Skylands: A Garden for all Seasons

Confusing (or better, enhancing) the boundaries of where the Skylands can be found, the New Jersey State Botanical Garden at Skylands is certainly quarters for some of the best of what Northwestern New Jersey represents.

A garden for all seasons and all the right reasons, this is a place that holds rewards no matter what the time of year. Stroll a garden path in summer. View the bright foliage of autumn. Enjoy the quiet solitude of winter. But spring is, as in any garden, the time of most exuberance. The fragrance of spring flowers and shrubs wafts through the air--forsythia, cherry blossum, magnolia, azalea, rhododendron and lilac-- enticing a visit from even the most immune to the fever of the season.

Historic Skylands Manor, a Tudor Revival mansion built in the mid 1920s and designed by John Russell Pope, contains 44 rooms.

Among other things, Skylands is a 96-acre botanical garden nestled in the Ramapo Mountains in Ringwood, just over the Sussex County line in northern Passaic. The garden is part of larger area known as the Skylands section of Ringwood State Park. Originally a private estate consisting of 1,100 acres, and purchased by the State in 1966, the section now comprises slightly over 4,000 acres of parkland surrounding the botanical garden, which was dedicated in 1985 by former Governor Thomas Kean. There's more activity and opportunity for glorious leisure in the garden and surrounding area than you ever imagined.

When we think about botanical gardens and arboreta, there are different segments of experience to consider: environmental aesthetics, information and education, research, conservation and preservation, and public service/community pride. Skylands provides all these and more. The visual aesthetics are outstanding, rewarding the explorer with exquisite vistas both within the garden and through the surrounding valleys. Historic Skylands Manor, central to the estate, provides the backdrop for this magnificent setting.

If you visit, you'll find a self-guiding brochure at each parking lot or in the Visitors Center/Carriage House open weekdays year-round and Sundays, May thru October. Here's a mini-capsule of what you'll find.

Most visitors begin the walk heading towards the Winter Garden, which holds a collection of stimulating forms, textures and colors in golds, blues and reds. Many of these specimens were planted in the mid-1920s. A long dominant red oak, the New Jersey State Tree, has stood in front of the manor house library since the 1890s. A nine-hole golf course once graced this property when it offered refuge and recreation for the most affluent of the period. The Winter Garden contains many interesting plants, including New Jersey's largest Jeffery pine (Pinus jeffreyi). The east side is dominated by a weeping beech next to an upright beech that is a century old, planted by the original owner, Francis Lynde Stetson. The bold, dark-green needles of the Japanese umbrella pine make it one of the most distinctive and handsome conifers at Skylands. Other interesting non-native trees include an Algerian fir (Abies numidica); and the Atlas cedar (Cedrus atlantica), indigenous to North Africa.

On the east side of the manor house begins the Terrace Garden, a series of five terraces, each with its own distinctive essence. The first terrace features an octagonal pool with a swan fountain adding sensory pleasure to the rock garden plants seen at waist height. Many of the plants are of a dwarf nature, but some have matured extensively such as the Dwarf Alberta Spruce which now exceeds 20 feet in height. The Sweet Bay Magnolias which flank two paths of the next terrace produce white fragrant blooms in June. Investigate the "orchards" on many of the trees--marks left by the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker looking for a quick meal of insects burrowed underneath its bark. On to the third level and you'll find an abundance of azaleas and rhododendrons in every conceivable color. In summer, the long reflecting pool contains a number of hybrid waterlilies and tropical fish. A very formal bed design greets the visitor in the Summer Garden--here you'll discover an array of day lilies and annuals. At the final terrace lies the Peony Garden which terminates at the Memorial Bench, also called the Whispering Bench. Take a guided tour any Sunday May thru October to find out the secret of this bench. Close to the terraced area is the Pinetum, a special collection of evergreens.

Other highlights include the Lilac Garden, an extensive collection of varieties and species of lilac, at its peak near the middle of May. Crossing the road you will find yourself in the Perennial Garden containing a number of beds with color from March until November. The Annual Garden, another formal garden, is original to the site, and plants change from year to year. A 16th Century Italian marble wellhead is central to this garden. The Crab Apple Vista, an allee of 166 trees extending almost a half-mile, captures the true largesse of the estate, especially at full bloom around Mother's Day. Woodland paths of the Bog and Swan Ponds, the Rhododendron and Heather Gardens express a design which conforms to and embellishes the area's natural landscape.

Historic Skylands Manor, a Tudor Revival manor built by Clarence McKenzie Lewis in the mid 1920s and designed by John Russell Pope, contains 44 rooms. Many of the rooms contain antique panelling and stained glass, some of which date back to the 16th century. Guided tours by volunteers are offered one Sunday a month March thru November, with special self-guided events in May and December.

Skylands Association, the non-profit organization benefitting the State Botanical Garden, provides the interpretive and educational support necessary for this remarkable garden. Over 250 volunteers are involved with garden maintenance and manor house restoration; as garden or manor house docents; as assistants at the visitors center and in the office; or at plant sales and the holiday open house.

For more information, Skylands Association can be reached at (973) 962-9534 or visit our website.

Upcoming Events

Nearby accommodations and attractions

  • Tamerlaine Sanctuary and Preserve
  • Join us in creating a safe haven for future generations at this 336-acre rustic oasis on historic preserved farmland. Meet and interact with over 200 rescued animal residents every Saturday and Sunday. Or call to schedule a group or school trip. Coming spring 2020 - interactive goat playground!

    141 Clove Road, Montague 07827, 973/293-1064

  • Kymer's Camping Resort
  • Located in Sussex County near the Kittatinny Mountains the camping resort offers park model, cabin and luxury tent rentals as well as trailer or tent campsites with water, electric and cable TV hookups on 200 scenic acres.

    69 Kymer Rd., Branchville 07826, 800/526-2267

  • Sparta Mountain, Iron and Edison
  • Harmony Ridge Campground
  • Outstanding family facilities near Culver Lake and Stokes Forest include over 200 sites on 160 acres, cabins, trailers, tent sites, camp store, laundry, hot showers and full range of on-site activities.

    23 Risdon Drive, Branchville 07826, 973/948-4941

  • Cranberry Lake
  • The Byram lake is a good kayaking destination.


This story was first published: Spring, 1998
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