With a trowel in hand and joy in my heart”: So wrote the noted garden writer Helena Rutherfurd Ely when she set to work at Meadowburn Farm, her country home in Vernon, New Jersey. For years she took pleasure in her gardens. “Meadowburn was all very much a product of Ely’s personal vision—everything from the layout to the plants to the practical horticultural techniques that were employed there,” says garden manager Quill Teal-Sullivan, who is currently leading its preservation efforts.
A founding member of the Garden Club of America, Ely transformed the gardening world when she published A Woman’s Hardy Garden in 1903. “It met a niche in garden literature that hadn’t been met yet,” says Teal-Sullivan. Written by an American woman for American women of all horticultural levels, the book was one of the most influential gardening manuals of its time—filled with practical advice on growing (including design plans and detailed planting information), and infused with Ely’s passion for horticulture. “She inspired women to take on gardening, defying the social norms of her day,” says Teal-Sullivan. Her influence spanned generations and even inspired Martha, who read all of Ely’s books when she was designing her first garden.
For the past four years, the six-acre garden has been undergoing extensive rehabilitation. Teal-Sullivan has been working closely with the Coster-Gerard family, which has owned Meadowburn since they bought it from Ely’s son 10 years after the writer’s death in 1920. Over the years, the family made few changes, so it remains close to what Ely created. The gardeners themselves are staunch protectors of her vision, too. Ely hired a young farmhand, Albert Furman, as gardener in 1883. “She taught him everything,” Teal-Sullivan says. He passed on this knowledge to his son Albert Jr., who then passed it on to his nephew Walter DeVries, who still helps out at the property. “The gardeners were always quite stubborn,” says Teal-Sullivan of their loyalty to Ely’s legacy. “Even to this day, I’ll hear, ‘We do it this way because this is how Mrs. Ely did it.’”
Preserving the garden has been full of challenges and leaps of faith. Hedges have been eaten by voracious deer, and trees have come down due to storms or have grown tall over time, casting sunny areas into shade and vice versa. The perennial beds in the formal garden had to be dug up to combat invasive weeds. Still, the garden delights. Teal-Sullivan ultimately transplanted those perennials to the picking beds, combining them with old-fashioned annuals. The mixed borders overflow with many of Ely’s favorites—phlox, nigella, petunias, and nicotiana—and romantically recall another time. The evergreen garden includes a reflecting pool surrounded by conifers, providing a calming verdant oasis. The 150-foot dahlia allée—filled with heirloom varieties—erupts with color in late summer, as it has done for more than a century.
For nearly 40 years, Ely imbued Meadowburn with a generous spirit— welcoming visitors, offering advice, and sharing plant material. Today Teal-Sullivan and the Coster-Gerard family are keeping the tradition alive. The garden is open by appointment, with the hopes of making it even more accessible soon. “People fall under the Meadowburn spell,” she says. “You get trapped by all the beauty here, and it’s hard to leave.”