The Harrisons' Future Garden, one year in

Future Garden dome interiors, 2018 and 2019
Future Garden dome interiors, 2018 and 2019

We opened Newton and Helen Mayer Harrison’s Future Garden for the Central Coast of California just a year ago. I was visiting the installation in May to photograph the dramatic plant growth in its three greenhouses and the surrounding landscape, and its high time I wrote about it here. The Arboretum recently finished putting in the new visitor seating area for Future Garden, so this is a fine time to look at how this multi-year art-and-ecology installation is (literally) growing up! 

As our main article introducing the piece makes clear, Future Garden is an unusual art work by a pair of utterly original artists. The Harrisons are foundational figures in the field of ecological art, and they spent most of their careers teaching in the UC system, first at UC San Diego—where I encountered them while doing my MFA—and later at UC Santa Cruz. When Rachel Nelson and I heard that they had been speaking with Arboretum director Martin Quigley about converting the three decrepit geodesic domes into a major work of ecological art, we both were immediately enthusiastic about the project and offered to organize, curate, and help support it with IAS funds and fundraising. 

Future Garden view with visitor pavilion

The premise of Future Garden is that as the earth’s climate warms and rain patterns change, plants that formerly thrived are likely to die back and be replaced by others. But whether this happens in a manner that leads to resilient and ecologically robust plant ensembles is an open question. In the past, plant ecologies have had thousands of years to slowly adapt to major environmental shifts, but climate is changing now at a far faster pace. Will this cause massive species die-off, domination by only a few species, and consequent ecological collapse as animal food chains wither? We don’t know. And if so, is there anything humans could do to mitigate the damage we’ve already done? 

The Harrisons’ Future Garden seeks to develop answers to these questions, at least for the Central California coast region, by cultivating a scientifically selected group of common regional and native plants in three greenhouses at the Arboretum. Each greenhouse will be kept warmer than the current climate, but one of them will be subjected to drought conditions, one kept abnormally wet in the “rainy season,” and one will experience wildly differing annual “precipitation.” Over the course of several years and more, it will become clear what plants and plant groupings thrive in the dry, wet, or wildly variable conditions. By recording over time the plants’ responses to each greenhouse “climate,” Arboretum botanists and student workers will learn how humans might be able to propagate species clusters that preserve a healthy and resilient botanical balance. As Newton tells it, this is a way to “create hope” at a time when it is all too easy to become hopeless. 

We’re still in the early stages of this project, but as you can see from the photographs here, the plant ensembles are growing in beautifully! It is also clear that the plants in the three warm dome environments are growing faster than those outside. However, it is actually too soon to determine which plants and grouping respond to the dryer, wetter, and varied “climates,” because the Arboretum has not yet started subjecting them to those differing irrigation regimes. That process can’t begin until the plants have achieved a truly robust state, which we are only now seeing. So it will be the next three years when things get exciting! 

In the meantime, Future Garden already provides what the Arboretum’s Brett Hall calls a great opportunity to “tell the story” of how much we don’t know about global warming, climate change, and their future botanical impact, both locally and world wide. As the Arboretum’s Director of California Native Plants and its longest-tenured staffer, Brett is a key member of the team that works with the Harrison Studio on Future Garden. In fact, the artists considered both Brett and Martin so important to the piece that they are named as artistic collaborators on the garden’s introductory sign, along with environmental landscape ecologist Leslie Ryan. 


For the IAS, this collaboration has been another example of how UC Santa Cruz offers partners who enable us to undertake projects that off-campus galleries and museums can’t even begin to consider. Without the Arboretum and Botanic Garden, its dedicated scientific staff, student workers, volunteers, and supporters, Future Garden never happens. We also thank our own funders, and I want to recognize in particular the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, the Nion McEvoy Family Fund, the UC Santa Cruz Foundation, the 30 Petals Fund, Rowland and Pat Rebele, and the Clare Wedding Endowment for supporting this project!