Monday, July 25, 2011


Willowwood Arboretum: small garden and edge

I felt like a third thumb.

Not knowing what to expect, but intrigued by a day-long outing to three former grand estates, now part of the Morris County park system in New Jersey, I signed up with the Garden Writers Association for its Region I and II event. Friday was the day. The temperature in New York's Central Park reached 104. It may have only been 102 in Morris County, but it was a killer.

The three former estates we visited -- Willowwood, Bamboo Brook, and the Frelinghuysen Arboretum (to be the subject of another post) -- all offered a mix of formal gardens and informal meadows and woodlands. What I found of most interest were the edges, where the "gardened" gardens merged with the surrounding fields. The entrance road at Willowwood wound through acres of grasses, golden rod, monarda, and milkweed. It was a beautiful site, and I would have liked to stop to explore it, but we were given no time for edgy exploration, only some well orchestrated presentations on the history of the estates, photos of the founders, and tours of the more formal grounds immediately surrounding the historic buildings.

Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center, formerly known as Merchiston Farm and home to Martha Brookes Hutcheson, one of America's first female landscape architects, was particularly stunning with its restoration of the garden's water features, which take advantage of the landscape's dramatic changes in elevation to harvest storm water from the surrounding landscape, collecting it in an Upper Water, from which it flows down a rock lined stream to a large round pool situated in a natural bowl of land.

Restored brook and circular pool designed by Martha Brookes Hutcheson

The pool is treated in an Italinate manner with four symmetrical approach ramps and steps creating two strong visual axes, one of which looks out across a ha-ha to a grassy meadow ... another edge.

There was much talk of axes.

Back home, as I peruse the Willowwood brochure, I see walks are offered in many edgy areas.

So I'm wondering why we were only shown the tame side of things, but not the edges. Perhaps because it costs a ton of money to restore these vast estates, and the staff wants garden writers to write about that. To help the cause. I agree. It is a worthy cause, one not often enough recognized in the good ole USA, so you should click on the links above and go visit these places.

I actually find it quite amazing that a county government (with much private fundraising, I'm sure) operates not one, but three, such estates as part of the public parks system. The Frelinghuysen Arboretum -- perhaps the grandest of the estates, though the least personal -- even has a library with rare florilegia and herbals dating back to the 16th century.

It has edges too. One was a "demonstration" storm water detention basin planted in native plants appropriate to such a wet, sometimes flooded, site. That was one of the highlights of the day, for me, though apparently not of much interest to anyone else.

Can you make a storm water detention basin look pretty? Yes, you can.

 Like I said, a third thumb.


  1. Our storm water detention basins are tiny, but that is where the Kniphofia grows happily,with wet feet. Perhaps you should email them a link - this THIS is the interesting bit I enjoyed thank you!

  2. Kniphofia likes wet feet? What's that again? I seem to have read years ago that it survived in a garden that had been flooded for several weeks. This was somewhere in North America. But I think of it as a plant that needs dry conditions. Please clarify for me. In any event, I'm glad to hear you have an interest in detention basins.

  3. The third thumb? I'd not heard that before, but shall find myself using it all the time;-)
    I guess any organised tour is likely to disappoint some. I think some of us have to accept that our tastes might be quite heightened by all our concentration on gardenery matters and that may not and doesn't have to be the norm. A bit like good taste. It would not be good otherwise! I too find myself drawn to odd corners of gardens: the well where the gardener dips his can and so forth. I figure this is a left over bit of childhood, exploration and so forth. Areas of more mystery etc. perhaps more worryingly I find I want the axes and the pool and the offbeat bits. I want the lot!
    Thanks for this post. As you know I am a fan of your writing and always enjoy what you have to say. Best R

  4. Our different versions of English always interest me. When I first read the word "chuffed," I assumed it meant the writer was annoyed, angry, pissed off. Chuffed has that sound. Finally I realized it expressed a sense of delight and pride. By the way, I was delighted with the pool (and axes too), just felt powerfully drawn to the "forbidden" wild side. Thanks for your complimentary comment.

  5. I'm struck by your interest in edges. The edges speak to how the garden relates to where it is. Does the garden turn its back on the yonder world with opaque walls and build a self-contained fantasyland? Does it transition gracefully to the land around it, spilling out into the land as much as it receives the views and plants that surround it? The edge says so much about attitude towards place.

  6. A perceptive comment. It even makes me reassess my feelings on that day. I agree completely with you. I do think the estates related well to their landscapes, but development since the time they were built has changed that relationship. I think my reaction was more to attitude, or to what I perceived as an unquestioning acceptance, perhaps a complacency. But I could be wrong.

  7. I wondered what third 'thumb' meant. I think I get it know. Chuffed to bits is me.

    I like the pool as an axis also.

    Aside, I look forward to your next garden diary. I thought about that today as I looked at my miscanthus'. Grasses are the emerging stars right now.

  8. I found this reference to the expression on the internet--from some TV show called Xena: Warrior Princess: '"Gods I missed you," he breathed after breaking the kiss long enough to sweep her up into his arms ...

    "Yeah I'll just take care of the horses," the blonde she had rode up with called to them. "Why do I feel like a third thumb?" she asked the horse and then chuckled to herself.'

    I'm sure there are better sources, and I left our the sexy part.

    My miscanthus, at least a couple of them, are just starting to put out their "stars."



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