Patricia Reaney is especially excited the “hidden gardens” that people usually don’t get to see. “The charm is discovering the gardens behind the fences,” she says.
One such garden belongs to Babette Bohanan, who moved to Bordentown in the 1960s when her father was transferred to New Jersey by the Colonial Pipeline Comp
any. In 1994, after her divorce, she moved back to town with her two children “because I loved it. It is a town where you can walk down the street to get coffee, do your banking, and go to the little parks, and I had friends already.”
The garden in Bohanan’s backyard, which has evolved over time, will be part of the “History in Bloom” self-guided tour of gardens and other historic sites, Saturday, June 22, from noon to 5 p.m.
Reaney, with her co-chair Rick Ellis has taken over planning the annual garden tour from the able hands of long-time chair Bonnie Goldman.
Bohanan’s passion for gardening started with planting marigolds as a kid and has continued throughout her life. Eventually she was able to create a patio and Japanese garden for a house her father had gutted and refurbished for the family. When she lived in apartments she “always planted flowers and maintained the little grounds around it, mulching and making it beautiful.”
When she bought her house on Princeton Street in Bordentown in 1994, it had a six-foot fence that she didn’t like, a 40-foot pine tree, a shed, and a patio with bricks that didn’t match, but, she says, “I could envision what I could have.”
So whenever an opportunity came along, she took it. She removed the mismatched patio bricks and built a stone fishpond with a bridge, leaving a green area for her children’s fort and small swimming pool. After a hurricane knocked down trees in a neighboring yard that damaged her fences, she tore them down. She also took down the 40-foot tree.
When a neighbor down the street put in a cement walkway, she gave Bohanan the historic Bordentown bricks she was done with. Bohanan used them to create two “mini-courtyards,” connected by brick pathways. In one courtyard two dark wicker seats and a small table sit under a Japanese full moon tree, surrounded by boxwood. Down a brick path is a second courtyard that features Belgian blocks with an ornamental Japanese cane tree.
The plants in Bohanan’s garden also show a progression of colors, starting in April and May with purple, then orange roses, white and pink flowers, and minty green hydrangeas.
Bohanan has also made complementary changes to the backyard of the neighbor who owns the other side of her attached house and rents it out. “I made the backyard like one whole yard,” she says. She not only does the neighbor’s plantings, but also maintains their lawn—and she paid for a black iron fence to surround both yards. To create some separation and privacy between the two yards, she put up a “natural fence,” with thick tree limbs holding up a vine that has deep purple and turquoise berries in the summer, with bushes and flowers underneath.
During the garden tour Bohanan’s friend Frank Cianci, an officer in the New Jersey National Guard, will be playing guitar and singing, and her son, Zachary, a tattoo artist who owns Studio 417 in Bordentown Township, will be doing a living portrait.
The garden tour is called “History in Bloom,” Reaney says, because “Bordentown is extraordinarily historically rich, it is a small, one square mile, city, with 300 years of history.”
“The gardens on the tour are very diverse,” Reaney says. They range from very small gardens in the backyards of tiny row houses to huge gardens of half an acre, with different garden rooms planted in everything from irises to native species. As at Bohanan’s house, local musicians at other stops, and artists will be working in various gardens.
Goldman’s garden is on East Chestnut Street, where her 1750s farmhouse is surrounded by gardens and centuries-old trees. In her native-plant garden, added just this year, a landscape architect will answer questions from 2 to 4 p.m. Reaney expresses special appreciation of Goldman’s years as chair and says, We are just trying to build on what she has already developed.”
At 601 Farnsworth is a circa-1900 home sits in a very park-like setting. “It looks like a mini arboretum,” Reaney says, noting especially its “rare and unique specimen trees.” Peach ice cream will be served on the house’s wraparound veranda.
Mary Mother of the Church Parish has a prayer garden that is over 20 years old. “It is a great public garden where you can sit and rest and meditate for a while, under big shade trees,” Reaney says. One area is designed in the pattern of the Rosary. The Rosary beads correspond to sets of ten Hail Marys, called decades, that link together the four Mysteries, each comprising five events in the lives of Jesus and Mary. In the garden the round flowerbeds represent the different mysteries. For example, red and purple flowers signify the Sorrowful Mysteries, the events around Christ’s crucifixion. A burning bush plant signifies God’s presence in the garden.
One of the historical stops on the tour is the Christ Church Parish Cemetery. “Some of the oldest Bordentown families are buried there and folks that participated in major wars going back to the Revolutionary War,” Reaney says. For example, Colonel Joseph Kirkbride (1731-1803) was a Revolutionary War patriot and friend of Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet “Common Sense” helped crystallize sentiment for independence in 1776. According to the Thomas Paine National Historical Association, Paine lived in Bordentown from 1778-87 with his close friend Joseph Kirkbride on the property at 2 Farnsworth overlooking the river.
Bohanan spent her career in the military and retired in 2010. She started part time with the New Jersey State Police, then moved to a full-time position with the United States Army National Guard on Eggerts Crossing Road. She then worked for 14 years in their Aviation division on Scotch Road. For the remainder of her career she worked for Homeland Security, back on Eggerts Crossing..
Reaney, whose father worked in the military, was born in Okinawa, Japan, and lived in Europe. When it was time for school and her father was still stationed overseas, her family moved to Worcester, MA. When her father moved stateside to Fort Dix, the family moved to Willingboro in Burlington County, then lived in Marlton and Medford. When her father left the military, he became a corrections officer in Trenton. Her mother, she says, “was a traditional mom.”
Reaney graduated from Rowan University with a degree in fine arts, concentrating in clay. After college, she worked with a potter doing production ware for nurseries and florists and spent a few years glassblowing at Wheaton Village in South Jersey. Not happy in either one, she got a gig as a bartender in a union shop, which gave her benefits and paid vacation and sick days. Eighteen years later she was hired by Local 54, the labor union that had represented her, as a business agent—the staff person who advocates for union members in disciplinary matters, contract negotiations, other job issues, and also politically. After nine years, because she was living in Jersey City, she moved to the same position with the Communication Workers of America, Local 1036, and retired after nine years.
In Bordentown she hopes to get back to clay, possibly at Leaping Dog Art Studios, which has a clay studio.
Reaney traces her interest in old houses and history to her artistic experiences working with three-dimensional objects. As someone “very object oriented,” she has always collected old things. She has also been fascinated by design and knew she would eventually buy an old house.
In Mount Laurel she bought a 1795 farmhouse. “I fell in love with the simpler design and the post-and-beam architecture. Everything was handmade and hand planed,” she says. “I used to sit and look at my ceilings and imagine how many people of so many generations had looked at that ceiling, how many people were born and died there, how many were happy and unhappy—all the stories that were in that house.”
When she moved five years ago to Bordentown, she knew she would buy another historic house in Bordentown. “You can walk around this town, and you can literally feel the history here,” she says.
She first came to the Bordentown Historical Society wanting to know more about her circa-1786 duplex.
“The house that is two doors down from me—the gentleman who lived there was a captain in the Revolutionary War. His daughter ran off and eloped with Joseph Bonaparte’s nephew—it was a big scandal for the day. Around the corner from me is Thomas Paine’s house,” she says.
“I take my morning walk, and everywhere I turn I am constantly finding out new and fascinating things about the residents of Bordentown,” she says.
Reaney enjoys gardening, which she did on her three-quarter acre property in Mount Laurel, where her ex-husband had a landscaping company. In Bordentown she has a small garden, which she says “at some point will be presentable.”
Maybe 25 years in, Reaney will be able to say about her garden what Bohanan says today: “It’s like my little heaven back there.”
When Bohanan put in a new kitchen this year, it included lots of windows looking out on her garden. She says, “ “This is my grand finale. I can look out in my yard spring, summer, fall, and winter.”
The History in Bloom garden tour is $20 for adults and $10 for children ages 9-16. Order tickets online at bordentownhistory.org or in person at Shoppe 202 at 202 Farnsworth Ave. or at the society’s headquarters and museum, the 1740 Friends Meetinghouse at 302 Farnsworth, where visitors can pick up tickets as well as the tour booklet and discount coupons to local restaurants and businesses. They can also view the exhibit “How Does Your Garden Grow?” featuring historic Bordentown horticulturalists at the Friends Meetinghouse. Rain date, Sunday, June 23.