I will tell my grandchildren that my garden mania began during covid-19 quarantine of 2020. The year when I probably visited over a dozen of gardens and parks in New Jersey and New York, seeking to escape the shutdown for a brief moment. There is something so peaceful about planned gardens — symmetry of the laid out paths lends one a sense of control, no matter how subconscious. Strolling among the pruned bushes, formal alleys, wisteria-covered pergolas and meticulously manicured lawns, I found respite from the dumbfounding news and politics. I’ve now visited almost a dozen of different gardens around New York and New Jersey, and am so happy to share my favorites, so you might visit them this fall as well.
There are a number of well-known gardens, sometimes a part of a bigger estate, that I will not be writing much about today, but I loved. I figure you probably have already heard of them and likely even been, given their fame. This blog covers a few. Around Northern New Jersey and Southern New York, these are:
- Lyndhurst Mansion
- Kykuit (otherwise known as the Rockefeller Estate)
- Boscobel House and Gardens (read my post about our visit here)
- Storm King Arts Center
- Caramoor Arts and Music Center (read about it here)
- Wave Hill
- Rutgers Gardens
- And finally, the very gorgeous, must-see in New Jersey and absolutely unique Grounds For Sculpture
If you haven’t visited these beautiful places, these all deserve a day trip. Many are open these year to visit the grounds but not the house, though some, like Kykuit are closed.
But more off the beaten path, read on for some of the smaller but not less worthy local excursions to consider.
Take a Day Trip To These 5 Beautiful Gardens in New Jersey and New York
Ringwood Botanical Gardens, part of Ringwood State Park, is probably my absolute favorite place in New Jersey. Sprawling green space has lots of nooks and hide-outs. Usually best to arrive early to catch a parking spot and also have plenty of time to explore, there are lots of worthy stops. For the hikers, a light loop around the gardens follows to the left of the first parking lot. Picturesque bridges and benches, the stream seems like it was decorated by the elf queen herself with stone sculptures and pretty benches along the riverbed. The loop brings you right back to the center of the property.
A number of gardens to see here! Annual and perennial, lilac, Italianate gardens — perhaps the main attraction, so expect wedding photographers here (hint, don’t come at fading light time). Overall, these gorgeous gardens really can provide a feast for the eyes and serenity for the soul. We enjoyed a quiet picnic on the grounds as much as sightseeing and hiking. This can be a full day trip, including about 1 hr each way if coming from NYC.
Greenwood Gardens, Short Hills, NJ. My very recent discovery that was as new as it was striking. Set amidst a quiet community, adjacent to sprawling forests and bordering Essex County gem — the South Mountain Reservation — this park is set a world apart from the bustle of the tri-state.
Belonging to two horticulturally-inclined families over the last hundred years, the land around their estate was converted into no less than a secret garden in the best traditions of the Arts and Crafts as well as Classical garden design. The settings are diverse — grottos, meandering statue-lined walkways that are reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, Italianate garden terraces, and other surprising elements of this garden beckon for return visits. Be sure to book your spot ahead for a visit during corona times.
Buried among the hills of Montclair, New Jersey, Van Vleck House and Gardens, is a place where flora and love abound — and is worth a stop if you are in the neighborhood (perhaps visiting the Essex Zoo, boating on the lake, or hiking through the South Mountain reservation.)
The house belonged to multiple generations of the same family, the first of which made the move from Brooklyn to New Jersey suburbs in late 19th century. Being a lived-in property, the house(s) have undergone multiple transformations and what we are today is just one of the houses that is left on the 12 acre property and that was gifted to Montclair Foundation.
There is no entry to the house itself but the gardens, though small, are well-kept and perfect for smaller kids, for whom this can be the whole hike. The gardens are varied — many plants are perennial and ever-green, the walks are shaded and dramatic, there is quite a bit of experimentation with form, colors, and textures that make the visit a multi-sensory experience.
The beautiful thing is that this garden is open 365 days a year and there is no entry fee. Our visits have always been so enjoyable — kids explore and frolic, adults (semi-) relax.
One of the best kept New York secrets — at least one I didn’t know after over 25 years living in the New York City area — is the Untermeyer Park and Gardens in Yonkers, New York. How did I not know about such a unique place so close to one of the world’s most bustling cities? The sheer fact that you could escape there in 45 mins or less from the city center is both astounding and inspiring. We had to go and see for ourselves!
Changing a few hands in the 19th century, the then-called Greystone estate was purchased by its most prominent developer — Samuel Untermeyer — a corporate lawyer and apparently an avid horticulturalist. It is said that in a second lifetime he would have been the Parks Commissioner of New York City and his expertise is still well demonstrated in his legacy gardens where many professional gardeners got their start. Sadly, in the 20th century the history goes from extensive care and use in the 1920s and 1930s to disrepair until the 1990s when the Parks Conservancy took over. Many of the gardens remain in ruin.
That being said, this is one of the more unique settings due to its location and landscape factors — the varied altitude of terrain overlooking the Hudson River has yielded dramatic descent and expansive vistas. In addition, the multiple laid out gardens are very diverse.
The Walled Garden, laid out as an Indo-Persian Garden — symmetrical quadrants divided by waterways and stunning perspective to the beautiful though anachronistic and geographically-displaced Greco-Roman elements. The gorgeous multi-level Temple of Love is created out of grottos and shelved waterfalls. The Vista that opens up from the top of the gardens toward the Hudson is one of a kind and perhaps one of the best in the Valley.
And I haven’t even told you about several other incredible wondrous nooks, so you’ll just have to come see for yourself. The park is free to visit but we had to grab a slot to enter during the coronavirus restrictions.
The Cross Estate Gardens in Bernardsvile, New Jersey were the last on my list but I found this one is beyond sweet. Small and intimate, it’s the perfect setting for quiet afternoon escape. The approach to the gardens leads through winding roads, which in the heat of autumn shown with orange and golden beams of light.
Unique medieval-inspired water tower at the entrance set us up in an enchanted mood and the beautifully blooming classical garden, wisteria-covered long pergola, meandering paths with benches reminded me of the secret garden — one that few know about, but those that know, cherish.
All of these gardens have something to offer year round. Bookmark this page to reference for seasons to come and visit them all to experience nature and tranquility.