Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an estate gardener? Perhaps you’ve visited the Biltmore Estate, Longwood Gardens or other private estates that are now open to the public. These places have “cost no object” buildings and landscaping, maintained by professional groundskeepers along with a small army of seasonal help and volunteers. To visitors, these estate gardeners probably seem to enjoy dream jobs.
I once worked as a groundskeeper on an estate near Princeton, New Jersey owned by J. Seward Johnson, a founder of consumer product giant Johnson & Johnson. At the time Johnson was 84 years old, spry and enthusiastic, proud owner of many homes including an Italian villa and a palace on the Florida coast. Having recently married his third wife, he was building a fabulous mansion on 200 acres. He had met his wife while she was visiting the US on a work visa from her native Poland, which at the time was still behind the “Iron Curtain”. The Lawrenceville estate was his gift to her, called “Jasna Polana” (Polish for “bright clearing”), designed to evoke the palaces of the European nobility. It was built of pink granite stones individually crated and shipped from Europe, dressed and laid by a crew of stonemasons on loan from the Polish Communist government. Polish ironworkers created ornate wrought iron gates and fences. The new house was massive and opulent, equipped with an indoor salt-water pool and a downstairs “game room” about the square footage of a high school gym. This room opened onto a Bocce ball court of fine bentgrass as smooth as a billiard table, surrounded by “hanging gardens” of perennials bordered by walls of matching stone. A twelve-foot wide walk of beautifully laid Vermont bluestone ran the length of the house, each stone surrounded by a one-inch strip of the same bentgrass. One of my duties was to hand-trim the grass between the stones for the entire length of the walk with a hand shears, on my knees. The ball court and surrounding gardens were my responsibility. I was one of perhaps 20 full-time groundskeepers on the estate. Each day as the sun rose I whipped the dew off the entire lawn with a long fiberglass pole, to keep the sun from scorching the fine grass. I mowed the lawn at one-quarter inch, alternating the direction every mowing, leaving nice neat stripes like a golf course putting green. I spent the rest of each day maintaining the plantings. There was a walled garden with hundreds of miniature roses, with dime-sized blooms that needed deadheading every day. The grounds manager (my boss) was opposed to using mulch, so I spent a lot of time weeding the huge perennial borders.
On rainy days we worked upstairs in the equipment barn varnishing the handles of our shovels and rakes, detailing the machines. Downstairs was a stable of eight cars used by the Johnson family when they were in Princeton (about 3 months each year). This collection included a cane-sided 1930 Cadillac cabriolet, a Bentley Continental fastback coupe, and other such exotics. I remember one visit by Mr. Johnson just after he’d purchased a new Porsche 911 Turbo “whale tail” fastback. He was so in love with the car that he had it trucked to Princeton from his Florida estate, so that he could drive it while he was in town. The landscaping was equally exotic and expensive. Johnson bought several southern plantations just to get their 200-year-old boxwoods and magnolias, which were dug up and shipped on tractor-trailers to Princeton and re-planted. No expense was spared installing landscape plants and hardscapes to old-world craftsmanship standards. Working at Jasna Polana was fascinating, but paid only minimum wage. I was restless and moved on after less than a year, coming away with many stories and ideas about landscaping. Interested in more details about life and landscaping at Jasna Polana? Make sure to see next week’s “Let’s Grow” for Part II. For more on Jasna Polana, check out these websites: A good article about the history of the estate and it’s conversion to a golf course: http://www.nytimes.com/2001/06/21/garden/18-holes- and-a-fabled-past.html?pagewanted=1
Official Jasna Polana home page: https://tpc.com/jasnapolana/?utm_source=google&utm_medium=cpc&utm_term=tpc%20jasna%20polana%20princeton&utm_campaign=SC-TPC%20Jasna%20Polana&gclid=CjwKEAjwhYLLBRDIjoCu0te4niASJAC0V4QPceP5iRvBHtQfgmL9Ji3x_Qmp2bB4QClzS3g8CU9FDhoCQUTw_wcB
Steve Boehme is a landscape designer/installer specializing in outdoor living spaces. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.