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

story by John Ernst; photos provided by Mark Weiss

Aerial view of Lan’s Flower Farm

Here’s a fact—one of New York’s largest flower farms started with a twelve-year-old girl from China trying to learn English.

Today, Lan’s Flower Farm spans four acres managed by five employees. That girl—the daughter of Mark Weiss and Xiao Lan— immigrated here in 2005. “She didn’t speak any English, and we brainstormed how she could learn really fast,” Weiss says. Having previously started a landscaping business that didn’t take off, “I had 2,000 empty pots around the property,” he says. He told his daughter she could start selling plants, where she could learn conversational English all day long while making money. “So we started potting bulbs, she had a little roadside stand, and she would sit out there eight hours a day studying. And people would come and buy her plants.”

And then the cards fell into place. “She was doing very well,” Weiss tells me, when one of the local perennial growers went out of business. “So it was kind of an open slot in the community that we were able to fill.” 

Clinton Farmers Market
Bee balm and peonies

A slot Weiss and Lan take very seriously. In addition to offering a variety of 700 perennials to the Syracuse region, the farm engages in a range of community service and donations. “Aside from working with various schools and churches,” Weiss says, “we also donate to terminal patients to help pay for medical expenses.” Lan’s also funds scholarships and runs tours for garden clubs. “It’s really the backbone of the whole business,” he says. 

“We try and do everything as organically as we can,” he adds. “When you’re growing in containers, it’s difficult to have 100 percent organic—it leaches out too quickly. But we don’t spray at all and our soil has no chemicals to speak of.” For fertilizer, they recycle a byproduct of the nearby Anheuser-Busch plant. “Other places have plants in bloom when they shouldn’t be in bloom,” he says, “but we winterize everything. It makes plants hardier.” 

Herb and Flower Festival 2018
Helleborus ‘Amethyst Gem’

Weiss and Lan formed an official business partnership in 2006 with a couple hundred plants. In 2014 they incorporated, and today sell upwards of 30,000 plants a year. 

With their farm organized into four categories—shade, semi-shade, sun, and grass—they do their best to predict what the market will demand each year. “But there’s really no telling. One year a guy bought over 500 containers of grass in one swoop,” Weiss laughs, “so we had none leftover for the next year.” 

To stay up-to-date on the perennial world, Weiss and Lan head to Baltimore for MANTS, the Mid-Atlantic Nursery Trade Show. “Plugs, roots, greenhouses, potting machines…anything that can make growing in our industry easier, you can buy there,” Weiss says. “If we see something interesting we’ll try to have it ready for spring, but a lot of it really is like looking into a crystal ball.” It’s hard to decipher what will be popular in the next year, he tells me, and a lot of the new plants are patented and require a license to legally propagate. 

Weiss and Lan aren’t completely in the dark, however, when it comes to next-season predictions. Catmint, hostas, and echinaceas are among consistently reliable best-sellers. “We’re actually well-known for our hostas,” Weiss says. “They’re real popular because they have leaf color, come in so many different sizes, and they grow nice flowers—some of them are fragrant. But,” he warns, “the deer love them. So if you have a deer problem, they’ll get destroyed.” Grasses are becoming more popular, too. Weiss says they’re hardy and drought-resistant, surviving through winter if they’re cut short. “But don’t cut them down too short,” he says. “[The landscapers who tend to our local Wegmans stores] cut them right to the ground, which decreases hardiness.”  

Despite its grass maintenance habits, Weiss admires the Wegmans approach to landscaping. “They’ve developed this whole buying experience—and it starts at the curb,” he says. “You drive in, and they have beautiful grounds with flowers, trees, and shrubs. Then you go into the grocery store and you’re hit with aromas of baked goods and flowers,” he says. “You go to these other stores…with bright lights and you want to get out as fast as you came in,” he laughs, “but Wegmans has really got it down.”

Then I ask a question that stumps Weiss—if he were to open another location anywhere in the world, where would he go? “Where there are a lot of rich people?” he jokes. Then he tells me that the upstate New York demographic is very interesting. “Rochester and Syracuse are completely different demographics—Rochester is not the blue collar town that Syracuse is.” Syracusians, he explains, are more concerned with practical things like plowing snow than they are with designing their yard. “So people from Rochester spend far more on landscape architecture than we do in Syracuse. Plus, you also have a better climate from being closer to the lake.” 

Xiao Lan

Ultimately, he wouldn’t want to leave Syracuse. “I’ve been here in ‘Cuse since 1978. I know more people here than anywhere else,” he explains. “And our business is a very personal business. We know almost every one of our customers. My wife was at the doctor’s this morning, and we sat next to one of our customers in the waiting room. We know every one of our customers by name or face,” he continues, “and when you get real big you don’t have that anymore.” 

And the daughter who started it all? “She’s moved out now,” Weiss says, “but she talks about taking over the business…now that all the work is done!” he laughs. 

John Ernst is a writer and graphic designer in Rochester. You can see more of his work at johnmwrites.com

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by Donna De Palma

Syringa vulgaris (common Lilac) cultivar ‘Flower City’, at Highland Park in Rochester, New York. The information plaque next to this plant reads: “This variety was developed at Highland Park by horticulturist Richard Finicchia. It is a unique variety that has cupped, dark violet-purple florets with a silvery reverse. Some florets display radial doubling; an increase to 8, 10 or more petals. Its parent is ‘Rochester’, also a Highland Park development.” Photo courtesy Wikipedia: LtPowers

Scent is one of the most seductive qualities known. Throughout history, scent has lured, provoked, and even taunted the senses. No wonder the fragrant and delicate lilac’s early history, though largely unrecorded, is referenced as far back as Greek mythology. 

Syringa vulgaris, the common lilac, is believed to have originated on the Balkan peninsula. Its appearance in cultivation dates to the 15th Century. A species of flowering plant in the olive family, Syringa vulgaris is a large shrub that grows on rocky hillsides by the shores of the Adriatic, Mediterranean, Aegean and Black Seas. Other fragrant, flowering species of lilac are native to regions of Japan, China and Korea. 

According to Mark Quinn, Monroe County Parks’ superintendent of horticulture, while there are no written records of the lilac’s arrival in the United States, there is evidence that lilacs grew in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in the 1600s. 

Cultivars have evolved thanks to dedicated breeders seeking to improve on the natural beauty and scent of the fragrant flower, its disease resistance and overall plant habit. Irene Lekstutis, landscape designer at Cornell Botanical Gardens in Ithaca, who is responsible for selecting lilacs for inclusion there, says breeders have contributed to the structure, color and scent of the lilac over the past four centuries.

“Horticulturalist Victor Lemoine played an important role in developing cultivars of lilac in the mid-nineteenth century in France. Lemoine developed the first double-flowered hybrid lilac named for his wife, Mme. Lemoine,” says Lekstutis. 

Father John Fiala of Ohio, pastor and school principal who bred 78 cultivars of lilacs, is also identified by Lekstutis as another significant breeder in the 20th century. He learned about gardening and horticulture from his grandmother at her country home in Michigan.

Perhaps the most prized collection in the United States, and arguably the world, is the one at Highland Park in Rochester. With more than 550 varieties and around 1,200 bushes, Highland Park’s Annual Lilac Festival, originally just “Lilac Sunday,” has been drawing lilac lovers since 1905. The event developed into a 10-day festival in 1978.

Highland Park was established on twenty acres of land donated by George Ellwanger and Patrick Barry in 1888. George Ellwanger immigrated to the U. S. from a small farm near Wurttemberg, Germany, in 1835. Ellwanger grew up tending grapes and making wine with his father and brothers in his native country. He harbored a love of horticulture throughout his life and possessed a strong sense of civic responsibility.

Patrick Barry immigrated to the U.S. from Belfast, Ireland, in 1836 and began his working life in America at what was the oldest nursery in the United States at the time, Linnaean Nursery in Flushing, N.Y. He began his partnership with Ellwanger in 1840. Ellwanger and Barry owned Mount Hope Nursery (also known as Ellwanger and Barry Nursery), the largest nursery in the U. S., from 1840 to 1850. 

The civic-minded business partners donated the first 20 acres of land to establish an arboretum on the undeveloped land where Highland Park stands today. Their donation was instrumental in the formation of a parks department in Rochester. Ellwanger also donated an observation pavilion atop the hill near the reservoir in the park. The Children’s Pavilion, also known as the Ellwanger & Barry Memorial Pavilion, was dedicated in 1890. [The pavilion was torn down in 1963 due to disrepair, but a campaign is underway to finance its reconstruction starting in 2022.—Ed.]

Frederick Law Olmsted was hired to design the park. Olmsted, the designer of Central Park in New York City, is often referred to as the father of American landscape architecture. He was at the pinnacle of his career when he designed Highland Park, which, according to Quinn, is a phenomenal example of Olmsted’s genius.

 “The landscape architect’s style highlights natural attributes of the terrain,” says Quinn. “Olmsted’s ability to create one view that moves into another was remarkable. He used natural materials to screen out city views.”

Superintendent Quinn says the design of walkways and the park’s layout are perhaps its finest features. “Where Olmsted shined was in his understanding of what plants would look like when they matured. He planned for a park that would mature naturally and beautifully.”

Lekstutis says Olmsted had a clever way of separating vehicular and pedestrian features and saw the importance of water fixtures in a park. “Olmsted liked to play with terrain. He applied ways of structuring space to create visual screens and expansive lawns and was expert at handling adjacent spaces. His work illustrates how the beauty of a naturalistic landscape is important to supporting our well-being and therefore should be accessible to everyone.”

While current numbers place the count of lilac bushes in the park at around 1200, John Dunbar planted the first 100 at the corner of South and Highland Avenues in 1890. In addition to creating several new cultivars, Dunbar developed the evergreen forest (pinetum) on the north side of the park and planted lilacs on the south side of a landmark hill in the park. 

Quinn says that while some varieties have been lost, an original vulgaris lilac bush from 1892 still blooms every May in the park. “Some of the varieties that are cultivated may not be strong enough to last, but most varieties that exist in upstate New York can be found here at Highland. We actively seek out new varieties every day. We’ve had a collaborative relationship with Arnold Arboretum of Harvard University in past years.”

Why has the lilac become such a popular shrub and flower here and around the world? Quinn says the climate in Rochester is suited to lilacs. “They like cold winters and warmer springs. Lilacs are hardy and easy to grow. The plants themselves are aggressive growers. Deer don’t like the lilac. Lilac shrubs can grow to 15 to 20 feet tall and some can last for a hundred years.”

“The main reason for poor bloom is because it’s either been planted in a shady spot or the shrub has been pruned at an incorrect time of year. Lilacs prefer dry soil. The amount of rain over the course of the year will affect the vigor of their blooms,” Quinn says.

Bloomerang ‘Pink Perfume’ lilac, photo courtesy Proven Winners
‘Beauty of Moscow’ by Leonid Kolesnikov. Photo courtesy Wikipedia: Kristy2906

While the plants themselves are hardy, their flowers can be affected by high winds, heavy rain, and too much heat once open. Relatively warm days and cool nights with moderate rain are optimal conditions for a long bloom period.

Quinn says lilacs in bloom are most fragrant in early morning and at early evening. The introduction of radial doubling, bicolor flowers and double-floret and four-floret flowers through cultivation has resulted in a wide array of varieties in appearance, scent, and form. From deep purple to French blue, pink, dusty pink, lavender, white, and yellow, cultivars come in a breathtaking palette of colors. 

One of Quinn’s favorites is the ‘Rochester’ lilac, a white, radial-doubling bloom developed in Rochester. Another favorite, ‘Sensation’, features a deep purple bicolor flower with a white rim. For its luxurious scent, Quinn recommends ‘Fenelon’, a variety of S. hyacinthflora lilac, an early bloomer that he says is one of the most fragrant of any lilac.

Lilac ‘Sensation’; photo courtesy Wikipedia: Angel caboodle

Lekstutis enjoys ‘Beauty of Moscow’, a lilac flower with pink buds that turn white. ‘Scent and Sensibility’, a dwarf mounding shrub with its dark pink buds that turn lavender pink once opened, is another favorite. Finally, repeat blooming purple lilac, ‘Bloomerang’, a cultivar that blooms after first blush into summer and fall is a noteworthy addition to Lekstutis’s best picks.

Nature’s colorful, fragrant display is set to bloom on schedule this year as it has almost every year for over 100 years each and every spring. Quinn projects this year to be on track for hardy blooms during Highland Park’s Lilac Festival. 

To enjoy these and all of the varieties growing at the park, visit the festival or wander through its winding paths when these lovely flowers are in bloom.

Donna De Palma is a freelance writer based in Rochester.

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by Michelle Sutton

Two good plants for the “high and dry” part of the rain garden or bioswale: goldenrod (Solidago ‘Fireworks’) and narrowleaf ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’). Photo by Michelle Sutton

MINI-GLOSSARY OF ESSENTIAL TERMS

Stormwater is the excess water from rain events and melting snow that doesn’t immediately infiltrate soil, but rather flows across the soil surface. Stormwater infrastructure is costly to municipalities, and haphazard stormwater runoff is harmful to ecosystems because of streambank erosion, excessive sedimentation, bacterial and fertilizer contamination of waterways, and more.   

Bioswales are strategically located trenches in the earth that are lined with porous materials and plants in order to slow stormwater runoff so that it can infiltrate and be cleaned by the soil. Bioswales and rain gardens are both constructed to slow water movement, but bioswales are designed to handle a specific amount of runoff from a large impervious surface, such as a roadway or parking lot. Plants in bioswales assist with stormwater infiltration and provide ecosystem services like wildlife habitat creation and urban heat island cooling. 

Rain gardens tend to be smaller than bioswales and are more commonly used for residential stormwater management. As defined by the Cornell Urban Horticulture Institute, rain gardens are “constructed vegetated depressions used to temporarily retain stormwater runoff from impervious surfaces during storm events typically of one inch or less. Using plants and distinct engineered substrates, pollutants are filtered and water infiltrates into the soil over a period of one to 2 days.” 

SMALL-SCALE STORMWATER MANAGEMENT
Jeanine “J” Fyfe is an education and design specialist at Rochester-based Broccolo Tree and Lawn Care. “Rain gardens are like all stormwater management systems,” she says. “Because they help keep our watersheds healthy, rain gardens benefit everyone.”

“Patience is needed for rain gardens, because the plants take time to establish,” Fyfe says. “While conventional drainage systems are about diverting water—and can sometimes divert water right over to the neighbor’s, creating more problems—rain gardens are about keeping water in place and allowing it to recharge the groundwater.” 

Fyfe explains how the rain garden system has to be set up properly and given time to flourish. For instance, natural fiber logs, like those filled with coir (coconut fiber) can be used to hold earth in place until plant roots are established. Shoreline and slope erosion can be controlled with natural fiber logs along with appropriate plants that hold the soil and help filter rainwater runoff.

As she does with all types of gardens, Fyfe looks at the rain garden through an ecosystem lens. Rain gardens are an opportunity to create habitat, attracting insects whose presence attracts frogs and birds. “A barren, wet area is just an invitation for mosquitos to breed, so plants are a must to house the creatures that will keep the ‘bad bugs’ in check,” Fyfe says. She prefers the use of native plants wherever possible, primarily because she regards them as the best food sources for local pollinators. She also steers clients clear of unwanted aggressive or potentially invasive plants.   

The first question Fyfe asks clients is, “In addition to stormwater management and beauty, what purpose(s) do you want your rain garden to fulfill?” This could include erosion control, privacy screening, and/or maximum wildlife appeal. Then she delves into site assessment: Is the site wet all the time, or just in spring? How dry does it get in summer? How much light does it get and during which parts of the day? What is the existing soil like, and how fast does infiltration currently occur? What other specific challenges exist? 

This assessment guides the selection of the appropriate soil amendments and plants to match the site. Starting with trees like maples (Acer spp.), willows (Salix spp.), and some oaks (Quercus spp.) that prefer moist areas, Fyfe’s selection trickles down to shrubs such as chokeberry (Aronia spp.), dogwoods (Cornus spp.), sumac (Rhus spp.) and summersweet (Clethra spp.), followed by perennials and ground covers like ferns, spiderwort (Tradescantia spp.), and lobelia (Lobelia spp.). “Grasses like tussock sedge (Carex stricta) look great massed together and can cover lots of territory, linking areas together to provide a natural, meadow-like appearance,” she says.

Plants on the upper slope or edge of rain gardens and bioswales must be drought tolerant. Photo by Michelle Sutton

• • •

One major plant selection consideration for rain gardens and bioswales is the differing microclimate in the bottom vs. the top of the system. Designers usually think in terms of the “low and moist” vs. the “high and dry” parts of the rain garden or bioswale. However, depending on the site, the whole rain garden might become quite dry in summer, which means that the plants chosen would have to tolerate both wet and dry conditions.   

If your rain garden will cover a larger area, consider incorporating woody plants. The Cornell Woody Shrubs for Stormwater Retention publication is a superb resource. As explained within: “While a wide variety of herbaceous plants such as soft rush (Juncus effusus), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium spp., formerly Eupatorium spp.) are often successfully used in these spaces, they can present maintenance issues because of the need to annually cut back dead foliage and stems. Utilizing woody plants decreases the need for additional seasonal maintenance while successfully adding aesthetic and functional vegetation to stormwater retention practices.” The publication includes dozens of research-tested suggestions for woody shrubs that can tolerate both wet and dry conditions.   

TIPS FOR A SUCCESSFUL RAIN GARDEN

• The slope of the land will determine the needed depth of the garden (see savetherain.us for the calculation).

• A two- to three-inch covering of well-aged shredded hardwood mulch helps with weed control and drainage and can give a more attractive look to the garden. Pine bark nuggets and other wood chips are not recommended because they will wash out more readily. 

• For the first few years of the rain garden, weed management is crucial until the desired plants are established and can shade out competitors.  

• At maturity, properly selected plants in the rain garden shouldn’t require supplemental water. However, mature plants may look better if watered during a drought.

• Snow can be “stored” in the rain garden so long as any woody vegetation isn’t overloaded to the point of breaking branches.  

• If the rain garden is near paved surfaces that get treated with deicing salt in winter, select salt-tolerant plants. 

KEY UPSTATE RESOURCES

Save the Rain
savetherain.us

H2O Hero Water Education Collaborative
H2Ohero.org

Rochester Museum and Science Center-Green Infrastructure
rmsc.org

The Cornell Botanic Gardens Bioswale in fall, 2012. Photo by Chris Kitchen Photography and Design (ckpad.co)
Interpretative signage for the bioswale. Photo by Michelle Sutton
Designer rendering of the bioswale.
A glimpse into the luxuriant center of the Cornell Botanic Gardens Bioswale in fall, 2018. Photo by Michelle Sutton
The Cornell Botanic Gardens Bioswale in late summer, 2012. Photo by Chris Kitchen Photography and Design (ckpad.co)

THE ULTIMATE BIOSWALE
Completed in 2010, the bioswale at Cornell Botanic Gardens is, like all things at this central New York public garden, horticulture at its highest level. The stunning bioswale was designed and engineered to slow and filter runoff from the adjacent Nevin Welcome Center parking lot. The plants in the bioswale are bound to be of interest to homeowners as they design their rain gardens.

  • Plants in the Cornell Botanic Gardens bioswale were chosen for strong root systems and the ability to withstand both wet and dry conditions. 
  • Most of the plants in the bioswale are native to the central New York region. Seven cultivars of native switchgrass (Panicum virgatum) are used, and about 68 different flowering perennials add color, pollinator value, and wildlife habitat. These perennials include showy goldenrods like Solidago ‘Fireworks’, narrowleaf ironweed (Vernonia lettermannii ‘Iron Butterfly’), and various cultivars of sneezeweed (Helenium spp.), coneflowers (Echinacea spp.), and false indigo (Baptisia spp.). 
  • The bioswale mitigates stormwater runoff to nearby Beebe Lake, protecting the lake from storm surges and erosion. 
  • To increase the rate of infiltration, the bioswale soil is a one-to-one-to-one ratio mix of coarse sand, screened loam, and Cornell compost. 
  • In a 2015 study, Cornell researchers Palmer and Powell found that the bioswale was reducing peak stormwater flow rates by 81% and reducing runoff by 31% (78,000 gallons annually). 
  • As water infiltrates through the bioswale, sediment and pollutants are filtered out. Soil and root microorganisms help break down harmful bacteria and trap heavy metals along with excessive nitrogen and phosphorus. The bioswale has been shown to remove 80% of the average annual total suspended solids (dry weight of suspended particles).

Michelle Sutton (michellejudysutton.com) is a horticulturist, writer, and editor living in New Paltz.

Special thank you to Ithaca-based Chris Kitchen for use of his Cornell Botanic Gardens Bioswale photos. Contact info: 

Chris Kitchen Photography and Design
facebook.com/ckpad
ckpad.co
(607) 280-9573 

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