Have you ever wondered what it would be like to be an estate gardener? Perhaps you have visited the Biltmore Estate, Longwood Gardens or other private estates now open to the public. These places have “no charge” buildings and landscaping, maintained by professional gardeners as well as a small army of seasonal helpers and volunteers. In the eyes of visitors, these gardeners on the estate probably seem to like dream jobs.
I once worked as a gardener at an estate near Princeton, New Jersey owned by J. Seward Johnson, founder of consumer products giant Johnson & Johnson. At the time, Johnson was 84, lively and enthusiastic, the proud owner of numerous 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 United States 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 “thinning”), designed to evoke the palaces of European nobility. It was built with individually packaged pink granite stones shipped from Europe, dressed and laid by a team of stonemasons on loan from the Polish communist government. Polish ironworkers created ornate wrought iron gates and fences. The new home was massive and opulent, equipped with an indoor saltwater pool and a downstairs “game room” about the square footage of a high school gymnasium. This room opened onto a bentgrass petanque court as smooth as a pool table, surrounded by “hanging gardens” of perennials lined with matching stone walls. A twelve-foot-wide boardwalk of beautifully laid Vermont bluestone ran the length of the house, each stone surrounded by a one-inch band of the same bentgrass. One of my jobs was to hand trim the grass between the rocks the entire length of the boardwalk with a hand shear, on my knees. The ball diamond and surrounding gardens were my responsibility. I was one of 20 full-time gardeners on the estate. Every day as the sun rose, I removed the dew from the entire lawn with a long fiberglass pole, to prevent the sun from burning the fine grass. I mowed the lawn to a quarter inch, alternating direction with each mow, leaving nice clean stripes like a golf course putting green. I spent the rest of the day tending the plantations. There was a walled garden with hundreds of miniature roses, with penny-sized flowers that had to be cut every day. The groundskeeper (my boss) was against 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 at Princeton (about 3 months a year). This collection included a cane-sided 1930 Cadillac convertible, a Bentley Continental fastback coupe, and other exotic cars. I remember a visit from Mr. Johnson just after buying a new “whaletail” Porsche 911 Turbo. He was so enamored with the car that he had it trucked to Princeton from his Florida estate, so he could drive it while he was in town. The landscaping was equally exotic and expensive. Johnson purchased 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 replanted. No expense was spared in installing landscape plants and hardscapes to the standards of old world craftsmanship. Working at Jasna Polana was fascinating, but only paid minimum wage. I was restless and moved on after less than a year, coming away with many landscaping stories and ideas. Interested in more details about life and landscaping in Jasna Polana? Be sure to catch next week’s “Let’s Grow” for Part II. To learn more about Jasna Polana, check out these websites:
A good article on the history of the estate and its conversion into 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 landscaper/installer specializing in outdoor living spaces. “Let’s Grow” is published weekly; the column archives are online at www.goodseedfarm.com. For more information, call GoodSeed Farm Landscapes at (937) 587-7021.