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Dazzling Azaleas

Alex Von Kleydorff

Peaceful spots that remain unchanged over the years but continue to be cared for by loving hands are becoming harder to find in Fairfield County. An inspirational place for reflection is an almost forbidden (and often forgotten) pleasure in our interconnected world of cell phones, Blackberrys and high-tech gadgets.

One such oasis — currently celebrating its thirtieth anniversary as a Garden Center of New Canaan property — is the Olive & George Lee Memorial Garden located off newly paved Chichester Road in New Canaan. The stars of this woodland garden are the azaleas, which put on their show every May.

Originally part of the Lees’ estate, the 2.7-acre property (plus a small endowment for its upkeep) was left to the Garden Center of New Canaan upon George’s death in 1978. An amateur horticulturist and long-time president of the American Daffodil Society, George Lee designed his garden paths and plantings to reflect the natural features of the land. Trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and ephemerals line the woodchip-covered paths that wind through the shaded and sometimes rocky property, which features 175 kinds of azaleas and 250 varieties of rhododendrons, as well as woodland plants and a vast selection of spring- and fall-blooming bulbs.

“The azalea collection peaks in May, followed by the rhododendrons,” notes garden center cochairman Kathy LaPolla. “Plus, there are wildflowers, spring bulbs and many other plantings, allowing visitors something to see in every season.”

Garden center volunteers maintain the grounds, but “the neighbors are very enthusiastic about the garden — often helping to wake up the garden in the spring and put it away in the fall. Not too many neighborhoods in New Canaan can claim their own park,” says Kathy.

The pocket park is the setting for the Garden Center of New Canaan’s annual Mother’s Day open house and Azalea Festival. Last year’s event drew approximately 125 people. Refreshments and garden-related kids’ activities will be part of this year’s festival on Sunday, May 11, from 2 to 5 p.m.

Lee Memorial Garden, at 89 Chichester Road, is free and open to the public seven days a week, from dawn to dusk. To learn more about the garden and the Garden Center of New Canaan, go to gardencenterofnewcanaan.org or attend the  group’s monthly meeting, held the first Wednesday of every month at New Canaan Library. Membership is open to everyone, and programs are supported by various fundraising events throughout the year.