New Jersey has no shortage of places that continue to intrigue me, but few are as family-friendly, historical, and downright idyllic as Deep Cut Gardens in Middletown. The 54-acre park is now the horticultural heart of the Monmouth County Parks System, and it even boasts a checkered past—mobster Vito Genovese purchased the property in 1935 and re-designed the grounds to remind him of his hometown countryside of Naples, Italy. He used it as his hideaway and even constructed a pseudo-Italian rock garden with a series of cascading pools shaded by weeping hemlocks and a small-scale replica of Mount Vesuvius. But regardless of this awesome garden state history, my 3-year old is always super impressed whenever we visit Deep Cut Gardens because of all the fun spots to check out. It’s also a great place to visit during the pandemic—lots of wide-open spaces that let you practice social distancing and have a safe visit.
featured image via @strizzit
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Watch dozens of fish swim in the sparkling Koi pond at Deep Cut Gardens in Middletown
After a short walk through a meandering path from the parking lot of Deep Cut Gardens, you’ll find yourself stopping in your tracks as every little kid’s dream pops up into view—a gorgeous pond complete with dozens of brightly-colored and friendly Koi fish. If you dip your finger in the pond, a small welcoming committee swims over to say hello. While feeding the fish isn’t allowed, it’s nice to sit by the side and watch the fish go by (depending on how long your kids can sit, consider this a resting spot).
Step back in time by visiting the miniature Mount Vesuvius statue
After the mystique of the Koi fish wears off, you can take a turn down the trail that leads to Genovese’s miniature Mount Vesuvius. It’s a small replica of the rambunctious Italian volcano—the same one that erupted about three dozen times since 79 A.D. This unique volcano at Deep Cut Gardens can spout flames and smoke if a small fire is lit within it. My kiddo always asks to climb to the top and check out what’s inside—thankfully, there are always plenty of other distractions nearby to deter him.
Stop and admire the Bonsai trees
A quick turn away from the Koi pond will lead you to what we call “dino trees,” otherwise known to the general population as miniaturized bonsai trees. A few of these bonsai trees at Deep Cut Gardens are more than 100 years old. The trees are as fragile as they are stunning, so there’s no climbing allowed. They overlook cascading miniature ponds (yes, with more Koi fish), leading down to the expansive rock-enclosed garden. Kids love running beneath them and stare in awe at the twisty tangled limbs of the trees and touching a few “nicely.”
Feel like you’re in Italy at the Italian rock-enclosed garden
The centerpiece of Deep Cut Gardens is the gorgeous rock-enclosed garden. Crowned with a pergola at the far end, this element of the park has remained largely unchanged from the time Genovese first occupied the property. The walkable garden offers a beautiful rose parterre with hundreds of chubby roses in full bloom and perfectly manicured boxwoods where we always “stop and smell the flowers.” Since there’s no shade covering the garden, it’s best to visit this portion in the morning to avoid too much heat and sun.
Check out the flowers, plants, and succulents that live inside the greenhouse
An unassuming large greenhouse sits near the park entrance and is closed right now, but you can still take a peek in from the windows. Inside, there are colorful orchids, succulents, and houseplants thriving in perfect harmony. Peak orchid flowering season is mid-February through mid-March, but most plants thrive in the greenhouse at Deep Cut Gardens year-round. Surrounding the greenhouse is a quaint and well-maintained garden growing an impressive variety of herbs and flowers. Make sure you close the gate behind you, so the bunnies don’t sneak in.
What to know before you visit Deep Cut Gardens in Middletown
It’s free to get into Deep Cut Gardens, and most of the trails are open, though all the buildings are closed for now. Before visiting, you can print out a park brochure and map online so that you can plan out your trip. While there’s no food or drinks available for sale, you can bring your lunch for a picnic (with a spectacular view). And be sure to bring your mask, and remember to practice social distancing when you’re there.
Deep Cut Gardens—152 Red Hill Road, Middletown, NJ 07748 (732) 671-6050