BRIGANTINE — Most beach access paths differ little from any others on New Jersey's 130-plus miles of coastline, but any Brigantine visitor who happens to use Brant Road as a first-time beach access might think the entire island is a horticultural heaven.
Brant Road is a south-end cul-de-sac that many longtime Brigantine residents may never have traveled. Unless someone had reason to, it is just a quiet residential street maybe a hundred yards long off busy Harbor Beach Boulevard.
Where the east side of the street ends, though, begins a remarkably beautiful garden full of colorful annual and perennial flowers, and many unusual trees and shrubs either indigenous to coastal climates or ones that garden creator John Bacha made sure could survive here.
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“It really is the nicest entrance to any of the beaches in all of Brigantine, and John does an excellent job with it,” said Brant Road resident Sal DiPane.
Bacha began what is called Brant Beach Gardens 13 summers ago. He got substantial help from his wife, Beth, and from neighbors, friends and the Department of Public Works, but the garden is essentially the retired tennis pro's personal project, one he weeds and nurtures himself, and stocks with plants that stay in bloom nearly all year.
The only payoff is an almost endless stream of compliments from passers-by.
“There's really a wide mix of stuff here, including a lot of exotic plants you won't see in too many other places,” said Bacha. “There's indigenous wildflowers but not too much in the way of generic plants. And some of it stays in bloom nearly year-round. You can come any time you want. It's our own little Longwood Gardens.”
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Brant Beach Gardens may be little compared to the giant botanical marvel in Chester County, Pennsylvania, but not by normal garden standards. Over the years, it has slowly expanded to encompass about 6,000 square feet, straddling both sides of the sandy strip leading to Brigantine's south beaches.
“It all started back in 2006,” said Bacha, outlining his intention of creating a small garden in a section of beach entry that was little more than overgrown weeds and bayberry bushes. “Ernie Purdy was the superintendent of Public Works at the time, so I called him and told him I wanted to make a little garden by the beach entrance. I asked if he might have a little rototiller I could borrow to clear out a space. He said, 'Well, I really don't have a rototiller, but let me see what I can do to help you out.'”
Purdy returned with a Public Works crew armed with heavy equipment.
“The next morning I hear all this rumbling coming down the street, and it's guys from Public Works with back hoes and heavy machinery ripping everything out,” recalled Bacha. “I'm like, 'Ernie, I just wanted a little space in the front here to plant some flowers. I don't have any dirt for all this.' He said I've got the dirt, and the next morning a bunch of dump trucks came out and dumped soil all over the place out here.”
Bacha was a skilled gardener before he began tackling the Brant Road project, and relied on a plant-supplier friend to get things going.
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“I had a good friend who was a wholesaler of plants, and one week there was a show for plant wholesalers going on at the (Atlantic City) Convention Center,” Bacha said. “At the end of the show, he said I could take whatever he had left for like $300. And this was probably $5,000 worth of plants.
“The only caveat was that I had to get it out of there,” added Bacha. “So I went to Home Depot and got a truck and made about three or four trips from the Convention Center to Brigantine.”
Once all the plants were delivered, Bacha recruited neighbors from the nearby Cloisters Condominium Complex and others on Brant Road to help with the planting.
“Public Works has been super helpful right from the start, and they continue to be,” said Bacha, whose garden creation earned a coveted award from the Philadelphia Horticultural Society. “Without them, and a lot of support from other people, this doesn't happen.”
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In about a half-hour stretch on a recent Sunday afternoon, numerous Brant Road beachgoers stopped to admire the garden and take photos — many likely oblivious to the fact the garden creator was standing a few feet away.
“We've had wedding parties come here after the ceremony and get shots in their wedding gowns and tuxes," Bacha said. “I've had people tell me that the screensavers on their computers are photos of the garden here; others have made calendars out of shots they took. I like putting in weird stuff or wow stuff — stuff you won't see anywhere else — and seeing people's reactions.
“That's what makes this so enjoyable for me.”