Beautiful Bounty

An avid—read obsessed—Somerset County gardener defies New Jersey climate with her extravagant tropical garden.

The tropical plants around the pool in the Gajewskis’ backyard shoot skyward in summer, lending the property a jungle-like feel.
Photo by Laura Moss.

Soon after moving to her upscale Somerset County neighborhood, Rebecca Gajewski was happily weeding her flowerbeds, when a puzzled neighbor asked why she was doing the labor herself.

“She couldn’t believe I didn’t hire someone to do the digging,” says Gajewski, an anesthesiologist, who is married with three children. “But my heart and soul are this garden and my kids.”

The daughter of a gentleman farmer, Gajewski had harbored a lifelong dream of creating the perfect garden. She got her chance in 1998, when the family moved to a recently built home on a sparse, 2-acre plot in view of the Watchung Ridge. Over the next decade, she devoted time, energy, and considerable resources to creating a paradise with tropical overtones, that make it easier to imagine yourself south of the border than west of the Parkway.

“I didn’t want your typical New Jersey landscape of evergreens and rhododendrons,” she says. “I wanted to create a peaceful, beautiful environment. I wanted you to be taken to another world.”

Gajewski created that world all around the home with blooms selected to attract bumblebees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. Within a framework of flowering ornamentals, she laid a carpet of pink roses complemented by a sea of Provence lavender. Near the in-ground pool, surrounded by citrus and banana trees that she winters in an imported greenhouse, water trickles from stone fountains.

The landscape is elegant with a touch of the exotic. “It’s a garden that appeals to all the senses,” says Gajewski.

“There’s nothing like putting your face right in those big white flowers,” she says of the showy petals of her sweetbay magnolias.

In good weather, the Gajewski family enjoys dinner on the patio. As dusk settles, Jersey’s humid air ushers in an olfactory rush from six varieties of butterfly bushes.

Across a gentle slope leading to the stand of trees at the rear of the property, tiny, moth-like butterflies swarm in white clouds, creating a magical effect that neighborhood children liken to fairyland.
“It’s surreal,” Gajewski says.

Named by her father after the title character in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, Gajewski has had the gardening bug since girlhood.

The fifth of six children raised in New Jersey by a businessman and a stay-at-home mom, Gajewski and her family spent weekends on a 100-acre dairy and organic-vegetable hobby farm in Hunterdon County. “My mother loved flowers,” she says. “Zinnias, dahlias, sunflowers, impatiens, and roses—I was forever watering.”

When Gajewski and her husband bought their home, the yard was “hideous.”

“The first thing I did was put in the pool and start the garden,” says Gajewski, who was pregnant with their first child when they moved in. “I didn’t even care if I had furniture.”

Gajewski found the perfect partner in Fred Judith, who owns Landplan Landscaping, which has locations in Plainfield as well as Florida and Virginia. A gardening daredevil, Judith quickly graduated from advising horticulturist to best friend. “He’s an artist,” she says. “He’ll call and say, ‘I’m in a nursery in Florida, and you won’t believe what I just found—frangipani,’ which is what Hawaiian leis are made from. He finds very cool things you won’t find in nurseries here—the rare and the exotic.”

When designing, Judith considers customers’ lifestyles, budgets, and maintenance wishes, along with color scheme, sun exposure, and the land itself. The Gajewskis, he says, were dream clients: informed, willing to work, and eager to experiment. During frequent European visits, they would browse the great gardens of Italy and France and return brimming with ideas.

Obviously, Judith knew he could not recreate the gardens at Versailles, but he could go for the dramatic. He suggested everything from giant date palms and olives to five varieties of bamboo and air plants like staghorn ferns.

“We did things on a grand scale,” he says. “It’s always trial and error. But Rebecca’s one of those people who will take the extra care to make her garden stand out.”

The original plantings of mature ornamentals—including eleven Southern and sweetbay magnolias, redbuds, blue atlas cedars, dogwoods, camellias, and Japanese maples—were eventually accented with giant boulders and an outsized Buddha head.

The initial cost was an estimated $50,000. Some women buy gold jewelry and Gucci handbags. Rebecca Gajewski buys $500 trees.

She combs dozens of gardening books, refusing to let her location frustrate any of her grand notions, choosing exotics like needle palms that are not supposed to thrive in the New Jersey area—a.k.a. zone 6.
“Both my plants and I are in zone denial,” she says. “They don’t know they’re here in New Jersey. They’re happy.”

She divides her year into plotting, gathering, and planting. “I have a cup of tea and call Fred,” she says of those times when land lies fallow and her imagination blooms. “I’ll have visions: All white!”

Everyone in the family sports a green thumb. Her husband would rather scour garden centers with his family than watch sports on TV. All three children can rattle off plant names as easily as their ABCs. “They’ll say, ‘There’s an angel trumpet!’ ” says their proud mom. “They know it grows in South America and you can only smell it at night.”

Every year, from the end of April through Memorial Day, Rebecca is a gardener obsessed, spending hours every day, tending her beds.

She looks forward to Judith’s return from Florida—where he spends part of the year scouting garden goodies—as eagerly as a kid waits for the ice cream truck. “No matter what he finds, I say, ‘Do you have two?’ Because he gets one and I get one.”

Her annual budget is an estimated $4,000, which covers new plants and 50 flats of annuals, including impatiens, ageratum, dahlias, and snapdragons. Each fall, she and the kids plant thousands of bulbs beyond the pool and into the woods. Gloves—and hired help—are for sissies.

“No one helps me plant except the kids, because they wouldn’t do it right,” says Gajewski, although she does farm out mowing and mulching.

A “clumper,” she always plants in threes, fives, or sevens. Her taste in flowers runs to white, followed by pink, purple, and blue, with a dash of yellow. “It’s a swale of color,” she says. “It just flows.” No red or orange. Just the thought causes her to wrinkle her nose as if she’s found a rotten tomato in the back of the fridge.

The garden is a perpetual project. “I’m always finding new things and redoing areas,” she says. “It’s taken on a life of its own.”

Dawn Shurmaitis is a freelance writer. Her home garden is wet and shady, with more rocks than soil. 

The Tropics, Jersey-Style

In plant parlance, Fred Judith is a  “zone bender.” He routinely bends the rules regarding USDA hardiness zones by growing huge, lush tropicals like bananas, elephant ears, and angel trumpets in the Garden State.
All it takes, he says, is adherence to a few simple guidelines.

“I’ve got so many tropicals at my house in Plainfield it’s known as the ‘Chiquita banana house,’ ” says Judith, owner of Landplan Landscaping.

Judith, who’s been in business for 22 years, is gardening kin to Somerset County resident Rebecca Gajewski, who winters her exotics in a greenhouse so she can pluck Persian limes, juicy lemons, star fruit, and miniature oranges in the dead of January.

There are numerous ways to store dormant plants. Advice varies, so be willing to experiment.
Certain tropicals can survive without greenhouses, Judith says, as long as they “vacation” in an attached garage or basement that stays above freezing. He likes tropicals like elephant ears because in summer they get big fast, and winter well.

Once the leaves on the elephant ears turn a bit brown, cut back the stems to about six inches and dig up the bulbs, suggests the Gardener’s Corner website at the University of Illinois Extension. Wash off the dirt and store someplace that gets a little air, packing with material like sawdust to encourage a little moisture. Keep in the dark until early spring, repotting a month or two before the last frost.

For angel trumpets, Judith says to cut back the branches before wintering them in some soil in old nursery pots. They should be watered once a month as they lie dormant in the dark.

When the angel trumpets are returned to the soil in May, they should spring back to life, thanks in part to New Jersey’s humid air. “What we curse, the tropicals love,” says Judith, who suggests planting them in full sun away from the house in rich soil that provides excellent drainage. Choose good organic compost that meets mineral requirements. Plant thickly for a lush tropical look and water frequently.

As for banana plants, eventually they will get too big to drag in for the winter, so Judith says to pluck off the “pups” from the mother plant and pot them with a little soil, watering once a month. In spring, cut back the plants, repot in new soil, water well, and fertilize heavily. Slowly reintroduce them to light.

Depending on the type, the banana won’t necessarily produce fruit, but incredible foliage will dazzle all summer.

Still hesitant about trying tropicals? Judith says just think of the wildly popular impatiens, a hardy annual you find in gardens everywhere. Where are they from? The tropics.

“Most annuals are tropical plants,” he says. “Just don’t tell them they’re in New Jersey.”

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