The inside of the Conservatory at Longwood Gardens with purple plants in the foreground looking up at the glass ceiling.

Telling a Design Story: Planting the West Conservatory

By Chad Davis , on

Our November 22 opening of Longwood Reimagined continues to draw nearer, and with each passing day not only do we continue to make great progress, but we grow even more excited to share its beauty with you. We look forward to sharing the beauty of the soaring West Conservatory—an immersive celebration of the world’s Mediterranean ecosystems and an exuberant space unlike anything else at Longwood. Here, guests will encounter more than 3,500 permanent plants representing 60 species, along with more than 2,500 seasonal plants representing 90 species—all set on three garden islands defined by gorgeous water features. Just last month we began planting the West Conservatory, designed by landscape architecture practice Reed Hilderbrand, with whom we are working to realize Longwood Reimagined. Once completed, this breathtaking landscape will mature and thrive in the precisely controlled climate of the West Conservatory’s architecture—and we can’t wait for you to experience it. 

Our recent progress in the West Conservatory includes a thoughtfully placed and planted allée of 27 15-foot-tall willow acacia (Acacia salicina), nine 20-foot-tall Mediterranean cypress (Cupressus sempervirens), seven 10-foot-tall bay laurel (Laurus nobilis), and a grove of eight stunning 18 foot-tall Bismarck palms (Bismarckia nobilis). 

Five tall green plants being planted inside a Conservatory.

Newly placed Acacia salicina (left) and Cupressus sempervirens (center) in our West Conservatory. Photo by Hank Davis.

Six palm like trees being planted inside a conservatory.

Bismarck palms (Bismarckia nobilis) in the West Conservatory. Photo by Hank Davis.

Working with Reed Hilderbrand’s team, led by principal Kristin Frederickson, we carefully selected and positioned each in consideration of its neighboring plants to create the West Conservatory design’s desired effect. We started with the largest plants—the trees, which provide both scale and shade, and offer moments of hide and reveal. Next were the mid-story plants, sculptural specimens that mediate between the tree canopy and the lowest planting layer, known as the ground planting, which carpets each island and was placed last. Setting out these unique plants, and then making adjustments based on plant size and appearance, is integral to the design process and the refining of relationships between individual plants within the garden composition. Physically working with these plants, after years of envisioning how they would look via computer-aided design and layout, was especially gratifying. 

Acacia trees being planted along a path inside a conservatory.

An allée of Acacia salicina. Photo by Hank Davis.

“Designing a garden under glass at Longwood has been a remarkable experience for us," shares Frederickson, who has been on the grounds weekly as planting has accelerated. "The vision for the garden brings to life the unique character of the Mediterranean where both wild landscapes and cultivated gardens are defined by an intimate relationship among stone, water, and plants. This has been a labor of love and close collaboration between our team and Longwood’s for the past seven years. To finally be in the West Conservatory working together to install the garden, to refine relationships, to celebrate the beauty and cultural resonance of these plants—and to look forward to sharing it with guests—has been thrilling.”  

Rows of small potted plants on a table awaiting planting.

Smaller plants are staged prior to layout and planting. Photo by Hank Davis.

Small pots of agave.

Agave parryi var. truncata provide sculpture and impressive forms to the landscape. Photo by Hank Davis.

The West Conservatory’s permanent collections are woven together to carpet the three islands. Key species like Acca sellowiana and Westringia fruticosa Grey Box repeat throughout the space. In alternating ribbons of green and gray hues, they drift diagonally across the landscape, referencing Mediterranean hillsides. From exotic Australian shrubs like Grevillea ‘Long John’ and G. ‘Moonlight’ to showstopping South African shrubs like Leucospermum ‘Brandi Dela Cruz’ and Leucadendron ‘Bell’s Sunrise’, other elements of the permanent plantings provide scale and provide drama seasonally with their eye-catching flowers. Striking succulents like Agaveparryi var. truncata, Yucca rostrata, and Kumara plicatilis deliver stunning sculptural elements while hanging elements like Sedum burrito (baby burro's-tail) baskets in each entry serve as clouds in the sky. A secondary system of pea stone paths for staff within the garden beds themselves provide important access for our gardeners who will care for this incredible collection of plants.

Several potted shrubs waiting to be planted inside a conservatory.

Prostanthera rotundifolia delivers a fine texture, long bloom time, and, as part of the mint family, offers a “scent-sational” aroma. Photo by Hank Davis.

Seasonal crops, planted as drifts or interplanted as “points,” thread between their permanent counterparts. Our impressive seasonal selections expand the garden’s palette and extend its bloom time, all while highlighting the amazing diversity of species from Mediterranean climates around the world. 

The West Conservatory will be a remarkable place—one that evolves with the seasons, offering guests an immersive celebration of the Mediterranean landscape with each visit—and one we are so proud to soon share with you. 

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