Garden State is aptly named blooming gem

Here's a look at a few of New Jersey's 125 green enclaves

Short Hop

May 02, 2004|By Charles Jacobs | Charles Jacobs,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

It took more than just its famous tomato to dub New Jersey the Garden State.

Although today it is the most densely populated state in the Union, New Jersey has never forsaken its love affair with nature that marked the region's bucolic beginnings. Every year, visitors from in-state and beyond discover that secret as the state's gardens burst into bloom.

Tucked away from the hubbub of its cities and the Turnpike are 125 public gardens and arboretums offering getaways to please every member of the family.

There are tours for kids, educational activities for home gardeners, programs for the disabled and relaxing opportunities to view nature in its bounty.

Mimi G. Sommer, a member of the New Haven, Conn., Cultural Affairs Commission, is one of the many visitors who view New Jersey gardens as a particular treasure "in this day and age when aesthetic environments, especially in highly populated areas, seem to be in short supply."

A number of the gardens have national reputations. Leaming's Run, near Cape May, offers what it claims is the largest array of annuals in the United States. At the New Jersey Botanical Garden, in Ringwood, 400 varieties of lilac gathered from as far away as the Middle East and the Orient are considered one of the world's major collections. And the Leonard J. Buck Garden, in Far Hills, is recognized as one of the premier rock gardens in the eastern United States.

"The gardens in the state blew me away," says Carole Ottesen, associate editor of The American Gardener, the magazine of the American Horticultural Society. "My impression of New Jersey came from riding the Turnpike. I didn't have any idea of the beauty of the state."

Here's a sampling of the state's public gardens by region:

Northern New Jersey

Skylands, The New Jersey Botanical Garden

After you leave the Tudor Revival Manor House, swathed in massive hydrangea vines, it's hard not to thrill at the expansive beauty of the state's official garden, in Ringwood.

Acres of open space, majestic views of the countryside from a vantage point high in the Ramapo Hills, plantings that delight by their uniqueness and beauty - that's Skylands.

Wander the half-mile-long Crab Apple Allee or relax in the formal gardens of the Magnolia Walk. The extensive rhododendron collection, the tree peonies and the lilacs join themed plantings that date to the 19th century.

Self-guided tour maps are available for the gardens and the decorative sculpture. Located in Ringwood State Park. Information: 973-962-9534;

Freylinghuysen Arboretum

Even if you don't aspire to have a green thumb, the 127 acres of specialized gardens found in this section of the Morris County Park System will fascinate you.

The arboretum, located in Morristown, is a center for horticultural education. There are elevated gardens, ideal for wheelchair-bound gardeners, that demonstrate the use of color and design. There is also a Braille Trail with rich scents to bring the beauty of a garden to those who cannot see its blossoms.

Flowers mingle with edibles in a decorative veggie garden. The pagoda overlooking serene natural woodland areas is a good spot for a restful break.

Freylinghuysen has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977. Guided tours are available on weekends. There are self-guided maps for a number of trails. Information: 973-326-7600;

Leonard J. Buck Garden

When he bought Moggy Hollow in the early 1930s, Leonard Buck, a skilled mining engineer, was determined to create a natural, ecologically correct garden that did not appear man-made.

He shaped massive rock gardens with a variety of native and rare, exotic plants that thrive in the jagged crevices. They appear natural even though he was forced to blast some of the rock outcroppings.

The most impressive formation is Big Rock, the remains of a waterfall that juts out from the north wall above the hollow and offers a striking display of wildflowers, alpines and other rock garden plants.

Trails wander through the 33-acre property into wooded areas and past wildflowers, an extensive fern collection and Moggy Hollow brook. The garden, in Far Hills, is part of the Somerset County Park Commission.

Maps of the garden are available. Information: 908-234-2677;

Central New Jersey

Gardens at Duke Farms

Countless visitors have enjoyed the themed gardens from around the world displayed in the 11 greenhouses that highlight the 2,700-acre Doris Duke estate in Hillsborough.

But there is no reason to stop visiting when the greenhouse closes down from May 31 to Oct. 1. This year, for the first time, the park portion of the farm, landscaped by Duke's father at a cost of $10 million, has been opened to the public. Trolley tours operate twice daily, rain or shine, Wednesday through Sunday from June through mid-November.

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