New Jersey Botanical Gardens celebrates fall with annual festivities

The annual New Jersey Botanical Gardens (NJBG) Harvest Fest was delayed by dreary weather until Oct. 22, but it was well worth the wait.

The NJBG strives to be financially accessible, and the festival was no exception. Admission was free and attendees could choose between parking right by the festivities for $5, or for free in a lot further down the main road. The latter option included a free shuttle ride to the main area, giving passengers another chance to enjoy the trees in full autumn colors and a view of the Ramapo Mountains.

Stepping off the shuttle meant stepping into a cloud of inviting smells. Food vendors offered an array of piping hot goods to chase away the chill of the overcast day, including hot chocolate, BBQ chicken, burgers, hotdogs and tornado fries.

Festival-goers could also warm up by stepping inside one of the main buildings where an array of tables boasted handmade goods and information about the event’s sponsors, Secor Farms and Ringwood State Park. Wind chimes, jewelry, fall decorations and more filled the space with whimsy. Highlights included a raffle for a $50 gift certificate to the NJBG gift shop and a stack of books on gardening that could be taken home in exchange for donations to the Skyland Association.

The New Jersey State Botanical Garden is a 1,119-acre estate property that is a part of Ringwood State Park. Photo by Danielle Bongiovanni

Outside, attendees distracted themselves from the cold by decorating pumpkins, getting their faces painted, enjoying the live music, perusing the wares of additional vendors and hopping on a hayride.

Like always, the NJBG invited visitors to explore the grounds for free. Families flocked to the two nearest to the festivities, the Annual Garden and the Perennial Garden, to take pictures and enjoy how so many flowers were still in bloom this late into autumn.

Those who wanted to take a bit of the magic home could purchase plants grown on the property by the volunteers. Proceeds generated from the plant sale would go back into maintaining the property.

Jessica Willert, a volunteer who helped manage the sale, discussed the recent projects that required financial support. The Pump House and the Carriage House Visitor Center both had long been in need of roof repairs, which did not come cheaply.

“We support the restoration of all of the outbuildings… so they are maintained and preserved in the proper historical manner,” Willert said. “We do a lot of fundraising in order to achieve those things because just to do the Pump House roof was $60,000 and it’s a tiny building. The roof for the Carriage House will be $800,000 and the state doesn’t pay for these things.”

In addition to the one that happens at the Harvest Fest, a larger-scale plant sale is hosted each spring. The plants for sale have been raised with care by volunteers like Willert. “We propagate plants that come out of the perennial beds and from around the property… We have a small volunteer greenhouse. Over the winter, we propagate plants from mother plants and also from seeds and from cuttings.”

Willert began volunteering with the NJBG in 2021 after graduating from Rutgers University as a Master Gardener of Passaic County. She was inspired by the passion and generosity woven into the history of the NJBG, including the contributions of Clarence Lewis, a former owner of the property. He redesigned the estate to include a myriad of native and exotic plants, and donated an extensive collection of relevant literature to the New York Botanical Garden.

Today, the NJBG is listed on the National Register of Historic Places for its beauty and resources.

Willert said, “It’s one of the only free botanical gardens on the east coast, and it’s a treasure for the people of New Jersey and we just want to maintain it.”


Featured photo by Danielle Bongiovanni