A Humbling Experience, A Rare Privilege & A Stroll Through a Living Museum

     A perfect sunny day in early November, last year, had me experience one of my life’s great moments. John Mohr, my Iseli Nursery salesperson, invited me to experience, first-hand, one of the finest gardens in the Garden State. Hold on… not just the Garden State, this garden is as good as any I have seen in the United States or Europe for that matter. One of the rare moments in my life where time stood still, an atemporal experience, where the pressures of every day disappeared and a calm, surreal experience had me imbibing nature’s best offerings, all while getting an education of a lifetime. And all this happened just a few short miles from New Jersey’s coastline in Wall Township.

     Years ago I remember reading, legendary musician, Pete Townshend’s words as he spoke reverently about Jimi Hendrix and Prince. On separate occasions he described both as “quantum genius.” Well garden readers there is a self-taught plantsman here in New Jersey, Ed Shinn, who is just that to the garden world. Ed and his wife Debbie opened their home, kitchen and garden to a select few on this November day and the entire experience was “quantum.” Arriving at their home, I immediately knew this was going to be a special day. One of my favorite trees greeted us from the street. Standing tall, straight and firm was an impressive China Fir, Cunninghamia lanceolata ‘Glauca’. Close to this was a Katusra tree, Cercidiphyllum japonicum ‘Heronswood Globe’ standing some 20 feet plus. This may not seem like a big deal to many at this point, but given the rarity of these plants and their imposing size, plants people take notice, this was only the beginning.

     Making my way around the side of their home, I was met with some 25 different Ginkgo cultivars being grown in containers, there are nearly 60 on the property though, for Ed’s evaluation. Ed, as it turns out, is courted by many of the top plant breeders, growers and educators in the world to evaluate new and exciting plants, seeing if they have merit. Ed’s fervent love for horticulture had him routinely intertwining strenuous Latin names with many of his plants history. Ed also merged the efforts, talent and expertise of many of the world’s top plant people whose efforts helped with the Shinn’s collection. Ed did all this seamlessly, in such a casual, relaxed manner, probably because many whom he referenced are dear friends. A property that has over 1,000 maples, some 500 conifers and hundreds of companion plants, in 2015 alone, the Shinn’s added some 250 new plants to their collection. Hydrangea, hosta, dogwood, magnolia, boxwood and even a Forsythia ‘Carol Hanby’ all help support his maples. A pundit on Japanese maples, Ed recently returned from France, giving a keynote talk on the subject. His ability to understand all things horticulture was inspiring, humbling and a strong lesson in academia all at the same time.

     Candidly Ed spoke about the redundancy of plants today in the marketplace. Every plant is professionally labeled in their garden! If they weren’t, Ed said, “it would be hard to tell some apart from others.” I also appreciated his wit saying that “most could graft a Ginkgo with the dull side of a butter knife.” Having taken a few grafting classes in my time, trust me, grafting is an art form.

     Leisurely strolling through his garden, just listing all the plant names I saw would obliterate the word count I am held to when writing these articles. Two particular favorites, on this day, were a Finetooth holly type, Ilex serrata ‘Koshobai’ and a dwarf tree, Acer platanoides ‘Stand Fast.’ ‘Koshobai’ “a rarely encountered, fine-textured, dwarf deciduous shrub. Purple-tinged new growth is complemented with the cutest display of tiny red fruit” (brokenarrownursery.com). ‘Stand Fast’ “is a miniature Norway maple type that has small, dark green leaves; ruffled and clustered at the ends of the branches” (plants.ces.ncsu.edu). This tree is said to only grow 1-3 feet; the Shinn’s is 5-6 feet.

     Standing at the back end of the Shinn’s property, looking towards their home, a towering Ginkgo acted as a beacon with its gorgeous butter-yellow fall markings. Ed was quick to point out that this tree is a sort of barometer for fall color to come in their garden. However, this year’s kaleidoscopic hues may be muted as the last several months, before this visit, have been extremely dry. Ed said, “Many Fullmoon maple, Acer japonicum, leaves may just go from green to ground this year,” time will tell?

     The Shinn’s garden, nearly three decades in the making, is not far off the Garden State Parkway. A scant 4 miles from the Jersey Shore coastline, sitting comfortably in what Ed calls zone 7B. Their soil, a loamy consistency, “it’s a good place to garden,” Ed said. He doesn’t add any amendments when planting, Ed simply “digs and drops.” A befitting planting field for the likes of Monkey Puzzle, Araucaria araucana and a hybrid Aralia Tree Ivy, X Fatshedera Lizei ‘Curly,’ the Shinn’s garden location brought out an appetence in me. The garden is showing signs of “growing pains,” as some overcrowding is beginning to develop. Have no fear though, Ed’s relationship with many of the top arboretums, public garden spaces and his “friend network” has him paying it forward, sharing many of his prized treasures. This, no doubt, will help create an optic wonderland in many other gardens, showcasing many of his plants not yet catalogued in books. Ed’s opinions, knowledge and photographs are highly sought after and he is referenced around the globe. Finally, the Shinn’s resplendent garden, aside from its vast varieties, has bold texture and meandering pathways. Scale and balance are met with punctuations of metal sculpture and concepts such as planting big to small and obeying the “law” of significant enclosure (Garden Design Magazine, Landscape Design Principles For Residential Gardens by Rob Steiner) are evident. With that said, if I were judging this garden in a competition, it would certainly finish best in show!