New Canaan’s Jewelbox

About the Olive W. and George S. Lee Memorial Garden

Lee Memorial Garden is a wonderful little gem, tucked away in a wooded New Canaan neighborhood. Its narrow meandering paths are edged with spring-blooming bulbs, ephemerals, ferns, herbaceous plants, an extensive collection of specimen azaleas and rhododendrons, as well as the mature trees that provide dappled shade. Boulder drifts, rocky ledges and a seasonal stream add natural structure to the densely planted terrain.

The garden is located at 89 Chichester Road, New Canaan, CT.


George S. Lee’s 2.7 acre garden had its beginnings in 1940, in the form of a dozen Gable azalea hybrids, a house-warming gift from George’s brother, Frederic P. Lee. Frederic was the other garden-minded member of the family, and he wrote “The Azalea Book” and you can find the Frederic P. Lee Azalea Garden at the Arboretum in Washington DC. George Lee set out in 1940 to create a “peaceful place where plants can reveal their characteristic beauty in a natural setting.” He wrote that his extensive plant collection “has been the fruit of a chronic curiosity to learn what plants would be willing to make their home in New England woods which in this area offer shade, granite rocks and thin, acid, soil.”

Mr. Lee’s property displays a wonderful alternative to clear-cutting and planting a lawn in the rocky Connecticut woods. He devoted nearly 40 years of his life to plant collecting, and was eager to share his ideas and plants with fellow gardeners, making his garden “open at all times for whatever benefit may be derived from it by others.” Upon his death in 1978, he bequeathed his masterpiece to the Garden Center of New Canaan, now known as the New Canaan Beautification League. Under the Beautification League’s stewardship, The Olive W. and George S. Lee Memorial Garden has been maintained largely by volunteers since 1978. The garden remains open every day to plant lovers and all who enjoy the serenity of nature.

The Garden Plant’s Collections

The sheer number and variety of plants in the garden present a wonderful learning opportunity for those interested in horticulture and gardening. George Lee, an amateur horticulturist, planted the Garden with every hybrid azalea introduced by Joseph B. Gable, as well as, hybrids of the Gartrell, Knaphill, Exbury, Kaempferi and Ilam types. The rhododendron plantings included hybrids developed by Shamarelle, Gable, Dexter, and Nearing, as well as, native species. The rhododendrons and azaleas bloom under a high canopy of oaks, maples, and tulip trees and an intermediate canopy of dogwood and are under planted with wildflowers, groundcovers and bulbs.

Portions of the rhododendron paths are edged with luxuriant masses of epimedium. The Garden’s collection of wildflowers and spring ephemerals include : Bloodroot, Oconee Bells, Trout Lily, Twinleaf, Primrose, Wood Anemone, Virginia Bluebells, Blue-eyed Mary, Trillium, Wood Poppy, May Apple, Bleeding Heart, Lily of the Valley and Marsh Marigold. Bulbs in the Garden include Snowdrops, Winter Aconite, Iris Reticulata, Glory-of-the-Snow, Squill, Narcissus, Grape Hyacinth, Leucojum and Spanish Bluebells.

When to Visit

The Garden is most often visited in the spring, commencing with the appearance of the early spring bulbs and ephemerals in March and April and continuing through the display of azaleas and rhododendrons in May and June. The peak of the azalea bloom typically occurs in early May, around Mothers’ Day, and the peak of the rhododendron bloom follows later in May. Because of the diversity of the azalea and rhododendron collections, some specimens may be observed in bloom from early April into July. There is always something of interest in the Garden for those interested in plants and nature.

The Lee Garden Calendar

Here are our rough guidelines for what to look for when you visit Lee Garden. Note that weather may speed or delay peak blooms by as much as two weeks.

January & February: During the garden’s dormant season, enjoy a winter walk in the rock garden

March: Early Spring Bulbs and Ephemerals including Snowdrops, Aconite, Iris Reticulata, Hellebores etc.

April: Bulbs, Spring Ephemerals and Ground Covers including: Bloodroot, Oconee Bells, Primroses, Grape Hyacinths, Myrtle Bloom, Pulmonaria, Hellebores, Trout Lily, Squill, Blue-Eyed Mary, Twinleaf, Narcissus, Bleeding Heart, Marsh Marigold, Trillium, Anemone, Epimedium, Kerria, early Azalea and Rhododendron bloom

May: Azalea and Rhododendron bloom, Spanish Bluebells, Columbine, Canada Mayflower, May Apple, Vancouveria, Trillium, Primroses, Wild Geranium, Bleeding Heart, Lily of the Valley, emerging Ferns, Viburnum, Silverbell Trees in bloom

June: Rhododendron and native Azalea bloom, Mountain Laurel Bloom, Cimicifuga, Wild Strawberry, Hosta, Foxglove, Ferns

July: Native Rhododendron, Stewartia bloom, Aesculus, Hosta, Jewelweed, wild Leeks

August: Ferns

September: Rose of Sharon, Gentian, Chelone, New England Aster

October: Fall color in Azalea leaves, Viburnum, berries on Beautyberry

November: Berries on Winterberry, Viburnum, Dogwood etc.

December: During the garden’s dormant season, enjoy a winter walk in the rock garden

Hours and Guided Walks

Lee Garden is open to the public from dawn to dusk every day of the year. Admission is free. Please note the walking paths are covered with wood chips, and some are rocky and somewhat steep. Because of the terrain and its woodland setting the Garden is not handicap accessible. There is also no restroom or available drinking water.

Guided walking tours for groups of 6-10 can be arranged from early April through June. The tours focus on what’s in flower each week during the spring blooming season. There is no set tour fee, but the NCBL asks that groups make a small donation to help with the upkeep of the garden. Groups of 8 or more are asked to schedule their visit whether or not they have arranged for a guided tour, as this will ensure that there are not too many large groups visiting at once.

To schedule a tour of the Garden and for information about volunteer opportunities in the Garden please click HERE​ to contact us.


Additional Resources

You can view more photos of the garden in our Flickr album HERE

Download the slides from Faith Kerchoff’s presentation about Lee Garden HERE.

Download the slides from Faith Kerchoff’s presentation about Lee Garden HERE.

Download the slides from Faith Kerchoff’s presentation on the HISTORY of Lee Garden HERE.

Read this short and informative article from the April, 1973 issue of​ The Quarterly Bulletin of the American Rhododendron Society entitled “Gable azaleas in the Olive W. Lee Memorial Garden” by Edward W. Weingartner by clicking HERE.