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

Deer-resistant bulbs to plant in the fall

by cathym on September 10, 2020

List compiled by Ken Harbison; photos courtesy Colorblends.com

The fall-planted bulbs that are most deer resistant are: 

  1. Daffodil and related Narcissus spp. The bulbs of this family contain a number of toxic alkaloids, of which the most important in daffodils is lycorine. All parts of the plant are toxic, with the highest toxicity in the bulbs.
  2. Ornamental onions, Allium spp., are avoided because of the strong smell.
  3. Crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, is also avoided because of the strong smell.
  4. Autumn crocus, Collchicum autumnale, contains the toxic alkaloid colchicum. They are planted in early fall for leafless bloom in fall. The foliage appears in the spring. 

The following bulbs may occasionally be nibbled by deer, but are seldom seriously damaged:

  1. Grape hyacinth, Muscari armeniacum 
  2. Hyacinth, Hyacinthus orientalis 
  3. Trout lily, a.k.a. dogtooth violet, Erythronium spp.
  4. Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis
  5. Glory of the snow, Chionodoxa spp.
  6. Spanish bluebell, Hyacinthoides hyspanica
  7. Siberian squill, Scilla siberica

Ken Harbison is a Master Gardener with Monroe County.


Autumn: Bulbs in, bulbs out

by cathym on September 10, 2020

by Steven Jakobi

Remember those bulbs you ordered from catalogues months ago? The crocuses, irises, and daffodils? Well, they are starting to arrive now and it’s time to plant them during the month of October. And if it isn’t enough to put the garden to bed, to plant the garlic and those spring-flowering bulbs, you have the added chore of digging some bulbs up to put into storage. Wait—did you say dig some up? Oh, yes—because along with planting bulbs, it is soon time to dig up the dahlias, canna lilies, calla lilies, and gladioli.  

Let’s start with planting. Ideally, the bulbs of plants that will flower in the early spring (crocus, daffodil, snowdrop, etc.) go in about six weeks before the first frost. When that will occur is, of course, anyone’s guess, but in the last twenty years or so, that date keeps getting pushed back more and more as the planet warms. [The UGJ generally goes with October 15 as first frost date in upstate New York.—Ed.] 

Different kinds of bulbs go in at different soil depths, but a frequently mentioned rule of thumb is to dig a hole two to three times as deep as the bulb’s height. However, this is just a general guideline, as tulips do best when planted at a depth of 8 inches, hyacinths at 5 to 6 inches, and crocuses at 3 to 4 inches. Large allium bulbs prefer a depth of 8 inches, while small specimens of the same should be at 2 inches. And don’t forget that the pointy end of the bulbs faces upward when placed into the hole.

As spring-blooming bulbs go in, the summer-flowering ones need to be dug up and put into storage until next year. These include dahlia, gladiolus, some species of lilies, and elephant ear (technically, some of these “bulbs” are corms, rhizomes, or tubers but, from a practical point of view, the terminology is of no consequence). These plants originated in warmer areas of the world and they are unable to survive the cold winter conditions found in our area. Once they are carefully dug up, after the first frost kills back their foliage, the bulbs are stored in well-aerated mesh bags or paper sacks in such a way that they are not crowded together. A temperature regime of around 50° F and darkness are recommended for storage. That is because these bulbs are living organisms whose cells continue to respire and produce moisture that rot fungi thrive on. Some gardening websites recommend washing the soil off the bulbs prior to drying and storage, but I don’t do this. While I do shake the excess soil off the bulbs, I believe that washing is unnecessary. It removes some of the protective coating of outer plant tissue, as well as the soil particles containing beneficial microbes that are antagonists of rot fungi and bacteria. 

Ok, it’s time to go! Let’s start digging. Come next year, all the hard work we put in now will be rewarded by the beautiful flowers these plants will produce. 

Steven Jakobi is an Allegany County Master Gardener volunteer. 


Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy the Plant Shack except where noted

Rachel Stepien is the owner of the Plant Shack in East Aurora, southeast of Buffalo. With two locations and a third being planned, she is offering things people need more now than ever: community, creativity, the people-plant connection, and—soon—cocktails!  

Did you grow up in a gardening family?
Rachel Stepien: I grew up in Niagara County, in Youngstown. My love for nature started there and with going to nature preserves with my grandparents. My dad always had a garden (and still does), and helping him pick tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer is definitely something I will always remember. I would help find toads in my gad’s veggie garden or move spiders off the tomatoes before he watered. He had the knack for growing veggies and herbs, and inside the house we had cacti and small trees. One cactus got so large, we had to donate it because it wouldn’t fit in the house anymore. 

How did your plant interest evolve from there? 
Throughout my life, I’ve had a fascination with all types of forests. I always wanted to go explore the Amazon rainforest; I remember being a kid and having this cool pop-up book where you could add different plants and animals to a rainforest backdrop. It wasn’t until a few years ago, though, that I started collecting plants and really getting into the houseplant hobby. 

Before starting the Plant Shack, I had worked at the Buffalo Zoo in the rainforest exhibit (I have a degree from Canisius College in Zoology). After seeing how much my mood improved in the winter because of being surrounded by plants at work as well as at home, my love for them really took off. 

Anna’s cat, Billy, keeps an eye on things.

What was your initial business spark? 
I always had an appreciation for cozy, locally owned coffee shops, and when I was drinking coffee last fall in my home, surrounded by plants, I had a vision of creating a botanical café. I thought, “How cool would it be to actually create this kind of space for other people?” I knew this would be a big endeavor, so I started with plants—getting my name out there, spreading the word and excitement, etc. My end goal is still to become a botanical café: coffee by day, craft cocktails by night—all surrounded by green!

What do you see as your overall business mission and vision? 
This is so hard for me to answer, as I have at least ten missions! Overall, though, my mission is to be a place for the community to gather. My vision is to be a business that supports the community that supports me. To be kind. 

How have you used social media to grow your Plant Shack community? Social media has been my number one place for getting out news and information, advertising events, and gathering a following of fellow plant people. It’s been amazing! We’ve done giveaways with expensive plants so that people who may not be able to splurge to buy one have a chance to win one. I have used our social media to help a foster dog find a home. 

I want people to know there is someone just like them behind the Plant Shack name. I like sharing behind-the-scenes things on social media so it’s more personal. I want people to know that they can come to me for advice or just to chat. I also use social media to provide exposure to other small businesses in our region and to encourage folks to check them out. 

Could you tell us about #TheShackGivesBack and your areas of giving? This comes back to my mission and vision. I want to be a place for the community, to help make our community and world a better place. Animals and nature are my passion, so many of my give-back efforts are related to that. For instance, starting last November, for every ten plants we sell, we plant a tree through the nonprofit organization called One Tree Planted. We have planted 445 trees around the world so far! We’ve also raised money to help those affected by the Australian bushfires.

We have covered the cost of transportation fees for animals who are being transported to our region by plane, and we’ve sponsored cages at the Niagara County SPCA. One of the dogs we helped transport stayed at the Shack during our open hours to greet customers and gain exposure; because of this, she found an amazing new home! Once we get back to normal, we hope to have more “shop dogs.” 

You’re starting a scholarship for college or trade school students. What inspired you to do that?  
I was on a business trip with my other job, and my shuttle driver to the airport was a high school student who was applying to colleges. He is the first of his family to go to college, and he really wanted to go to a certain one that is very expensive. He had this plan laid out, that he was going to go to the local community college for two years, then another college, and then finally transfer to the expensive college so his diploma would be from there. 

I told him that the name of the college wasn’t everything, but after him telling me his plans, how he was saving money, etc., I tipped him very well and said it was for his college fund. I got such a great feeling that I was able to help him out, even in such a small way, that I decided that I would use my business to help someone go to school. We were going to start this year, but due to the coronavirus, we instead donated over $500 in gift cards and Easter dinners to local families who were struggling because of income loss related to the pandemic. 

Speaking of the pandemic, how have you been adapting your business in this strange time? 
We essentially closed for a full month, but after talking to my employees, we came up with a plan to safely open with curbside pickup. We transferred everything to a new website that’s equipped for online purchases. We did that for about a month, and once phase three of reopening came around, we opened to the public but with restrictions (masks, capacity limits, etc.). We have two locations, both in East Aurora. Our seasonal location at Knox Farm State Park will remain closed this year—as it’s just easier with everything going on—but our Main Street location is open.  

Are you still hoping to open a botanical café in the future? 
Yes! We are in the planning phases of opening a separate (different location) botanical café, complete with coffee, patio, indoor seating, and cocktails. I can’t wait to fulfill this goal/vision.  

What kinds of events and classes did you have and plan to get back to? Will you be adapting them to online? 
We had everything! We had introductory German classes, jigsaw puzzle nights, local artists teaching botanical drawing, macramé hanger making classes, succulent arrangement workshops—I can go on! We aren’t adapting these to online, but we are working on having some outdoor events before winter hits. 

The cloth plant pouches are intriguing—can you talk about those? 
The cloth pouches are made by Amiga Wild, a business cofounded by two friends in Venice, California. The pouches have plastic liners in the bottom but the friends thought it would be a fun and different way to display your plants. The safari-themed cloth pouches are the most popular.

Packages ready for curbside pickup last spring. Now folks can shop the Plant Shack in person (using safe protocols).
Houseplant chic: “plant pouches” lined with plastic. The Shack seeks to support as many small businesses as possible. 

What are some other innovative products you’d like to highlight?
Not so much individual products, but I would like to add that many of our gift items are made by local or international small businesses; we seek to support as many as possible. Our candles, cards, jewelry, macramé hangers, and embroidery are all from small businesses. Most of our store furniture was custom-made by Black Dog Wood, based in Niagara County.  

Where do you turn for creative ideas and inspiration? 
When I first started, I would scroll through Instagram for inspiration from other plant shops. But when employees Erin and Anna came on board, they quickly became the source of creativity! Both of them love interior design, so they are always changing the shops around and arranging everything in the most pleasing and unusual ways. 

What interests do you have outside of the business? 
I love traveling with my boyfriend—two of my favorite places to go are St. John, USVI and Wengen, Switzerland. I also love reading and playing video games. You can find me down by our pond looking at bugs and other animals. I’m on the board of Knox Farm State Park right here in East Aurora. 

What’s an interesting fact about you that your customers might not know? 
I served in the USAF reserves for six years. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

Connecting with The Plant Shack