10 Best Gardens in the South: Crystal Bridges

by | Jun 23, 2020 | Build, Design, Featured Slider, Landscape Architecture

If spring of 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that outdoor spaces are a saving grace. Public gardens are an especially wonderful escape, not only for visitors but professionals as well. With travel restrictions lifting, public gardens are reopening all across the South, so you can take along the kids while finding some inspiration for your own landscaping and design projects. Here are a few of our favorites:

The History of Crystal Bridges

Crystal Bridges is the brainchild of Alice Walton, daughter and heiress of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Walton is a long-time believer that art, like the beauty of the natural world, should be accessible to everyone. So in 2005, she announced plans to build a world-class art museum and nature park in her hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. 

“This forest, in the Ozarks, served as our backyard growing up—a magical, almost spiritual place,” Walton has written. “We knew every inch of the land—and loved it. Because this land is so special to our family, my mother wanted her children and grandchildren to do something very special with it.”

Aerial View of Crystal Bridges
Aerial view of Crystal Bridges

Walton and her family foundation hired world-renowned architect Moshe Safdie to build the museum and create the bridge—literally and figuratively—between art and nature. 

Landscape architect firm Howell & Vancuren worked closely with Safdie on the 120-acre campus, including terraced sculpture gardens, naturalistic water features and a network of art and nature trails. 

“Our mission has always been about tying together art, architecture and nature,” says Beth Bobbitt, public relations director for Crystal Bridges. “The design team really took inspiration from what was already there. Our namesake is the beautiful Crystal Springs that runs right through the property, and the buildings were designed to connect people with the outside world.” 

Bobbitt says the project took about five years to complete, but the team was especially conscientious about preserving the natural forest, keeping only a six-foot zone around the footprint of the building.

One of the challenges, according to Howell & Vancuren, was creating spaces that appeared natural and undisturbed, making the manmade structures appear as if they had grown organically from the soil alongside the trees and shrubs. 

The firm installed an extensive irrigation system to keep the vast property maintained and well-hydrated. Wiers were built where the museum meets Town Branch Creek to help form ponds and two wells were also drilled onsite to help supply the ponds.

Nature Trails Open to All

Concrete and crushed granite walkways along with rustic paths provide access to incredible works of art as well as streams, waterfalls and contemplative spaces with tightly framed views. Howell & Vancuren received an Honor award by the Oklahoma Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects for their work.  

Luis Jimenez's "Vaquero" on the Crystal Bridges Art Trail
Luis Jimenez’s “Vaquero” on the Crystal Bridges Art Trail

Just as Walton promised, the museum and the trails are accessible to all, with the permanent art collection and the grounds free to the public. While the trails remained opened during COVID-19, the museum reopened on June 10, 2020. 

Bobbitt says Crystal Bridges employs about 20 full-time maintenance crew, horticulturalists, PhDs, and a dedicated group of volunteers called the Avant-Gardeners, with Grounds & Trails Director Clay Bakker at the helm.

“We’re constantly updating and renovating and adding more trails,” says Bobbitt. “Since we opened, we’ve added 250,000 native plants and thousands of trees. We’ve also mixed in a few non-native plants like milkweed to create a reservoir for migrating monarch butterflies.”

Tulip Trail at Crystal Bridges
Tulip Trail at Crystal Bridges

Crystal Bridges keeps an organized plant guide catalogued by trail and season. Summer blooms include Black-eyed Susan, Garden Phlox, Cardinal Flower, Butterfly Milkweed, Tuliptree, Rattlesnake Master, Pale-purple Coneflower, Annabelle Smooth Hydrangea, Broad-leaved Mountain Mint, Henry’s Garnet Virginia Sweetspire, American Beautyberry and Sourwood.

Bobbitt says not to miss the The Art Trail, especially the Skyspace Installation by sculptor James Turrell, which epitomizes the power of art with the beauty of nature. 

“Sitting inside Skyspace, you get this incredible light show when the sun comes up,” says Bobbitt. “It’s really meditative and beautiful.” 

The Skyspace Installation at Crystal Bridges
The Skyspace Installation by James Turrell at Crystal Bridges

10 Best Gardens in the South

Best Public Garden in Alabama: Bellingrath Garden & Home

Best Public Garden in Florida: Bok Tower Gardens

Best Public Garden in North Carolina: Reynolda Gardens

Best Public Garden in Tennessee: Cheekwood

Best Public Garden in Louisiana: Jungle Gardens

Best Public Garden in Texas: Dallas Arboretum

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