Journalist: Dan Stern
Photographer: Shari Edelson
Following a long road trip, turning into the quiet wooded residential area of Summit, New Jersey that harbors the Reeves-Reed Arboretum was a welcome respite to the Longwood Graduate Fellows. Subtly nestled within the neighborhood, the entrance to the garden was no more imposing than the houses on either side. Pulling in through the wrought iron gates, we followed the narrow drive past the main house to a small parking area that had been well hidden from the road by a thick hedge and trees. From there, we walked back to the house, which serves as the visitor center and administrative offices for the staff.
Upon entering the house, we had a brief opportunity to peruse the garden’s visitor orientation, before being greeted by Executive Director, Mary Beth Cooney. After a brief welcome, Mary Beth introduced us to Peter Grant, the Director of Horticulture and Site Preservation, who started our in depth tour by providing a historic overview of the property from the back porch of the estate house.
Originally farmland, John Horner Wisner purchased the property in 1889 and later appointed his country estate with a house built in the wood-shingled Colonial Revival style. Wisner also hired Calvert Vaux, renowned partner of Frederick Law Olmstead, to develop a landscape plan for the property. In keeping with the “greensward” tradition, this plan took full advantage of the property’s topography to create dramatic vistas. After purchasing the property in 1916, Mr. and Mrs. Richard Reeves augmented the landscape with immense swaths of daffodil plantings, which continue to be a highlight of the Arboretum each spring. In the mid 1920’s, Mrs. Reeves hired landscape architects Ellen Shipman and Carl Pilat, to help develop a variety of “garden rooms,” near the estate house. As the last private land owners, The Charles L. Reed, Jr. family purchased the estate in 1968 and added an herb garden as well as trails through the property’s six acres of woodlands. In 1974, the community joined members of the family to raise funds that were matched by the city of Summit to purchase the estate and preserve it as an arboretum. As such, it has remained open to the public, free of charge, year round.
Our tour of the property began with the Serpentine Border and Daffodil Bowl, located directly behind the estate house. Separated from the latter by a colorful rose border, the “bowl” was carved out from the surrounding landscape during the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier 17,000 years ago. As such, its contours lend a dramatic element to the display of colorful flowers. In addition to a late-summer bouquet of native perennials such as joe-pye, cup plant, ironweed, and coneflowers we also enjoyed a small water garden and bog planting nestled into the hillside. The Bowl also featured some engaging interpretation about pollination including a couple of working beehives.
From the Bowl garden, Peter Grant took our group up onto an open plateau, peppered with specimen trees, where the sweeping vistas from house to woodland could be easily appreciated. Here, we also treated to a variety of outdoor sculptures occupying different niches in the lawn as part of the Arboretum’s annual “Art in the Garden” show, an important fund raising event. We then entered the nature trails and enjoyed the interpretation along a short hike through the deciduous forest.
We emerged from the woodland trails next to a lovely mandala-patterned herb garden maintained by the Summit Garden Club. From there we explored the series of “garden rooms” adjacent to the estate house designed by Ellen Shipman and Carl Pilat. Gently compartmentalized through the use of living fences, these intimate spaces each retain their individual charm and aesthetic. Centered about a small fountain, the Rose Garden consists of four quads planted with a wide variety of roses. Ranging from heirloom and hybrid tea to climbers and ramblers, each bears a display label with the cultivar name and date of introduction. Nestled into a nearby berm, the Rock Garden features a boulder-edged pool surrounded by plantings of dwarf conifers and mountain shrubs, giving the space a naturalistic feel. Next, we enjoyed the formal design of the Gretchen Keller Azalea Garden which, set against the backdrop of the estate house, is a popular space for weddings and other events.
Upon leaving these gardens, we walked through the Arboretum’s greenhouse and education building and learned how staff uses these facilities for plant propagation and programming, respectively. “Butterflies, Bees, and Birds” is one of the recurring themes that Peter emphasized throughout the gardens and is evidenced by the “Monarch Waystation” and “Bring back the Bees Project” signage. Reinforced in the classroom, this interconnectedness of nature is clearly central to the staff’s values and institution’s mission, “The Reeves-Reed Arboretum is a suburban conservancy dedicated to environmental and horticultural education for children and adults and to the enjoyment of nature through the professional care and preservation of a historic country estate.” Throughout our tour, Peter described his role as Director of Horticulture and Site Preservation as well as his personal management philosophy, which included nurturing a vested interest in the institution. Peter also outlined the mechanisms for garden design development and approval with the Arboretum’s advisory committee and described it transition towards strategic development and more professionally managed collections.
At the conclusion of our tour, Mary Beth Cooney rejoined our group for lunch on the open-air porch of the estate house. After the meal, we had a very interesting discussion with Mary Beth and Peter about the governance and economics of the Reeves-Reed Arboretum. They described the evolving structure and role of the Arboretum’s Board of Trustees. We also learned that although owned by the City of Summit, the Arboretum receives no municipal funding and must generate all of its income from memberships, grants, and special events. We also discussed the vital role that the neighborhood played in preserving the Arboretum and the importance of maintaining a good relationship with the local community. Thanks to their insight and candor, our entire tour was a delight and we look forward to staying in touch as their garden continues to grow.