Trade Secrets still ‘a success’ in year 24

Bunny Williams opened her garden for Trade Secrets tour visitors.

Natalia Zukerman

Trade Secrets still ‘a success’ in year 24

Landscape enthusiasts traveled from far and wide for garden tours and rare finds at Project SAGE’s annual Trade Secrets event May 18 and 19.

The origin of the rare plant and antiques fundraiser traces back to a serendipitous moment in the winter of 2001, when interior designer and author Bunny Williams found her greenhouse overflowing with seedlings, thanks to her then-gardener Naomi Blumenthal’s successful propagation of rare primroses.

What started as a simple idea to clear space evolved into an extraordinary event that has become the primary fundraiser for Project SAGE, a non-profit domestic violence agency serving Northwest Connecticut and the surrounding areas.

The first Trade Secrets event was held on May 19, 2001, on Bunny Williams’ and John Rosselli’s stunning fifteen-acre property in Falls Village. The event drew over 450 attendees with vendors chosen by Williams who would “wow” the attendees.

Williams recalled, “We didn’t think it would be a success. And it was such a success. What I’m so proud of is that it really funded Project SAGE to become what it is.” She added, “Project Sage, which was called Women’s Support Services back then, was only a hotline. They had no facility. And I said, ‘Why don’t we make this a charity? We’ll sell some plants.’ Naomi was on the hotline for Women’s Support Services, and she said, ‘Let’s give it to them.’ And it was just like, why not?”

Since its inception, Trade Secrets has grown exponentially, moving from Williams’ private home to various larger venues, including Wake Robin Inn in Lakeville, LionRock Farm in Sharon, and now in its third year at Lime Rock Park in Lakeville. Despite the changes in location, the core mission remains intact: to raise funds for Project SAGE. Over the years, the event has evolved to include garden tours, guest speakers, book signings, and a wider array of vendors, enhancing its appeal and reach.

Kaitlyn Robitaille, director of appeals and fundraising events at Project SAGE shared, “It’s our only fundraiser that we host yearly, and it raises approximately a quarter of our annual operating budget,” which is reported at $1.5 million. “But this year we’ve exceeded every fundraising goal we’ve set, which is a first,” said Robitaille.

Asked what she thought this might be attributed to, Robitaille shared, “I think that being at Lime Rock in 2022, the first year, it was such a stark contrast to LionRock farm. It was very different. And I think people either liked it or they didn’t. So, last year we made a lot of changes, having been here once before, and it was so much better. So, I think a lot of people probably heard that it’s better here now. And now they’re coming back.“

Guests of the rare plant and antique sale took in the sights and smells Sunday, May 19.Simon Markow

Now in its 24th year, the two-day event began May 18, when attendees had the opportunity to explore six exceptional gardens. Alongside Bunny Williams and John Rosselli’s home, other notable gardens included Maywood Estate Gardens in Bridgewater, three estates in Millbrook including Sharpstone Farm Gardens, and Wethersfield in Amenia.

Tricia Van Oers, a classically trained Dutch musician and Bunny Williams’ master gardener (along with her husband Robert Reimer) for the last six years shared, “It’s exciting. It’s always nice to see so many people excited about gardens and about vegetables also. It’s nice to see how Bunny is always excited because she likes to share her property.”

On May 19, Lime Rock Park transformed into a paradise for plant lovers and garden aficionados. With 45 vendors, the rare plant and garden antiques sale provided a unique shopping experience for customers.

The planning and execution of Trade Secrets requires months of preparation and the efforts of more than 200 volunteers. These volunteers assist with everything from marketing to vendor coordination, ensuring the event runs smoothly. Robitaille said, “We have a planning committee comprised of volunteers that help all year with planning and aesthetics, everything down to reaching out to the vendors to see if they’re interested. And, we have a part time staff member, Brenna Doyle, who works on planning all year at the agency too.”

Trade Secrets has enabled Project SAGE to expand its services and facilities. From its humble beginnings in a small, rented space, Project SAGE now operates from a larger home in Lakeville, and offers a range of services including a 24-hour confidential hotline, emergency shelter, counseling, and education programs.

As Trade Secrets continues to flourish, it remains a cherished annual tradition fueled by passion and generosity. What began as a simple effort to clear space has blossomed into a significant force for good, profoundly impacting the lives of many through the work of Project SAGE.

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