NORTH BRUNSWICK, NJ—If the Garden of Eden were in Middlesex County, it would be Rutgers Gardens, especially in blooming months.
Tucked snugly behind Route 1 and Ryders Lane, kissing the tranquil Weston Mill Pond, the unassuming 178-acre retreat is known to local nature lovers as a simple yet indispensable sanctuary of green peace and quiet reflection.
But with solid growing support from the community—young, old, and canine—Rutgers Gardens hosts more fruitful activity than ever.
“We have about 300 volunteers that plant in May with our designer and Horticulture Manager, Monica McLaughlin,” said Director Bruce Crawford during a walk around the 91-year-old grounds while discussing new programs, plant evolution, and Crawford's favorite tree: the white beech.
Recently, an English professor brought a class to read and discuss Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem “Trees” (1913), which was inspired by the poet’s walks near and throughout the Gardens. (“…Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.”)
Even with the organized buzz, the Gardens, though the land is owned by Rutgers, surprisingly does not receive funds from the University, a testament of its strength as a vital and unique park of the area, an area engulfed by much concrete.
“Funding, besides bringing visitors in during quiet months, is our biggest challenge,” Crawford said.
Not surprisingly, Crawford plans to change that.
“I was hired to make the Gardens more sustainable and bring Rutgers back into the Gardens, to bring the departments together here. Ideally, we’d have walking access from Douglass campus and a bus loop added to drop off students, staff, and faculty.”
FUN FOR THE WHOLE FAMILY
50The Gardens are accessible and open to the public year-round at no charge, and numerous family-friendly programs are offerred seasonally.
The whole family can learn how to plan, plant, tend, and harvest a garden of their own at the Family Garden Club.
Kids in the club and Summer Exploration Camps explore the Meadow Labyrinth, Frog Pond, Woodlands, Bamboo Grove, and the Rain, Flower, and Vegetable Gardens while learning about plant diversity and life cycle.
Healthy diets and activity are cultivated during veggie tasting, hikes, and tree scrambles, and the underground peanuts and potato “Scavenger Hunt” is a perennial favorite.
All of these programs teach kids and families the basics of horticulture, reward them with what they grow, and brings them closer to the understanding of nature’s sustainable balance—fun included.
Besides hosting weddings, the annual Spring Flower Fair (May 9-11), and a glorious backdrop for photographers, the Gardens now provides classes for both garden enthusiasts and Master Gardeners.
The courses range from pruning techniques and container gardening for homeowners, to landscape sketching, "mixed bordering," and seed saving.
Limited garden plots are even available for a membership fee of $45, including seed, mulch, and fertilizer.
"WHY SHOULD A TOMATO BE RED?"
“I think a lot of people don’t recognize the significance of plants. When visitors come here, we want them to take-away some helpful facts,” Crawford said enthusiastically, offering a glimpse of his ecological knowledge.
“Photosynthesis fascinates me because there is no mathematical equation for it. But if we could really grasp it, we could become carbon neutral.”
Whether it’s cutting information or just a little imagination nature lovers are after, the Gardens provides with a carousel of noble trees, brilliant bouquets, and pristine grassy areas.
"Walks and talks" tours, held on the first and third Saturday of each month, feature interests of the season and bring visitors through the history of Earth’s plant culture, from the Gardens’s giant flowering magnolias and bamboo forest (whose species date back 110 million and 36 million years ago, respectively) to the farming plots where new hybrids are being discovered today.
“Why should a tomato be red?” said Crawford. “There are some excellent purples, yellows, and whites.”
Boosting the Gardens’s flavors is the delicious weekly Farmer’s Market, held on Fridays from June to December. It’s a friendly buoyant market where browsers can talk to farmers and sellers about their products and meet new friends along the way.
There’s organic kale, herbs, and other veggie staples; ground buffalo, steaks, chicken, and bacon from local grass-fed livestock; nuts of all sorts; artisan cheeses, sweets and ice-pops; fine breads like olive and rosemary loaf; even alpaca socks.
All the products are of exceptional quality fit for any foodie and are locally sourced—a beacon of environmental hope when the average food item in the US travels 1,500 miles from a factory farm. Local restaurants are catching on too, increasingly gathering their weekend goods at this “one-stop” market.
Besides the events described above, and with added support, the Gardens seeks to build an eco-café, a bike route and rental shop in the vacant fields adjoining Heylar Woods, a “true” visitor center, and even a bridge path that offers a bird’s eye view of the Gardens.
“The University has a few community portals: athletics, the Zimmerli Museum, geological studies, The Rutgers Film Co-op and, of course, there’s us,” Crawford said. Rutgers Gardens: an unexpected garden of peace and wellness, the green Eden of New Brunswick.