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Go to the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens

Bloom peak expected last week in May; free family programs and weekly music events

This week I'd like to recommend a visit to a one-of-its-kind botanical garden less than five miles from downtown West Orange.

If you've never been to the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens on Upper Mountain Avenue in Montclair, I hope I can convince you to make a visit.

If you have, you'll definitely want to go again for this year's new and expanding offerings including a free Family Garden Party, a free al fresco family movie night, and a music series.

For flower lovers, the garden offers the largest collection of iris in a public park on the planet, with over 10,000 plantings that will put out a show of 100,000 collective blooms at peak in a full-spectrum color kaleidoscope.

Or if you like picnicking, photography, people-watching, painting, or simply admiring Nature’s endless panorama, you’ll have a good time too.

The Presby's executive director Linda Sercus described the garden as a "living museum on the hill." That holds true when you consider that the garden's collection spans from the first collected iris specimen in the 1500s, a mid-size white bearded beauty called "Florentina," to recent hybrids.

I half-expected that a 500-year old specimen would be under glass or behind a fence. Quite the contrary, Sercus walked me over to show me the blooming Florentina in bed number five, a brand-new plant for all its genetic lineage.

Iris are one of the most common spring bloomers in gardens worldwide, loved for their variety and reliability, Sercus told me.

And, they are easy multipliers, a boon for both the home gardener and dedicated horticulturist.

Because of these traits, it's no surprise that "iris are traditionally one of the most popular 'pass-along' plants in America's gardening history," said Sercus.

You can experience this pass-along quality yourself by reserving a grab-bag of the garden's excess rizomes, or bulbs, to plant in your own garden this summer. Click here for complete ordering information.

Sercus said she hopes gardeners will post photos of the irises they grow from the garden’s collection on the Presby's Facebook page.

In response to my question about , Sercus said that Presby volunteers will be able to guide me to a match by comparing bloom type, color, height, bloom time, and foliage.

During my visit last week, I noticed a staff member carefully working with a small blowtorch to eradicate weeds. Sercus explained that the garden returned to organic pest and weed management methods five years ago.

Since the garden lies on public land at the base of a hill, any pesticides, chemical fertilizers, or herbicides used in the garden could end up into the public water supply, she said.

It's an easy half-hour stroll to meander by each of the 38 beds, but just as worthwhile to spend time getting to know one section. Just like a museum, you can go back time after time to learn about different parts of the collection, catch a guided tour, or revisit your favorites.

Visit the Presby's website for a schedule of events and a live bloom-cam.

There is no fee to enter the garden but there is a suggested $5 per person donation. Visitors will receive a booklet with detailed self-guided tour information, kid-friendly iris legends and lore, planting instructions, and the garden's history.

I used to live a few blocks from the garden and can clearly remember my jaded response to seeing the garden for the first time in winter. I wondered what the big deal was about the mounded empty beds studded with metal plant markers. I was glad to have my mind changed come spring.

Living so close to New York City, our proximity to world-class landmarks can make it all too easy to put off visits till "someday." But like life, bloom season is short. Plan a visit before the end of the month to enjoy this year’s show.

When you go:

Admission, dining and parking information

The non-profit Citizens Committee of the Presby Memorial Iris Gardens runs the garden's operations in partnership with Essex County and Montclair. No public funds are used to maintain the collection, according to Sercus.

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