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Watnong Gardens Offers Serenity, For Now

The future is cloudy for the town-owned parklet that features what Forbes called one of nation's most beautiful gardens

"Watnong Gardens is a treasure and we have an obligation to care for it and preserve it."

So said Councilman Michael dePierro at the May 15 Township Council meeting at , when discussion of town-owned lands led him to mention the little-known parklet.

The tiny approximately two-acre lot just off Route 10 at 2387 Watnong Terrace in the Morris Plains section of Parsippany consists of two occupied private homes, a shed-like structure and painstakingly tended flora: exotic plants and flowers, conifers, a Japanese maple tree, an ornamental well, a decorative train and other pieces.

The entire property was bought by Parsippany residents Frank and Helen Donn in the mid-1980s. Helen spent the following years creating an elaborate garden that began to attract interest and visitors, and in 2001, an accolade from Forbes Magazine as one of "The Most Beautiful Gardens in America."

In 2006, Frank Donn died. His widow, then 77, opted to sell the property to the township as green space. Under the deal, she was permitted to rent the main house (the other home on the site is rented by a town worker) and was expected to continue to tend her garden, which draws visitors from far and wide (though not many from Parsippany, she told Patch).

Now 83, Helen Donn isn't sure what she'll do—or what will be Watnong Gardens' fate. Tending the garden is still a more than full-time job, she noted, and it's a major strain on an octogenarian. Because the land is town property, she said Parks and Forestry department workers come periodically to cut the grass.

"But they don't know about taking care of these plants, and they've never asked me how to do it," she said while giving Patch a tour of the site. "What happens if I can't remember it all?"

Donn said she is considering moving in the not too distant future, maybe in a year or two.

"But then you don't know what is going to happen tomorrow," she said. 

Councilman dePierro told the council that he believes the town needs to step up and hire a caretaker to ensure Watnong Gardens survives, whatever happens.

"You have to see those gardens and the exotic flowers," he said. "The garden is the reason the town purchased the property. If we don't maintain it, we might as well not have bought it in the first place."

Donn agreed.

"I have put a lot into this and I still do," she said. "It would be nice to think people could enjoy the place for years to come. It would be nice to have some help."

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Par4theCourse May 23, 2012 at 03:12 PM
Well now that the Open Space ordinance has been expanded to include maintenance, let's see if the town does the right thing. This is a good litmus test to see just what the intentions were behind that manuever.
Richard July 18, 2012 at 09:57 PM
Curious - if this is now town property purchased with taxpayer money, why is the address not more widely disseminated? The address is not in the article, the parklet is not even mentioned on the municipal website! After searching, I found the address as 2379 Watnong Ter., Morris Plains, off Route 10 East just before Rt. 53.
Ruth Eisen September 05, 2012 at 07:17 PM
Very pretty pictures!
clyde donovan September 05, 2012 at 07:45 PM
Once the questionable deal with Mrs. Donn is over, the plants should be dug up donated to the Frelinghuysen Arboretum and the houses should be sold. This property should a residence producing property tax income for PTH. It should not be a tax-exempt tourist site in the middle of a residential neighborhood sucking tax dollars from the Township of Parsippany.

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