Situated in the northern portion of the Garden State, the Morris County Park Commission’s three horticultural treasures provide testimony that New Jersey is well-suited for its state nickname. Unlike many other public gardens, these horticultural destinations within the park system are afforded unique circumstances being organized within the county government. Arriving in the morning at Frelinghuysen Arboretum, we met the Arboretum’s Event Specialist, Former Fellow Scott D’Agostino, who would serve as our guide for the day’s forthcoming adventures.
The 127-acre property now known as Frelinghuysen Arboretum was created in 1891 by George Griswold and Sara Ballantine Frelinghuysen as a summer retreat in which to escape the pressures of New York City life. Originally naming it Whippany Farm, the Frelinghuysens stylized this property to resemble an English country estate, placing a grand Colonial Revival manor house at the center of a park-like setting surrounded by formal gardens, rolling hills, and wooded natural areas. Through the efforts of their daughter, Matilda E. Frelinghuysen, the process to transform the property into an arboretum began. Upon Matilda’s death in 1969, Whippany Farm was bequeathed to Morris County, and Frelinghuysen Arboretum was opened to the public two years later. Since then, the gardens have expanded and the educational opportunities offered at the Arboretum have continued to increase.
After a renovation and expansion of the original stable and carriage house structure, the Haggerty Education Center was opened at Frelinghuysen in 1989. In addition to displaying some of the original Frelinghuysen family carriages, the Center features several multifunctional classroom spaces. Of special interest, the Arboretum’s expansive horticultural library boasts a phenomenal rare book collection with books dating back to the 1500s. Critical to the operation of the Center, a volunteer friends organization is especially important to Frelinghuysen; it was founded in 1972, has over 1,300 members and greatly supports the Arboretum’s programming. Supplemented by the volunteer friends group, Frelinghuysen is maintained by seven full-time employees, including five gardeners and two general maintenance employees, as well as one part-time employee and four interns. As a governmental entity that is free and open to the public, the number of visitors each year is unknown, but approximately 60,000 people annually participate in the educational programs alone.
When the Arboretum was originally established, its collections centered mostly on the property’s large trees and wooded natural areas. However, today the formal gardens comprise about 20 acres of the property and their creation largely coincided with the construction of major buildings and infrastructural improvements within the last two decades. For example, the Marsh Meadow is a cleverly engineered storm-water retention basin planted with native plants. Installed at the time of the parking lot construction, this garden provides an educational and aesthetically pleasing ecosystem in what would otherwise be an ecologically sterile bowl of grass. Moreover, a raised bed hosts a diverse alpine plant collection, providing the visitor a dramatic contrast with the towering trees beyond. Frelinghuysen is also in the process of constructing a deer fence. The critical importance of this fence is evident when examining the formerly expansive Hosta collection that has been decimated by deer browsing.
Other gardens were created to expand the Arboretum’s educational opportunities and cater to specific demographic groups represented within the county’s population. The Special Needs Garden enables visitors with limited mobility by incorporating hanging baskets on pulleys, and raised beds of varying heights and widths appropriate for a diverse array of needs, from wheelchairs to walkers. The Branching Out Garden is a special collection of garden plots tended by children aged 5-13. This highly popular, hands-on program allows 25 children in each of three age categories to sow seeds, plant, weed, and generally learn how to tend their gardens with the guidance and expertise of the Arboretum staff. In addition to specific gardens, special programs sponsored by the Arboretum have been met with great community support, such as the Fairy Days.
Following our tour of Frelinghuysen, we ventured over rolling hills and country roads towards Chester Township, on the border of Morris and Somerset Counties, where we arrived at the second of the Park Commission’s horticultural gems, Willowwood Arboretum. The 130 acre site was originally known as Paradise Farm when it was procured by amateur botanist brothers Henry and Robert Tubbs. The duo expanded the original farmhouse dating back to 1792 to serve as the new family home. Tapping into the New York City horticultural scene at the dawn of the 20th Century, the brothers were able to amass an extraordinary collection of rare and unusual plants from all over the world. A long-term friendship with a local professor, Dr. Benjamin Blackburn further allowed the collection at Willowwood to grow. Interestingly, one garden designed by Dr. Blackburn was able to marry many of the Chinese plant introductions from famed plant explorer E. H. Wilson with a garden of distinctly Japanese design.
Adjacent to Willowwood sits Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center. Originally, known as Merchiston Farm, Bamboo Brook is the former home of Martha Brookes Hutcheson, the second, formally trained female landscape architect in the country. Her meticulous notes and garden plans are currently being used by the Park Commission as it embarks on an ambitious restoration effort for the gardens and property. Reproductions of the distinctive fruit-basket sculptures originally placed around the patio are now being sold to raise additional funds for the restoration project. When the restoration is completed, Bamboo Brook will be the only intact personal garden of any American landscape architect from that era.
Each location exhibited a distinctive history, but by being organized within the county government, the gardens share circumstances that are rather unique within the realm of public horticulture. After viewing these incredible gardens, with their rich history and fascinating potential for the future, one understands why Morris County’s park system is routinely ranked among the nation’s best. After observing the vast diversity of the horticultural sites within the Morris County Park Commission, it is evident that this county fits perfectly into the Garden State.