On May 17, 2016, which seems like only yesterday, Rutgers Gardens celebrated its Centennial Anniversary. It celebrated the date when Jacob and Cecilia Lipman purchased the 35.7 acre Wolpart Farm and sold it to the University for $1.00. This land now constitutes the current core of the Gardens, stretching from the Hollies down to Westons Mill Pond. Interestingly, it was not purchased with the intent of creating a public garden, nor even for the public to necessarily enjoy. It was purchased to create what became known as “Horticulture Farm No. 1″—a facility that would initially be dedicated to research in pomology and vegetables, with a small, 4-acre facility dedicated to the display of ornamental horticulture.
At the turn of the last century, NJ planners predicted suburban housing would spread across the Hudson and Delaware Rivers from NYC and Philadelphia, respectively. It was also foreseen that the middle class would grow, along with a generous amount of free time that the machine age would generate. This free time, combined with the suburban sprawl, pointed to an increased demand for ornamental gardening and plants—a demand that the nursery industry in NJ could not support at that time. Hence, the creation of the 4-acre parcel within Hort. Farm 1, dedicated to displaying woody shrubs, along with various herbaceous plants that were popular at that time, such as Cotoneaster and Iris. Farmers ventured to Hort. Farm 1 to study the shrubs and herbaceous materials in the hopes that the growing demand for nursery crops could enhance their incomes. The balance of land for Hort. Farm 1 was dedicated to food crops. The area where the Holly Collection currently resides was dedicated to vegetable research, the area adjacent to the Bamboo Grove was for agronomy, and the balance of land by the Log Cabin eventually focused on apple and peach research. The public was invited in when the Iris was at peak bloom, but the facility was not intended to be a public garden.
The original Director of the facility was Dr. Charles Connors, and most likely, the first display area established was the Iris Garden in 1922. The garden stretched from what is now Log Cabin Road back to the Hemlock Hedge. Today that hedge is a row of 50’ tall Hemlock trees. It was cordoned off from what would become the shrub garden by formally pruned Yew (Taxus) hedges. The initial date of the planting of the shrub garden is unknown, but by the mid-1930s it consisted of row upon row of woody plants for potential nurserymen to review.
On what is now the Cook Campus, the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) barracks were established on College Farm Road, and in the early 30’s (prior to 1935), the CCC constructed the facility that is now called Holly House. It had walk-in refrigerators in the basement and was created to support the peach and apple research being conducted on Hort. Farm 1. They also constructed the small building that now sits at the back of the Sun and Shade Garden, the barn doors and foundation blocks of which are identical to those of Holly House. Lastly, in 1935–36, the CCC built the Log Cabin, at a total cost to the University of $5,000!
The 70-acre woodland known as Helyar Woods was also donated to the University during this period, as part of two gifts, in 1927 and 1937. The donation came with the stipulation that the wooded lot was to be preserved for the purposes of research and the study of woodland management and change. And change, it certainly has! Initially, it was predominantly an American Chestnut woodland but has evolved into a Beech, Oak, Maple and Hickory woodland, following the chestnut blight. Frank G. Helyar was Director of Resident Instruction from 1929–1953. In 1961 this woodland was named in his honor.
During the mid-30s Ben Blackburn started to work at Hort. Farm 1 and he redesigned the Shrub Collection into its current form, with a large central space surrounded by shrubs. All the shrubs were arranged by their family, at least as was commonly accepted at the time. In 1939 the plants were collected, grown on for several years in the adjoining nursery—where the shade trees are presently located—and installed during the early 1940’s. One of his most noteworthy additions was the Magnolia kobus, “Larry,” that now proudly stands guard at the far end of the Shrub Garden. Typically a more upright growing tree, this plant features low, spreading branches that reach out far and wide and have actually rooted where they have touched the ground. It is also a tree upon which many a young child has sat. In fact, it was children who led to the tree’s name! During a children’s tour in 2011, a Gardens intern, KC Murry was leading a group of second graders. When one of the inquisitive children asked what the tree they were sitting upon was called, KC could not remember the name “Magnolia” and simply blurted out “Larry.” Funny how trees get their names!
The late 1930s saw the creation of the Rhododendron Garden, directly opposite the Iris Garden—presumably another design by Ben Blackburn. From a plant breeding standpoint, Hort. Farm 1 also served as the location for an incredible peach breeding program during the 30s and the 40s that actually resurrected the peach industry in NJ! The large peach orchards of NJ had been decimated by the San Jose scale. Through the work of Dr. Maurice Blake and Dr. Charles Connors, new selections with much higher yields were developed. This allowed the farmers to have smaller farms that they could manage more efficiently, with equal or greater revenue. This period also saw the American Holly Society (AHS), located in Millville NJ, impact the Gardens. They thought it would be a boom to NJ agriculture to develop a holly selection that would have the large, glossy leaves and fruit of the English Holly, with the hardiness of the American Holly. This undertaking was not to serve the nursery industry, but the cut-stem industry throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas Holidays. To this day, cuts are brought in from Washington and Oregon State, and the idea was to bring this industry to NJ, lowering the cost of delivery and, I might add, lowering the carbon footprint! Starting in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the current collection of hollies (an area then called the “Holly Orchard”) was amassed to serve as germplasm for this breeding effort.
In 1955, the next major historical event occurred when Roy DeBoer came to Rutgers. He had just completed an undergraduate degree in Ornamental Horticulture/Landscape Design from Cornell and was pursuing his Masters in Horticulture, evaluating how extending the day length with artificial light impacted plants. He worked at the Gardens until 1960, when he moved on to teaching and eventually developed the Landscape Architecture program at Rutgers. Among his many contributions to the Gardens was designing and installing the Evergreen Garden. The area that he chose was a depressed area across from the Rhododendron Garden. Evidently, it had been used as a “borrow pit,” an area where soil is mined for alternate uses. Roy designed it as an outdoor room, with a Weeping White Pine serving as the central point of interest. The plant material was donated by various nurseries throughout the state. In October of 1997, it was officially renamed the Roy DeBoer Evergreen Garden, and around June 21st of each year, it serves as the outdoor room for the annual Summer Solstice Jazz and Wine event.
As Roy DeBoer was moving on to teaching, Dr. Elwin Orton was just arriving! The peach and apple research had been moved to other locations, and in July of 1960, Dr. Orton began his work of developing the dream holly for the American Holly Society. Although he actually missed the party that marked his arrival at the Farm, Dr. Orton did work tirelessly on not only crossing the American Hollies (Ilex opaca) with English Hollies (Ilex aquifolium), but also on crossing Japanese Hollies (Ilex crenata), Firethorn (Pyracantha), Benjamin Franklin Tree (Franklinia) and Dogwoods (Cornus). Unfortunately, the crosses the AHS had hoped to see did not materialize, since the resulting progeny were sterile. However, the crosses between the American and Chinese Dogwoods yielded fantastic results and are much sought after by gardeners both in the US and abroad.
The early 1960s also saw the beginning of financial constraints and the end of the Iris Collection, in 1963. The costs of digging and dividing the collection—not to mention weeding—had become excessive. In 1964, Donald B. Lacey, an Extension Specialist in Ornamental Horticulture proposed using part of this area as a display garden for annuals. He scoured the weather documents for July and determined that the last Saturday of the month was historically the least prone to rain. In 1965, the first Open House was held on July’s last Saturday, and it has been held annually on that date ever since!
Throughout the 1970s and into the 1980s, the staff at Hort. Farm 1 continued to dwindle, although both Dr. Orton and Mr. Lacey continued their efforts, unabated. It was a relatively quiet time at the Gardens, with one auspicious flurry of activity on April 27, 1981. Rutgers officials and the Garden Club of New Jersey (GCNJ) joined together to celebrate the official opening and dedication of Holly House, formerly Horticulture House, as the GCNJ headquarters. The GCNJ had been looking for a building to serve as their home base since the early 1960s. The architectural plans were originally drafted by Robert Green, husband of a GCNJ board member and member of the Headquarters Committee. Plans were finalized by Rutgers Architect Bertelson, with construction occurring during the fall of 1980.
Having GCNJ headquarters move into Holly House proved to be very fortuitous. For one, the building finally started to regain a true purpose, as it had lain vacant for a number of years. Having the GCNJ on site also provided a potential new source of help. Dr. Bruce Hamilton of the Landscape Architecture Department became the next Director of the Gardens in 1989. With a limited staff and reduced budget to care for the Gardens, Dr. Hamilton relied on the support of the GCNJ and the public—through plant sales, donations and volunteerism—to maintain the Gardens. Funding through rentals of the Log Cabin to University Departments and public also came under the Gardens purview during the late 1990s, which was greatly enhanced when the Cook Alumni Association donated the Pavilion and enlarged the septic system during this same period. The Pavilion was the inspiration of the very popular Dean of Students, Dr. Roger Locandro who held an annual fish fry at the Cabin. It was sited by he and Roy DeBoer so it could best serve events held at the Cabin.
In 2004 the Executive Dean’s office of Cook College (now the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences) decided to fund the position of a full-time Director. This was a very progressive move by the university, since most university garden director positions are filled by faculty members who attempt to split their time between teaching/research and the public garden. A full-time focus on the gardens showed the commitment of the university. In the summer of 2007, Executive Dean Bob Goodman declared that the remaining research land, along with Helyar Woods and the land along Route 1 was to be open to the public and part of Rutgers Gardens. The Gardens was growing once again!
From 2005 to present, a number of new garden additions were built, including the Otkens Garden, the Rain Garden and the Pollinator Garden. Each garden was supported by a donor or donors, with a particular mission for its creation. The Otkens Gardens was a gift from Marie and Richard Gons, in honor of Marie’s parents. The intention was to create a garden which focused upon pairing colorful perennials with a variety of woody shrubs and small trees. It was initially part of a larger garden concept, which would feature interpretations of various rooms of a house as outdoor garden spaces. This room was to be the “family room” and the oversized chairs had several inspirations. The initial concept came from the Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, which features an oversized Adirondack chair that imbues a fun sense of scale. The selection was also influenced by a TV show of the late 1960s—Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Lily Tomlin played a character named Edith Ann, who was portrayed as a young girl, often sitting in an oversized rocking chair. The hope was that the oversized chairs would make everyone feel like a child.
The area that currently is home to the Rain Garden, the Native and Regional Plant Garden, and the Pollinator Garden was originally part of another borrow pit. Of course, people once viewed a hole as the perfect place to dump something, and from the 60s through the 80s, this area was a compost site for leaves from campus. Indeed, the amount of leaves dumped in this site over the years was significant, and when the Rain Garden was excavated, over 7 feet of compost had to be removed before stable ground was discovered. This 7-foot “hole” was filled with subsoil that was available at the neighboring Hort Farm 2. The design for the Rain Garden came from an undergraduate design competition in a Landscape Architecture class. Roxana Demel conceived of a design with circular patios, which ultimately morphed into 4 circular pools, representing the circular cycle of water on Earth! Rain Gardens are a planted basin that retain storm water and allow for deep water recharge. The origin of the storm water for this garden is from the roof of the shed in the Sun and Shade Garden; the water initially recharges the cistern beneath the waterfall and then floods into the lower basin, allowing it to slowly perk into the ground. This rain garden was set up to be ornamental as well as environmental, with the Garden Club of America providing the funding for all the signage within this Garden.
The shaded and sloping area adjacent to the Rain Garden is the Native and Regional Plant Garden. It consists of plants native to the east coast of North America, along with a waterfall and pond that was first built as part of an educational class with the Professional Landscape Alliance (PLA), which has since merged with the New Jersey Nursery and Landscape Association (NJNLA). It also contains a sculpture donated by the Garden Club of NJ. The funds for the sculpture originated as a Grandmothers Fund, whereby donations were collected in honor of members’ grandchildren. This evolved into a fundraiser for a sculpture that would honor children of both today and tomorrow (pictured above, at left).
The area adjacent to Helyar Woods is the Pollinator Garden, which was made possible through a gift from Anne Galli and Joe Carragher. It, too, features native plants, but the focus is on how native plants provide food and habitat for our native pollinator and insect populations, along with a message as to why it is essential for every garden to include selections of our native flora.
The future of Rutgers Gardens is full of optimism and great promise for a unique new public garden experience. Thanks to the support of many donors, the first major project tackled was the construction of Cook’s Market, at the entrance to the Gardens. Cook’s Market was completed in the summer of 2018 and serves the farm market vendors by providing protection from the elements, as well as functioning as a visual indicator that this is indeed the entrance to Rutgers Gardens! The green roof, installed in October of 2018, further acts as a visual cue for the Gardens entrance.
Rutgers Gardens has witnessed over 100 years of change and development that has been shaped by a great number of scientists, horticulturists and garden lovers. Today, the original 37.5 acre investment has grown to nearly 180 acres. May 17, 2016 also marked the dawn of the next century—another 100 years that will promise further change and development as the Gardens continues to feature innovations from the University; provide opportunities for students; and offer a place for the community to enjoy, share, and learn.