interpretations. 

Katie Booth’s design at the Horticultural Society Overlook Garden, which is just to the left of the entrance to The Garden from the Indianapolis Museum of Art building, is based on Starry Night (June 1889). Lots of blues and yellows as those are the heavily dominant colors in that iconic painting. There is one lone cypress, a tree species common in southern France, in the foreground of the painting. Cypress are not likely to be had here. The solution— ‘DeGroot’s Spire’ arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis ‘DeGroot’s Spire’) a hardy upright evergreen we had in our nursery to give a similar color and texture of the cypress. Katie used a variety of annuals to not only get the multiple shades of blue and yellow but also to capture Van Gogh’s distinctive brushstrokes. I never thought of trying to capture brushstrokes. That was brilliant. 

Though a very different painting, Wheat Field with Cypresses (1889), inspired Patty Schneider’s design in front of the Lilly House, she likewise had cypress trees to replicate. Lucky for her tall narrow Eastern red cedars (Juniperus virginiana ‘Burkii’) that again were very similar to cypress already grew in front of Lilly House. These trees gave great structure and instant maturity to her design. As with Katie, Patty used multiple plants to indicate those brushstrokes. Brilliant again. I also like the way she captured the color and heavy texture of the mountains with blue-gray Tuscan/dinosaur kale (Brassica oleracea ‘Toscano’). 

Helen Morlock used Landscape at Saint-Remy (Enclosed Field with Peasant) (June 1889) to inspire her design along Woodstock Drive. As with many of us, the more she looked at the painting the more she saw. At first it was the range of color then she detected the depth of color. A design that could have been mostly shades of tan emerged as a design with deep burgundy, silver, green, even a touch of blue. The result being one of the finest (if not the best) designed areas this summer in my opinion. The colors and textures are fabulous. Does it look like the painting? No. But the intent was not to replicate the painting. The painting was the inspiration. I could say “only” the inspiration but that shorts the importance of what brings any of us inspiration for any design we create. Never minimize what inspires you. 

The fourth garden with Van Gogh signage is one of mine. The planting at the flag poles as you arrive and walk toward the Museum was inspired by his work with sunflowers. If there is one ornamental plant associated with the artist it is the sunflower. My design was not based on one specific painting but rather any or all of Van Gogh sunflower paintings I had seen. I learned about Vincent van Gogh from Mrs. Gondring, my grade school art teacher. She was so worldly in my eyes even though she was born and raised in Indiana just like I was. She knew about art and to add to that she had traveled—by air!!! I can still see the photo she showed of herself on an airplane getting ready to go somewhere, maybe Europe? She offered a peek into possibilities outside my little sphere of life through both her art instruction and her lived experiences. She remained an influence my entire time in school as once I was out of grade school art, I had her for both junior high English (“I’m not sure you are mature enough to fully understand Of Mice and Men”) and senior English classes (she was famous for dragging the needle across vinyl records). To me, there is no Van Gogh without Mrs. Gondring. 

Back to the sunflowers. Traditional sunflowers (Helianthus annus) like the ones Van Gogh painted have a single major flower and maybe one or a few side flowers. Those types were not going to easily give a season-long display. Fortunately, there has been a lot of breeding and selecting of sunflowers for longer flowering, mostly by creating plants that produce many side branches. These plants produce smaller flowers but that also makes them great cut flowers. In many areas you will see a mix of traditional and branching sunflowers. 

In addition to this improvement of breeding with traditional sunflowers is the introduction of other species to the garden. One of these is the Sunfinity™ sunflower, a hybrid of two different species. These have bright true yellow flowers with a dark center that are produced for months. A long bloom time is coupled with incredible branching so plants are bushy and full. Sunfinity™ can bloom for 9-12 weeks, far longer than traditional sunflowers. They also make great cut flowers. 

I didn’t want to rely only on sunflowers for color so I used lots of gloriosa daisies (Rudbeckia hirta) which have flowers similar in form to sunflowers and they bloom all season. These come in shades of yellow most commonly but I added plants with all sorts of shades of chestnut, brown, cinnamon, and burgundy. Flowers can be single or double and make great cuts. I am using them as annuals but they can be a very short-lived perennial. 

You will find the sunflowers and gloriosa daisies throughout the gardens as almost everybody used some. Those two plants really tie the whole garden together for a Van Gogh summer. I urge you to take time to stroll through the entire campus and enjoy them in all their sites. Perhaps they will inspire you to plant a few in 2022. They are so easy. Mrs. Gondring would want you to. 

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers, 1889. Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation), s0031V1962.

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