Text by Margie Smith Holt
Photographs by Jane Feldman
To business that we love we rise betime,
And go to ‘t with delight.
– William Shakespeare
The Bard might have been talking about Larry Boes when he wrote those words. For the past 15 years, the Central Park Conservancy Senior Gardener has gone to work in what just might be the most beautiful office in all of New York City—the Shakespeare Garden in Central Park—transforming it into a work of art worthy of its namesake.
“I grew up on a farm in Iowa. So I guess it’s always been in my blood,” said Boes.
Boes studied art, worked as a colorist for a wallpaper company, and did interior design in Chicago before eventually landing in New York in the ‘70s where, among other artistic endeavors, he created displays for Macy’s. Then, in 2005, he volunteered to help out with “The Gates,” a massive public art installation in Central Park.
“I was one of those people who was flipping the panels to straighten them out for Christo and Jeanne-Claude. And I just loved being in the Park.”
Boes had found his new career. He went to work for the Conservancy and, not having any formal training in horticulture, “started at the bottom,” picking up trash and mowing lawns. Then a gardening job opened up.
“And I had the nerve to apply for it!” Boes said
He worked for a short time under a supervisor, but it didn’t take long for his talents to be recognized. Eventually he was running the show.
“It took me two years to really catch on,” he said. “I didn’t want to dig up everything and start anew. I wanted it to be an evolving thing. And I think I did that.”
The four-acre Shakespeare Garden is over 100 years old and meanders along winding paths in the shadow of the Delacorte Theater and Belvedere Castle. Today, it’s awash in Boes’s gorgeous touches, changing with the seasons, and from year to year. Annuals, perennials, and so many bulbs. Rotating displays of riotous color, beautiful to behold, but also attractive to birds and bees, hummingbirds and butterflies.
“It’s sort of a crazy English garden where everything mixes together,” he said.
Shakespeare mentions some 200 different plants and flowers in his works, many of them represented in the garden: Daffodils “that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty” (The Winter’s Tale); pansies “for thoughts” (Hamlet); and, of course, roses, that “by any other name would smell as sweet” (Romeo and Juliet). Old William forgot the annuals, though. No zinnias, for example. Or begonias.
“So I sort of take liberty,” Boes said. “You know. The garden’s got to look good.”
Boes shares the credit with all the volunteers he’s worked with over the years.
“I really depended on the volunteers to help with everything—planting bulbs, weeding, just everything. They are the most remarkable people there are because they’re giving their time. They’re learning. And we really grew—you know, bonded—together.”
“Amazing” is how Boes describes his tenure in the Garden, which ended September 30. He just turned 72, and it’s time to turn the pruning shears over to someone new while he figures out what to cultivate next in his own life. He has a (lucky) niece with a house upstate, so he’ll design a garden for her, but the rest remains to be seen.
“A garden is about tomorrow,” one of the Shakespeare Garden’s regular visitors always said, a philosophy Larry embraces.
“That is so true,” he said. “It’s about what you look forward to. What’s coming next. Even as winter approaches, you put everything to sleep, and you mulch things, and it just looks like it’s at rest. And that’s one of the nicest times, I think, in the garden, because it is looking to what’s going to happen next.”
If you haven’t visited the Shakespeare Garden recently, stop by. Larry’s legacy lives on in the design, and the perennials, and the bulbs that will burst into color in the spring. And right now, the asters are in bloom.