By Erin Roll

The Presby Iris Gardens or Montclair’s “Rainbow on the Hill” is expected to give way to some spectacular blooms over the next few weeks.

The long-cold winter may have been hard on us and could delay the timing of the blooms, but it will be worth the wait because that cold weather is expected to result in more flowers this year, said Nancy Skjei, the president of the Citizens’ Committee for the gardens.

The Presby Iris Gardens at 474 Upper Mountain Ave. have been in existence since 1927. The gardens are named for Frank H. Presby, a Montclair resident who was one of the founders of the American Iris Society. It was his Irises that were first planted in the gardens at Mountainside park when hundreds in a community-wide effort came out to dedicate and plant the garden. Some residents brought donations, while other bulbs were donated from as far as Germany, Japan and England.

After running into financial difficulties, Essex County purchased the gardens in 2009. However, oversight of the gardens and its finances remain the responsibility of the Citizens Committee of the Presby Iris Gardens, which was incorporated in 1963.

Today, the gardens are home to more than 10,000 irises, representing 1,500 different varieties, some older than 150 years.

The Presby Iris Gardens .

On Monday, a crew was out weeding and spraying the gardens. The prolonged cold weather was actually a blessing in disguise.

“The grass just looks painted green this year, it’s magical,” Skjei said. “The gardens are really spectacular.”

The cold weather also means the iris blooms, which last only about three weeks, would produce abundantly this year. Blooms should start around the second week in May.

“I think it’s going to be a really spectacular bloom season,” Skjei said.


The gardens run on an annual operating budget of $100,000, made available through donations, the annual fall appeal campaign, plant sales, Bloom Room sales and guided tours.

In 2016, the gardens had a total of $966,904 in assets, according to the gardens’ Form 990 for that year. That includes a total revenue of $299,373, up from $141,946 the year before.

Of the gardens’ revenues, $100,824 came from fundraising events. Another $113,724 came from other contributions, gifts and grants. Investments earned another $84,825.

The gardens’ total expenses for the year 2016 were $215,036, up from $173,131 in 2015. Forms from the past four years indicate that there had been a deficit after expenses were paid up until 2016.

In addition to a seven-member board of trustees, including Skjei, the gardens do employ three staff members. In 2016, $77,441 went for salaries and wages, $10,376 for taxes and $17,087 for landscaping.

Future plans

The garden is also looking ahead to the celebration of the American Iris Society’s 100th anniversary in 2020. Additionally, Presby has been chosen as the venue for the International Iris Competition’s show bed for 2020, a first in the garden’s history, Skjei said. Those irises are getting a head start beginning this year and will be planted in July.

Spring / Summer events

The first event of the year will be the 33rd Annual Rutgers Master Gardeners of Essex County plant sale on Friday, May 4, 10 4 p.m. and Saturday, May 5, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The sale will include specialty tomato varieties including Rutgers & Ramapo Herbs, annuals, perennials, shrubs and small trees will also be sold. Many of the plants were grown from seed or cuttings in the master gardeners’ own greenhouse, including a wide variety of coleus. Master gardeners will help guide the experienced and novice gardener on selecting the right plant for the right location with instructions for its care and to answer questions on disease, pests and plant identification.

“We have plants for bees, birds and hummingbirds: Echinacea purpura, Helianthus ‘Lemon Queen,’ Nepeta, Lobelia Penstemon, Salvia and Agastache to name a few. Our Demonstration Teaching Garden will be open at Presby so bring your vegetable questions,” said Helen Stack, Plant Sale Chair.

The next event will be live jazz at the garden on Mother’s Day, May 13. Lisa Palombo, an artist known for her Impressionist floral and nature paintings, will be exhibiting in the Presby house living room and the “Bloom Room” gift shop that same day.

The garden’s bloom season officially kicks off that day.

The Bloom Room will have its official opening day on May 10, and will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The gardens will be holding its Family Garden Party on May 19 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., with a rain date of May 20. The garden party will also be the start of the weekend music program, which runs through June 2. The TaikuZoku drum group, which has performed at the gardens every spring for the past nine years, will also return on May 20 from 4 to 6 p.m.

The Presby Gardens before the bloom season.
Jaimie Julia Winters / Staff
The Presby Gardens before the bloom season.
Jaimie Julia Winters / Staff