Paradise on Earth: Peony’s Envy in Bernardsville

Flower power is in full bloom at Peony’s Envy farm and nursery.

Peony's Envy garden.
Photo courtesy of Peony's Envy.

As New Jersey gardens prepare to explode in kaleidoscopic color and fragrance, flower fans from all corners of America, and as far away as Europe and Africa, flock to bucolic Bernardsville to view a springtime spectacle. Thousands make the pilgrimage to Somerset County because there’s no other display garden quite like Peony’s Envy.

“If you’re a peony-crazy person, we’re a very big deal,” says Kathleen Gagan, owner of the 7-acre farm and nursery. “We are the largest open-to-the-public peony garden in the world.”

Open May 1 through June 15 every day from 11 am to 5 pm, Peony’s Envy is home to more than 500 varieties of the lavish but easy-to-grow perennial that enjoys cult status among gardening aficionados. Moseying around has been described as a tranquil experience—although it’s typical for about 100 carloads of visitors to arrive daily during peak bloom.

Gagan’s 2,000 tree peonies are the first to open in early May. Then the herbaceous coral petals bloom, followed by the pink, white and magenta varieties of yesteryear. The garden continues to blossom into the second week of June, when new intersectional hybrids put on their show.

“I especially love peonies because of their resilience, deer-resistance and beauty,” says Gagan, a linguist and international corporate communications consultant turned farmer. “Peonies are an old flower with a strong legacy. Some hybrids from the 1600s and 1700s are still the standard-bearers, having been divided, shared and passed on for generations.”

She adds, “When I was young, I had the privilege of gardening with my grandmother. It was serious business. I was only three years old, but I vividly recall picking raspberries, spotting my first hummingbird, and watching ants crawl upon the peonies. Today, my grandmother’s decades-old peony tubers reside in my own garden, and they are so special to me.”

Since weather dictates the schedule, the garden sometimes opens or closes earlier than planned, so it’s smart to check before heading to the farm. Gagan advises signing up on their website for weekly messaging that describes exactly what’s unfolding. Garden access is $5 per person, and visitors may purchase potted peonies and cut flowers from the nursery.

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