J. Buck Garden
Radisson - Piscataway, NJ
The Leonard J. Buck Garden in Somerset County, New Jersey is a most
unique garden. It once was a river of glacial ice but is now a public
garden and a showplace for spectacular trees, native shrubs and
perennials. However, their greatest features are heavily planted rock
outcroppings. When one mentions a rock garden, one doesn't often think
interesting and exciting. This is. This is one of the premier rock
gardens in the eastern U.S. and exemplifies why New Jersey is called
The Garden State. Begun in the 1930's there is something in bloom
almost every week of the year.
Charles Kuperus, the New Jersey Secretary of Agriculture, welcomes
Garden Smart to The Garden State. New Jersey is the most densely
populated state in the country. Yet, in N.J. they have over 800,000
acres of farmland and have preserved over 150,000 of those acres.
Farming is still an important contributor to the economy of the state
and to the quality of life for its citizens. Charles' job, as Secretary
of Agriculture, is to make sure that the farmland is preserved and that
agriculture is kept viable in the state. New Jersey is number 2 in
terms of blueberry production, number 4 in peaches and number 3 in
cranberry production. Charles, as Secretary of Agriculture, is also
responsible for administering the school food service program as well
as feeding the hungry in the state. Agriculture contributes a lot to
the state but at the same time the people of New Jersey recognize the
wonderful gardens in their state. There is a lot to see when visiting
the state, but make time to visit the gardens. There are 65 gardens.
The Leonard J. Buck Garden is a wonderful place to view native plants
and cultivated varieties. There is no better person to give a tour than
Jim Avens is Superintendent at the Leonard J. Buck Garden. Jim has
always had an interest in horticulture. When he was a Cub Scout, his
dad, who is a New Jersey certified tree expert, taught Jim's pack to
identify trees and shrubs. Jim worked with his dad after high school
while attending college at night. But, Jim didn't have a passion at
college. He didn't feel like he had found something worthwhile until he
discovered Longwood Gardens' Professional Gardener Training Program. He
felt fortunate to be accepted into the program and loved the
experience. Jim worked for Longwood and studied academically there for
2 years. After that he was Grounds Manager for Bowman's Hill Wildflower
Preserve in New Hope, Pennsylvania for 8 years. Bowman's Hill is a 100
acre garden filled primarily with native Pennsylvania plants. There he
developed an interest in natives. He learned about many native ferns as
well as many other native plants. After that a Curator's job opened up
at the Somerset County Park Commission. Jim applied, was lucky to be
accepted, thus managed the plant records, the nursery and worked with a
great staff. When the Superintendent position became available he
applied and once again, to his delight, was accepted.
Joe is anxious to see the garden. We start at Moggy Hollow. Mr. Buck
and his family moved from Long Island and bought 50 acres in Somerset
County. Moggy Hollow is interesting geologically, it was created by
the outflow from a glacial lake. The water and chunks of ice carved out
a valley 600 feet across and 90 feet deep. For several thousand years
the water and ice flowed through here. What was left was hard igneous
basalt - volcanic rock. That rock was what Mr. Buck used for the
formation of his rock garden.
Nobody knows for sure if Mr. Buck initially intended to put a garden
here. He would have had to have tremendous vision to even think he
could create a rock garden in this setting. Basically it was an old
growth forest in wet woods with a lot of rocks. He did know he had to
do something to make it spectacular. He researched and found a Swiss
born landscape architect named Zenin Schreiber, then met him at the New
York Flower Show in Manhattan. Mr. Schreiber had a specialty in
creating rock gardens. They worked together and collaborated for over
35 years. They created 12 individual rock outcroppings each with a
little different exposure. Buck Garden is unique because it's a
woodland rock garden. Most people think of rock gardens as open and
they add rocks. This was created differently. They exposed the rock
that was already here and planted around it. They created pockets and
planted around it.
Joe hears an interstate in the background. In the mid 50's, after the
garden had been concluded and at the height of its maturity, plans were
proposed that would have had Route 287 come right through the garden.
Mr. Buck invited officials from the state to visit, tour the garden and
see what he had been able to create in a lifetime. After seeing this
beautiful garden the officials moved the highway over. It still cuts
through a portion of the property, but much further away.
Joe and Jim view the garden from down below looking up. This would have
been the river basin with the banks above. This area was where the ice
and water flowed. The rock wall remained after ice came flowing through
and washed all the sedimentary stone and soils. The rock bench is
igneous basalt, which is of volcanic origin and very, very hard rock.
Stone can be challenging to work with but it can also be beautiful
because it can carry the eye throughout the garden.
In one spot there is a tall structure, then in close proximity a small
representation of the same thing. They're standing in front of Big
Rock, which is the largest rock outcropping. It's juxtaposed to Bido
Rock, which is the tiniest rock outcropping. Together they form a
marriage of sorts. In this rock garden the rocks are connecting, they
unify one area to another. Small Bido Rock unifies with the larger, Big
Most people are intimidated by rock. When their shovels hit rock they
think, that's it, one can't garden here. At Buck Garden they demystify
that with all their plantings. Jim tells how it's done and what's
growing here. This area is deceiving because it looks like it's solid
rock. Special soil mixes were added to create the many planting
pockets. It is well drained and this is a sunny spot. They have dwarf
boxwoods and dwarf conifers that add interest throughout the year, even
the winter. The rock gardens, in the spring, are at their peak, with
drifts of spring bulbs. In the summertime there are low growing
perennials. This time of year bluebeard (Caryopteris icana) is growing.
Additionally, stonecrop (Sedum), an appropriately named plant, is
growing happily on the edge. Stonecrops are great in rock gardens, they
like drainage, they like growing in little cracks and crevices. One
needs to be careful with them, they can be invasive, but they do add a
lot of interest. They also have a nice drift of ornamental allium
(Allium senescens). It likes wetter feet. At the base of the rock the
soil is much wetter. In September they still have beautiful flowers in
the rock gardens. Even with challenging conditions, one can have
beautiful color all year round.
Joe and Jim next go to the top of the rocks and look down. They're
looking down on Reno rock. It's very characteristic of the naturalistic
landscape design that Mr. Buck and Mr. Schreiber intended to achieve
here. They've kept that naturalistic design throughout the garden. It
has beautiful, long sweeping, gently curving lines. They don't utilize
identical symmetry, instead asymmetrical balance is characterized here.
This provides a more natural rather than formal feel.
When Joe thinks of a rock outcropping he thinks of barren rock with
nothing growing on it. Here they've taken those outcroppings and
heavily planted them. Joe also likes the way this all merges into the
native background. A lot of native plants are growing up the hill. Here
there are mountain laurel (Kalmia latifolia) and Canada hemlocks (Tsuga
canadensis) and native azaleas, which are planted in drifts. There are
beautiful redbuds (Cercis), which back up the rock outcroppings,
providing structure and bones. If one goes deeper into the forest, a
lot of this is old growth forest, some very large beech trees and oak
trees accent the fact that one is down in a gorge. There is, after all,
a 90 foot slope which makes it a challenge to garden. But this is what
makes Buck Garden a unique, woodland, rock garden.
As the guys make their way down Reno Rock and view the rock
outcroppings just viewed from above they notice a lot of interesting
plants growing along the way. Joe also notices little pockets, of what
appear to be former air bubbles in the rocks. These are called
vesicles. These pockets were formed by air when the volcanic rock was
solidifying creating what looks like little air bubbles. They are
evident throughout the garden.
Back to the plants. Joe notices a variegated variety of rockcress
(Arabis ferinandi-coburgii 'Variegata'). It has little rosettes of
foliage that root wherever they touch the ground and they form a nice
groundcover. It does at times tend to revert to a solid green. Just
pick out those solid green reversions once a year and the variegation
will remain. There is also ornamental oregano. It is a low growing
ornamental oregano but does have the same smell and flavor of culinary
oregano (Origanum vulgare). It softens the rock area and spills over
the pathways. The color in the fall is gorgeous. There is also a dwarf
hosta cultivar. Joe knows that deer love hosta yet these are healthy,
this is a lush garden. So how does Jim control the deer? They have
utilized a deer exclusion fence. Somerset County Park Commission
invested in an electrified fence that surrounds 29 acres of gardens.
This fence has 6 to 8 strands of electricity and reaches about 8 feet
tall. There is an older fence inside that fence made out of wire, like
a turkey wire. The distance between the 2 fences is about 2 to 3 feet.
Deer have a difficult time with depth perception, they don't know how
far to jump. Thus, because they have 2 fences, the deer tend to stay
out of the garden. The combination of the taller electric fence with
the shorter wire fence and the distance between them both makes the
fencing effective. Deer have an issue with depth perception.
Tom Castronovo, a featured columnist with the Gardener News, has a fall
tip. Fall is a great time to label your garden. Labeling is one of the
most important things you can do for your plants. Labeling makes for
easy identification when showing off your garden to friends and family.
Labels also serve as a marker in the spring so you don't confuse those
tender young shoots as weeds. Using a garden label maker can make that
project very garden friendly.
Joe notices the paths at Buck Garden are surrounded with lush plant
material. There are lots of ferns and woodland perennials. This area is
behind the Visitors Center in the F. Gordon Foster Hardy Fern
Collection. Here they have nice combinations of hardy, shade tolerant,
deer resistant ferns in combination with shade perennials. Many don't
realize that ferns are deer resistant. Ferns make great foundation
plants. Sometimes evergreen ferns will be browsed slightly in the
winter, in the dormant season, but they come right back in the spring.
Many also don't realize that ferns can be hardy this far north. Here we
are in New Jersey and this is a hardy Fern collection. There are many
species of ferns that are hardy. There are over 50 different genre and
cultivars of ferns that are hardy in central New Jersey. And they offer
a wide variety of textures and colors. The Japanese Painted Fern
(Athyrium nipponicum), for example, has beautiful frond coloration.
They have rosy, purple veins with silvery green fronds. Jim's favorite
and most reliable fern is the shield fern (Dyopteris carthusiana). They
are wonderfully tough, almost evergreen, they last up until mid
December, then start going dormant. They are good, reliable ferns.
Hardy ferns can die back to the roots, but they come back in the
spring. And there are evergreen ferns that grow here as well. The
Christmas fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is totally evergreen here.
Another fern called Rockcap Fern (Polypodium virginianum) hugs the tops
of the rocks and makes a beautiful evergreen display.
Jim and his crew have mixed in some hardy perennials with the ferns.
Meadow Rue (Thalictrum aquilegiifolium) has a beautiful purple stamen
and flowers this time of year. It likes woodland conditions but the
bold leaf combines nicely with ferns. Joe likes the way it spills over
the pathway. It is perfect for a naturalistic garden.
They also like to combine shade perennials that have a nice bold
texture. These contrast nicely with the fine textures of the ferns.
They grow woodland peonies that bloom for a short time in the spring,
then have a beautiful seed structure that bursts open with red and
purple seeds. It also has a glossy leaf. They utilize hosta in this
area as well. Hostas have beautiful, bold leaves with an incredible
number of different varieties and colorations. Hostas go extremely well
with Ferns. They're a great combination.
Joe notices the majestic Dawn Redwood (Metasequoia). They are fortunate
at Buck Garden to have 2 of the original seedlings that were
distributed from the Arnold Arboretum. This plant was thought to be
extinct but was found in the Szechwan Valley in China. At the Arnold
Arboretum they collected seeds and grew the Dawn Redwood. Mr. Buck knew
a lot of people in horticulture and was able to get 2 specimens. They
have now grown to over 100 feet tall. They're beautiful. They're a
deciduous conifer, they drop their needles but they turn a beautiful
golden burnt orange color in the fall.
Jim and Joe next visit an open grassy area. This is the Azalea Meadow.
It has meadow plantings of native wildflowers. Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium
fistulosum) has a mauve, purple flower and it attracts butterflies.
Goldenrods (Solidago), this cultivar is 'Fireworks', explodes with
color and drama. Ironweed (Vernonia) with purple flowers is another
butterfly attractant and adds a lot of color. The meadow plants really
come to life this time of year. The tall ornamental grass shields a
rustic gazebo. It was constructed in 2004 and is made out of red cedar
and osage orange. It's rot resistant wood and adds a lot of structure
to the garden. Even in winter one can appreciate the bones of the
garden when there is a structure like this. When sitting in the gazebo
and looking out Joe notices a pink turtlehead (Chelone). This is a
native wildflower, is in its prime right now and puts on a wonderful
display and blooms for a long time.
Joe notices that everything in this garden is meticulously maintained.
Jim feels he has a great staff. They have 7 full time people, 2
seasonals and 3 full time gardeners that are dedicated to this garden.
They have a garden foreman and an interpretive gardener that interprets
the plant collections with the help of their blooming list and plant
labels. Most of the plants in the garden are labeled.
Joe comments that they all must love their work because everything in
this garden looks great. He thanks Jim for showing us around.
Jim thanks Joe on behalf of Somerset County Park Commission. He
appreciates Garden Smart showcasing Leonard J. Buck Garden and hopes
its' viewers will come and visit.
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By Dan Heims, president, Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.
Photographs courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries, Inc.
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