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The Beautiful Gardens of Morris Have Deep Roots

History, nature and beauty come together in historic gardens

Local gardens provide more than just a glimpse at some beautiful blooms. Many contain rich, historical backgrounds as well.

Back in May, garden historian Marta McDowell delivered the 2011 Lehman Lecture at Morristown-Beard School, which was entitled, “Cultivating History: Unraveling the History and Mystery of Morristown Gardens.

After hearing about that lecture, Patch asked McDowell for the back-stories on some of our favorite local gardens.

One of McDowell's favorites is the one she helped restore in front of Caroline Foster's cottage, located on the Fosterfields property in Morris Township. "She was basically the gardener," said McDowell.  "She was in the Morristown Garden Club, which was founded around 1915."

In fact, McDowell said that Foster is the key to much of Morris County's garden history. Foster knew all the quiet millionaires who were transforming the Morris County countryside in the early part of the Twentieth Century. In 1928, she compiled a list of “visiting gardens,” which helped McDowell uncover several historic gardens. 

In middle age, she designed and built her own cottage at her father’s farm, Fosterfields, which she bequeathed to the county upon her death at age 102 in 1979.

Another garden McDowell recommends visiting was cultivated by Foster's friend and fellow philanthropist, Matilda Freinghuysen.

"(Matilda) Frelinghuysen, the daughter of the Frelinghuysens, gave the property to the Morris County Park Commission in the same spirit that Miss Foster did," said McDowell, of the property that is known today as . "People may not know it's over one hundred acres. There are a lot of hiking trails through there and Miss Frelinghuysen's rose garden is behind the house. You have to walk behind the house to see it."

McDowell said it is well worth the trip to see the "beautiful collection of conifers that her father put together and that's way behind the house, if you've only gone to the parking lot and the area around the Haggerty Center you don't really see a lot of the gardens. So you should press on and see more of them."

McDowell's favorite local place is The Cross Estate Gardens.

"I volunteer up at the Cross Estate, which is part of the Morristown National Historic Site at Jockey Hollow," she said. "It's basically an all-volunteer garden. There's a group that has met up there for decades now every Wednesday morning who maintain the garden. It's a nice little walled garden reminscient of 'The Secret Garden' if you're familiar with that."

The gardens comprise formal and native gardens, a wisteria-covered pergola, and a mountain laurel allee. The Cross Estate is open from dawn to dusk. Parking is free, and there are no entry fees, according to the website.

Garden Tours are available on Wednesday mornings between 9 a.m. and noon from late March until mid-November.

Another horticultural haven is the "lovely" Shakespearean garden located at the heart of the campus of , McDowell said.

The welcoming scents of honeysuckle and lavender greet guests at the garden gate, McDowell said, adding that the lady who maintains it all, Sister Agnes Vincent, is just as delightful. Vincent is quick to share its rich history, McDowell said.

In 1911, the college built a botany experiment station under the direction of Sister Helen Angela Dorety, a member of the class of 1904. Dorety then undertook the creation of the garden from the early 1920s until its completion in 1931. Each of the garden's plots represents one of the Bard's plays or sonnets. A bust of Shakespeare overlooks the grounds, which are filled with fragrant roses, as well as olive and fig trees and other perennials that all appear in one or more of Sharkespeare's works.

Vincent, who has taught philosophy for the past 50 years, said, "Gardening is a thing I love to do. It helps me keep my feet on the ground."

The garden is open to all and is used as the site of the alumni tea on homecoming weekend. A pond, home to goldfish and a bullfrog, is also located near the entryway.

Both Vincent and McDowell agree that the garden on the campus of Delbarton is another must-see.

"Oh, the statuaries!" Vincent said.

Open to the public, the Italian garden was designed for the original owner Luther Kountze by the architect George Harney, who also designed the Ballantine House, known today as the Newark Museum, McDowell explained. 

"It just gives you a feeling for what the estates of the area were like at the time," she said. "They were vastly rich people and they loved their gardens and they really spent a lot of money on them."

The gardens at Maculloch Hall, open to the public at no charge from dawn to dusk, are still maintained by the Garden Club of Morristown.

"It's a very old garden," said McDowell. "Some of the roses date from the early 1800s. It's kept as a garden of antique roses and heirloom perennials. So that's a good one."

McDowell said the local gardens are "all so wonderful" but what makes them even more special is their deep roots.

McDowell, who lives in Morris County and has written for many gardening magazines and professional journals including "The New York Times", "Fine Gardening" and "Woman's Day," holds a certificate in landscape design from the New York Botanical Garden, where she teaches landscape history and preservation.

For more information, McDowell recommends visiting Garden State Gardens Consortium.


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