Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

What to do in the garden in May & June

by cathym on May 14, 2021

May and June Garden tasks make way for summer beauty and delicious edibles in the garden.

According to the International Society of Arboriculture, mulching, when done correctly, is one of the most beneficial practices a homeowner can do for the health of trees. However, there is a right and a wrong way to mulch.

Go organic. Organic mulches such as wood chips, shredded leaves, pine needles, hardwood and softwood bark, or compost are the best choices. These materials decompose over time, improving soil quality. 

Mulch out, not up. Mulch no deeper than two to four inches. Mulch less if the soil is poorly drained or if you are using a finely textured mulch. Avoid “mulch volcanoes,” which occur when mulch is extended up the trunk, giving the appearance of a volcano cone. Deep mulching like this may suppress the weeds, but it is extremely harmful to the plant.

Back away from the trunk. Keep all mulch away from the trunk of the tree, allowing the root flare to show just above ground level.

Mulch to the drip line if possible. Mulch out as far as possible, preferably to the outermost edge of the tree’s canopy of newly planted trees. It’s especially important to keep grass (and mowers) away from the trunks of young trees. 

Your goal with mulch is to always keep the trunk dry and the roots moist. You will protect your landscape investment, and the trees will love you for it! 

Weed control is a challenge for all home gardeners. Knowing what kinds of weeds, you have in your garden is helpful for their management.  Annuals, like crabgrass, and perennials, like dandelions, do not spread. The whole weed, including roots, can be physically removed. Spreading perennials are the hardest garden weeds to control. They spread by creeping stems or underground roots. Bishop’s weed and quack grass, for example, are notoriously hard to get rid of and can be invasive.

The best weed control practice is to stay ahead of the growth. Weed early in the season when weeds just begin to show and before they flower. Physically remove the whole weed, roots included. It is easiest to weed when the soil is moist. For spreading perennials, remove as much of the plant as possible. Attempts to completely remove their root system is a big challenge. A chemical approach for spreading perennials may be considered. If a gardener chooses to use an herbicide, it is important to follow directions on the label. Herbicides do not know the difference between a weed or prized plant!  Actively growing perennial weeds are easier to kill. Please remember to use herbicides judiciously and follow the product label.

Staying ahead of your weeds, early physical removal of weeds, and mulching are good weed control practices. If you prevent weeds from going to seed, you will need to weed less often. Then you can spend your time enjoying your beautiful, weed-free gardens.

Spring is the best time to consider adding perennials to your garden. Spring’s cooler temperatures, dependable rainfall, and gentle sunlight ensure perennials get a great start. You can purchase perennials as potted plants and/or as bare roots from local garden centers and online sources. Planting for each is slightly different and is highlighted below.

Bare-root forms. Bare root plants are dormant—essentially roots with some top growth. They don’t look like much but are a great option if you are on a budget, since they are less expensive to buy and/or have shipped. They are normally packaged in sawdust or wood shavings, so the roots stay moist. When you receive them, make sure to place the roots in a pail of water for one to two hours to hydrate them. After being hydrated they are ready for planting in a garden. Dig a hole wider than the root mass. Make a mound of soil in the center of the bottom of the hole to support the roots; spread the roots around that mound so the crown is at the same level as the top of the soil. Backfill with soil and water well.

Potted forms. Potted perennials can be found in different size containers. Smaller sizes will be less expensive. To plant in a garden bed, first dig a hole the same depth as the container, but at least twice as wide as it is deep. Next, loosen the soil in the hole to make it easier for the roots to spread. Grab the plant by the crown, not by the foliage tips, and gently take it out of the container. Loosen the roots with your fingers. The plant should be at the same level as the surface of the soil. Backfill and water well.

There are a few exceptions to placing the plant crown at soil level. Peonies should be planted just an inch or two below the surface, hostas can go a few inches below the surface, and bearded iris rhizomes should sit on the soil’s surface. 

For the most floriferous peonies—and plenty for cutting—make sure not to plant the fleshy roots too deep

May is a good time to prepare your garden soil for planting. It’s good practice to test your soil pH every three years. Soil pH test measures the acidity or alkalinity of the soil. Most vegetables grow best in soils with a pH range of 6.2 -6.8. Check with your local Cooperative Extension about getting a soil pH test. Dairy One Cooperative, in Ithaca, offers nutrient analysis soil testing for garden and lawn, including pH, for a fee. Visit dairyone.com/ or call your local Extension for guidance.

Before you start planting, feed your soil by adding compost to the garden bed. This will add to the soil nutrients, soil structure and help to retain soil moisture. Make sure you rotate your crops year to year to help reduce disease and insect issues.

Do your homework before you set out to plant seeds and transplants. Consider the last frost date in spring. Make sure to follow directions on the plant labels. Cool-seasoned crops can be sown from several weeks to a couple of months before the last frost date. Vegetable planting guides can aid a gardener in the proper timing to plant cool and warm season vegetables. Check out Cornell’s Garden Based Learning website: https://gardening.cals.cornell.edu/

—Polly Angerosa, Rosanne Loparco, and Holly Wise, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Oneida County Master Gardener volunteers.


Love at first sight

by cathym on May 13, 2021

Story by Colleen O’Neill Nice

I was inspired to write this article after touring gardens in the Pacific Northwest just before travel restrictions were put in place. As I was roaming through “The Farm” of horticulturalist Thomas Hobbs in Langley, British Columbia, I discovered an unusual flower. It was scattered throughout a large, fenced-in area dedicated to vegetables, dahlias and daylilies. The flower form was unique, with hand-painted petals in transitionary shades similar to a watercolor painting. It was love at first sight. The plant was zinnia ‘Zinderella Peach’! 

I have always had an affection for zinnias. They are the quintessential summer flowering annual. Their vivid colors glow in my summer garden plus they are heat and drought resistant – not to mention low maintenance. Zinnias are the perfect choice for the novice gardener because they are one of the easiest plants to cultivate. They are adaptable and fast growing, nearly effortless for children to learn to nurture. I grow the large flowering varieties of zinnias to attract honeybees, butterflies and hummingbirds with their nectar. Their long lasting, bright blooms beautify my indoor spaces, where I can appreciate their many shapes and sizes. I use the dazzling-colored petals to brighten salads, summer drinks and desserts. If you love gardening, you will no doubt, love zinnias!

Landscape zinnias
Let’s begin with two cultivars of landscape zinnias commonly used in flower borders, beds and containers. Both varieties create an abundance of color and continuously bloom throughout the growing season. The flower structure itself consists of three styles: single-blooms which display a single row of petals with the center of each flower exposed; double-blooms which feature several rows of petals with the center hidden in the petals; and semi-double blooms with an exposed and visible center surrounded by several rows of petals.

The Profusion series, an interspecific hybrid, became an instant hit in the gardening world, and was one of the first zinnias to resist powdery mildew. The plants form compact, vigorous mounds that grow 12 to 18 inches tall and spread to 24 inches wide. The two-inch flowers bloom lavishly over a long season from early summer to frost. They tolerate heat, humidity and drought. Single-bloom colors include red, white, apricot, coral pink, deep apricot, lemon, fire and cherry bicolor. The double-bloom palette features white, cherry, deep salmon, fire and golden yellow. Profusion zinnias love full sun and prefer a well draining, humus-rich, evenly moist soil. Proper plant spacing is critical so avoid overcrowding to prevent poor air circulation. Fortunately, deadheading is not necessary since the new leaves and buds cover the old flowers naturally.

The Zahara series of Zinnia marylandica grow a bit larger than the Profusion series, usually 16 to 20 inches tall. The vibrant blooms are slightly bigger at two-and-a-half inches and continuously blanket the spreading drifts throughout the season. The Zaharas are tough plants and thrive in hot, sunny, dry areas. They are highly resistant to mildew and leaf spot. Single-bloom colors include raspberry, white, pink, yellow, red, and starlight rose (bright rose on white). Double-blooms feature several bi-colors—raspberry ripple (pink with raspberry stripes), sunburst (golden yellow with red stripe) and fire (scarlet-orange) which can be mixed with white, orange, yellow, salmon and cherry. The Zahara zinnias make excellent cut flowers, holding their striking colors as they age. 

Profusion and Zahara zinnias are available through local greenhouses and garden centers including Bakers’ Acres in Groton, Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster, and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence. Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece offers a three-color mix of Profusion zinnias in six-inch containers and six packs of Profusion and Zahara zinnias. Palmiter’s Nursery grows both Profusion and Zahara zinnias in jumbo six packs. Seeds are available at Harris Seed, Park Seed, and Swallowtail Garden Seeds. 

Scabiosa-flowered zinnias
The Zinderella series of Z. elegans exploded onto the horticulture scene when ‘Zinderella Peach’ won Europe’s Fleuroselect Novelty Award for its unique color and very unusual flower form. It is the first scabiosa-flowered (pincushion) zinnia offered in unique color combinations. Abundant blooms thrive on healthy plants that grow 24 to 36 inches tall. Impressive two-and-a-half-inch crested, delicate flowers are brilliant in bouquets and arrangements. 

The frilly double blooms of ‘Zinderella Lilac’ combine soft lavender and blush—with a striking dark center. ‘Zinderella Purple’ has tightly clustered short petals over a skirt of layered, longer, daisy-like petals. It is a very distinct, luscious shade of fuchsia-lilac. ‘Zinderella Peach’ boasts large, crested pompom blooms of bright peach with a delicate cream ring around the central eye. Charming ‘Zinderella Orange’ offers a delicate cream halo and bright tangerine pompoms with hints of deep gold. Creamy white blooms of double, semi-double and single flowers adorn ‘Zinderella White’. For an added punch of color, the fiery-crimson ‘Zinderella Red’ includes both single and large-domed doubles. 

Keep your Zinderellas happy and robust by growing them in full sun. Pinch back the seedlings when they are six to eight inches tall to encourage bushiness. Try to thin out plants early, leaving one to one-and-a-half feet between seedlings to discourage disease and increase air circulation. Zinderellas need to be deadhead for continuous blooms. The inflorescence attracts good bugs and pollinators, so scatter your seeds in the vegetable patch and amongst other flowering plants to increase beneficial insects throughout your entire garden. Zinnias are a “cut-and-come-again” annual. They set new buds as soon as the old flowers are cut or deadheaded and then repeat this process reliably all summer. So fill your vases, share bouquets with your neighbors, and float some blooms in your birdbath—the more you cut, the more will bloom. Keep in mind that Zinderella seeds are open-pollinated (they breed true and produce plants identical to their parents), so collect and save some seeds for next year.

If you prefer a medley of vibrant blooms in pink, purple, red, yellow, orange and white with the unique pincushion inflorescence, try a scabiosa-flowered mix. These sun-loving annuals grow to 30 inches tall and thrive in nutrient-rich soil. The textured, two-to-three-inch, dome-shaped blooms resemble the wildflower scabiosa, hence the name. Treat them to bloom-boosting fertilizer during the growing season.

Seed sources include Park Seed, Johnny’s Selected Seed, Swallowtail Seeds, Eden Brothers, and Select Seeds.

Cactus-type zinnias
Some of the loveliest annuals are the cactus-type zinnias (Z. elegans), which have been around for decades. These zinnias have double or semi-double flowers with petals that twist and curl. Spectacular, four-to-five-inch, shaggy blooms include every color of the rainbow except blue. Branching plants grow three feet tall and two feet wide. Their long, strong stems make them ideal for cutting. 

Z. elegans ‘Redman Super Cactus’ produces fiery orange-red, six-inch flowers with contrasting yellow flares at the center of each flower. They bloom constantly from June until frost in fertile soil with ample water during dry periods. This new distinct spidery-petaled zinnia is heat tolerant and mildew resistant. 

Other cactus-type zinnias are available in color blends such as the giant cactus mixes that include warm shades of yellow, orange, rose, red, pink, salmon, and white. The long, needle-thin petals add texture and long-lasting color to any sunny spots in your garden. Plants grow to 30 inches tall and 12 inches wide with blooms stretching to five inches across. To prevent mildew, water early in the day so foliage can dry off before nightfall or with a soaker hose to minimize wetting the foliage. Space plants generously to prevent overcrowding.

At Renee’s Garden, the custom heirloom mix ‘Raggedy Anne’ includes radiant shades of canary and golden yellow, orange, crimson, scarlet, coral, carmine rose, lilac rose, pink, and white—a shade for every garden color scheme. The giant flower faces have curved and twisted narrow petals like quilled chrysanthemums. Plants can be encouraged to branch if the long stems are cut well back into the plant. Grow large and abundant flowers by thinning the seedlings before they get crowded and watering regularly during dry spells.

Plants are online at Annie’s Annuals and Perennials and White Flower Farm. Purchase seeds at Renee’s Garden, Pinetree Garden Seeds, and Park Seed. 

Pink Profusion zinnias mingle with Allium tuberosum and Benary’s Giant Orange zinnias. Photo by Colleen O’Neill.

Cut flower zinnias
New to the cut flower category are the unique colorations of the Queen series. Though it is cultivated in the same manner as other zinnias, it is specifically grown in cut flower gardens. Reaching heights of over 4 feet tall at maturity, these stunning plants make a huge visual impact in the landscape and attract multitudes of pollinators as well. They continue to bloom throughout the summer, even as the flowers are cut for use in vases.

The green ‘Queen Lime’ zinnia is popular and stunning with beautiful, double blooms in shades of chartreuse. ‘Queen Red Lime’ offers the same double flowers but transitions from lime green to shades of rose and pink with soft chartreuse in between. ‘Queen Lime-Orange’ displays a cherry center surrounded by lime petals transitionary to orange—simply stunning! The very elegant ‘Queen Lime-Blush’ features splashes of a rosy tint on lime green inflorescences. Flowers are about two to three inches wide and look almost papery and somewhat Victorian. Well-branched plants grow 32 to 40 inches tall and 18 inches wide with sturdy stems. Queen Lime zinnias thrive in summer heat. They bloom from mid to late summer—even into the fall—after many other flowers are exhausted. Be sure to harvest flowers early in the morning when they are fully open, since they will not continue to open once they are cut. To keep flowers fresh in a vase, add a few drops of bleach to the water. Queen series zinnias are lovely in massed plantings and make dramatic additions to containers and garden beds. The ‘Queen Lime’ cultivars can easily be grown from seed if you cannot find transplants at your local garden center or nursery. Refer to the seed starting tips included with my article.

Zinnia ‘State Fair’ mix displays colossal five-inch flowers with flat petals forming single and semi double blooms. A wide range of colors include red, yellow, orange, purple, pink, white and bicolors. Robust plants grow 3 feet tall, exhibit good disease resistance and thrive in sunny, warm conditions. Reenie Sandsted of Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells ‘State Fair Giant’. According to her, “it grows tall, makes a great cut flower, and is our best seller.”

‘State Fair’ mix is available at Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece, Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster, Palmiter’s Nursery in Avon, and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence.

Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells both the ‘Queen’ series and ‘State Fair Giant’ in six packs.

Seeds are available at Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds and Burpee.

Bicolor and multicolor zinnias
The next category of easy-to-grow zinnias are the chic bicolors and swanky multi-colors. Z. elegans ‘Zowie Yellow Flame’ is a showstopper with three-inch, semidouble flowers with iridescent magenta centers and petals dipped in orange. The flowers darken as they age to a ruby-rose, ending with a finale of yellow and red blooms. As the flower matures, a circle of small golden stars surrounds its center disk. An All-American Selections winner, this bicolor grows 24 to 36 inches tall and stands up to heat and tough conditions. Deadheading will keep these annuals producing flowers, while minimal pinching is necessary to keep the plants full.

Zinnia ‘Candy Cane’ mix, an heirloom with double blooms, is bold and vibrantly striped or flecked. Eye-catching, four-inch inch flowers combine bright pink, rose and cherry stripes on white, and sometimes gold, blossoms sprinkled with orange-magenta splotches. Flowers grow 18 inches tall and bloom from midsummer to frost, attracting butterflies and hummingbirds galore.

The beautiful ‘Peppermint Stick’ zinnias include double flowers striped and splotched in shades of cream, yellow, carmine, rosy-purple, orange and scarlet. No two flowers look exactly alike, and they are perfect for arrangements. Heavy bloomers, the 24 to 28 inches tall plants are easy to grow in full sun and are resistant to deer and rabbits.

The bicolor, scarlet-red ‘Mazurkia’ zinnias flaunt petal tips frosted with pearly white. Sturdy, branching plants grow 24 to 30 inches tall and are perfect for containers or sunny borders. Mix ‘Mazurkia’ with annuals like Verbena bonariensis and Cosmos bipinnatus ‘Purity’. Try Salvia guaranitica ‘Black and Blue’ and Nigella damascena ‘Miss Jekyll White’ for lively combinations. The typical vase life for zinnias is seven days, which can be extended further with the use of flower preservatives.

The ‘Whirligig’ mix reminds me of a gallardia or gazania. The cheerful, single to semi-double daisy shaped blooms open in every color and pattern, with lively, multicolor combinations and contrasting petal tips. Reminiscent of pinwheels, the three-to-four-inch flowers grow on 24-inch sturdy stems, perfect for summer bouquets. Prevent mildew by watering early in the day so foliage can dry off and space generously to prevent overcrowding.

Bakers’ Acres in Groton sells ‘Peppermint Stick’. Seeds sources include Harris Seed, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, Burpee, and Thompson & Morgan.

If you start your zinnia seeds outdoors, choose a spot in full sun, add compost or fertilizer to the soil, and sow seeds at a depth of one-quarter inch. Zinnia seeds germinate well if both air and soil temperatures are more than 70 degrees. Keep soil surface moist until plants emerge. Zinnia seedlings grow in about seven to ten days after sowing. When the seedlings are three inches tall, they need to be thinned out from six to 18 inches apart depending on the variety. This is done to maximize air circulation.

If you start your zinnia seeds indoors, sow seeds five to seven weeks before your last frost date at a depth of a quarter inch in a good seed starting medium in cell packs or flats. Press seeds into the soil and lightly cover. Maintain a temperature of 70-75 degrees F and keep the soil moist. Plants need to be “hardened off” before planting in your garden. This process toughens the plant’s cell structure and reduces transplant shock and scalding from the sun. Acclimatize young plants to outdoor conditions by moving them to a sheltered place outside for a week, protecting them from wind, direct sun and cold temperatures. Once hardened off, choose a location in full sun, add compost or fertilizer to the soil, and space the transplants nine to 12 inches apart, depending on the variety. For strong growth, prolific blooms, and minimal disease and pest damage, water as needed, adding mulch to prevent weeds and retain moisture within the soil. 

Dwarf zinnias
The cutie pies of the zinnia world are the dwarf zinnias—growing from 6 to 14 inches tall and commonly planted in flower borders. Cherished for their small size, these petite plants grow well when interplanted with other annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Although the plants remain small throughout the growing season, the potential bloom size will vary depending upon the zinnia variety. 

Zinnia elegans ‘Thumbelina’ mix includes single and semi-double one-and-a-quarter-inch blooms on six-inch plants. The compact, dome-shaped annuals start to bloom at just three inches tall in shades of orange, pink, white, and yellow. 

Considered the best dwarf zinnia ever grown, the ‘Magellan’ series is truly an outstanding garden performer, especially as a bedding plant. The vibrant, double, four-to-five-inch flowers are arranged with layer after layer of petals crowned with a frilly yellow center. The sturdy, 14-inch plants are smothered with blooms over a long summer season. The mix contains seven bold colors including cherry, pink, orange, ivory, yellow, scarlet, and coral. Seeds for each of the colors can be purchased separately as well. Deadhead the old flowers to keep new buds developing for even more superb color!

The ‘Dreamland’ series has been around for several years enticing gardeners with its early, four-inch, long-lasting blooms on compact, robust 10 to 12-inch plants. The dahlia-form flowers, with waxy petals, are rugged and weather-tolerant during summer storms. They quickly form a solid carpet of color in large beds and borders. Eight harmonious hues include apricot, coral, pink, rose, yellow, ivory, red, and scarlet! Marla Palmiter at Palmiter’s Nursery in Avon offers the ‘Dreamland’ series and grows both a mix and the coral. According to Palmiter, “The ‘Dreamland’ coral is gorgeous and very popular.” When cut, the flowers are stunning and stay fresh for well over a week in a vase. If growing ‘Dreamland’ from seed, sow in succession for a longer flowering period.

Tom Pfentner, owner of Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence, has been growing zinnias for more than 50 years. “We started with the ‘Dreamland’ varieties then added the ‘Profusion’ and ‘Zahara’s. We also grow the tall ‘State Fair’ mix,” he says. “Zinnias are prolific bloomers and continue flowering well into the fall.”

‘Dreamland’ plants are available at Palmiter’s and Weeks’ Nursery and Greenhouses in Clarence. Kate’s Country Cousins in Lancaster sells the ‘Magellan’ series in four-and-a-half inch pots. Green Acre Farm & Nursery in Greece grows the ‘Dreamland’ and ‘Thumbelina’ mixes in six packs and ‘Magellan’ mix in eight-inch containers. Seed sources include Burpee and Park Seed.

Sun tolerant Coleus ‘Wasabi’ and orange Profusion zinnias spillover their container. Photo by Colleen O’Neill Nice.

Dahlia-flowered zinnias
Benary’s ‘Giant Dahlia’ series (Z. elegans) is considered a premium zinnia recommended by the Association of Specialty Cut Flower Growers. Densely petaled blooms create a beehive shape with added dimension, growing up to six inches across. They are long-lasting in bouquets. Colors include deep red, orange, carmine rose, coral, lime, wine, purple, bright pink, white, salmon rose, scarlet, and golden yellow. Seeds can be purchased by color or in a mix. Benary’s giants are vigorous, reaching heights of 40 to 50 inches and holding up remarkably well in summer rain and heat.

The Z. elegans ‘Giant Dahlia Flowered’ mix offers a vibrant combination of yellows, roses, scarlet, green, orange, pink, red, purple, and coral flowers on strong, 30-to-40-inch stems. Similar in color and habit to Benary’s giants, the flower structure of the ‘Giant Dahlia’ mix includes single, double and semi-double, 4-to-6-inch blooms. Collect and save the seed for next year, since both varieties are open-pollinated.

Seeds are available at Harris Seed, Swallowtail Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, and Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds.

Zinnias are the hardest working flower that you can employ in your summer garden! They are fast growers. Plan to direct-sow zinnia seeds in the spring, then sow a second batch in mid-summer. Fill your containers with zinnias using quick and easy six packs. All zinnia varieties—old or new—can brighten up your garden when it may be looking a little tired by summer’s end. Zinnias make colorful companions for ornamental grasses, roses, sunflowers, black-eyed Susans and hydrangeas. Scatter zinnia seeds in your perennial garden to add color and fill in spaces as you wait for plants to mature. When native plant sources are running low on pollen and nectar, attract hummingbirds, bees and butterflies with large-flowered varieties. Plant bright and beautiful zinnias in a butterfly garden near your porch or patio so you can enjoy them as well. The only challenging aspect of growing zinnias is deciding which varieties to plant.

Annie’s Annuals and Perennials
Eden Brothers
Harris Seed
Hazzard’s Plants & Seeds
Johnny’s Selected Seed
Park Seed
Pinetree Garden Seeds
Renee’s Garden
Select Seeds
Swallowtail Garden Seeds
Thompson & Morgan
White Flower Farm

Colleen O’Neill Nice is an avid gardener in Clarence.


Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy of Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery

The ‘Magnificient’ lotus is the first to bloom each year at the nursery

Halfway between the Villages of Bergen in Genesee County and Churchville in Monroe County lies Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery (hereafter, “Bergen”), where spouses Larry Nau and Lili Liu are growing the largest collection of lotus in the world outside of China. Their property is sixteen acres—and currently they are only using a fraction of that to grow their 400-plus varieties of lotus. “Lili would like the entire sixteen acres to be lotus,” Nau says, smiling. “We do have a lot of energy, and the business has grown significantly in the last five years, so maybe that will come to pass.” 

The nursery has an extensive collection of carnivorous plants as well—oh yes, and waterlilies and orchids and dwarf conifers. Lotus and carnivorous plants are in the biggest demand now at Bergen—more about those in a minute. “Apart from not being able to travel to China as we typically do, the past year has actually been good for our business,” Nau says. “As people are spending more time at home, they’ve been looking for new things to grow.” Bergen has a beautiful user-friendly website, does extensive mail order, and welcomes in-person visitors. 

Larry Nau grew up in Spencerport and went to Churchville-Chili High School, then attended the University of Rochester in the late 1970s, where he studied biology and anthropology and began collecting orchids. While a student, he connected with a biology professor who specialized in alga, which fed Nau’s then-nascent interest in plants; and a medical anthropology professor, who helped Nau get interested in world travel. During his time in school, Nau joined Crossroads Africa, a Peace Corps–like program that actually predated the Peace Corps, and was assigned to Liberia. “Our assignment was supposed to be medical in nature,” he says, “but when we got there, the most pressing need was for a construction crew to rebuild the Hope School for the Deaf in Monrovia.” 

While in Africa, Nau travelled to Sierra Leone and to Ghana, and after graduation, he took a research assignment in Malawi studying cichlids, tropical fish that originate in the lakes of central Africa and are a food source for the region. Nau had collected cichlids and other tropical fish throughout his childhood and was a scuba diver, so he was a good fit for the study. He logged 150 hours in Lake Malawi, studying the cichlids and trying not to be trampled by hippos. “We divers hugged the bottom of the lake so as not to get between mama and baby,” he says. With this second sojourn in Africa, Nau was fully hooked on international travel and over the years has visited Thailand, Australia, Papua New Guinea, and China.    

During college, Nau began his career at Pet World, which had ten privately-owned stores in New York, from Buffalo to Saratoga Springs. “In the late 1970s, ponds became a thing,” Nau says. “My background with fish and plants helped make me Pet World’s go-to person for all things ponds, and I focused on providing the stores the best selection of fish from around the world.” Nau spent forty-one years with Pet World as its livestock buyer and district manager, while simultaneously building up Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery on the land he purchased with his first wife, Sherry.

As Nau grew his business, he got increasingly involved with the International Waterlily and Water Gardening Society (IWGS) and served as its executive director from 2009 to 2011. 

Nau also became president of the Northeast region of the American Conifer Society (ACS) from 2012 to 2014. Through these positions he made meaningful domestic and international connections in the plant world. He gained experience with organizing symposia in Thailand and China for botanical garden directors, horticulturists, and other serious waterlily and lotus collectors and aficionados. These friendships and contacts continue to enrich his life. 

Then came the carnivorous plants, starting with trumpet pitcher plants (Sarracenia spp.) for floating islands in ponds or elements of bog gardens. “I had maybe 20 different varieties of Sarracenia for a long time, but eventually I got more interested in tropical pitchers plants (Nepenthes spp.)—carnivorous plants from Asia,” Nau says. “I imported them, learned to grow them, and now we have one of the better collections in the U.S. Later this year we plan to build our sixth greenhouse, just for the Nepenthes.” Bergen also sells sundews (Drosera spp.), and butterworts (Pinguicula spp.); many of their carnivorous plants can be grown as houseplants on a window sill. Bergen grows more than 25 varieties of Venus fly traps (Dionaea muscipula), highlighting distinctive growth types, colors, and teeth characteristics.

Closeup of Venus fly trap in action

In 2016, Nau’s personal life and business thrived when he and Lili Liu married. Liu had been an accountant in China; when she came to Bergen, she joined the business seamlessly, bringing to it her business skills, love of people, an energy level to match her husband’s, and the ability to speak Mandarin, Cantonese, and Chaozhou. “I handle most of the purchasing and wholesale side of things, while Lili handles most of the social media, marketing, and retail interactions,” Nau says. “She also corresponds with hybridizers aroundChina on WeChat and other platforms.” Typically, Nau and Liu travel to China several times a year to survey plant varieties, meet growers, and make purchasing arrangements. He and Liu sell all over the U.S. and to customers in Italy, Germany, India, Denmark, and Russia, among other countries. 

“About three years ago we imported the first micro lotus, and now that’s the most searched for plant on our website,” Nau says. Micro lotus are compact—just six to eight inches tall—and you can grow one in a six-inch pot on a balcony if you live in an apartment. You can move a micro lotus inside for a few days at a time when it’s blooming, then get it back out into the light, then bring it back in. “We have about 50 cultivars of micro lotus and plan to expand our exhibit to over 100 pots this year,” Nau says.  

One particularly exciting member of the Bergen horticultural collection is the trade’s first variegated-leaf lotus—Nelumbo ‘Gold Splash Hibiscus’. It was found in China in 2016 by a propagator-colleague as a mutation within a group of stock pink lotus, and Bergen was given exclusive marketing rights to the cultivar. According to Nau, the variegation on propagules from the mother plant (the plant is propagated by tuberous division) has remained stable. The ‘Gold Splash Hibiscus’ lotus has a double pink flower, five inches in diameter. The flower’s shape and appearance is reminiscent of that of hibiscus, and the plant reaches 19 to 24 inches high, with leaves that are 10 inches in diameter. 

The “Black Red” lotus is a new introduction for 2021 from China. “We are the first to offer it to the international water gardening community, and it has created much excitement,” says Nau. “In general, Chinese visitors remark about how good our red-flowering lotus look—something about our soil, perhaps, or the fertilizer we’re using, is yielding a deep color.”  

– The growing operation and the displays at Bergen are ambitious. In addition to five (soon to be six) greenhouses, Bergen has 65 five-by-five-foot mini-ponds for lotus and three natural growing areas that are 25 by 100 hundred feet each. Bergen sits at about the same latitude as the places in China where lotus grows naturally; blooming begins in late June and early July. The red cultivar ‘Magnificent’ is always the first to bloom for Bergen, and lotus generally bloom to the middle to end of September. 

– After the Lunar New Year (February 12 in 2021), Nau, Liu, and a helper begin harvesting lotus tubers from plants produced in pots, cleaning and sterilizing them, and shipping them out. So, February and March can actually be the busiest time of the year for Bergen, which also imports more than 6,000 tubers annually from China. 

– In 2021, the annual Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery LotusFest will be the weekend of July 31–August 1. It’s Bergen’s celebration of the beauty of lotus, with thousands of lotus flowers on display and, most years, lotus chips and lotus pizza available for tasting.   

– “Lotus Paradise at Bergen Water Gardens & Nursery” refers to the first International Waterlily and Water Garden Certified Nelumbo Collection of Excellence, made up of 80 of the 400-plus varieties at Bergen. 

– Nau served as the task force chairperson for the creation of the Thai International Waterlily Collection at King Rama IX Public Park in Bangkok, Thailand, unveiled during the IWGS symposium in July, 2007. More than 18 renowned hybridizers and growers contributed more than 110 historically significant varieties of hardy and tropical waterlilies to the collection, which was presented as a gift to mark both King Bhumipol Adulyadej’s 80th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the park. You can read more about this remarkable endeavor at iwgs.org.

– A future avenue for the business may come from the edible nature of most lotus seeds, stems, leaves, flowers, and tubers. Nau explains that lotus—especially the tuber—is a staple food throughout China, Southeast Asia, and India. “Lotus tubers look like sausages linked together, with unique air passages on the inside,” he says. “Once harvested, washed, and peeled, the lotus tuber may be sliced, boiled, or stir-fried. The tuber has a mild flavor with a crisp texture. Lotus are cooked with other vegetables, pickled in vinegar, or candied as a dessert.” He envisions a growing demand for edible lotus, but also has been contacted by New York City–based businesses who want to come to Bergen to do photo shoots for face creams and other lotus-based products. (As Nau explains, it’s cheaper for crews from NYC to come to Churchville, New York, than to fly to China.) 

– There are silky strands in lotus stems that can be used to make textiles. 

– The lotus plant has significant religious and cultural meaning for many of the world’s peoples. 

– Find Bergen Water Gardens and Nursery at bergenwatergardens.com. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.