CHATHAM – Within the Rolf E. Sylvan Gardens Conservation Area, there are hundreds of plant species, many of them left over from the days when Sylvan operated Lower Cape Nursery on the land.
“There's just so much stuff in here,” said Cynthia “DooDee” Nowak, a landscaper who grew up and still lives nearby. “There's stuff programmed to bloom all the way through the fall.”
Known for years for its lavish display of tulips and daffodils, the nursery closed in 1980 and the property was allowed to grow wild until the town purchased the 9.4 acres from the Sylvan and Abreu families in 2004. Fifteen years later, a new accessible trail—the only accessible trail on town-owned conservation land—leading into the many paths that crisscross the land, which included 600 feet of shorefront on White and Black ponds, is now open.
“It's really a hybrid,” Friends of Sylvan Gardens President Carol Odell said of the property during the opening of the accessible trail Saturday. “It's a conservation area but also a park.”
Many of the ornamental plants that Sylvan planted on the property are still here and have become “naturalized,” although many of these, as well as native species, are threatened by invasives, according to a management plan developed for the property by the town in 2012. The plan identified 110 native species, 77 non-natives (many of them ornamentals) and 24 invasives, including bittersweet, English ivy and Japanese knotweed. There are dozens of varieties of azaleas and rhododendrons, some 15 to 20 feet tall and others featuring unusual colored blossoms.
Over the past several years a large number of volunteers, including the Friends, AmeriCorps members as well as local landscapers, arborists and town staff have helped clear out the property's many trails and cut back the invasives. Last winter was particularly hard on the property, felling many trees and making many of the paths unpassable. Volunteers “transformed the gardens to reveal a delightful blend of Rolf E. Sylvan's horticulture creations and the native landscape,” said Odell. She highlighted several who went above and beyond, including Nowak and Mike Brown, who put in some 350 volunteer hours on the property.
For many years the gardens were a popular spot for folks to visit in Chatham. Nowak said there were many blueberry and raspberry bushes and many people would stop by to take photos of their kids standing amid the blooming daffodils and tulips. Customers could write orders for particular bulbs or flowers on a pad and pick them up in the fall. On a spring day there could be 100 cars parked along the road leading to the gardens, she said.
“He gave away more bulbs than he sold,” recalled Betsy Abreu, Rolf Sylvan's granddaughter, whose family home was at the back of the property overlooking the pond.
Abreu and her cousin, Laura Sylvan, were at Saturday's trail opening and recalled having the run of the property during the years it was operated as a nursery. Sylvan said she developed her love of natural history when she visited summers from her home in Boston, making signs identifying the different species that she places along the garden's paths.
“It's just so nice to be able to come back here and see it all,” she said. “A whole new group of people gets to be in here and enjoy it.”
“We had a good time growing up here,” said Abreu.
The 950-foot-long accessible trail, which complies with the Americans With Disabilities Act and was designed by landscape architect Amanda Sloan, was funded by a $65,000 community preservation grant, which also covered the cost of numerous benches placed along the path and an interpretive sign providing the property's background. The trail entrance is along Old Main Street, where there are three parking space, including a handicap spot.