For a while, we've been meaning to get to Rutgers Gardens, the 180-acre bit of bliss located not far off Route One on Ryders Lane in New Brunswick. It's tucked so securely away from the hubbub of the University that many New Jerseyans, let alone Rutgers students and alumni, know about it. Though I visited once or twice during my college years, I honestly forgot exactly where it was and how to get there. Directional signage from the major campuses is virtually non-existent, and if there's any indication from the highway, I must have missed it.
In any case, I had visions of beautiful flowering gardens, well-kept trees and shrubs, and maybe a Rutgers-bred hybrid or twenty in the mix. Given that the WPA-built Log Cabin building on the grounds is a popular wedding reception site, I figured odds were good that we'd see a newly-married couple posing amid the greenery.
The recently hitched folks weren't there yet, but the gardens didn't disappoint. Ivan and I visited on a cloudy August morning, hoping to dodge the rain that was supposed to fall sporadically through the day. We basically had the place to ourselves, give or take a dog walker or two, but it was still early.
Consistent with Rutgers' leadership in holly breeding, visitors are greeted to the site by the nation's second largest American holly collection as they drive onto the grounds. Not far away is an impressive variety of shrubs, leading Ivan to comment that RU had missed its chance to rename its mascot the Scarlet Knight who says NI! (Bring them a shrubbery, anyone? Anyone?) Evergreens, ornamental trees and rhododendrons all get extensive space, too.
Stopping by a cheery potting shed that doubles as a gift shop and information desk, we met a friendly volunteer who filled us in on the latest. The gardens were started in the 1920's as a teaching tool for students in the plant sciences and has evolved over the years to include a broad range of species. Though the land and buildings are owned by the University, the gardens are totally self-sustaining, gaining their revenue from facility rentals and events like farm markets, classes, tours and membership fees, which enables them to offer free admission to the property. In fact, we just missed the annual open house, a major fundraiser that included tours, discussions with horticulturists, a wine tasting and plant sale.
The showiest area of the property is the Donald B. Lacey Display Garden, named for the state agricultural extension specialist in horticulture who converted it from a huge bearded iris collection to a display of annuals the home gardener can grow in his or her own plot. To celebrate the display's 50th year, Rutgers Gardens' "Best in Show, Sun to Snow" theme highlights what the staff feels are the best species of annuals, perennials and vegetables to grow in New Jersey. The selections change regularly to reflect the growing and blooming seasons for each species. Just behind a locked gate was a large volunteer-run vegetable garden with tomatoes and all sorts of summer squash ripening tantalizingly.
Hikers looking for a less manicured bond with nature can check out the Frank G. Helyar Woods, a 70 acre old-growth forest of beech, hickory and oak trees. Unfortunately the well-marked 2.5 mile path was blocked by a felled tree about 20 yards in, preventing us sandal-shod explorers from trekking much further. Maybe another day, with more energy and wearing more suitable gear, we'll check it out again; it's said to be a nice jaunt out to Weston's Mill Pond and an abandoned Christmas tree farm left to grow on its own.
As we looped around the back end of the Gardens, we found another forest with a more passable trail, but that's a story for next time. Stay tuned!