Linwood Arboretum, one feisty little public garden

Allen Lacy created Linwood Arboretum five years ago. He's a Richard Stockton College professor emeritus of philosophy and horticulture, and a former newspaper garden columnist. Staff photographs by
Allen Lacy created Linwood Arboretum five years ago. He's a Richard Stockton College professor emeritus of philosophy and horticulture, and a former newspaper garden columnist. Staff photographs by (Charles Fox)
Posted: August 02, 2014

Do not get Allen Lacy going on the subject of Bradford pear trees or forsythia bushes unless you want to get an earful.

He considers them common and overplanted, and you won't find a single one in the Linwood Arboretum in Linwood, N.J., which Lacy created five years ago and somehow manages to keep going with his septuagenarian wife, Hella, a half-dozen volunteers, a surfeit of optimism, and hardly any money.

Lacy calls it "the smallest arboretum in the world," but its wish list may be the largest.

It needs donors and docents, members (there are 60, but few young ones), a newsletter and business plan, PR and marketing, fund-raising, an endowment, and - how to put this delicately? - a succession plan.

"After me? We'll have to kidnap people or steal their children," Lacy jokes.

A former garden columnist for the New York Times and Wall Street Journal and author or editor of 13 horticulture books, Lacy can be forgiven the sense of urgency. He's 79, a 15-year survivor of lung cancer, who's undergoing kidney dialysis and was recently diagnosed with gout.

He's also professor emeritus of philosophy and horticulture at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, who was inspired by his late friend and mentor, J.C. Raulston, creator of the eponymous (and acclaimed) arboretum at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. At 10 acres, it's considered small for a public garden.

"Here, we have one acre and we have the gall to call ourselves an arboretum," says Lacy, who channels Raulston in bemoaning that "90 percent of Americans garden with the same 40 plants. Meanwhile, all this other stuff is being ignored."

"The other stuff" is in his arboretum, built with city and Atlantic County support on the site of a former electrical substation. (The City of Linwood contributes $4,000 a year to the garden's $7,000 annual budget.)

Lacy has amassed more than 1,000 trees, shrubs, and perennials - 40 percent native, 60 percent exotic - that are suitable for home gardens in this part of the world. He has collections of magnolias, salvias, dwarf conifers, redbuds, hydrangeas, winter-blooming witch hazels and heaths, and a colorful bog garden that about 35 garden club members, master gardeners, and other visitors per week (in growing season) enjoy.

Still, you'll never see this place on to-do lists at the Shore. There are no partnerships with universities or music, dance, poetry, or theater groups. No yoga-in-the-garden.

But Lacy wants to get the word out. Imagine his chagrin, knowing that so many in Linwood, at the Shore at large, and in the garden-rich Philadelphia region, don't know the arboretum is here.

"We're on a bike path on a busy street, across from a middle school, and they don't even know about us," Lacy says.

Even John Morse, horticulture manager for the Morris County Park Commission, which oversees three well-established public gardens in north-central New Jersey, draws a blank on Linwood.

"I'm not familiar with that one," he says.

There is a sign, but frankly, the arboretum looks more like a well-kept park or private garden. The plants are beautiful and healthy, the brick-lined paths neat and inviting, with nary a weed in sight.

Marian Jordan, president of the arboretum's 35-member Friends group, calls it "a wonderful, completely accessible little pocket garden, which makes it that much easier for people to stop and look around."

They can stop by any day of the year, from dawn to dusk, attend seasonal workshops, and find something in bloom in every season, if not every day, especially in summer, fall, and winter.

That makes sense if you've read The Garden in Autumn, Lacy's best-known book, in which he calls fall "the neglected season" - not the denouement of the garden year, but the culmination.

As a longtime horticulturist, Lacy has had, and continues to have, friends in high places, whom he'd like to invite over: Dan Hinkley, Tony Avent, Michael Pollan. Andrew Bunting, curator of Scott Arboretum at Swarthmore College, has already done a program (gratis), and will again, on Aug. 10. (See "If You Go.")

Bunting describes Lacy as "really inspiring," his plantsmanship as "very high quality," and the arboretum's mission as a center of horticultural knowledge "pretty profound."

"I think it's a great little entity," he says.

Another supporter is George Butrus, whose family's garden center, Lang's Garden Market in Linwood, sells many plants that visitors can find in the arboretum.

"They're recommended for residential landscaping but they're underappreciated," says Butrus, who calls the arboretum, somewhat sadly, "our best-kept secret."

On a recent first visit, Sandy Bressler, a graduate of the Barnes Foundation's horticulture and art schools who has homes in South Philadelphia and Atlantic City, found herself "totally hooked."

"There's so much beauty and practical information, and it's so nourishing and enjoyable, you don't even realize you're learning," says Bressler, who came up with a winner of a marketing slogan - "Linwood Arboretum: A Small Garden With Big Ideas."

Lacy loves it.

As he chats in the garden with a reporter, along comes Nick Brestle, 16, with Vinny, his white boxer puppy. They're headed for the arboretum water fountain, which has stations for adults, children, and dogs.

Yes, Brestle has been here before. Yes, he knows it's a public garden. "It's got some nice colors," he says.

When told that Lacy is its founder, Brestle looks at the old man. "Thank you," he says earnestly.

"Well!" says Lacy, momentarily startled.




Here are plantsman Lacy's suggestions for unusual plants to replace more common choices. They can usually be found at garden centers or online:

Instead of forsythias, try hybrid witch hazels. Hamamelis x intermedia 'Jelena' blooms in January and February with spectacular copper blossoms. "Gorgeous in the backlighting of late-afternoon winter light," Lacy says. Other varieties have yellow, purple, or red flowers. Fragrances range from none to heavy and sweet. Full sun to part shade, 8 to 12 feet tall and wide.

Instead of American trumpet vine ( Campsis radicans), try the J.C. Raulston introduction Campsis grandiflora 'Morning Calm.' Long bloomer, much less aggressive, with bigger flowers Lacy describes as "a soft, pinky-orange instead of harsh Halloween orange." Full sun to part shade, 20 to 25 feet tall, 6 to 9 feet wide.

Instead of "evergreen, prickly, messy" American holly ( Ilex opaca), try a native deciduous holly - Ilex verticillata 'Winter Red.' Produces huge crop of brilliant berries that robins love. Full sun to part shade, 6 to 8 feet tall and wide.

Instead of weeping willows, which are big, messy, sewer-clogging, and out of scale for home gardens, try a weeping American redbud, Cercis canadensis 'Ruby Falls.' It's nicely compact and keeps its purple foliage for most of the growing season. Full or part sun, 6 to 8 feet tall, 4 to 6 feet wide.

Instead of English ivy, try Lacy's favorite ground cover: Saxifraga stolonifera or strawberry begonia, which is neither strawberry nor begonia. Usually considered a houseplant, this one's a spreader. It's hardy and pretty much evergreen in winter, with profuse white blooms in early summer. Smothers weeds, fairly drought-tolerant. Full to part shade, 6 to 12 inches tall, 1-to-2-foot spread.

- Virginia A. Smith


1410 Wabash Ave., Linwood, N.J. Free, donations welcome. Membership: $25 for individuals, $30 for families, $5 for children under 12.

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