The Northeast Earth Coalition

A century and half of Montclair gardening pioneers

By Jose German

Montclair has a gardening tradition dating back to the early days of its incorporation in 1868. The natural landscape of the town already seemed paradisical to many New York families who chose Montclair as a refuge from the smells, crowds, and noise of Manhattan. Many bucolic late 19th century Montclair scenes are shown in the paintings of George Innes.

By the second decade of the 20th century, the town was experiencing a transformation in the use of public space and the creation of new gardens. The iconic Edgemont Park was created in 1906, and in 1924 Charles Keck created the beautiful War World I Memorial obelisk topped by the Winged Victory.

Van Vleck Gardens traces its origins back to the township’s earliest years. Joseph Van Vleck moved from Brooklyn to Montclair in 1868 with a vision of a landscaped country estate.  The gardens evolved over the decades, with Howard Van Vleck following in his father’s footsteps in horticulture and gardening. He left a legacy of hybridized rhododendrons he created himself, some of which still impress visitors. He also designed the Memorial Garden of First Congregational Church on South Fullerton, where he was member; some of the original plantings there remain in place. The Montclair Art Museum’s 1940 Arboretum was also Van Vleck’s project.

The Olmsted firm, founded by Central Park designer Frederick Law Olmsted, planned the layout of most Essex County parks, including both Anderson and Brookdale parks. Anderson Park was the first park in the Essex County system.

One Montclair’s most unique gardens, the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens, was established in 1927 to honor Frank Presby, a noted horticulturalist and founding member of the American Iris Society. With approximately 10,000 individual plants, representing six species and over 3,000 different named varieties of irises, it is a highlight of spring in Montclair.

The Montclair Garden Club, founded in 1926, has been pursuing its mission of educating “its members and the public in the knowledge and practice of conservation, horticulture, and flower design” for nearly a century. Landscape architect and Montclair Garden Club Member Avis Campbell installed the beautiful garden that now bears her name in 1952.

Montclair in recent decades has been the home of several pioneers in ecological approaches to gardening. As a child in the early 1930’s, Bob McClean started growing his own vegetables on Gordonhurst Avenue; he never stopped gardening until he passed away at the age of 86 in 2011. Besides, growing organic vegetables, McClean early on embraced the new eco-friendly gardening movement by utilizing native plants and creating a backyard rain garden.

McClean was an inspiration to his Gordonhurst neighbor, Pat Kenschaft, who produced her family’s vegetables organically in her own yard for decades. Her open garden tours have inspired many Montclair homeowners to start growing their own food.

In 2003, a new gardening movement arrived to Montclair: the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project, led by David Wasmuth. This project is part of the National Wildlife Federation’s Garden for Wildlife program, which encourages homeowners to manage their property as wildlife havens, with the goal of maintaining healthy and diverse animal habitats and ecosystems. Over the course of five years, the Backyard Habitat Project promoted ecological gardening in town until Montclair became the first municipality in New Jersey to be certified by the NWF as a Community Wildlife Habitat, and the nineth certified community of its size in the country. Most Montclair schools and parks along with over 200 homes and several houses of worship have met the certification requirements of using native plants, providing essentials for beneficial wildlife, avoiding pesticides, and following sustainable gardening practices.

The Crane Park Demonstration Garden in Lackawanna Plaza is the newest garden in town on public land. In 2017, a group of neighbors led by Jose German, as well as members of the Northeast Earth Coalition, decided to transform the pocket park into something special. Since then, Crane Park has become a pollinator habitat in Montclair Center, featuring over 65 species of native plants selected to attract pollinators and birds. The garden was nominated for the 2021 Bowman’s Hill Land Ethics Award and is used as an open classroom to educate the community and visitors about the importance of native plants, pollinators, wildlife habitat and food production.

Building on the work of over a century of gardening pioneers, Montclair last year officially became part of the Northeast Pollinator Pathways Project, which seeks to create a corridor for pollinators running from Maine to Virginia by encouraging property owners and public spaces to adopt pollinator-friendly gardening practices. The passion and love for gardening in town has continued since the early days, evolving to meet new circumstances; as our environmental challenges have become more dire, gardening has taken on a new importance as a way of providing both sustainable food for people and crucial links for beneficial wildlife.