A million times. I must have passed it a million times on my constant commute along Route 1. A little sign, it’s just a little sign that says Ryders Lane, but it’s a sign that takes you to a big surprise. Just a few yards down the road and there’s a turn that takes you out of the mainstream and puts you next to a bubbling stream that meanders past a bamboo grove and down a tiny waterfall. Welcome to the Rutgers Gardens.

Begun in 1917 as a teaching and collections garden associated with Cook College, now part of Rutgers University, it has expanded over the years to encompass 180 acres. The first large collection, of lilacs, was established in 1928, and the succeeding decades saw the addition of other species as part of the experimental breeding program. The site now boasts a collection of hollies, a forest of rhododendrons and azaleas, a large evergreen grove, an ornamental grasses garden, and several other specific plots, all aimed at teaching students and the public about nature and her bounty.

The director, Bruce Crawford, has built on the efforts of prior visionary staff to bring attention to the gardens and encourage their use. Now tended by professional staff and a lively crew of over 120 volunteers, the gardens, which are open from 8 a.m. to dusk 363 days a year, have thriving programs for children and adults. Daily maintenance is now done by undergraduates and the breeding program is the focus of graduate students from the various disciplines at Rutgers.

Classes for the public are held every month, year round. A recent class explored the difference between a Japanese garden and a Chinese one. Another took participants through the process of planting and tending an ornamental grasses garden. Classes usually cost $47.50 and are typically two weeks long.

A recently added project is the Community Youth Garden, an offshoot of the farmers’ market held each Friday to share the wealth of produce raised on site. This program is for third through sixth graders and runs from March to October, showing children the cycle of the seasons from seed to harvest. The focus is to educate students on healthy eating and respect for the environment. An added benefit is students get to eat their own produce.

Another program offered in conjunction with the New Brunswick schools is a garden of ethnic plantings. This space gives visitors one of the first “who knew” moments of their visit. Who knew that plants from regions as diverse as India, China, Africa, or Puerto Rico could thrive in New Jersey? In fact, one of the more fascinating aspects of the Rutgers Gardens to this possessor of a black thumb was the fact that it contains two distinct microclimates within a few yards of each other. At one spot, the region is considered a Zone 6 and just a quarter mile away, a very short walk, it is Zone 7. This means that a species of holly from the Canary Islands can thrive in one spot but can’t grow just up the road.

Visitors may see one of the only examples of Dawn Redwood in the world. This soaring example of prehistory had been considered extinct before World War II. Scientists had known it only from the fossil record. The pressures from the fighting during the war drove people further into the hinterlands of China, where a valley was discovered that still supported these trees. Seeds from there were distributed around the world after the war and both Rutgers and Princeton Universities received them. The specimen at the gardens has found its home so compatible that it has propagated and the offspring is now a good 10 feet tall. (Another Dawn Redwood can be found at Marquand Park in Princeton.)

The gardens and groves are designed to encourage walking. A turn of the path in the rhododendron grove yields the delight of meeting the Lady of the Woods, a modern bronze sculpture of a young girl tucked into the greenery. The full extent of the area only becomes evident when you realize you have been walking for ages through cool shade down to the Watson’s Mill Pond or through the 70-acre Helyar Wood trails and you haven’t heard a sound that betrays the fact that a highway is just over there.

The gardens are a unique venue for weddings and parties — including a log cabin dating from 1935, a picnic pavilion, and the evergreen grove. Future plans include a new visitor center and redesigned, less intrusive roadways. Crawford also is designing a horticultural therapy program to assist those with physical, emotional, or learning disabilities. Eagle Scout projects have already helped enhance areas of the gardens in specific areas and more are encouraged. A farmers market takes place every Friday through October 30, from 1 to 6 p.m.

Support for the gardens comes from fundraising efforts utilizing the nonprofit status of the Rutgers Foundation. Membership ranges from $10 for students through $65 for families. The annual gala is scheduled for Saturday, September 12, and will include a silent auction and other events and serves as the kickoff for fundraising for the new master plan for the future.

Rutgers Gardens, 112 Ryders Lane, New Brunswick, 732-932-8451. www.rutgersgardens.rutgers.edu.

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