BEDMINSTER – For years, the bird and butterfly garden at Raritan Headwaters’ Fairview Farm has been a favorite of visitors to the 170-acre nature preserve. This summer the garden will be better than ever, thanks to the volunteer efforts of two Pingry School students.

Pingry seniors Sophia Cortazzo of Warren Township and Libby Lee of Short Hills are spending five weeks improving the garden as part of a school program in which 12th graders work at an independent project full-time instead of attending classes. 

They’ve removed weeds, enriched the soil with compost, researched plants that attract pollinators, and determined where the new plants should go based on shade tolerance and other factors. They’re building a garden tower and producing a booklet to share detailed plant information with visitors. They even prepared a lesson plan for elementary school children visiting Fairview Farm.

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The students chose Fairview Farm for their senior project based on the recommendation of their community service advisor. “We knew we wanted to do something environmental, so we were excited to find out about this,” said Cortazzo, who will attend John Hopkins University in the fall.

“We both want to major in environmental studies or environmental science at college,” added Lee, who will attend Hamilton College.

Both had prior gardening experience, having interned at Pingry’s vegetable and herb garden last summer. There, they learned to grow a variety of summer vegetables and herbs, as well as blueberries, strawberries, raspberries, grapes and melons.

“We got to harvest a lot of food and give it to the school kitchen” to feed youngsters attending Pingry’s summer camp, said Cortazzo. After Pingry’s classes began last fall, they used the rest of their harvest from the garden to prepare a lunch for 100 students and faculty.

Fairview Farm’s garden presented a new challenge, because neither student had experience with plants that serve as food sources for birds, butterflies, bees and caterpillars.

They quickly learned key facts – for instance, that the leaves of plants in the milkweed family are the sole food source for caterpillars that will turn into monarch butterflies. They delighted in choosing cardinal flower plants, whose brilliant red blooms attract hummingbirds. 

Cortazzo and Lee were also called upon to figure out what plants will grow in the shade of a black walnut tree next to the garden. As they learned, black walnuts emit a toxin that doesn’t allow most other plants to grow near it. Research taught them that certain plants are tolerant of the toxin. “We’re going to plant native honeysuckle and elderberry there, and also daylilies,” said Lee.

Because the garden includes perennials as well as annuals, the girls had to pay attention to when the perennials would bloom. “You don’t want them all to bloom in May and not have anything for the rest of the summer when butterflies are most active,” Cortazzo noted.

Lee and Cortazzo will finish their project in June, leaving a lot of new plants that have yet to flower. But they fully intend to come back to Fairview Farm later in the summer to admire the results of their efforts.

“How could we not?” exclaimed Lee.

“This place is so beautiful,” added Cortazzo. “We just have to see how it turns out.”

Cindy Ehrenclou, executive director of Raritan Headwaters, praised Lee and Cortazzo for their hard work and dedication. “We are extremely grateful to Sophia and Libby,” she said. “They are enhancing the educational components of the garden, making it a real model that allows visitors to learn how to attract birds and butterflies to their own property.”

Fairview Farm is located at 2121 Larger Cross Road in Bedminster, and is open every day from dawn to dusk. The bird and butterfly garden is at its peak in mid-July - August, when a plethora of colorful flowers set the backdrop for wide variety of butterflies, birds and other native pollinators.  Each plant in the garden acts as a host, providing nectar or food to native birds and butterflies. The garden is a popular stop for photographers, painters and children alike, and functions year-round as a habitat for wildlife.

About Raritan Headwaters

The largest watershed organization in New Jersey, Raritan Headwaters has been working since 1959 to protect, preserve and improve water quality and other natural resources of the Raritan River headwaters region through efforts in science, education, advocacy, land preservation and stewardship. 

RHA’s 470-square-mile region provides clean drinking water to 400,000 residents of 38 municipalities in Somerset, Hunterdon and Morris counties and beyond to some 1.5 million homes and businesses in New Jersey's densely populated urban areas. RHA has achieved statewide impact and is a proud recipient of the 2015 Governor’s Environmental Excellence Award. To learn more about Raritan Headwaters, please visit or call (908) 234-1852.