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Signs of spring invite visitors to Morris County’s lush gardens and parks.


The Morris County Park System has always been a jewel in the crown of Morris County government. Lush green spaces, rolling hills and trees and plants in flower from early spring throughout the fall mean there is much for visitors to appreciate and enjoy in their natural state. Longtime residents glow with pride when escorting visitors to some favorite sites while newcomers to the area are always intrigued by all that this part of New Jersey has to offer. This year, it is time to take a close look at two favorite destinations – Bamboo Brook and Watnong Gardens.

This spring and summer mark a time of continued growth and revitalization for Bamboo Brook. The 100 acre property in Chester Township has undergone almost a decade of replanting and improvements following the awarding of $750,000 in grant funds to bring the property back to the level it enjoyed under the ownership of its former owner, Martha Brookes Hutcheson. Mrs. Hutcheson, who died in 1959, began her work in landscape architecture in the early twentieth century, and was one of a very few working in the field at that time

The lush property was given to the County of Morris by Mrs. Hutcheson’s daughter, Martha Hutcheson Norton in 1972; she wished for it to remain as it had been during her mother’s stewardship from the early 1920’s until 1959. Martha Brookes Hutcheson trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and championed both conservation and the use of native plant growth, believing that the garden could be an instrument of social change.

Bamboo Brook, now called Bamboo Brook Outdoor Education Center, was originally known as Merchiston Farm when it was owned by William and Martha Brookes Hutcheson. It contains both formal and informal areas as well as trails that wind through fields and along the brook. Visitors will note the symmetry and well-defined axis lines which Mrs. Hutcheson used to help direct the visitor’s gaze through the property. Informally, native plants such as high bush blueberries and native buckeye grow here alongside a graceful white cedar allee. Mrs. Hutcheson incorporated many classical concepts such as pools, stone walls and water courses which were found in English and Italian gardens.

Most recently, work has been concentrated on the water features which Mrs. Hutcheson included in the original plans as a way to provide both visual and auditory appeal. Water is captured from underground springs at the upper edges of the property, and gradually travels downhill, filling a former livestock pond for animals kept on the property; later it was used as a swimming pool.
In addition, a water lily pond has been restored and a trough for growing watercress has also been brought back for its intended use.

Mrs. Hutcheson’s very words on the home and garden remain applicable today, points out Lesley Parness, Superintendent of Horticultural Education for the Morris County Park Commission. In her 1923 book, “Spirit of the Garden,” Mrs. Hutcheson indicated the garden should be an extension of the house. In an informal setting, she wrote “the garden should creep up and look in at the very window…The garden must be made to look as if it had grown there in perfect relationship to all around it.”

Today, the rolling hills and water features provide a backdrop for the forsythia, lilacs, phlox, rhododendrons, dogwood, crab apple, cherry trees and hosta that will soon be blooming in the spring. Mountain laurel, a variety of perennials and daffodils add a subtle touch of color.

Twenty-five feet of fencing has been added to the grounds and is discreetly hidden behind hedgerows to discourage deer from destroying the blooming plants and trees.

“Last year was a big year for us and this year we will be doing fine tuning. Everything will be growing in, looking fuller, bigger and more lush. This year we are hoping to complete construction of a historic arbor” reminiscent of what would have been on the property in years past, explained Charles Zafonte, Director of horticulture and natural resources for the Morris County Park Commission.

As Mrs. Hutcheson wrote in her book, “The garden is not only the exquisite playground of the home but a place of inspiration and promise, of tranquility and intense personal calm. And we are held and inspired by it.”

Bamboo Brook is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places. Tours of the property are available for groups of 10 or more. For tour information, call 973-631-5396. To learn more about Bamboo Brook, go to

Discover a gem that’s been hiding in plain sight by stopping in at Watnong Gardens, tucked beside a feeder road alongside Route 10 in Morris Plains. A once private enclave, Watnong is now under the ownership of the Township of Parsippany and is open to the public.

Watnong Gardens has been recognized as one of the most beautiful gardens in America by Forbes Magazine. The name Watnong, which comes from the Native American term meaning “little hill,” was once part of Watnong Nursery and was owned by Don and Helen Smith. Some years ago, Helen and Frank Donn, longtime residents of Morris Plains who lived next to the nursery, bought the property from the Smiths’ estate. All told, this little space comprises about 2.5 acres, making it on the small side for public gardens but a perfect site for the numerous dwarf conifers and other small scale plantings that thrive here annually.

Watnong Gardens is just coming out of its hibernation in the spring months when the many hostas, sedum, ajuga and more begin their warm weather re-birth. As the ground begins to warm, daffodil bulbs can be seen nodding their colorful tops in the gentle breezes. By May and June, the garden is vibrant with the various shades of blues and greens favored by the conifers and spruce trees that thrive here. Before the heat of summer arrives, vibrant rhododendrons and azaleas paint a splashy contrast to the deeper, greener shades.

A water feature built into the hillside bubbles quietly inside the property and a whimsical “toy” train built by the late Frank Donn sits atop a small hill, its cars serving as planters for more of the growing inventory.

Call ahead and arrange for a private tour with Helen Donn, who still lives on the property, or drop by unannounced and take your own tour along the numerous paths. Sculptural animals made of stone and metal provide a humorous diversion for the visitor and a number of benches are tucked inside the property providing a place to relax and contemplate as the sun passes overhead.

Watnong Gardens is one of those tiny treasures that should not be missed.

To visit, call Helen Donn at 973-538-8633 or visit
For more things to see and do throughout Morris County, visit the Morris County Tourism bureau online at Sign up to receive e-news or bookmark the calendar of events page for planning visits yearlong.


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