Garden Mission: To restore, preserve, and celebrate the gardens of Helena Rutherfurd Ely at Meadowburn Farm for the enjoyment and education of the public, and to preserve the existing heirloom cultivars through propagation and distribution.
Meadowburn was once the country place of Helena Rutherfurd Ely (1858-1920), a pioneering figure in American horticulture at the turn of the 20th century and founding member of the Garden Club of America. Ely built her gardens surrounding the main residence at Meadowburn over the course of a forty-year period with the help of her loyal gardener, Albert Furman. Through trial and error she developed the practical hands-on horticultural knowledge that informed and inspired her three widely influential books on hardy gardening. In her day, Helena Rutherfurd Ely was considered one of the premier garden experts in America and her gardens at Meadowburn were recognized as among the finest in the country.
The gardens today provide a unique opportunity for the public to learn from Helena Rutherfurd Ely’s design and practices as an important living artifact in America’s gardening narrative.
Built prior to 1899, the Formal Garden was the iconic area of Helena Rutherfurd Ely’s gardens at Meadowburn. It features four perennial borders arranged along the main garden axis, surrounded by evergreen hedges and a wisteria-laden pergola on the far end. Originally each border was planted in a different color scheme, lined with catalpa standards and edged with boxwood.
Built between 1902 and 1905, the Pool Garden was originally called the Lily and Iris Garden. In Ely’s second book, Another Hardy Garden (1905), she writes of following a plan from a friend’s garden in Virginia, built before the American Revolution. By 1915, Ely had simplified the design of this garden, removing the flowerbeds and leaving only the hemlock hedges and specimen Arborvitae.
During the Ely era and the Coster era, the Picking Garden featured large beds planted with perennial and annual flowers harvested to decorate the main house at Meadowburn. The Vegetable Garden generated enough produce to feed multiple families at Meadowburn, as well as the neighbor’s mischievous children who snuck in to pilfer ripe melons. During the 1970’s, the majority of the beds were converted into turf to reduce maintenance. Today, the remaining beds are home to many heirloom plants that date to the Ely era and Coster era. In spring, the iris beds bloom in stunning shades of purple iris interspersed with scarlet oriental poppies, while over 750 linear feet of peony rows billow with shades of soft pink, white, and deep magenta. The peak of summer brings the dahlia garden into glory, an endless allee of dahlias dating to the early 1900’s, and the pride of many a Meadowburn gardener.
The Evergreen Garden was built around 1914, and was the last garden that Ely created at Meadowburn. It was planted with conifers in a range of colors and textures – a garden that kept its beauty throughout the year, and where not a single flower bloomed. The Evergreen Garden has maintained its peaceful serenity to this day.
In the Ely era the main house was shaded by large black locust trees and the walls were covered in climbing vines. Around the main house Ely planted rhododendrons and native ferns collected from the woods, interspersed with columbine and shade loving perennials.
Meadowburn has been in the ownership of the Coster Gerard family since 1930. Under the stewardship of Charles Henry Coster and his nephew Charles Henry Coster Gerard, the design of the gardens have remained relatively unchanged since Ely’s era. Both men saw value in preserving the gardens and in continuing the employment of three generations of the original family trained by Helena Rutherfurd Ely to tend to the gardens. In 1993 the residential and garden core were listed on the New Jersey State and National Register for Historic Places based on the association with Helena Rutherfurd Ely, and the main house which dates to the 1700’s.
In 2011, the children of the late C. H. Coster Gerard contacted the Garden Conservancy to discuss the possibility of preserving the gardens at Meadowburn and opening them to public visitation. The Garden Conservancy connected the Gerards with Quill Teal-Sullivan, a Fellow in the Longwood Graduate Program in Public Horticulture. Quill spent the next two years researching Helena Rutherfurd Ely, as well as options for the preservation of her gardens at Meadowburn.
Today, the Gerard family and Quill continue to explore possible options for restoring and preserving the gardens. While the bones of the garden remain much as they were in the early 1900’s, increased deer pressure, age and weather damage have taken a toll the plantings. Over the course of the next few years we hope to make significant improvements to the damaged portions of the gardens in order to better portray Ely’s design intentions and historical plant palette. Stay tuned to the preservation efforts at Meadowburn.
Photographs courtesy of B. Danforth Ely, The Gerard Family, Walter DeVries, and Joshua Scott Photography