Willowwood Arboretum – NJ

In my day job as a knowledge manager at an architecture firm, i’ve learned that one of the keys to success is making connections amongst various groups of people, resources, and emerging knowledge to solve problems more efficiently and effectively. I find that making connections between ideas, spaces, arts & culture and even people is a fun way to give more meaning to experiences. One silly example is when i hear a new musician perform a song for the first time, the first exercise going on in my head is trying to compare their “sound” and traits to other artists to create an a la carte caricature of sorts in my mind (For the record Aussie singer Courtney Barnett has the rapping abilities of Eminem with the vocal delivery of a Tom Petty / Melanie hybrid). Trivial mental exercises can happen anywhere, and the latest was when I visited Willowwood Arboretum in New Jersey and tried to established the site’s “spirit of place”, or genius loci. My conclusion for characterizing this site goes as follows: Willowwood Arboretum has plant collection heritage and scale of Tyler Arboretum [Media, PA], with cottage garden bed styles and arrangement of a slightly less formal Wave Hill [NYC], paired with the farm style and vernacular landscape seen in a farm-turned-garden such as the tiny McLaughlin Garden South Paris, Maine. Of course this is just a a comparison and generalization, and i encourage y’all to visit this place to see for yourself.

Here are my highlights, observations and thoughts:

  1. The site has several outbuildings including a conservatory, barn, stables and barn converted to a visitor/event center. The main building is the original Kennedy family farmhouse dating back to 1792, and later acquired by the Tubbs brothers as their country estate, which was eventually named Willowwood. As a 20th century country estate, the grounds have a very pastoral feel with informal beds of cottage gardens among a large scattering of specimen trees. Landscapes like this became popularized by recent trends seen in the English landscape overseas, as well as the back to nature movement seen with other emerging developments such as the reactionary, ant-industrialization arts + crafts movement. Above all, this is clearly a summer country home, where informality and connections with nature are purposeful. Furthermore, this is a plantsman garden!
  2. The Tubbs brothers were 20th C plant collectors, and this arboretum celebrates over 3,500 kinds of native and exotic plants. A number of thematic garden rooms have been created to support these collections. My favorite was the Pacific Northwest [PNW] streamside  garden room abundant with ferns, conifers, and rhodies as well as a few Asian-inspired statues to evoke a landscape that’s ubiquitous in a high end Seattle garden retreat. There was also the authentic looking mediterranean garden to support the dry loving, xeric plants of the arboretum. Finally, the cottage gardens found in front of the farm house reminded me of an unkept Beatrix Farrand planting design. The beds were so packed and overgrown, but one could still make out the wonderful massing and tufts of complementary, old fashioned perennials. Truly what they call a “grandma’s garden.”
  3. I’m a big fan of the early 20th c greenhouses and conservatories still lying around today at period estates. Most commonly, changes in ownership between the Great Depression and Post war periods put these structures at risk, and many in more northern climates simply deteriorated due to extreme weather. A popular company of the time was Lord & Burnham, who did the conservatory at the Willowwood house. Last Fall, I toured the partially restored Lord & Burnham 1903 greenhouse at Oatlands Plantation in Virginia, which is one of the largest and most unqiely shaped i’ve seen. The Willowwood structure is also further significant for its moravian tiles on the floor, which were a from Henry Mercer , who was a good friend of the Tubbs. Mercer is a very influential figure in the Arts & Crafts movement regionally in the Northeast.
  4. The buildings are constructed with pudding stone, a local stone which is quite rare in New Jersey, so i’ve learned!
  5. I spotted a lot of witches brooms on many of the evergreens, especially pines. These are often used to create bonsai specimens. [see pictures link below]
  6. Back to connections. The property has several mature Japanese Umbrella trees which have grown wonderfully due to their ideal siting on protected sides of the few barns of the arboretum. Interestingly enough, the Tyler Arboretum also grows Japanese Umbrella Pines like this very successfully. This arboretum was also started by two brothers interested in natural history and horticulture: the Painter brothers.

Check out my site photos here


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