BRIDGEWATER, NJ, May 24, 2019 — The horticulture destinations in Somerset County, New Jersey are far beyond anything “garden variety.” The county enjoys a healthy agri-tourism trade thanks to the many opportunities for garden enthusiasts to see spectacular seasonal color, rare floral varieties, and natural and cultivated displays on both public and private lands.
“Somerset County's gardens are among our most diverse and popular attractions,” said Jacqueline Morales, Somerset County Tourism director. “Some offer public education and all offer visitors the chance to experience unmatched flora and unique botanical landscapes.” Morales noted that many visitors come from Philadelphia, New York City and those cities' surrounding areas because of the county's accessibility via interstates and major highways.
Among the public gardens is Leonard J. Buck Garden in Far Hills, the premier rock garden in the eastern United States. Situated in a woodland ravine that was carved out 11,000 years ago after the retreat of the Wisconsin glacier sheet, the 33-acre property comprises approximately 12 carefully cultivated and maintained acres with plantings around 12 rock outcroppings that were discovered in the 1940s by the estate's owner, the eponymous Leonard Buck. It is both ecologically and geologically important, with each outcropping having been painstakingly excavated, cleaned and cleared over 30 years' time. The garden is owned and managed by the Somerset County Park Commission and is a popular tour site for master gardeners and garden clubs. Visitors may stroll along the paths to explore the outcroppings and plants.
“Leonard J. Buck Garden is a wonderful example of a naturalistic garden and is quite unique in a few ways,” said Patricia Scibilia, an interpretive gardener there. “Unlike other rock gardens, Buck is not man-made; each outcropping is slightly different, which creates varying exposures and microclimates in which different plant species will thrive. Therefore, each rock has its own varieties of plantings that will grow in that spot.”
The garden and wooded trails are filled with hundreds of varieties of native and exotic plants, some quite rare. The peak bloom is in May and early June but the variety of flora offers different blooms nearly every week of the year. Scibilia posts a weekly bloom list on the website (www.somersetcountyparks.org/parksfacilities/buck/LJBuck.html) and in the visitor center. Leonard J. Buck Garden hosts special events every season, including photography workshops and woodland walks, the Magical Mysterious Monarch program in the summer and the Floating Luminaries event in November.
The Rudolf W. van der Goot Rose Garden, located in Colonial Park in Franklin Township, is also under the care of the Somerset County Parks Commission. Established in 1968 by Rudolf W. van der Goot—the first horticulturist hired by the park commission to take care of county grounds—the one-acre garden comprises 3300 roses representing about 300 varieties. Plantings include antique varieties of historic significance, which offer peak bloom in late May-early June, and modern varieties that bloom throughout the summer until late October. In 2015, Rudolf W. van der Goot Rose Garden won the Garden of Excellence Award from the World Federation of Rose Societies.
“It's a very special place; we are so proud of our heirlooms and beautiful award-winning collection,” said Shauna Moore, horticulture supervisor. “We're looking forward to our annual Rose Day Festival on June 8, when we invite the public to celebrate the garden in full bloom.” The family-friendly event includes music, a food truck, and artisan vendors.
The garden has evolved over the years. In 2011 it was expanded to increase ADA accessibility, increase the square footage, and update the grounds with hardscaping. Van der Goot Rose Garden is open from sunrise to sunset daily except Wednesdays. Guided tours for the public will be held on Thursday, May 30 at 6:00 p.m. and Sunday, June 2 at 2:00 p.m. Wedding and special event photography are available with permits. No dogs are allowed. More information is at www.somersetcountyparks.org/parksFacilities/colonial/RoseGarden.html.
The Cross Estate Gardens (www.crossestategardens.org) in Bernardsville sit on property owned by the National Park Service, on the site of the New Jersey Brigade Unit of Morristown National Historical Park. A project of the non-profit New Jersey Historical Garden Foundation, Cross Estate features formal and natural gardens, a wisteria-covered pergola and mountain laurel allée planted for the wedding of the estate's former owner 80 years ago. Of the original estate structures, the historic five-story water tower still stands.
The gardens were conceived by Mrs. Cross, a past president of the Garden Club of Somerset Hills, who worked with her head gardener to design and build the stone walls, paths, and different garden areas visitors enjoy today. They are maintained by a corps of about 35 dedicated volunteers who began their work in the mid-1970s after the Park Service acquired the land following Cross' death.
“The gardens had fallen into such disrepair but they are gorgeous now, thanks to the foundation volunteers,” said Joan Ryder, president of NJ Historical Garden Foundation. “The walled garden is planted with colorful perennials that offer different blooms every week during the season, and the natural garden has many winding paths that were installed by one of our early supporters.” She added that many bridal parties do photo shoots under the pergola and the garden is available for small weddings.
The Cross Estate is open year-round from dawn to dusk (closed only on Christmas) and garden tours are available every Wednesday morning from mid-April through October.
The Orchid Range at Duke Farms (www.dukefarms.org) is where 1400 varieties and 4500 distinct orchids are cultivated and bloom all year.
“People love coming during the winter and seeing those pops of color,” said Nora DiChiara, Director, Strategic Planning & Programs. “In fact, our bloom season peaks in the wintertime.”
Other garden features at Duke Farms—a leader in environmental stewardship and conservation—are the arboretum where the former main residence stood, an Asian-inspired meditation garden, sunken garden with water feature and the Great Meadow.
“The sunken garden area is a great place to take pictures or enjoy a picnic on the lawn,” said DiChiara. There are four paths leading down to the bowl-shaped garden, which has a fountain that runs all day, pollinator plants, native grasses, and 100-year-old lampposts. The arboretum currently has around 40 species of trees and shrubs, and the state's third largest gingko tree, which dates back to industrialist J.B. Duke's time. DiChiara said the organization's goal is to have 100 woody and tree species planted in the arboretum and become nationally recognized.
Additional arboreal features are the two new allées—one to repopulate the oaks and one with black gum trees—which were planted with an eye towards future generations of visitors to take in their full canopies as the trees mature. “We are always installing different plantings to create diversity and provide new natural areas that change over time,” noted DiChiara.
This summer, Duke Farms will launch a pollinator garden to attract butterflies and bees to native plants. It also hosts a Monarch & Meadow month in August; this year's program will focus on the Great Meadow and Orchid Range. Duke Farms participates in the Monarch Watch project, which educates the public on the importance of the monarch butterfly, and it raises, tags and releases them as part of that initiative.
Duke Farms is open daily except Wednesdays, Christmas and Thanksgiving.
The private gardens at Peony's Envy in Bernardsville, at the home of owner Kathleen Gagan, are open each spring to the public, who come from far and wide to see one of the most extensive collections of herbaceous and tree peonies in the Northeast. Now in its 13th year, Peony's Envy is a thriving mail order business that farms 17 acres across two locations, planted with 170,000 peonies representing 300 distinct cultivars.
Gagan opened up her private garden to the public in 2007 to showcase and share the beauty of the flowers in bloom. She also grows other flowers in a variegated garden. Visitors are welcome for seven to eight weeks every spring and the gardens are open late every Friday through June 7. “We invite people to pretend it's their garden, bring a picnic dinner and blanket, sit on the lawn and take in the view,” said Gagan. “We grow over 300 of the best peony varieties we can find. It's a living museum here, a private gallery that 'm delighted to share with others.”
Mother's Day and Memorial Day are popular visiting days, but the major event is the annual Peak Bloom Party; this year it is June 1 and tickets are selling fast. The event includes music and food, as visitors walk the paths to take in the full beauty of peonies in bloom. “People come from across the country and around the world for this,” said Gagan.
This year's U-Pick Peonies, in the farm's off-site production fields, will run daily from May 25 to June 9. Details about events, visiting the gardens and the mail order business, as well as information about peonies, are at www.peonysenvy.com
Garden itineraries for visitors to Somerset County are available at https://visitsomersetnj.org/garden. To arrange a custom itinerary, contact Jacqueline Morales at [email protected] or (908) 218-4300.
About Somerset County Tourism
Somerset County Tourism, a 501(c)3 organization, is the official destination marketing organization (DMO) for Somerset County, N.J. and a Division of the Somerset County Business Partnership. Its mission is to advance the local economy by sustainably promoting the area's outstanding travel products and experiences, and to offer a variety of useful services to residents, business travelers and leisure visitors. Somerset County Tourism is an active member of New Jersey Destination Marketing Organizations and the New Jersey Tourism Industry Association. For more information visit www.visitsomersetnj.org or call 908-218-4300, ext. 28.
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