Fame often goes to people’s heads. In Brian Sakowski’s case, however, it went to his front lawn in Hamilton.
His moment of national fame occurred earlier this year, when Country Gardens magazine—with nearly a million readers across the country—featured Sakowski’s garden in its early spring issue. There’s mid-Atlantic prominence too. Two years ago, his garden was awarded a blue ribbon by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
While Sakowski’s decision to do away with his front lawn and design a garden to replace it had been simmering for awhile, knowing of those moments in the gardening spotlight was just the spur he needed. After all, the site of most of his gardens is away from public viewing in the back of his house. Today, should you drive along Arena Drive, you can easily spot his residence as it is the only one with a beautifully designed, colorful garden rather than a cookie-cutter green lawn in front of the house. And, as is true of all gardens, it is a work in progress as Sakowski continues to add new plants.
A born and bred Hamiltonian, Sakowski’s horticultural celebrity is particularly impressive considering that he does not come from a gardening family. His parents were part of the decades-long migration from Trenton and had bought his house when it was being constructed as a part of a development in 1958. His father, who worked for U.S. Steel as a recorder, helped in part of the construction. His mother was a homemaker, busy raising Sakowski and his three younger siblings.
There was little time or interest in gardening. Sakowski, however, was always captivated by nature—though not necessarily by flowers and shrubs. That began to change when he was assigned a mail route in Princeton 29 years ago.
There were gardens all along the route, and Sakowski couldn’t help but admire them as he walked by and particularly when the owners were out digging or planting. Gardeners not only like to talk about their plants, they also like to share them (this is not quite as generous as it might initially appear—in digging up and sharing a plant, a gardener acquires more room for additional flowers).
One of his first gifts was a group of daffodil bulbs that a gardener had dug up for him. When she opened her front door to get a piece of paper identifying the particular daffodil, her dog ran out and bit Sakowski. Ah yes, the trials of being a letter carrier.
“It was the last time I was bitten,” Sakowski reports, and that gardener, totally mortified, went on to give him many more plants over the ensuing years, the only time in his post office career that a dog bite led to continuing rewards.
As he acquired more flowers and shrubs as well as lots of advice while on his routes, Sakowski thought it would be prudent to get a more formal horticultural education. He enrolled as a Master Gardener in 1994 and participated in one of its earliest graduating classes. In return for their education, Master Gardeners are required to put in time staffing hot lines and answering questions from gardeners throughout Mercer County. His wife, Anita, thought that was a great idea because it gave her free time while Sakowski took their two sons—Nick, then aged 5, and Brian, then 8—and encouraged them to work on their coloring books or read comics while he gave gardening advice over the phone.
With his Master Gardener status, Sakowski further pursued his garden education by visiting flower shows, especially the Philadelphia Flower Show. When at that event several years ago, he saw a low growing plant with purplish black, grass-like foliage. While its sign said it was Ophilpogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens,’ the woman next to him explained that it was known as black mondo grass, that she was from Maryland, and that if Sakowski gave her his address, she would send him a division from her garden. To his great surprise, he received a package a week later with the plant carefully packed inside.
Sakowski’s garden is filled with many more wonderful stories. The red maple tree growing by the driveway entrance is from a seedling that a homeowner gave him 20 years ago. The beautiful pink annual geranium was being tossed a long ago fall by another homeowner along his route. Sakowski loved the color, asked for a cutting, and has admired its flowers ever since, overwintering the geranium in his greenhouse.
One of his rhododendrons had been scheduled for demolition along with the Princeton house where it was growing. Sakowski asked and received permission to save it, which he did on his day off. Its lustrous light purple flowers have decorated Sakowski’s grounds every spring for the past five years.
Sakowski’s rescue efforts include garden tools and ornaments as well. His shovel, rake, dibble, and pitch fork were gifts from a woman on his route who was moving and no longer had any use for them. “I think of her and the conversations we had every time I use them,” he says.
When another homeowner was about to throw away a stone planter because of a slight crack, Sakowski took it and has been filling it with annual flowers ever since. “And the crack has never gotten bigger,” he adds.
Sakowski’s garden talents are known all along his route—even to builders tearing down houses. One asked Sakowski if he would like to have the garden ornaments left behind on a property to be cleared. Well, of course, the answer was yes and Sakowski’s back garden is now adorned with a stone bird bath and a contemplative stone angel. Another gives Sakowski carte blanche to dig up plants before a property is cleared for rebuilding.
Perhaps the most important components of Sakowski’s gardens are the friendships that they exemplify. (Full disclosure: I count myself among those who have given plants and even received some from Sakowski.) These friendships extend beyond the gardeners along his route. Last summer, he and Anita were invited to a block party held in honor of a resident moving and the two, along with everyone else, were pictured on the front page of Princeton’s Town Topics newspaper.
It should be noted that you will not often see Sakowski working in his front garden. There are three reasons for this.
First, while he admits to being crazy about plants and is constantly seeking out new and unusual ones, he only selects those that can thrive in his organic beds and borders. These are plants that are beautiful but do not require a lot of fussing or pesticides. All his gardens, both back and front, are not only living art works but also ones that are basically low maintenance. And he creates his own mulch—a fertilizer mixture of licorice root, compost from his vegetable garden, and leaves that he gathers and shreds. This not only nourishes his plants but also suppresses weeds trying to poke through.
Second is his volunteer work as Director of Athletics for St. Raphael-Holy Angels parish. This is a time consuming but personally rewarding effort. As a teenager he played basketball in Mercer County’s CYO League and now he gives back that experience by ensuring that others have such opportunities. There are about 150 children from his parish participating in the various sports sponsored by the league and as an athletic director, Sakowski finds there is not a lot of time left over for garden work.
And third, he could well be in the rear of his property which has been completely transformed into an all-season garden, or on the side of his house, where he grows a summer’s worth of vegetables.
Still, should you happen to see him out in front of his house, he would not mind you stopping by and asking a question or commenting on his creation (gardeners always welcome praise). And, as people along his Princeton mail route have done, he might even offer you a division or two.