One of the most colorful events in central New Jersey this May is being held at the Sayen House and Gardens in Hamilton Township on Mother’s Day. The May 14 event typically draws thousands to see the acres of blooming azaleas, rhododendrons, flowering trees, and bulbs. The blossoms in lavenders, oranges, purples, yellows, pinks, ivories, snow whites, and blues, many of them fragrant, form a kaleidoscope of color. Music and food vendors enliven the event and swaths of green lawns give visitors a chance to spread out and watch the festivities and the beauty of the surroundings. There is also a special treat: a photographer will take free pictures of families while supplies last.
And there’s more: three miles of paths wander through the more than 37 acres of grounds. There are ponds and woods and quiet circles that give some of the Mother’s Day visitors the opportunity to escape the noise and bustle and just enjoy the stillness of nature and its peacefulness. Oh yes — and it’s free. There is no admission charge that day or any other day of the year.
The core of the gardens had its genesis more than a century ago when the initial property was bought by Frederick Sayen and his wife, Anne Mellon (as in Mellon Bank). They built what in 1912 was known as a bungalow (i.e., a beautiful house in the Arts and Crafts style that few could afford). The two were avid travelers as well as gardeners, and the property surrounding their home soon was filled with plants and flowers gathered on their world trips.
After his wife died in 1977 Sayen, then 92, began to seriously think about what to do with the property. It contained more than 1,000 azaleas, 500 rhododendrons, and numerous other trees, shrubs, and perennials. The field to the left of the entrance was rented to a farmer, who grew corn. It was beyond Sayen’s ability and interest to maintain and manage.
Jack Rafferty, the mayor of Hamilton Township at the time, was friendly with Sayen and remembers how he vacillated about what to do with the property. “Sayen was a good guy,” Rafferty says, “and didn’t want Hamilton to lose such a special place.” Other township officials agreed and an offer was made to buy the property. A developer had first rights but decided not to insert a competing bid (he did, however, build houses nearby and their above-average prices reflected their nearness to the gardens).
Rafferty, now 78, believes the Sayen property purchase was finalized in 1988. While this was almost seven years after Sayen died, it is important to note that things do not happen quickly when municipalities and estate settlements are involved. A lot of time, effort, and negotiation were involved to ensure that Hamilton retained such a special place.
The grounds were originally named the Sayen Botanical Gardens. In order to keep such a designation, plants need to be identified throughout a property. Over time the labels that Sayen had created have been destroyed by either vandals or weather and few remain. To reflect this, the place is now designated by Hamilton Township as Sayen House and Gardens, although several other websites refer to it as Sayen Botanical Gardens.
“Every mayor following me has added to the gardens and seen to their enrichment,” Rafferty says. When 10 acres adjoining the Sayen property came up for sale, they were purchased by the township to ensure the tranquil nature of the setting, increasing the original purchase to today’s 37.5 acres. The corn field has been transformed to a formal garden, officially named LaBaw Pointe and dedicated in 2003.
The most massive change, literally, occurred in 1992, shortly after Bob Wilke joined the grounds crew, working for Susan Bernhardt, the garden’s first supervisor. Wilke had just purchased a Hopewell property that contained huge boulders and saw them as an impediment. Bernhardt saw them as the opportunity to create a Japanese-influenced gateway to the original garden.
Wilke donated and trucked the boulders to the gardens. “There were a lot of muscle aches and pains involved in their placement,” Wilke says in remembering all too vividly the work involved in creating the setting. “The rocks were in slings and they were not easy to move. Several times we would put one in place and Susan would say the positioning was not quite right.” In spite of, or perhaps because of, his work in creating this setting, it is Wilke’s favorite area of the Gardens.
That year was also the first time the Azalea Festival was held, according to Rafferty. Wilke, who has seen them all, says he can only remember two times when everything was in bloom. This year’s totally erratic weather has played havoc with the flowering times of both bulbs and trees. In a recent week, temperatures were in the low 40s at the start and in the low 80s six days later. Even so, there will be an abundance of color for visitors to enjoy. Trees and shrubs that usually open after Mother’s Day will probably be in bloom and add new interest to those who have attended earlier celebrations.
Deer have always been a problem, and though the ground crew continues to plant tulip bulbs in the fall, the deer manage to eat most of them. That has led to the ratio of daffodils to tulips increasing every year. Thousands of daffodils, from early to late bloomers, border trails throughout the grounds.
Rabbits were a major pest until several years ago when nature’s balance came into play. Jean Haldeman, a 15-year veteran of the ground crew, says that various hawks and red foxes have seen to it that the rabbit population has been severely diminished. She wishes the hawks would circle her Ewing home, where her garden has been called one of the most beautiful in the community.
Brian Falconio is a relative newcomer to the crew, having joined just three years ago. While his fellow workers favor the natural or enclosed settings of the gardens, Falconio votes for the more formal LaBaw Pointe area. “I like the manicured and clean-looking vista,” he says. Carefully placed native fringe trees, bearing fragrant white flowers in late spring and yellow foliage in fall, grow there. There is also a pond in the midst of the undulating rich green lawns. Falconio does admit, however, that “mowing is a hassle.”
The crew, plus Dave Black, is busy at this time of year, in preparation for the Azalea Festival. Though none come from a horticultural background, all have acquired not only pride in their efforts but also knowledge about the wide variety of plants and their needs. There is also a great feeling of camaraderie as exemplified in the parking lot bench. While the township paid for the bench, the crew purchased its plaque, making it a memorial to a fellow member who had died. As you will see when you enter the grounds, it reads: “Mike Pfann Friend and Beloved Coworker.”
The gardens are special not only to those who are responsible for their upkeep but also to the thousands who have visited the place over the years. For many, the Azalea Festival is the major event introducing them to the beauty of the grounds. In recognizing this Mayor Kelly Yaede says: “In Hamilton, there is no greater Mother’s Day tradition than our annual Azalea Festival.”
As long time and proud Hamilton resident Jack Rafferty says, “I still get a charge every time I drive past the gardens.” Visitors, both residents and nonresidents, will get more than a charge when walking among its three miles of carefully sculpted, greenery filled paths on Mother’s Day or any other day of the year.
Hamilton Azalea Festival, Sayen House and Gardens, 155 Hughes Drive, Hamilton. Sunday, May 14, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free parking at Nottingham Fire Company, 200 Mercer Street, Hamilton. www.HamiltonNJ.com/AzaleaFestival.