Leonard J. Buck Garden in Far Hills

Splendor in the Garden

by Mary Jasch

Leonard J. Buck Garden in Far Hills is a garden of splendor and inspiration-- a landscape of art, sprung from a love of the beauty of plants and a reverence for nature.

Big Rock at Buck Garden.

The garden is sculpted from a glacial stream valley, where waterfalls once cascaded out of Moggy Hollow to the East, then subsided, leaving behind rock faces, outcroppings, ponds and a stream. It took the eye of a geologist, fascinated by mineral-topography-plant relationships, to see the valley's potential to showcase the finest of human-bred cultivars and nature's prettiest wild plants.

The geologist who bought the land was Mr. Leonard J. Buck. As a trustee of the New York Botanical Gardens in the 1930's, he met Mr. Zenon Schreiber, landscape architect, and together they created the garden in the valley. Mr. Buck discovered the layout of outcroppings, and the men chiseled and shoveled, picked and blasted to expose the basalt--once hot lava that formed the Second Watchung mountain about 175 million years ago.

They worked by eye and proportion, with never a drawing on paper. Mr. Schreiber designed the plantings and Mr. Buck worked the rock. Their vision was to produce a woodland garden, composed of many individual gardens, each with their own character and micro-habitat, but united, flowing, as one. They succeeded.

After Mr. Buck's death, the garden was donated by Mrs. Buck to the Somerset County Park Commission.

At the Visitor's Center, once a carriage house, I pick up a list of what's blooming for the week and a map of where to find it. Then, with Tricia Scibilia, interpretive gardener who writes a new bloom list each week, and Toni Tosco, garden foreman, I step out the door to a few hours of awe.

We take the pathway leading to the Fern Garden where pink mountain laurel, sweet violets, mahonia, daffodils, enkianthus, Japanese peonies and Labrador violets bloom through April. In May, fragrant snowbell, skimmia and climbing hydrangea cover this shady slope.

The grass path, once a channel where the waterfall receded, winds through the entire garden, and in early spring it's edged with bright Virginia bluebells.

Wind anemones bloom on Bit o' Rock in spring, along with small alpines, and native double bloodroot. They surround a tiny-leafed boxwood--low and sprawling, planted by Mr. Buck.

Across the path is Big Rock, the northern wall of the valley left by the glacier. Spring bloomers include perennials, blue Siberian squill and grape hyacinth with yellow winter aconite, saxifrage and narcissus, a small-leaf eunonymous that coats the rocks, and a red native columbine that naturalized on this wide rock bench. Ms. Tosco points out that some plants shape themselves to fit in with the rocks. "We've not done a thing to the Taxus, but it sits there and looks like it belongs." There's mahonia there too, in the full sun, although they're known to prefer shade. It put itself there and they kept it because it helps with erosion. Then there's the primrose cowslip that likes shade, but she found it growing on sunny Reno, where it's hot and dry.

Dwarf irises, early bloomers, as they burst through a blanket of fallen leaves at Leonard J. Buck Garden. Photo byVivian Bedoya.

I admire a delicate-leafed azalea. My knowledgeable guides explain that a lot of the plants Mr. Buck put in were gifts from other plantsmen, and that the azaleas and rhododendrons came from breeders around the country, many identified only by numbers. Ms. Tosco determined that many azaleas are "Exbury hybrids."

Along the Primrose Path, there are naturalized dogwood and wild geraniums. Tall candelabra primroses surround the peeling orange trunks of the river birch 'heritage' on the swamp's edge.

We climb the steps to Horseshoe Rock and New Rock, a rocky remnant left in the center of the valley when the water retreated thousands of years ago. Sinewy musclewood trees grow here with delicate daphnes, primroses, heaths and bluets.

On the left is Reno rock and story has it that Mrs. Buck told Mr. Buck, that if he spent time clearing one more outcropping, she would go to Reno for a divorce. He cleared the rock and so it was named Reno Rock.

"As Misters Buck and Schreiber uncovered the outcroppings, they created and followed the flow of the land. They went with nature," said Ms. Tosco. Horseshoe Rock is covered with mosses and lichens. When you look at it, you can feel the lava bubbling out of the earth said Tosco. On the surface of the rocks are vesicles ­ tiny holes on this ancient lava flow created by gases. Creeping thyme blankets some of the rocks here.

Ms. Scibilia points out that changes constantly occur throughout the garden ­ like the automatic watering system that was recently installed to replace Mr. Buck's original system of pipes, faucets and hoses. The garden now has some structural problems, like erosion of slopes, walls to rebuild and drainage to improve.

The Azalea Field, on the valley floor, has successional bloom in waves of pink, violet and white in springtime. Viburnums, rhododendrons, herbs, wildflowers, magnolias and perennials complete the layers of blossoms.

The Moggy Brook, a small stream bordered by hand-made rock walls, seems almost out of a storybook. It is lined with the delicate-looking, black-stemmed maidenhair fern and bright blue forget-me-nots.

Across the open Kennel Field, named as the place where Mr. Buck's spaniels once romped, is moss-covered Polypody Rock, on the southern wall of the valley. Additional rock was brought in to create terraced rock gardens abutting the path that lead to Polypody Rock. Thyme azaleas, an old-time variety with leaves that look like thyme, grow along the path, and unusual flowers such as Oconee bells, rue anemone and white rhododendrons bloom there in spring.

Throughout the garden, crooked trees or those with unusual bark were used to add interest, like the shreddy hornbeam in the Epimedium Path. There are Henry Hicks sweetbay magnolia, a true evergreen with silver-backed leaves and fragrant native swamp azaleas.

In the Kennel Field, a 104 foot cone-shaped Dawn redwood regally stands. A lightning rod protector crowns this tall, straight, deciduous conifer. In the '40s, the Arnold Arboretum went on expedition to China in search of this supposedly extinct species. They brought back seeds and a few resulting seedlings were given to Mr. Buck to plant. Native plants abound here--yellow and red twig dogwoods, forsythia, a cultivar of star magnolia with silver bark, and interesting travelers like Carolina allspice.

The Fern Swamp claims beauty from elegant ostrich ferns, wintergreen with berries, skimmia, hardy cyclamen and slender limbs of Japanese maple rising through the mix.

The Heath and Heather Garden flourishes in planters in front of the Visitor's Center. The heaths bloom through April, followed by the multi-color heathers in summer. From this spot, the hillside of white oak, maples and shagbark hickory with a ground cover of daffodils blooming through early May rises to Mr. Buck's house on the hilltop. This lush and elegant garden was his backyard.

Ms. Scibilia takes me on a special walk to her favorite place ­ the top of Big Rock, where there's a perfect view of the valley. Here, Chinese fringe trees with shimmery white flowers and pink dogwood bloom together in early May. A short walk along the service path reveals trillium that blooms in early May with wild oats and other natives plus the plants that Mr. Buck put in. American beech, the first I've ever seen uncarved, is breath-taking with a few strands of variegated ivy decorating its smooth, silver skin.

We reach Ivy Rock with lots of vesicles. Japanese painted fern accents the sweet woodruff that covers the slope in early May and fills the air with a wonderful aroma.

I tell Ms. Scibilia that the garden is inspirational for me with my own garden at home. She says due to the many different micro-climates and plant species, it's also a learning tool. "What grows here won't grow over there. It's an education. It's a garden of different gardens, but it flows. There are lots of butterflies and hummingbirds, orioles, vireos, and a catbird that calls from a certain tree every year."

I think about the cottage garden I envisioned in my front yard and I change my mind. I can't wait to design my garden with native plants and maybe even build a few rock walls for alpines. I can learn what works by coming here to learn. I'll be back.

Leonard J. Buck Garden is open Monday - Friday, 10 to 4 Sat, 10 to 5 Sun, 12 to 5. 908-234-2677. For more information check the Somerset County Park Commission website.

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This story was first published: Spring, 2001
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