Northwestern New Jersey is blessed with public gardens where visitors can experience every spring blooming plant that will grow in the region. The six gardens included here were all once private estates, each with a special botanical story to tell. They each have maintained some original garden designs; and some plants, notably shrubs and trees, planted by the families who once lived there, remain. Among the historic gardens, a plethora of plants color and scent the landscape in spring.
New Jersey Botanical Gardens at Skylands, New Jersey's official botanical garden since 1966, has 96 acres of outstanding gardens and collections originating from 1923, when plant collector Clarence Lewis built his Tudor-style manor at Skylands. Many of Lewis's trees and shrubs still decorate the grounds, and his formal garden designs are intact. Weeping cherries, mostly Japanese varieties, are interspersed around the manor house, especially on the West Lawn, and bloom in April. Forsythia and thousands of daffodils appear throughout the gardens and bloom into March. Star, Saucer (the magnolia) and other early magnolias bloom everywhere, including along the Terrace Garden.
At the top of the Terrace Garden, an allee' of deliciously scented June-blooming Sweetbay magnolias lines a flagstone walk on the way to the Azalea Garden. These formal gardens cascade down the hill with well-defined flowerbeds on each side of a central grassy sward. Azaleas and early rhododendron start flowering there in April, but the big splash is mid-May with double dogwood, Carolina silverbell, dogwood and wisteria bloom. At the bottom, one gets a grand view of the gardens a long green corridor, water gardens, and finally the mansion as star on a verdant stage.
The lilac collection, another heady spring bloomer, contains over 200 varieties of French hybrids and species, and is under-planted with grape hyacinths in island beds. "If you were to go see the lilac garden around Mother's Day, that's a spectacular show," says Rich Flynn, landscape designer for NJ Division of Parks and Forestry. Many were planted in the early 1920s by Lewis, purchased from French nurseries. As board member of the New York Botanical Garden, he created his gardens for himself and his contemporaries other plant collectors involved in botanical gardens. They visited each other's gardens. Thanks to his well-kept records, we know many of Skylands' trees and shrubs are from the mid-'20s.
Sculpture and spring-blooming trees accent the Perennial Garden, a series of discreet gardens designed around color and texture. The nearby Crabapple Vista, a 1,600-foot allee' ending at four sculptures, blooms around Mother's Day perhaps the best time to visit.
Spring is everywhere at Leonard J. Buck Garden in Far Hills, a naturalistic garden created in a glacial stream valley. In April, you're greeted by flowering crabapple. Down the steps through June-blooming rhododendron and nodding heads of hellebore, you face Big Rock, dynamited and sculpted by geologist and land-owner Leonard J. Buck and landscape architect Zenon Schreiber in the 1930s. The alpines that once inhabited the rock no longer exist, but wild columbine has lived there from Buck's day. In early April and March, other rock-loving plants decorate the outcrop spring ephemerals, bulbs, soft purple spring starflower, wind flower, white bells of double wood anemones, blue sanguinaria, spring beauties and Virginia bluebells. It is a rockscape of miniature flowers of every color.
Toward the pond, bright forsythia that has lived there since Buck roamed the grounds, blooms across the bridge. If you walk around the pond the other way to Moggy Brook, you'll see varieties of Epimedium, planted by Buck on Epimedium Path. Its stems of diminutive sulfur-yellow, red, and white blanket the ground for three weeks in April. The plant, also known as Bishops Cap, Barrenwort, and Horny Goat Weed, has seen service as an aphrodisiac.
At April's end, the woodland jewel, white Trillium 'grandiflora,' blooms on Horseshoe Rock, another dynamited outcrop. Thyme and wine cup flourish on its dry, flat, sun-soaked surface and blue forget-me-nots, yellow dog-tooth violets, and yellow and red trillium grow nearby.
When private seed exchanges resumed after World War II, plant hunters brought back seeds from groves of Dawn redwood found in China. Long thought to be extinct, they were nurtured into seedlings at Harvard's Arnold Arboretum and given to certain people including Mr. Buck, who was then president of the New York Botanical Garden. He planted a Dawn redwood and bald cypress that now tower over the Kennel Field, named and used by Mrs. Buck to run her pet Springer Spaniels.
The garden with a history at Colonial Park in Franklin Township is the front section of the Rudolph W. van der Goot Rose Garden, original to the Mettler estate. The 1850s federal-style mansion stood in front of the garden, which was, at the time, a perennial-annual garden. The reflecting pool, bed design, and walkways are original to the estate. When the park commission inherited the property in the late 1950s, they hired Rudolph van der Goot, a Dutch horticulturist working at nearby Duke Gardens, who turned it into a rose garden. Later, in the '70s he built the middle and Dutch gardens, designed in formal European style with brick walkways with flowers edging the rose beds.
The Mettler estate was a self-sufficient farm with cattle and field crops, but they enjoyed various activity. Just down Colonial Drive at Powdermill Pond, they built a mill to make and sell gunpowder. Mettler made his millions by developing the process for interwoven socks and marrying into the Fleischman's Whiskey family. Other than the large trees, all plantings in arboretum are from the 1970s.
A group of specialized gardens unlike any others are part of Morristown National Historical Park in Bernardsville. There, the Cross Estate Gardens encompass an early 1900s formal, walled, English garden with brick paths and a view over a valley, a blue and white wisteria-covered stone pergola with benches, a mountain laurel allee', and a native plant garden. All bloom in spring. Julia Newbold Cross, a member of the Royal Horticultural Society, designed and built the gardens with the help of a landscape architect. Today, members of New Jersey Historical Garden Foundation volunteer every Wednesday morning from March through November to maintain the gardens.
At Frelinghuysen Arboretum in Morristown, the view down the sweeping front lawn of the mansion in spring is one of quiet, colorful elegance. A line of blossoming cherry trees, the most notable historic spring bloomers, forms a border in front of tall white pines and the young pastel leaves of hardwoods. When the trees were smaller, you could see all the way across the valley to Boonton, says Scott D'Agostino, horticultural program specialist. George Griswold Frelinghuysen and Sara Ballantine (beer) Frelinghuysen bought the property as their summer home. The foundation plantings around the house, and the lawn and trees, were the only ornamental areas on this working farm until their daughter, Matilda, inherited the estate and designed a garden close to the house, now the rose garden.
Willowwood Arboretum lies just west of Frelinghuysen in Far Hills. This 130-acre historic farm is a special landscape with discreet formal gardens, meadows and fields designed and planted to be wild-looking, and trails through it all and into woodland. "Willowwood is a highly manipulated landscape that looks very natural. It's an esthetic that will become more popular as suburban areas become more developed," says John Morse, manager of horticulture.
The drive leads through meadows with wild flowers and bluebirds before you reach a stone barn, a seasonal visitor center. Here, an espaliered Siebold's magnolia stands against the barn next to a Japanese wisteria-covered pergola. Its large, white, pendulous flowers appear in late May. It is one of 50 varieties in the 386-plant magnolia collection begun by the brothers Robert and Henry Tubbs when they bought Paradise Farm in 1908 and changed its name to Willowwood. It's been said that Martha Brooks Hutcheson, who bought the property next door and was one of the first women landscape architects, liked to come over and tell the boys how to plant. Her property, another historic garden now known as Bamboo Brook, is currently under renovation by the Morris County Park Commission.
The Tubbs brothers collected and planted native and exotic trees and shrubs; mostly Oriental species adapted to growing conditions similar to those in the Mid-Atlantic. As a house-warming gift, relatives gave them a boxcar (full-size train car) filled with seedlings and saplings as a starter kit. They also received plants from Arnold Arboretum plant explorers and other prominent horticulturists and botanists of the era. In fact, botanist and professor, Dr. Benjamin Blackburn, lived with the brothers and helped them keep accurate records of their plants. He stayed on after their death until the Park Commission gained title in 1980.
Among Willowwood's 3,500 kinds of plants, the lilac and magnolia collections are the season's showstoppers. Take a walk through the core area where historic spring bloomers are concentrated around the house and out buildings. From the stone and wood barns, head left toward a field of over 200 individual lilacs representing 89 varieties. Some have earned the distinction of "state champion" and others are actual trees, like the pale yellow Peking lilac that blooms in late spring. "When people think of lilacs they think of the little puffy thing by Grandma's back porch," says superintendent of horticulture Jay Jordan, as he admires a tall Manchurian specimen. A few lilacs that the Tubbs brothers planted still grow, their thick limbs covered in lichens. Cherry trees, such as the Yoshimo state champion and other fabulously-shaped shrubs, live and bloom among the lilacs, creating a mosaic of color, fragrance, and history. These days, Jordan and crew continue to introduce saplings to the lilac and magnolia collections, such as Magnolia 'Elizabeth,' Jordan's favorite with soft yellow blossoms.
Back at the barns, walk toward the house. To the right next to a reconstructed propagation greenhouse, a line of magnolia - 'Edith Bogue,' alba superba, stellata, anise sashays down a slope to a meadow. They bloom early to late spring, so come back often to see them. Walk through the filigreed wrought iron gate into the formal cottage garden bordered by boxwood. Cherry trees adorn the edges of this garden in mid-axis between Pan's Garden in back of the house and the cedar-covered hillside across the meadow. Cross over to the left of the house (originally a late1700s one-room farmhouse), to the Rockery where hot noon sun blasts this shaded garden and only the strong survive. Among them remain ephemerals, hellebores, bulbs, creeping phlox, native pachysandra, and species tulips.
Around back of the house, enter Pan's Garden, Henry's first garden. Backed by fifty to sixty-foot junipers, this symmetrical formal garden, where crabapples and Oriental cherries bloom, is a "fenced perspective garden" made to look longer by narrowing the path at the distant end and by planting taller trees closer to the house. To its right, wild flowers, persimmon trees, and fragrant magnolias dot the naturalistic Woodwalk that begins on stepping stones. It twists along and over Willowwood Brook on a worth-the-trip stone Do-Bashi bridge. You'll feel as if you are walking on the arches of a miniature suspension bridge. The Tubbses' bald cypress, circa 1911, has spread its rust-colored knees all over.
Spend some time at Willowwood and the other special gardens in the Skylands. You know what they say about taking time to smell the flowers especially in fragrant spring.