Posted by: groundsforsculpture | July 27, 2010

The Artistic Arboretum

By Christine Thomas, Docent Volunteer

A version of this article was published in the May – June 2010 issue of Green Scene Magazine.

Grounds For Sculpture is a 35-acre sculpture park and arboretum located in Hamilton, New Jersey. Large contemporary sculptures lead you along your route to the Grounds and you think, this place is all about the sculpture, right? Then you step out of your car. Along the walkway there are waves of turf with undulating metal edging, and you know then that this is a very different kind of arboretum.

Here, plants are no less sculptural than the artwork they enhance. Over 25 species of ornamental grass and bamboo are used as hedging, accents, and herbaceous borders. Pennisetum Karley Rose, accented by its pink inflorescences in June and July, leads you along a curving walkway from the Visitor Center to access the park. Leymus, Panicum and Festuca look like a blue haze planted around a pond filled with lotuses. A bamboo grove becomes part of the sculpture Erotica Tropicallis. Go through the bamboo path, past skulking voyeurs, to Seward Johnson’s sculptural rendition of Henry Rousseau’s The Dream.

It is hard to believe that this lush garden was the old dilapidated New Jersey State Fair Grounds in 1989. Then, it was a flat vacant wasteland with part of an old race track, abandoned exhibition buildings, and “crummy soil” according to Brian Carey of AC/BC Associates, architectural and landscape designer for the park. In less than 20 years, the original 17 acres and 12 trees have grown to 35 acres and more than 3000 trees and shrubs. With the excavation of berms, ponds, and watercourses, the flats have been sculpted into a charming, contoured setting that obscures the industrial surroundings and becomes a backdrop for the sculpture.

Lacebark Pine. Photo by Christine Thomas.

This rapid transformation was due in part to tree donations and to Carey’s ability to rescue many large specimens from construction sites and abandoned nurseries. Six Lacebark Pines (Pinus bungeana) were saved from demolition with only a few days’ notice. These three-needled pines with mottled exfoliating bark are some of the finest examples of the species anywhere. Hundreds of maples, grown inches apart, were transplanted from the defunct Princeton Nurseries, to become a tunnel of color in the fall. Carey explained, the trees were “dug in blocks of eight, like sausages,” then spliced back together to create a narrow allée. “Surprisingly, only one tree died.”

Maple Alley. Photo by Christine Thomas.

When it comes to handouts, Carey will “take anything with interesting or exfoliating bark,” including thorns. An area unofficially known as the “pain garden,” groups Thorned Honey Locust, Castor-aralia (Kalopanax pictus), Pyracantha, and Trifoliate Orange (Poncirus trifoliata). Throughout the park, look for trees donning ornamental bark, such as Stewartia, River Birch, Parrotia, and Paperbark Maple. Carey uses these textures like an artist applying patina to a sculpture.

Conifers abound with over 15 species of pines. A collection of deciduous conifers produces a splendid palate of spring and fall colors. In front of the Museum Building stands a 50-year-old Hinoki Falsecypress donated by Tom Dilatush. Rare fastigiate (fastigiate means ‘with parallel, erect, clustered branches’) conifers from Nancy Vermeulen spot the landscape. Not to be missed is the towering Golden Oriental Spruce (Picea orientalis ‘Aurea Compacta’). Portals of weeping pines and spruces transport you from a wisteria covered arbor to the Visitors’ Center.

Do not overlook the water garden. Here Carey “shows water used in as many ways as possible,” including fog that circulates around sculptures and around the sculpture-like leaves of Coltsfoot (Petasites japonicas). A Camperdown Elm has been placed like an umbrella to keep you dry.

Water Garden with Kiki Smith's, Untitled, 2006. Photo by Christine Thomas.

Walk through the adjacent Domestic Arts Building, enjoy its indoor exhibits, a café and bookshop, and go out to the Acer Courtyard, home of 47 rescued Japanese Maples. Relax, have a seat at one of the courtyard tables, and reflect on this unique arboretum and its sculptures.

The Author, Christine Thomas is a horticulturist as well as docent at Grounds for Sculpture.



  1. Lovely article Thanks.

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