See the secret gardens of Mountain Top Arboretum

Photos courtesy of Mountain Top Arboretum by Joan Kutcher & Marc Wolf.

Mountain Top Arboretum is the best-kept secret that shouldn’t be (shouldn’t be a secret, that is). This public garden situated on 178 acres above Tannersville is a stunning nature sanctuary for anyone interested in horticulture, birding, geology, local craftsmanship, hiking and snowshoeing through its many trails and boardwalks. Historically speaking, it was built up on Devonian bedrock. You can see, here and there, where receding sheets of ice scratched into the great exposed slabs of ancient stone a few hundred million years ago. The original owners of a summer cottage here, Peter and Bonnie Ahrens, shaped seven acres of land to grow trees in what is now called the West Meadow, for the purpose of discovering the cold-hardiness of various native and exotic species.

Established as a public garden in 1977, the Arboretum grew in size to its current acreage, encompassing meadows, wetlands and forests. The West Meadow is now planted in native grasses, wildflowers and shrubs, with a spiral labyrinth in the middle and mowed paths throughout. Elsewhere are a woodland walk with an outdoor classroom/amphitheater, the East Meadow with a wet-meadow boardwalk and fern trail. Spruce Glen has Hidden Marsh with a peat-forming wetland. The entire park is haven to wildlife of all kinds, including the humans who meander through.


“The mission of Mountain Top Arboretum is three-pronged: to practice excellent horticulture, to be a place of education and pleasure for the public and stewardship of the land,” says executive director Marc Wolf. “The Ahrens kept meticulous records on their tree propagation. Now we grow more of what typifies the sense-of-place in the Catskills, showing how beautiful and enjoyable that can be.” 

He talks more about various programs held each year: a mushroom class, a lichen walk, animal tracking and other fascinating lectures and activities. Mountain Top Arboretum has done educational programming from the beginning, but until now, these ran from May to September only. “We had a shed where you could hide from the rain, because even May can be difficult, weatherwise, at an elevation of 2,400 feet. With our new Education Center, we can program year-round: stargazing, a Valentine’s Day program, concerts. And we are working to create curriculums with the local school districts, reaching out to do educational programs. We collaborate with Mountain Top Library, Mountain Top Historical Society, 23A Arts and Greene County Water Conservation District. We’re at the top of the watershed here. We want to grow, become a part of the community.”

The nearly finished timber-frame Education Center boasts the design craftsmanship of architect Jack Sobon, a legendary timber-frame guru, and contractor Ronnie Van Valkenburgh. All the pegged framing is exposed, and some of the main upright timbers were cut with their branches intact. “This entire structure is built from trees grown in the Arboretum forest, and from some neighbors who donated trees. We have 21 native tree species represented in this structure,” says Wolf as he sits in the main hall, which opens out onto a bluestone patio.

“Not all species are perfect for using in construction, so this was hard to do. We walked around the forest with the timber-framer to decide which tree could be used where. A miller cut and shaped the wood at a mill in the Berkshires.” He holds a key that shows where each species of tree is used in the hall. “We’ll have a native tree walk to see these trees in nature. Even the floor is made from our trees: ash, sugar maple, yellow birch and black cherry.”

Outside, he points to the roof shingles, made of recycled material and looking like they’ll last forever. The building’s foundation is sheathed in stone that was removed from the ground when digging the basement. Small rain gardens surrounding the building hold water runoff and funnel it downhill to a stream. “Author and landscape architect Jamie Purinton designed the planting plan for the rain gardens, in which we try to use all Northeast US native plants; but also, around the building we’re trying to use all Catskills native plants. I find them more beautiful than plants brought in, and they’re more valuable to the ecosystem. It’s not that they’re no work. But they use less water and fertilizer because they’re adapted to these sites.”

And speaking of water, the basement holds nine 1,550-gallon tanks of reserve water. “With these, when we water, we’re not draining the well all at once. Before, we could only run one sprinkler at a time on the property. These tanks help with water pressure, so we can run more than one at a time. We only put sprinklers out where I have new plantings. Basically, we water plants to get them established, and then they’re on their own. If the lawn goes dry, it goes dry.”

Wolf, who has held this position since the spring of 2016, went to professional horticulture school at the New York Botanical Garden, where he studied and worked with one of the foremost native-plant ecological landscape architects, Darrel Morrison. He also did an internship with the Chanticleer Garden outside Philadelphia. At the Arboretum, he works with a small staff, including a part-time gardener. The Education Center is not open every day, so check the website for specific programs and activities being offered.

Dr. James Lendemer of the New York Botanical Garden will lead a Lichen Walk this Saturday, October 6 from 10 a.m. to noon. Join this lichen scientist and raconteur on an exploration of the lichens found throughout the Arboretum property.  Learn about the ecological importance of the beautiful blue, green, gray and red organisms that encrust trees and rocks. The fee for the Lichen Walk is $10 general admission, free to members.

Mountain Top Arboretum, daily, dawn-dusk, donation appreciated, 4 Maude Adams Road, Tannersville; (518) 589-3903,