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Building a River-Friendly Garden

By Sarah Roberts l September 13, 2021


Skillman resident Kevin Burkman’s garden concentrates on restoration of native plants—my favorite type of plants. The two-acre property he owns with his wife Margaret Martinosi has 100 native tree species, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and ferns, planted in an arboretum- like setting. Burkman says he and Margaret schedule their vacations so they can be home when there are important garden chores to do.

Kevin Burkman of Skillman holds a purple liatris from his garden.

I visited in late July to view their many meadow flowers. My first sight was of three signs, posted one above the other on his garden fence: River Friendly Resident from the Watershed Institute, Certified Wildlife Habitat from the National Wildlife Federation, and the NJ Audubon Society, and D&R Greenway Land Trust Permanently Protected Land, a sign he got as a memento when he worked as an intern for D&R Greenway Land Trust, 15 years ago, when he was studying at Cook College at Rutgers.


Burkman was a geographic information systems (GIS) specialist and mapmaker. He uses his geospatial skills as a valued member of the Montgomery Open Space Committee and the Sourland Conservancy. Last year, he created and shared a map of the Rock Brook watershed, which crosses municipal boundaries and isn’t all that easy to find on any one map. Rock Brook is the highest rated stream by the NJDEP for water quality. Burkman hopes his map will inspire residents to visit Montgomery’s cleanest stream, and to help protect it. It flows south along Hollow Road, turning east to run along the southern boundary of Skillman Park before flowing into Bedens Brook.


Burkman followed up with a map of the Sourland Mountain area created for the Sourland Stoutsburg African American Museum (SSAAM), highlighting the places referenced in the book “If These Stones Could Talk: African American Presence in the Hopewell Valley,” by Beverly Mills and Elaine Buck. Burkman and his wife have lived in Montgomery for 20 years, in a house off Hollow Road that he refers to as Burknosi Manor, combining Margaret’s and his last names.


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When he began gardening there, he was inspired by English cottage gardens, which combine a variety of flowers informally in a garden plot or border, and allow the flowers to spread and mingle, for an informal effect. In the sunny middle of his back yard, he put an island garden in this style, filled with native plants, including prickly pear cactus (yes, it’s a New Jersey native), to marigolds that he grows from seed. The backyard of Burknosi Manor is enclosed by a fence to keep the deer out, which Burkman says is a necessity to grow many native pollinator plants.

Burkman’s backyard island garden is filled with NJ native plants—prickly pear, cone flowers, and marigolds.

Outside the fence are trees, especially Eastern red cedars, a pioneer species beloved by the birds for their blue berries. Pioneer species are the first to grow up in places that are no longer mowed or plowed; the seeds are spread by birds or wind, and they grow up fast in full sun. Burkman and Martinosi’s property extends down to the Rock Brook. Along the western edge of his backyard, Kevin planted hornbeam and a hophornbeam tree, two native trees that are both known as ironwood and grow in shady places. Hornbeams have smooth, fluted gray bark and orange fall color; hophornbeams have shaggy bark and keep their brown leaves in winter. He added winterberry holly shrubs, American holly, the native fall-blooming witch hazel, redbud trees, and red twig dogwood and ninebark shrubs.


The dogwood’s red branches look especially pretty in the snow, according to Burkman. In the herbaceous layer he planted ferns, of which maidenhair fern is the most prolific, heuchera, blackeyed Susan, pink coneflower, and foxglove beardtongue. Tall, pink-flowering Joe Pye weed came up by itself. Some of these plants are from Wild Ridge Farm, some from Bowman’s Hill, and some were ordered from Prairie Nursery. Among the flowers, enjoying his front row seat, are numerous garden gnomes, replicas of 19th century German specimens!


Kevin maintains a webpage of his gardens, and it includes the history of the gardens, and a list of all of their native plants at kevinburkman.com/native-plant-landscaping.

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