Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Visit to Rutgers Gardens

Just off of U.S. Hwy 1 driving along Ryders Lane in New Brunswick, New Jersey, I was following my Google Map directions looking for the entrance to the Rutgers Gardens. I was expecting something like a large banner, wall or gate, so I missed it. I asked directions, and was told to turn around. "It's back there somewhere," the store clerk said with a wave of the arm. Driving slowly, I found a little sign about 5"x 7" along a chain link fence beside an obscure exit onto Log Cabin Road. Here was the entrance to the famed Rutgers Gardens. Follow me to see what grows behind the highway guard rail.

The Gardens, located on the campus of Rutgers University, were established in 1927 as several horticultural collections in garden settings where plants were grown for research and trial. The first I passed, literally behind the guard rail, was an impressive collection of American hollies that I've often read about, said to be the largest such collection in the world.

According to Rutgers web site, "The future of the Rutgers Gardens is the development of designed gardens. Landscape architects, design professionals, and home owners will be able to see and learn different methods of combining plants that will provide four seasons of color, texture and form." A visit is not a stuffy, academic exercise, but an inspiring experience. You'll leave with ideas that you can use in your own landscape.

The Gardens are quite extensive, covering 50 acres, so it could take some time to enjoy them at a leisurely pace. In addition, the size demands some kind of map to guide the visitor along. I didn't find one, though an unassuming kiosk displays a map and legend. So I took a photograph of it and followed as best I could.

After parking (my car was the only one in the lot), I strolled around a portion of the Holly Collection. It's amazing how much diversity there is in habit, leaf and fruit among the American species of the genus, Ilex. Did you know that there are yellow-fruited varieties? I used to grow them, and may once again. One of my favorite hollies in my personal collection is Ilex opaca 'Maryland Spreader', a slow-growing, mounding variety.

Directly across the drive is a large open area surrounded by the Shrub Garden. Unfortunately, bloom season was over. But even in August a landscaper or home gardener could get a good idea of the size they might expect from various mature shrubs. That would be a valuable education in itself, for a vast majority of landscape shrubs seem to be planted without regard to that important consideration.

Similarly, the Shade Tree Collection should provide valuable lessons to gardeners. Not only size, but shape, canopy density, leaf form and bark texture are worth studying.

Cutting back through the Shrub Garden, I headed for the Lacey Harrison Display Garden which features All-American Selections of vegetables and flowers.

This garden was named for an Extension Specialist in home Horticulture who was involved in designing a demonstration garden of annual plants for the home landscape. Interns and volunteers plant and maintain the delightful display. A student working among the vegetables was eager to answer questions. Having noticed that the beds seemed to be arranged with companionable plants, I inquired. He said it was true. However, these were not only experimental beds, but displays which were the results of research. Even folklore was carefully studied. Typical combinations included tomatoes and basil, and the "three sisters" (corn, beans and squash). Side-by-side vegetable comparisons were "in progress." Of course, tomato trials were among them. You might recall that Rutgers introduced a tomato by that name back in 1934. For many years it was a standard beside which other tomatoes were judged.

The Roy H. De Boer Evergreen Garden is adjacent to the Harrison Display Garden. Roy DeBoer was the former Chairman of the Landscape Architecture Department at Cook College who designed the garden. Plants are grouped around a sunken lawn, creating a delightful vista from a vantage point at the Quimby Water Conservation Garden. A magnificent Sargent's Weeping Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis 'Sargentii') stands out among the collection.

Water conservation is an important topic nowadays. A visitor will get a lot of good ideas on what and how to plant to minimize water use from the Quimby Garden. The practice is called xeriscaping. You can learn more about it from my blog articles on xeriscaping and drought-tolerant plants. A nearby succulent garden also provides good examples for gardeners to adapt.

Across Log Cabin Road from the Quimby Garden, a few smaller "garden rooms" can be found. The tool shed serves as a focal center. These Tribute Gardens are sponsored by persons or corporations to honor the accomplishments and contributions of others. You would enjoy the individual expressions represented. Some are whimsical; all are delightful. Climb up into an oversize Adirondack chair and feel like a kid again!

Gardeners interested in ornamental grasses will find many to inspire them.

Rain gardens are becoming popular as effective methods of trapping available water and minimizing runoff. My blog article about rain gardens explains in greater detail. While rain gardens are considered to be attractive, low-maintenance additions to the landscape, it is also true that they can eventually become unsightly. The Rutgers Rain Garden was designed to demonstrate ways that rain gardens can be maintained more attractively with less work. Because rain gardens are meant to trap runoff from impermeable surfaces such as roofs, driveways and roads, they are usually located near those structures. This rain garden was designed to pipe water from collection areas, run through attractive water features and little waterfalls to the bog garden. Appropriate plants complete the design. A sign explains the rain garden concept. You can also read more about it at Rutgers Rain Garden page. You'll find an article about bog gardens and plants in my blog.

The Rhododendron Garden and Bamboo Garden have attracted visitors for many years. The former was established in the 1930 to accommodate plants of similar environmental needs in a plant community.

Unfortunately, my visit wasn't in spring when many of them would be in bloom. The Bamboo Garden was established in the 1950s to provide shelter for honey bees. As some bamboos spread by extensive underground rhizomes, they can be invasive. Just so has the Bamboo Garden grown. But it has also become a magical place to walk among what feels like a bit of the tropics in New Jersey.

I was so enchanted with the nearby Ornamental Tree Garden that I photographed nearly every one. There are magnificent specimens of extraordinary size and beauty. Check out these photos of American Hornbeam (Carpinus caroliniana), American Hophornbeam (Ostrya virginiana), Persian Ironwood (Parrotia persica), the rare India Guassiawood (Picrassima guassioides), Winterberry Euonymus (Euonymus bungeana), Two-winged Silverbell (Halesia diptera), Mountain Silverbell (Halesia tetraptera var. monticola), Paperbark Maple (Acer griseum), Lavalle Cork Tree (Phellodendron amurense var. lavallei), Japanese Maple (Acer palmatum 'Burgundy Lace'), and Kousa Dogwood (Cornus kousa). As you know, ornamental trees are especially appropriate for the residential landscape, but they can grow much larger than one expects. Keep that in mind, especially if you intend to stay in one home for a long time.

This brief article barely begins to explore so many interesting aspects of The Rutgers Gardens. You really should see it for yourself. It's open to the public from 8:30am until dusk year around. Though no admission fee is charged, it is not funded by tax revenue. Rutgers Gardens depends upon friends for support.

Read other articles about public and private gardens.

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