Vol. LXI, No. 17
Wednesday, April 25, 2007
GRACEFUL GARDENS: "We get customers from so many places, including New York and Philadelphia, because of our outstanding variety, good quality material, and our knowledge." David Scudder, of Ambleside Gardens & Nursery, is shown by two Kotohime ("Little Harp") Japanese maple trees, known for their diminutive leaves, red in spring, green in summer, and yellow/orange in autumn.
Named for a village in the Lake District of England, Ambleside Gardens & Nursery was opened in 1965 by Townsend and Mary Scudder. Located on Route 206 North in Belle Mead, it was a smaller version of what it is today: a thriving family-owned nursery and landscape center.
"We started landscaping very early on, and we had plants, shrubs, and trees right away," says Mrs. Scudder. "We were trying hard to carry uncommon material, including tropical plants from the west coast that hadn't been seen here before. It was our raison d'etre, and we continue to be known for that."
This is the start of Ambleside's busiest season, with customers coming in for the full range of plants, trees, shrubs, mulch, peat moss, planters and garden ornaments. Despite the unseasonable cold beginning to April and the deluge of rain, everything is available.
"It is safe now to plant pansies, cold crops of vegetables, like lettuce and broccoli, and most perennials, such as primroses, bleeding hearts, Christmas and Lenten roses, and foxglove," reports Mrs. Scudder. "Also, all the trees magnolias, cherries, flowering pear, etc. and shrubs can be planted now. You want to wait until late April to plant petunias and until mid-May for impatiens, marigolds, and tomatoes.
"Vinca, an annual flower, which looks like impatiens and is pink and white, is increasingly popular," she adds. "The deer don't like it! It doesn't tolerate cold at all, so it's best to plant it in late May in sunny, well-drained soil."
A seasoned gardener, Mrs. Scudder is always glad to help customers with advice. For example, a good tip for planting is: "It's best to dig in the garden when a handful of earth will crumble. If you can make the soil into a ball, it's too wet and will clump. Also, mulch should not be deeper than an inch or so around a tree. The roots need air."
Deer are a big problem, she points out, and a major concern of customers. "We try to suggest plants that are not attractive to them, but sometimes, if they are very hungry, they will eat those too. You have to keep on top of it."
Mrs. Scudder is aware of the proliferation of misinformation that is generated today. All the more reason to get help from the experts!
"A lot of people want a beautiful garden without work. That just won't happen," she says. "People come in with information they got from the internet, their neighbors, their grass-cutter. They think they've found the 'perfect' shrub for their landscape, only to discover it won't grow at this latitude. We have been in the horticultural business here for 40 years, and we do know what plants grow where, and what need a lot of maintenance, what will take dry soil, wet soil, etc."
Gardening is good for you, she adds. Especially in this high tech age, when everyone is so rushed, it can be a soothing stress-reliever.
"Getting your hands in the soil is very basic. It's relaxing and therapeutic, and it gets people outdoors and provides exercise. You can do it together as a family with the kids. Another thing, there is no rush, no pressing deadline."
Ambleside's emphasis on unusual plants, trees, and shrubs is also evidenced by its selective pruning and grafting. Mr. and Mrs. Scudder's son, David, is an expert in this area, as well as being in charge of landscaping.
"In grafting, you splice the cutting onto a root to get the gene of the parent plant," he explains. "Now we also do top-grafting with dwarf shrubs and trees, including blue spruce, fothergilla ('bottle brush') and others, which can then grow to be 10 to 12 feet tall. A small-growing dwarf evergreen or deciduous shrub, when top-grafted, gives the impression of a small tree. This is taking nature's best and making it more available."
Mr. Scudder travels to nurseries across the country, seeking the rare and unusual. "This is the first time we have top-grafted fothergilla," he points out. "We also have a lot of unusual plants that are really centerpieces, such as dwarf Hinoki cypress. It's top-grafted, elegant, lush, and distinctive, and in different sizes and beautiful shapes."
Other top-grafted shrubs include an eye-catching gold thread cypress, dwarf Korean lilac, and forsythia.
"This makes for a well-behaved shrub," notes Mr. Scudder, referring to the forsythia. "When it is top-grafted, there are many more options in the garden. For example, you can plant more flowers beneath the forsythia. It really opens up the landscaping potential."
Mr. Scudder is a fan of Japanese maple trees. "I am fascinated by them, and now we have 40 different species here, including Ukigumo ('Floating Cloud'), which has variegated leaves in white, pink, and green, and Sango Kaku ('Coral Bark') which has reddish bark all year, with green leaves."
Landscaping is an Ambleside specialty, and there are two ways to approach it, he reports. "One is our full-service landscaping design and installation service, and in addition, for do-it-yourselfers, we offer a complimentary program here. By appointment, customers bring in a photo of their location, with scaled measurements, and we will advise them about what to plant. You need to take into consideration sun and shade, wind, etc. "
Ambleside has been the subject of articles in books, magazines, and newspapers, and has won numerous awards, including five Governor's Trophies for Best in Show at the New Jersey Flower Show.
In addition to its plant, shrub, and tree selection, the garden center is much admired for its international gift shop, featuring a variety of items from around the world. Currently, its focus is on especially handsome pottery, planters, indoor water fountains, bird houses and feeders, and garden ornaments.
"We have the nicest selection of pottery and planters ever," says Mary Scudder. "Beautiful pottery, including copper-clad in assorted sizes, standard and lightweight. We also have a 2-story bird house with a copper roof and weather vane. If you take out the inside divider and add a bottle of wine, it makes a wonderful house gift!"
There are also specific houses for finches, wrens, and bluebirds, and many feeders, including a rustic combination house and feeder.
New this year is a selection of lanterns in many colors, and the display of cast iron wall ornaments, many in the shape of elaborate crosses, is impressive.
Harmonious wind chimes and gongs (the latter also activated by the wind) are available, as is a large collection of garden statuary, from St. Francis and St. Fiacre to wood nymphs, children, and animals.
Ambleside, with its current vista of color, attractive and convenient arrangement of plantings in appropriate settings, and with descriptive maps and informative charts, is a delightful place to visit. Never more so than in the spring.
It is open Monday through Saturday 9 to 6; Thursday until 8; Sunday 10 to 5. (908) 359-8388.
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