March-April 2020

A volunteer pansy shows its cute face in April

Looking out the window in March when the snow is still flying, or trying to determine in April when the ground is dry enough to dig, we may feel as though spring will never come. Even so, there are many gardening chores that can be done. This is the perfect time to tackle some of the less-than-glamorous but critical tasks that will ensure a splendid garden throughout the year. On days too messy to work outside, there are plenty of jobs for the indoor gardener.

Inspect your tools and remove any rust you find. Sharpen the edges on your cutting tools to make sure you will obtain clean cuts on shrubs and trees. Take your power equipment to get an annual servicing—this includes tillers and lawn mowers. Even though they may not be needed until later in the season, now is a good time to do in, in order to avoid possible long service waits. You can also spend this time to cleaning pots and other containers to be sure that no diseases or pests carry over into the new growing season. Soap and water and/or a bleach or vinegar solution should suffice.

Now is also the time to start seeds indoors. Resources to find the correct time to start seeds and to transplant can be found at (Gardening Factsheets) and at Cool season vegetables such as beets, cabbage, leeks, and spinach can be sown or planted outdoors in April or as soon as the ground is workable.

Containers of plants that tolerate cooler temperatures can be placed outside in a sunny location in mid-April. Plants that work well for these early container gardens include pansies, cineraria, oxalis, heuchera, and parsley. Seeing these blooms has the added advantage of chasing away the winter doldrums. The container may need to be covered if a hard freeze is expected.

As the weather improves or on warm winter days you can begin your outdoor preparations such as pruning trees and shrubs and cleaning and readying garden areas. With the leaves still off deciduous trees and shrubs, it’s the perfect time to survey them for broken or diseased branches. You can remove them along with any branches that cross each other. Prune shrubs that need to be shaped. Shrubs that bloom on new wood, like roses, can be pruned back in early spring. Shrubs that bloom on old wood should wait until shortly after blooming. Azaleas fall into this category. There’s a helpful resource for pruning at

It is also a great time to clear garden beds of leaves and other debris that has accumulated over the winter. Herbaceous perennials that were left to add winter interest to the garden, such as sedum and decorative grasses, should now be cut down close to the ground to allow for new growth. Evergreen and semievergreen perennials like heuchera and lavender can be trimmed of old leaves to improve shape and bloom. Mulching, however, should wait until the ground has warmed up in late May. And, yes, start attacking weeds as soon as they appear.

Once the ground is workable (a handful of dirt is crumbly), garden beds can be prepared for planting. Most plants need well-drained soil. Dense soil can be improved by adding organic matter to help hold moisture and nutrients. A soil test is beneficial to determine if additional nutrients are needed. Some local Cornell Extension offices, like Monroe County’s, can perform soil testing at a reasonable price. 

Use of fertilizers should be judicious to avoid runoff harming the watershed. Organic fertilizers are often easier on the environment. Your local nursery should be able to provide advice on which fertilizer to use as well as organic controls for pests, diseases, and weeds.

Lawn rejuvenation should wait until May when the ground is warm enough to germinate seed. The lawn can be prepared now by gently raking up leaves and debris. Vigorous raking at this time may pull up the grass you want, so be gentle. Fertilization of lawns should be delayed until the grass has been mowed a couple of times. Lawn care information is also available on the website in the Gardening Factsheets.

Start planning for next spring by taking a survey of your garden. Do you have any early signs of spring such as snowdrops, hellebore, witch hazel, flowering quince? What about ephemerals that appear in spring and then die back until the next spring, e.g., bloodroot, Virginia bluebells, hepatica, spring beauty, Dutchman’s breeches, and bleeding hearts? Plant some of these this year and you will be pleasantly surprised early next year when they appear to let you know that spring is coming!

The mantra for all gardeners should be “Right plant, Right place.” Take this time to get fully acquainted with the sunlight and moisture available in different parts of your yard. We all want to rush out and buy something that looks good in the nursery, but will it survive in your garden? Our growing area for perennials, trees, and shrubs is zone 6 near Lakes Erie and Ontario and zone 5 the towards the Southern Tier. Be sure to check the hardiness zone on plant tags.

Finally, both gardening and spring awaken our senses to what is different and emerging around us. By interacting with nature, we learn to appreciate what is possible and needed to make our gardens a joy to behold. We get exercise, learn to solve problems, and make decisions for the benefit our environment. Most importantly, we get to enjoy a sense of peace as we look at the natural beauty we have in our gardens.

—Bonnie Knoke, Master Gardener, Cornell Cooperative Extension, Monroe County


Mr. Tilly’s garden: Laying down tracks

by cathym on March 16, 2020

story and photos by Christine Froehlich

Learning is designed to be fun here—the only hard part is deciding what you want to see first

When Paul Tilly was a kid, he longed for a train set. “I grew up on a busy farm and there just wasn’t time for playing with trains,” he said. Besides that, most of the places he lived didn’t have a big enough basement for them.

As an adult, he’s making up for it. This octogenarian is still a kid at heart, with plenty of time and more than enough room for trains. In fact, they’ve taken over his entire backyard garden.

It’s a kid’s dream on steroids. More than 200 feet of tracks traverse nodding swaths of daylilies, fragrant phlox- and billowy hydrangeas. A shiny locomotive blows its horn and rumbles across a bridge. Tiny people await its arrival at a train station that’s nestled into a bunch of large leafed hostas. Watch out for King Kong—he’s on top of the bridge that crosses the blue pebbled river! Toy dinosaurs and pretend snakes sun themselves near the tracks. Those trains have plenty of stops to make: several villages packed with miniature houses, farm equipment, water towers, and various animals stand waiting.

Tilly’s garden is a destination for neighborhood kids
Fantasies can run wild in this playful garden. Either King Kong or the dinosaur is going to pounce on that locomotive.

Creating a train garden wasn’t part of the plan back in 1976 when Tilly and his wife Betty Lou bought their house in Avon. They just wanted to turn their small overgrown backyard into a garden they could enjoy. They enclosed it with flowering trees, shrubs, and plenty of pollinator plants. It was certified as a wildlife habitat in 1984.

Everything changed after Tilly went to a train show at Rochester’s flower and landscape show, GardenScape, in 1992. “I had never seen trains displayed in gardens before,” he says. “It inspired me to incorporate them into mine.”

Intent on his mission, Tilly began laying down tracks. He created villages out of birdhouses he found at lumberyards and populated them with miniature trucks, toy cars, tiny animals and figurines he picked up at tag sales. He kept collecting engines and eventually had to turn the chicken house into a shed to store them all.

At first the train garden was just for him—his two kids were already grown and gone. The idea of sharing it came after a local nursery school heard about his garden and asked if they could visit for a field trip. It caught on, and soon he and Betty Lou began hosting other area preschools. She helps organize the tours and Tilly instructs, using the some of the training he received when his garden was certified as a wildlife habitat.

Finds from hardware stores and tag sales supply the tiny villages. Here, birdhouses have been transformed into miniature buildings.
Paul introduces teaching opportunities throughout the garden—a giant ladybug helps young visitors find out about beneficial insects.
Kids learn about pollinators by seeing them flock to the bee balm, coneflowers and phlox.

As an experienced father, grandfather of four and great grandfather of eleven, he gets young children. “Kids around three to four years old are very curious and observant about everything,” he says. “A lot of trains get knocked off the track when they visit, but that’s ok—they learn by touching.”

But it’s not just about trains. There’s plenty more to learn about here. Tilly makes a game out of teaching them to observe. He might ask kids to hunt for Godzilla, King Kong, or a certain type of frog, snake, or dinosaur. Maybe they’ll have to search for a particular vegetable—all are grown in containers so they can be found and observed easily.

He uses his habitat garden as an opportunity to teach kids about plants and their environment. “You can’t start too early,” he claims. Young visitors can discover the worms in the compost bin and see how they benefit the soil. Which flowers attract butterflies and birds? There they are, flitting around masses of beebalm and coneflowers. How do the plants get watered? Tilly shows them how his rain barrels help conserve water.

This terracotta chicken heads back toward the hen house with hens and chicks on her back. Touches like this delight and instruct young visitors.
That frog on the left might be on the treasure hunt list. Maybe he’ll tell us what insects he likes to eat.
Passengers wait to board Thomas the train as he pulls up to the local station.

There’s plenty more to delight young hearts—a giant red ladybug, Thomas the train, a pink lady scarecrow holding a basket of flowers, a giant teddy bear, and a locomotive that blows bubbles as it chugs down the tracks. Tilly recently built a miniature playhouse, complete with Elmo and his friends all set up for a tea party. “Even the boys loved that,” he laughs. 

Local garden clubs, family and neighborhood kids can’t resist the appeal. During the Avon Corn festival in August, it’s packed with visitors. “I open it so people can have a place to sit and relax,” Tilly says.

It’s hard to tell who’s having more fun here, but one thing is clear: It’s never too late to have the childhood you want.

Find Christine Froehlich at


The beer garden

by cathym on March 16, 2020

by John Boccacino

Barone Gardens

Having grown up on a family farm situated on South Bay Road in Cicero, John Barone admits that farming was probably “in his blood” from an early age.

Producing mostly onions, Barone embraced his family’s ties to farming and started a retail farm market in 1987 that quickly morphed into a year-round animal feed and pet store. For more than thirty years, he has owned and operated Barone Gardens LLC, which operates on a 100,000-square-foot tract of land.

Barone Gardens grows premium selections of geraniums, New Guinea impatiens, petunias, and begonias among the more than 1,000 different varieties of plants sold both in the retail store and in several garden centers across the state.

But if you think Barone’s tale is that of a typical farmer who loves getting his hands dirty, you’re only half right.

In 2019, Barone and two Cicero High School friends—Tim Parkhurst and Paul Richer—had a crazy idea. Barone was a big fan of drinking the delicious beers that Parkhurst and Richer brewed, and he had ample space for growing hops in his garden. So why not combine his two loves, branch out into a new business venture, and grow the pair’s hops in the garden center’s spacious greenhouses?

Hot House Brewing founders

Thus was born Hot House Brewing, the first brewery to open in Cicero. Under Richer’s watchful eye as the full-time brewer, Hot House Brewing produces more than a dozen “easy-drinking, lower-alcohol-content,” small-batch specialty beers.

The brews on tap at Hot House Brewing range from those with Cicero connections—like Rattlesnake Gulch IPA (featuring hints of orange and citrus), Plank Road Porter (with an aroma of coffee to compliment the malt flavor), and the Sorachi Blond Ale (a light-bodied summertime brew). The most potent potable brewed on site? The U Brut IPA, which boasts a 6.3 percent alcohol by volume for those beer drinkers who want to consume a beverage that packs more of a punch.

“Having a brewery in a garden center/greenhouse is thinking a little bit out of the box as we are one of the first if not the first in the country to do so,” Barone says proudly of Hot House Brewing. “But I don’t think any of us had an idea how well this would be received.”

The addition of the brewery came at the right time for Barone, who, along with his wife, Merry Beth, run the garden center. With production from the greenhouse doubling over the last ten years, the couple opted to rededicate their efforts to boosting the retail side of the business, providing a complete and thorough makeover to Barone Gardens. As part of that makeover, and after several trial runs growing hops in his greenhouses, Barone decided that a brewery was the perfect addition to the garden center.

“I’m always looking for other crops to grow, and I started to trial grow hops in our greenhouses,” he says. “Several people suggested that we investigate becoming a New York State Farm Brewery, and I thought a farm brewery could fit into our retail makeover plans.”

Another difference between Hot House Brewing and your run-of-the-mill brewery is that unlike most brewers who can only produce wet hop brews, accomplished by brewing with hops fresh from the vine without any drying or processing during the traditional fall growing season, Barone has devised a strategy for extending the growing season. Utilizing LED lights that extend the amount of daylight available to these budding hops during our normally trying winter, spring, and fall seasons, Hot House Brewing produces its line of wet hop brews year-round.

“Growing hops in a greenhouse harvested at unconventional times allows us to have wet hop beers throughout the year,” Barone says. “Our production numbers are increasing every week, which is very encouraging considering we have only been open ten months. We’re committed to supporting New York State agriculture by using as close to 100 percent New York State–grown malts and hops as we can.”

With Hot House Brewing selling its beers through a distributor, beer enthusiasts can enjoy the American-style microbrews at Central New York establishments like Borio’s Restaurant on Oneida Lake, Twin Trees Pizza in North Syracuse, and Angry Garlic in Baldwinsville.

For those who want to sip on suds in the on-site tap room, Hot House Brewing’s tasting room presents a décor that falls in line with the vibes of the greenhouses. Guests who visit the tap room can sample beers in an enclosed area directly underneath a greenhouse roof, surrounded by lush and bright plants. “By having the greenhouse seating area filled with green plants even in the winter, we have created a unique experience that is great for everyone. We have also decided to not have televisions in the tasting room; we wanted to create an atmosphere for conversation,” Barone says.

Hot House Brewing seating area

For a farmer who grew up on the family tract of land and still works that same land all these years later, the success of the garden center and brewery can be a bit overwhelming, but Barone is just trying to savor how much his patrons enjoy this unique hybrid of greens and hops in Central New York.

“Initially, we thought we would just brew a barrel (thirty-one gallons) of beer at a time and have a small tasting room, but we quickly found that the batches have grown in less than a year to ten-barrel batches,” Barone says. “We are planning on increasing our production and putting in a canning line over the next few months. I would like to say we had a master plan, but the plan is to grow the business to meet the demand and go where that demand takes us.”

Barone Gardens’ greenhouse is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and open Wednesdays and Thursdays (from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.), Fridays and Saturdays (10 a.m. to 9 p.m.), and Sundays (10 a.m. to 6 p.m.).

The tasting room at Hot House Brewing is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, and open Wednesdays (11:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.), Thursdays (11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m.), Fridays and Saturdays (11:30 a.m. to 10 p.m.), and Sundays (11:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.).

John Boccacino, a Seneca Falls resident, works for Syracuse University as the communications coordinator in the office of alumni engagement.