One of the finest rock gardens in the eastern United States is within an hour’s drive of the U.S. 1 circulation area. Named for its founder, the Leonard J. Buck Garden is located in the midst of the 29 acres covering a 600-foot-wide, 90-foot-deep gorge in Far Hills.
In many ways its setting is unique. Rock gardens tend to be small areas featuring plants tucked among artistically arranged rocks, stones, and boulders. The Leonard J. Buck garden features not only 13 landscaped acres but also a natural setting. It is situated in the 1937 outlook that Buck confronted when, as he later explained, he and his wife “had bought a house on land that had a gorge, and I realized that I would have to do something with it.” He believed “a garden should be: ecologically correct and visually appealing – a place where one area moves naturally into the next, making it as pleasant to walk through as to sit in.”
To transfer that belief into reality, Buck contacted Zenon Schreiber, a Swiss immigrant who had won prizes for his landscape work with clients such as the Rockefellers. In 1943 Buck and Schreiber began their decades-long collaboration, working with a backbone of existing native trees and shrubs. Both were avid plant collectors. Buck, in particular, collected plants throughout his worldwide travels as president of Leonard J. Buck, Inc., which imported ferruginous ores from Russia, Sweden, Germany, and South Africa. Pleasure trips took him to the Far East, where he collected even more plants.
After Buck died in 1974 his wife, Helen, donated the garden to the Somerset County Park Commission and created the Helen R. Buck Foundation, which has been the major funding source for plant acquisitions over the years. While the garden’s collection of trees, shrubs, perennials, and bulbs numbers well over 100,000, an additional 3,000 plants are annually added to the garden as replacements or in new designs.
Though the garden is at its peak in the spring season, the incessant rains this year meant that I did not visit it until mid June. My friend and garden aficionado Gail Ullman accompanied me. Upon our late morning arrival we entered the visitors’ center, where we met the staff’s interpretive gardener, Tricia Scibilia.
Scibilia guided us to a table where she had earlier collected a dozen blooms from throughout the garden and placed each cutting in a glass jar with a plant label underneath. This is done daily as a visitor introduction to the garden. Scibilia also ensures that there is a weekly list of plants in bloom, by garden location, for visitors to pick up.
Even without such plant information, it is a treat to walk through the garden’s grounds. Though Ullman and I were visiting after peak season, we were still presented with more than 90 trees, shrubs, and perennials bearing flowers plus the numerous ferns, grasses, and hosta leaves providing foliage contrasts.
Among Scibilia’s many responsibilities is ensuring that every species in the garden is labeled; but, she adds, only one of each carries a metallic sign. “Otherwise,” she said, “this place would be overwhelmed with little metal markers.” Thus the native Christmas fern, found throughout the wooded areas, is only labeled once.
There are two-and-a-half miles of trails throughout the garden. As Buck envisioned, they allow visitors to move easily from one area to another. The climbs and descents have been constructed to ensure relaxed walking.
Scibilia led the way as Ullman and I began our tour of the garden. The first part is through a cool woodland, a setting that borders each side of the gorge. The berries on the trees and shrubs attract numerous birds, and those who like to see these feathered creatures flock to the garden. Geology students are also frequent visitors because they can closely examine rocks that were exposed more than 100,000 years ago when glacier melt blasted through and created the gorge.
Even though the trail is an extremely easy one, benches are placed throughout so visitors can relax and enjoy the many views. Our walk was leisurely as we examined the various plants and admired the ever-changing scenery and settings.
The place is filled with exotic plants. The false hydrangea (Deinanthe bifida) caught my eye. Though its rich green foliage and blush white flowers look like those on a hydrangea shrub, it is actually a perennial. Native to alpine forests in Japan, it was probably discovered by Buck on one of his trips and brought back to his garden. Despite the absence of serious disease or insect problems it is rarely if ever offered commercially in the U.S.
All initial trails wander downward to the landscaped fields and meadows at the bottom of the gorge. These constitute the sun-filled setting of the garden and are filled with orange, yellow, purple, and pink native flowers and other plants that attract pollinators. “In July this area is alive with orange and black monarch butterflies flitting about,” Scibilia explained. “It’s just beautiful.”
Other sections of the gorge’s bottom are crossed with ponds, streams, and swampy areas, all of which create conditions that allow expansion of the plant palette. Shimmering white water lilies, for example, float through one meandering stream in summer.
In a slight rise off the area, Jim Avens, the park commission’s horticulture department manager, is responsible for a display unique to any garden in the world. Known as the stumpery, it consists of the stumps and roots of the Osage orange trees toppled by Hurricane Sandy at the Neshanic Valley Golf Course. While many saw that devastation as a tragedy, Avens saw it as a quirky yet beautiful creative opportunity.
The trees, colorful even when bare of leaves, get their popular name from the orange streaks on their barks and roots. Avens had the color-splashed stumps, complete with orange tinted roots, transferred to the Buck garden. There they are arranged in an unusual sculptural exhibit. Trilliums and ferns add flower and foliage contrasts to the setting.
The trail slowly winds up from the stumpery and is crowned by a superb fern collection — cool and many shades of green — before returning to the visitor center. There restrooms and water fountains offer visitors a chance to recoup before returning home. Food is not allowed in the garden; however, there is a designated picnic area near the visitor center.
While the Buck garden is highly recommend as a many-splendored attraction, there are three cautionary notes to be added.
First, though the leather loafers I wore were perfectly comfortable on the upper trails, they were not leak proof and thus unsuitable in the lower fields and meadows, which are often soaked from heavy rains. Indeed, there are signs in many places warning of very wet areas. While Ullman had worn quickly dried fabric shoes with rubber soles, we both agree that rubber boots would be better.
Second, parking is limited. It’s best to carpool, and large groups should definitely rent vans.
Third, do not rely on MapQuest or Google maps for driving instructions. For unknown reasons, they leave off the last three or four miles needed to reach the garden. Click on the garden brochure at the website for accurate directions.
And one final thought. With the Visitor Center providing weekly updated plant lists and literature delineating trails and recommendations, self-guided tours can easily be taken. However, both Ullman and I feel a visit is much richer with a guided tour. These are led by trained docents and the cost is $90 for up to 15 participants and $7 for each additional visitor. A two-week notice is required to arrange a tour; call 908-234-2677, ext. 21.
Leonard J. Buck Garden, 11 Layton Road, Far Hills. From now to December, open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays, and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Open 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesdays in August. Suggested donation $3. 908-722-1200, ext. 5011 or www.somersetcountyparks.org/parksFacilities/buck/LJBuck.