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Sketches of Influence

by Bee Mohn

Neil Robinson was meant for history. As third generation-owner of a nursery-landscape business now in its 77th year, the man's interest in the past and what has caused our gardens to be as they are is paramount.

Robinson's grandfather started the business in Cranford, driving a truck loaded with evergreen shrubs down city streets in the 1930s and 40s. Later, his father worked with landscape theorist James Rose designing cottage and natural style gardens. Now in Millstone by the Jersey shore, Robinson grows a sturdy list of perennials and “a lot of bayberry, Japanese black pine, and native coastal plants" on his farm. He also creates landscapes.

At the New Jersey Flower & Garden Show, Robinson has created an “American Garden," a small space suburban-type landscape embellished with stone work and lighting. Most people may recognize aspects of the design, but will perhaps not know where the ideas came from. Many common features were influenced by European and Oriental gardens.

“What I want to show is that as Americans we have our own natural beauty as well as influences by the French and English," Robinson explains. “Our lawns date back to English pastures and rolling fields with open grass." Interpretive signs in the garden will explain these histories and influences.

An old brick walkway goes through the garden from the side to a flagstone sitting area. A low rocky pond with the sound of trickling water and plantings of ferns, moss, and dark-colored astilbe resemble a hillside in the woods. The garden sits against a big wall backed with dark evergreens and was influenced by the Japanese garden.

Out front, where all good formal front yards are, a boxwood hedge surrounds annuals, bulbs, and lawn, certainly an English-influenced garden. French style topiaries in planters accent the look.

Walk up a ramp to a small pond where dianthus grows near threadleaf Japanese maple. “One of the reasons we have the pond is to show the Japanese influence - the movement of water, not having a straight line, breaking all the rules of the English and French. It has a Zen feeling.

“Here (in America), there are a lot of formal gardens," he continues. “Everybody has their structured hedge and lawn. The Japanese broke that up by bringing a more natural feel -- Zen -- working with the earth, water, movement, and landscape design that follows the flow of water."

Come have a seat on a bench in the 12 x 15-foot sitting area among native plantings of wood fern, rhododendron, mountain laurel, dogwood, and perennials.

“That's the whole idea of the garden. It's just having a place where you can feel comfortable."ť

* * * * * * *

In a garden designed and built by Lily Pad Ponds, two bluestone paths bring the visitor through four distinct, yet harmonious, areas with a “Far Away" feel.

Two Zen Gardens sit diagonally across from each other. Raked and patterned sand and gravel surround moss rock formations, a handmade bamboo fountain and a Japanese lantern. Oriental perennials such as Japanese iris and Oriental lilies bring color to the serene gardens.

“Every Zen garden is personal with a story behind it of the person who creates it," says Mary Beth Doremus of Environmental Designers, who was hired by Robert Bellek, Lily Pad Ponds' owner to choose the plants. She sees the garden as an Oriental Garden. “Boulders may represent a person's problems or issues, and combed sand soothes the issue. It's very tranquil and calming," she says.

A Buddha statue embellishes a woodsy fern patch of Ghost, Holly, Korean, and Japanese Beech ferns interspersed with Carex 'Evergold.' Across the walkway, a Bloodgood Japanese maple spreads over the edge of a pond.

Belle's talent (Lily Pad Ponds won 1st Place last year at the show for Most Creative Water Feature and 3rd Place for Best Garden) brings water into flamboyant life as it spills down a garden hillside, then over a gravel-bottom stream with a zig-zag hand-built bridge. The stream wends its way sensuously, through the center of the garden. Stepping stones lead the visitor to the waterfall, where Koi swim among the bubbles.

Doremus planted the rocky streambank with, among other wispy evergreens, Hinoki Cypress and Winter Gem Boxwood, with a green Japanese maple near the edge of the Zen Gardens. A handmade bamboo “tea whisk" fence accents the drama. “This is the more ornamental part. It's not natural at all. Everything in this part of the garden looks very clean cut."

The stream ends in a pond that is actually surrounded on three sides by the garden areas. The last corner is a look-off point with a skirt made out of natural bluestone.

“Everything is very symmetrical," Doremus says. “Everything is balanced. I hope this gives people some new ideas about what other types of gardens can be done in New Jersey. We're throwing an entirely new idea out there. People know about it but don't actually get to see it."

“I build a hell of a Zen Garden!"ť adds Bellek.

M.Robinson & Son: www.mrobinsonandson.com
Lily Pad Ponds: www.lilypadponds.com

* Main photo Courtesy of Lily Pad Ponds

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