Escape to Greenwood Gardens and Discover New Jersey’s Rural Charm
Less than an hour away from New York City, Greenwood Gardens in Short Hills, New Jersey, is a peaceful retreat from city life and a wonderful cultural experience. The gardens are on 28 acres and have been open to the public only in the last 4 years. They continue to be restored and developed by a small, but dedicated staff and many volunteers, all led by generations of the Blanchard family who purchased the property as their country home in 1949.
Upon arrival, a striking allée of tall Norway Spruce and London Plane trees flank either side of the entrance road up to the main house and gardens. These artistically planted trees were selected by Peter P. Blanchard Jr. and his wife Adelaide Frick Blanchard in the early 1950’s and they were very carefully watered by their young son Peter P. Blanchard III.
Today he is the founder of Greenwood as a public garden, and serves as the President of the Board of Trustees. Blanchard is an ardent naturalist and author most recently of Greenwood: A Garden Path to Nature and the Past, which offers his personal insights from growing up at Greenwood. On a recent visit to the property GC was lucky enough to meet him at the garden, whereupon he gave us a guided tour.
Early Craftsmanship Restored
The Blanchards built a new house in 1950, replacing an Italianate mansion that had fallen into disrepair. But at the same time, they retained many earlier features of the estate from the 1920’s and 30’s, many of which have been meticulously restored and are amazing in their workmanship and beauty.
First, as you enter the main house and garden area, there is a stunning hand-wrought iron gate placed in an open air pavilion. The gate was created by the American master metalworker Samuel Yellin (1885-1940) whose designs and prolific studio had a major role in the Arts and Crafts Movement of the 20th century. Yellin, who emigrated from Russian to the Philadelphia area as a young boy, is called the “Tiffany of metalwork” with good reason. His gate, like others done for residential commissions, depicts a delicate, almost poetic, scene with birds of paradise, floral vines, and wildlife pictured in a naturalistic style.
Walking past the gate, you find a sunny patio with a variety of strategically placed container plants and a sweeping view of a distant Watchung Mountain Ridge to the south. Docent Barbara Ciavarella greets us and explains that the property lies on its own ridge bordering some two thousand acres of South Mountain Reservation– part of the Essex County Park System. The patio, she says, sits about 400 feet above a low-lying meadow with ponds at the base of the mountains.
Leaving the patio, there’s a flower border with fall-blooming, purple Crocus speciosus and mounds of sparkling blue Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite,’ shimmering with tiny honeybees. Peter Blanchard describes how the bees are part of a special joint project with Overlook Hospital in Summit, New Jersey. The hospital has given the garden several hives, which used to be located on the hospital’s rooftop.
Another inspiring view is from the front lawn of the Georgian Revival style house. A series of wide stone steps leads down to a former reflecting pool, now containing whimsical dolphin sculptures. The vista is framed by huge mature conifers and shrubs on either side of the terraced lawns flowing down the hillside.
As we contemplated this lovely view, I asked Blanchard what he hoped visitors would take away from their experience at Greenwood. He answered, thoughtfully: “A sense of peace and calm,” and he added, “a closeness to nature.”
Colorful Rookwood Art Tiles
Decorating a retaining wall along the the lawn are brightly-colored, hand-crafted medallions made from Rookwood glazed tiles– created by the famous pottery works based in Cincinnati, Ohio. A beautifully rendered tile fountain with a head-shaped water spout lies inside a little grotto in the wall, creating a quiet resting spot amidst beds filled with tall grasses in bloom.
Rookwood tiles again appear as architectural features on the ceiling of a charming round Teahouse located down a woodsy path. It was built from local stone in the 1920’s, yet its seashell-shaped tiles are still richly colored in blues, greens, and brown.
The floor of the Teahouse is paved with pastel-colored Fulper tiles that were made nearby in Flemington, New Jersey. Surrounding the Teahouse are walled, circular stone steps leading down to a lower walk and terrace. As you walk down the steps, there are large, stone figures sitting on the wall, each one about 3 ft. tall, in the form of chess pieces, including knight, pawn, queen, and king. They look like characters from Alice in Wonderland and the effect is magical.
An Enchanting Summerhouse
Further along in the woods in a rustic setting sits an octagonal stone gazebo called the Summerhouse. The copper-rimmed, cone-shaped roof is shaded by four gigantic horse chestnut trees, providing a cool resting spot for hot summer days. From inside, each window frames a view of the trees. Another Fulper tile floor in cool pastel colors adds to the summery feel.
Late Fall Plants That Look Great
In May 2015, a new Director of Horticulture, Sonia Uyterhoeven, started to work at Greenwood and already has helped to make plant identification much more accessible for visitors. According to Uyterhoeven, the number of botanically informative plant labels has doubled in the last year–without detracting from the garden.
For home gardeners, Uyterhoeven points out several plants that are still looking very good late in the fall. They include: catmint (Nepeta ‘Joanna Reed’); heavenly bamboo (Nandina domestica); Chinese abelia (Abelia chinensis); roses; and bluebeard (Carypoteris divaricata ‘Snow Fairy’)– a delicate mix of wonder-inducing plants that bring the garden to life.
For more information on Greenwood Gardens, visit the garden’s website.