GoodSeed Farm > Remembering Life as an Estate Groundskeeper

Remembering Life as an Estate Groundskeeper

Jasna Polana estate, where I was a groundskeeper in the 1970’s, is now a tournament golf course.

Estate Gardening in a Previous Life

In a previous life I worked as a groundskeeper on an estate near Princeton, New Jersey owned by a founder of consumer product giant Johnson & Johnson. At the time Seward Johnson was 84 years old, spry and enthusiastic, proud owner of many homes including an Italian villa and a palace on the Florida coast. Having recently married his third wife, he was building a fabulous mansion on 200 acres.

Johnson had met his wife while she was visiting the U.S. on a work visa from her native Poland, which at the time was still behind the “Iron Curtain”. The Lawrenceville estate was his gift to her, called “Jasna Polana” (Polish for “bright clearing”), designed to evoke the palaces of the European nobility.

The house was massive and opulent, equipped with an indoor salt-water pool and a huge game room the square size of a high school gym. This room opened onto a Bocce ball court of fine Bentgrass as smooth as a billiard table, surrounded by “hanging gardens” of perennials bordered by stone walls. The ball court and gardens were my responsibility. Each day as the sun rose I whipped the dew off the entire lawn with a long fiberglass pole, to keep the sun from scorching the fine grass. I mowed the lawn at one-quarter inch, alternating the direction every mowing, in nice neat stripes like a golf course putting green.

A twelve-foot wide walk of beautifully laid Vermont bluestone ran the length of the house, each stone surrounded by a one-inch grass strip. One of my duties was to hand-trim the grass between the with a hand shears, on my knees. I spent the rest of each day maintaining the plantings. There was a walled garden with hundreds of miniature roses, with dime-sized blooms that needed deadheading every day.

I was one of perhaps 20 full-time groundskeepers on the estate. On rainy days we worked upstairs in the equipment barn varnishing the handles of our shovels and rakes, detailing the machines. Downstairs was a stable of eight cars used by the Johnson family when they were in Princeton (about 3 months each year). This collection included a cane-sided 1930 Cadillac cabriolet, a Bentley Continental fastback coupe, and other such exotics. I remember one visit by Mr. Johnson just after he’d purchased a new Porsche 911 Turbo “whale tail” fastback. He was so in love with the car that he had it trucked to Princeton from his Florida estate, so that he could drive it while he was in town.

The landscaping was equally exotic and expensive. Johnson bought several southern plantations just to get their 200-year-old boxwoods and magnolias, which were dug up and shipped on tractor-trailers to Princeton and re-planted. No expense was spared installing landscape plants and hardscapes to old-world craftsmanship standards. Working at Jasna Polana was fascinating, but paid only minimum wage. I was restless and moved on after less than a year, coming away with many ideas about landscaping. I had experiences I will remember for a lifetime.

Jasna Polana was modeled after a traditional European estate; some called it “the American Versailles” after the world-renowned French palace. Construction went on for years. The landscaping alone cost over three million dollars, and included 200-year-old shrubs and trees transplanted from several southern plantations acquired just for the old plants.

A neighbor (heiress to the Warner-Lambert Pharmaceutical fortune) complained of being able to see the new mansion from her window. In response, a wooded hillside was created using mature trees, some fifty feet tall, to create an instant screen. A giant spruce was trucked in on a flatbed tractor-trailer, a tree so heavy that a special construction crane had to be brought in to lift it into place.

Glass-walled greenhouses on the estate produced orchids and other houseplants, which were air-shipped to wherever the Johnsons were staying. The greenhouses provided culinary herbs, long-stemmed roses and other cut flowers, and a rotation of foliage plants from delicate ferns to huge banana trees for decorating the big house. They also grew vegetable seedlings for the estate’s three-acre organic vegetable garden.

There was a sheep farm on the estate, since the Johnson’s were fond of sheep (and perhaps for the tax benefit of having the estate assessed as a working farm). The gardening staff was frequently called into action to round up the 100 or so sheep, and to clean soiled bedding out of the sheep barn.

The centerpiece of the main house was an indoor salt-water swimming pool in the classic Greek style, under a glass dome. Legend had it that the pool deck was originally paved with Vermont bluestone, cut and fitted so precisely that a dollar bill couldn’t slide into the seams between the individual stones. The story goes that Mrs. Johnson disliked the bluestone paving once it was finished, and insisted on having it removed and replaced with marble paving instead. 

All this opulence made a strong impression on me, having been raised in rural Deptford Township New Jersey under very modest circumstances. Estate homes like Jasna Polana are rarely built today, and most homes of this scale eventually become public attractions like Longwood Gardens, Winterthur Museum and the Biltmore Estate. After Mr. Johnson’s death, Jasna Polana was sold to PGA Tour Inc. and converted for use as a Tournament Players Club world-class golf course. You can find more about Jasna Polana in the present day at