Grounds For Sculpture has an added emphasis these days, one that highlights the first part of its name — its magnificent landscapes. Michael Strengari, the person spearheading this activity, is a newcomer to the organization, having joined just over a year ago. And as the new kid on the block, Strengari has been introducing a wide range of horticulture-based programs and innovations.

Strengari readily admits that the day of his initial interview was the first time he saw the GFS grounds. He came from a “black thumb” family background, one that allowed him to indulge his love of nature, whether in the woods and fields near his home in Newark, Delaware, or among the mountains and lakes near his grandparents in western Maine. Nevertheless, a career in horticulture, let alone Grounds For Sculpture, never entered Mike’s nor his parents’ minds — his father was a personnel manager and his mother a reading specialist in schools.

After receiving his B.S. in behavioral science from Wilmington University, Strengari taught autistic children for a year. Though he found the job challenging and personally rewarding, the monetary incentive was lacking. He was at a point in his life, familiar to many, where he needed to figure out what he really wanted to do. His summer jobs at garden centers came to mind and that, plus recognizing his love of the outdoors, set him on a new path, one that required further education.

Those studies equipped him with a background that now includes a professional gardener certification from Longwood Gardens, the renowned site that was originally part of the DuPont estate just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, five years of working with internationally award-winning designer Michael Petrie, and four years as a gardener at a private estate.

Strengari’s first view of GFS’ 42-acre property was not quite inspiring. It was a gray, December morning and the grounds were cloaked in a drizzle. On the other hand, the job opening, a new position, sounded intriguing: to assume responsibility for the landscape’s maintenance and renovation.

That job description slowly evolved during Strengari’s interviews and his first months on the staff. He was not alone in recognizing that there was much to publicize with regard to the grounds part of the organization. More than publicity was required, however. Programs were needed to acquaint the public with the horticulture riches on the property. Strengari’s job then became two-fold: improve the grounds and introduce the public to the landscape’s horticulture.

Strengari’s appreciation for the beauty and structure of the grounds has also evolved. Seeing the property dressed in a snow cover and then having that followed by the warm blue skies and balmy weather of spring helped, of course, but as he canvassed the entire property he was awed by the variety of plantings, many rare and not well known.

With the backing of senior management, Strengari has now constructed a plethora of new horticultural activities as well as carrying forth the original goal of maintaining and renovating the grounds.

With regard to the latter, he cannot stop praising the staff and volunteers who help him in this task. Alex Bowe and Patricia Cary, the two employees reporting to him, are graduates of Mercer Community College’s ornamental horticultural program. “They are life savers,” he says. “While the mowing as well as the spring and fall cleaning are taken care of by contracted services, Alex and Pat are the professionals in the garden on a daily basis. I rely on them totally.”

And then there are the horticulture volunteers. “Gems,” says Strengari. “And such friendly, nice ones too,” he adds. “There are about a dozen, and they do the so-called dirty work, deadheading flowers, cutting back roses, and weeding with abandon. They are here throughout the growing season, and they are a joy to work with.”

Many, he notes, come with years of having worked in their own gardens, and for others it’s a relatively new experience. The latter, he adds, are eager to learn and do whatever is necessary. All are required to take an orientation introduction. At the end of that, each one meets with Strengari to pair his or her specific interests with GFS needs.

With this kind of knowledgeable, enthusiastic backup, Strengari has been free to expand the plantings as well as to design new programs. “These,” he notes, “are all in addition to the sculpture tours and workshops that are held throughout the year.”

This past winter, Strengari introduced winter landscape tours, which he personally led. It is at this time of year that the “bones,” as the English call it, of the property are apparent. Bereft of splashy color and beguiling fragrance, the structure of the layout shines through as well as the interplay of evergreen foliage, dappled bark, and large fountains of dried grasses.

Strengari did recognize, however, that while “bones” are all well and good, there is nothing like a little bit of color and fragrance in a winter landscape. When a volunteer donated two winter sweet shrubs, which feature a spicy perfume emanating from yellow flowers, the idea of a designated winter garden was born. Strengari jazzed up the new setting by transplanting a fragrant, purple flowered native witch hazel cultivar growing elsewhere.

The two winter flowering shrubs were then joined by white, pink, purple, and lavender Lenten roses (Hellebores), some of which flowered as early as New Year’s Eve. Giant white snowdrops popped up soon after and by mid February the tiny yellow flowers on winter aconites periodically appeared between snow storms.

The introduction of sustainability practices is another program, one that Strengari feels strongly about. It could well be a model for other properties in the U.S. 1 area. Supported in large part by a $25,000 grant from American Express, this work has two major components.

The first draws upon turf studies by the Arnold Arboretum in Boston. That work compared the results of organic versus traditional methods of lawn maintenance. It demonstrated that taking an organic approach is more expensive in the short run but saves money over time.

Strengari has now set aside an acre of GFS as a control plot. This area will have ground aeration and organic mulch applications as maintenance measures. All other areas will be treated with chemical fertilizers. Strengari expects it will be two or three years before the anticipated benefits, including cost savings, will be visible. And should they confirm the expected profitability of such an approach, it will ultimately be used throughout the property.

The second project deals with erosion control. The areas bordering the GFS lake — an entity created when the U.S. Department of Transportation excavated the former New Jersey State Fairgrounds speedway for fill in I-95 — have slowly been crumbling into the water, opening up vistas of private buildings across the way. Rather than construct barriers, Strengari is exploring natural buffers. This involves conducting plant research, an activity he loves, on shrubs and trees that will not only hold the ground banks in place but also beautifully block views of any commercial development.

Starting this May, Strengari is introducing a program that may well be unique to New Jersey. Titled “HortiSculpture Tours,” it features a series of 90-minute walks highlighting the interplay of sculpture, plantings, and landscape. Strengari has selected 15 sculptures to be included in the program.

The tours will be led by a cadre of specially trained docents who have completed 10 hours of training, spread over a four-week period that began in February.

The famous “On Poppied Hill” by Seward Johnson will be among the sculpture and landscape pairings featured. This sculpture is a tribute to Claude Monet’s painting titled “Woman with a Parasol — Madame Monet and Her Son.”

The painting gives no indication of the height of the hill on which the two stand, nor does it provide a clear rendering of the grasses and plants in the surrounding field. On this particular tour, participants will learn why the height of the GFS hill was chosen, how it was constructed and shaped, the planning to create a vista suitable for all seasons, the kinds of grasses and flowers in the field, and how they and their height complement the sculptured red poppies.

“I’m really excited about this,” Strengari says, “and all the docents are too. The program gives participants a deeper understanding of the interplay of sculpture and landscape and how that creates a greater artwork than each individual component alone. Our Horti­Sculpture Tours provide yet another opportunity for the public to visit and appreciate the special setting here.”

HortiSculpture Tours, Grounds For Sculpture, 80 Sculptors Way, Hamilton, open Tuesdays through Sundays, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. $10 to $15, HortiSculpture Tours are Thursdays and Saturdays at 11 a.m., May through October, free with admission. 609-586-0616 or www.groundsforsculpture.org.

#b#This Spring at Grounds For Sculpture#/b#

Three exhibitions open at Grounds For Sculpture on Sunday, May 1, all on view through Sunday, September 18. Above left is a piece from “Silence” by New Jersey-based artist Ayami Aoyama. Originally a painter, Aoyama is now a master stone carver. “I always had the urge to travel, to seek something,” she says. “When I found stone carving and could see that as a journey to seek shapes, colors and textures, I no longer needed to travel anywhere.”

Center is an untitled piece from Nikki Rosato’s “Inbound,” an installation of figurative works cut from road maps. In her work she cuts out the land masses, leaving the forms created by roads and water. “As we move though life, the places we inhabit and the people that we meet alter and shape us into the person that we are in the present day,” she says.

Above right is “Maakha and Rehavam” (1988) by Israeli-born sculptor Boaz Vaadia, whose works in stone and bronze occupy the museum building. The exhibit includes more than 100 of Vaadia’s works, spanning from his arrival in New York City in the 1970s to today.

Already on view (at lower right) is Paul Henry Ramirez’s site-specific installation in the West Gallery, which has been transformed through paint pours, canvas installations, sounds, and colors. “The dialogue between painting and architecture animate the space in playful motion and dynamic dimension,” the artist says. The installation is on view through January 8, 2017.

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