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

A blooming good time

by cathym on July 15, 2021

By Ed Healy; photos provided by Visit Buffalo Niagara

Summer is garden touring season in Buffalo—the sweet spot in our calendar when hundreds of Buffalonians place a sign at the curb inviting one and all to stop and smell their flowers. There’s no better time to get to know our city, its surrounding suburbs and the welcoming people who live here. 

Not only is Buffalo home to the largest free garden walk in the entire country—Garden Walk Buffalo—we’re also the site of fifteen other walks and tours. On top of that, nearly 100 gardens  are part of Gardens Buffalo Niagara’s annual Open Gardens event, which takes place on Thursdays and Fridays, for select hours, in July. 

Of all the flower spotting options available in our region, Open Gardens may be my favorite. Open Gardens is the lesser known, unassuming sibling of the older, more acclaimed Garden Walk Buffalo. Garden Walk tends to get all the attention, but Open Gardens is doing its best to prove that it’s just as worthy of the attention of serious flower fans. While Garden Walk attracts tens of thousands of visitors to Buffalo over the course of the last weekend in July every year, Open Gardens is low key, modest, more of a small dinner party that’s perfect for sharing a glass of wine with one of Buffalo’s famously friendly gardeners. 

The element of surprise is what keeps my wife and me going back to Open Gardens. A modestly landscaped Hamburg front yard disguises the fact that an overwhelming floral display—complete with an extensive model railroad and a shed outfitted to resemble a train station—lies out back. Then there’s the backyard on Delaware Road in Tonawanda that’s a farm, garden, and wildlife habitat all rolled into one lush landscape. Sometimes the surprises come in the form of an outdoor bar that wouldn’t be out of place in Key West, or a Japanese garden that would make a visitor from Tokyo feel right at home. Buffalo’s gardens are quirky, creative, and bear the mark of each gardener’s artistic muse.

Buffalo’s moveable feast of flowers is unique to Buffalo. In fact, between all the walks and open gardens there may be no greater concentration of private gardens open to the public. Other cities send delegations to find out exactly how we do it. Other visitors admit it would be impossible to do what we do so well. An out-of-town guest experiencing Garden Walk for the first time once turned to me and said, “We couldn’t do this where I’m from. People just wouldn’t open up their yards to complete strangers.” In that case, welcome to the city of good neighbors. 

For more information, visit gardensbuffaloniagara.com

Ed Healy is the Vice President of Marketing at Visit Buffalo Niagara.

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Story and photos by Michelle Sutton unless noted

Keep straight down this block,
Then turn right where you will find
A peach tree blooming.     

—Richard Wright

The author’s birding patch in March, when anticipation for spring bird migration is mounting. 

“We love what we pay attention to.” It’s why we love our gardens so much. For just over a year, I’ve also been paying close attention to a patch of swampland, scrub, and forest behind my neighborhood. I never used to; for most of the years I’ve lived here, it was land rented by a gun and rod club, so I didn’t think of it as public space. But, fortuitously, the owner of the land sold it last year to a conservancy and with that, the land beckoned.     

It was especially serendipitous because I needed a nearby place to practice my new hobby of birding. Through social media, I’d become acquainted with the dynamic urban forester, independent researcher, and writer Georgia Silvera Seamans (@localecologist on Instagram). Georgia is the director of Washington Square Park Eco Projects in Manhattan; she introduced me to the concept of “patch birding”—birding regularly at a spot close to home. I highly recommend her article on Audubon.org, “Want a Training Ground for Your Birding Skills? Try Patch Birding” and her podcast, Your Bird Story. Through her work, she explores the many layers of benefits nearby nature provides. Georgia’s patch is Washington Square Park. 

My chosen patch in the now-nature preserve so close to me turns out to be a stopover for spring migrants, like kinglets, warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, tanagers, green herons, and shorebirds. I’ve seen many bird species for the first time in this spot that’s a three-minute walk from my house. I’ve also seen muskrats, turtles, a beaver, and a black bear who came down from the woods to the swamp to have a drink. 

In her nearby patch, the author had her first sighting of many bird species, such as:


black-throated blue warbler (Alexandre Légaré, Wikimedia) 


solitary sandpiper (Mark Nenadov, Wikimedia)


rose-breasted grosbeak (Cephas, Wikimedia)

My recent patch birding adventures got me thinking about past nearby nature experiences. When I was a student at Virginia Tech in the mid-90s, my then-partner and I would go to a patch of woodland—about two acres, recommended by beloved horticulture professor Dr. Robert Lyons—on the outskirts of Blacksburg, where the diversity of spring wildflowers merited at least a weekly visit. We started with discovering the alien-looking ground-hugging flowers of skunk cabbage in the spring and ended with admiring delicate dancing white asters in the fall. The regular visits gave us a fabulous education and were my doorway into observing wild nature more closely.

A cultivated place can also be a patch for nature study. When I lived within walking distance of Highland Park in Rochester, I tended to linger at certain spots, like the carpet of early spring blue scillas (Scilla siberica) under the linden (Tilia) tree near the west end of the Reservoir, the Poet’s Garden with its rivers of long-blooming hellebores (Helleborus), the truly wild-looking late spring white bracts of the handkerchief tree (Davidia involucrata) behind and uphill from the Highland Bowl, the darkest-purple blooming lilacs on the lilac hill, and the always-inspired tulip and annual beds. In my frequent visits to Highland Park, I was immersing myself in nearby nature.

When I worked in the education department at Cornell Botanic Gardens (CBG), there was a mature bigleaf magnolia (Magnolia macrophylla) outside my office window, and, just beyond, a truly sumptuous river of European ginger (Asarum europaeum), which remains my favorite ground cover. How many times did I look out the window and draw inspiration from the implausibly tropical-looking bigleaf magnolia tree, and on my breaks walk over to the shiny European ginger, entranced and soothed by its perfection? How many times did I stop at the rock garden to look at the impossibly symmetrical and tidy alpine cushion plant (Silene acaulis)? 

As an educator I also became intimate with the denizens of the Mundy Wildflower Garden at CBG. Retired elementary school teacher–volunteers and I developed a program called “Wildscience” for third and fourth graders in Ithaca. To prepare the kids for their visit to the Wildflower Garden, we first went into the classroom with three activities: dissecting a flower (gladiolus) and mounting the parts; drawing the stages of a plant’s life cycle; and sorting through a bin of ginger root, potatoes, and flower bulbs to learn the different underground structures of rhizomes, tubers, and bulbs in wildflowers. Then we left “wildflower passports” with them, which prompted them to learn about one wildflower in particular so they could share their new knowledge with the rest of the class on tour day. When they arrived, we gave them a Spring Wildflower Guide and a golf pencil to take notes and do field drawings.

eBird, developed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the standard bearer for global tech-assisted citizen science, shows where the birding hotspots are—and public gardens, arboreta, and cemeteries are among them. Once you know the plants collections in these places well, birding adds another dimension to your visits. 

In Monroe County, birders have encountered 357 species of birds; the hotspot with the most species observed (282) is at Hamlin Beach State Park—a place to see migrating birds going to or coming from their summer breeding grounds in Canada—but other contenders include Durand-Eastman Park (192 species), Highland Park (172 species), Mount Hope Cemetery (135), and Webster Arboretum (132).  

In Erie County, 340 species have been observed, with some public garden hotspots like Forest Lawn Cemetery (205 species), Delaware Park (158 species), and Buffalo Botanical Gardens (150) contributing meaningfully to the County’s data. 

In Onondaga County (313 species), Thornden Park—perhaps best known to UGJ readers for its rose garden—is a birding hotspot, with 123 species sighted there. And in Tompkins County, there is a very high number of hotspots—482 places—from which birders have collectively seen 343 species. 

The USA National Phenology Network’s program, Nature’s Notebook, is another great way to get more attuned to wild and/or cultivated nature. Much like eBird for birding, Nature’s Notebook is a network of citizen-scientist observers; in this case, the observations are of phenological phases (budding, flowering, leaf drop, etc.). Like eBird, Nature’s Notebook has a user-friendly mobile app for those who want to enter data while in the field. In New York State, there are more than 500 plant species that Nature’s Notebook observers are collecting data on, including American basswood (Tilia americana), Alleghany serviceberry (Amelanchier laevis), tupelo tree (Nyssa sylvatica), northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin), rugosa rose (Rosa rugosa), swamp milkweed (Asclepias incarnata), and 14 species of oak. Some of the 500 species are surely in your own yard or adjacent woodlot—nearby nature, indeed.  

For nearly ten years, a ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta grew in a shady corner outside our house … where no one could see it. Motivated to create a new garden with only plants I already had, I relocated the hosta, a currant bush, red-twig dogwoods, and sedges into the new bed. We watched the unfurling of the ‘Sum and Substance’ leaves much more closely this year. As I write this, it’s a washout of a day; I’m watching a pair of robins repeatedly dart for cover under the big chartreuse leaves when the rain intensifies, then intrepidly run back out when the rain lets up. What could be sweeter?

Newly unfurled leaves of ‘Sum and Substance’ hosta shelter robins who need a break from the rain.

THE HAIKU OF RICHARD WRIGHT 
Author of the seminal novel Native Son and memoir Black Boy, American author Richard Wright began writing Haiku in the last eighteen months of his life, when he was home-bound and struggling to overcome an extended illness. One imagines that connecting to nearby nature through observation and poetry was one way he coped with the brutal situation in which he found himself. The Richard Wright papers at the Yale Beinecke Library—which released this photo—contain hundreds of the more than 4000 Haiku poems Wright wrote. Here is a sample.  

A soft wind at dawn
Lifts one dry leaf and lays it
Upon another.

Like a spreading fire,
Blossoms leap from tree to tree
In a blazing spring. 

All right, You Sparrows;
The sun has set and you can now
Stop your chattering!

An apple blossom
Trembling on a sunlit branch
From the weight of bees.

Leaving its nest,
The sparrow sinks a second,
Then opens its wings.

They smelt like roses;
But when I put on the light,
They were violets.


Richard Wright papers at the Yale Beinecke Library

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

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What to do in the garden in July & August

by cathym on July 15, 2021

Brugmansia in August

July and August are great for sitting, relaxing, and enjoying your garden. Do you have seats and benches in your garden? If not, find a comfortable spot to add one or two. It’s also a great time to take notes and yes, even start planning for next year. August, in particular, is a good time to observe and make notes. This could be on design/layout or expansion, reminders to relocate plants from one area to another (some of which could be done in the fall), new plants to try, problem areas to tackle, things that worked well that you want to repeat next year or things that didn’t and tools or supplies that you need.

Check out local garden tours! We love to see what other gardeners are doing. It’s a great way to spend a day and get new ideas for your own garden. Buffalo Garden Walk is July 24 and 25, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Check out Buffalo’s Open Gardens on Thursdays and Fridays in July or look for other weekend community garden tours. Listings can be found at gardensbuffaloniagara.com and in this issue’s calendar.

Now is a good time to be on the lookout for the dreaded jumping worms (Amynthas spp. & Metaphire spp.). These invasive worms are showing up in more gardens and landscapes across our region. Since they tend to stay in the top few inches of the soil or just below mulch, they are relatively easy to find. They especially love leaf litter and compost. They can also be in bulk mulch, bulk topsoil, and even nursery plants. Jumping worms alter the soil structure, making it look like coffee grounds, which deters plant growth. Unfortunately, there are currently no control methods to eliminate them from your garden other than collecting them, killing them, and putting them in the garbage. If you do have them, do your part to limit their spread. Don’t share plants. The cocoons are very small and can be transferred in soil. These worms  are annual, dying in the winter, but the cocoons overwinter ,hatching in the spring. By the end of June, they have matured and show the telltale white band near their head. If you do find jumping worms, you can and should report them to NY iMapInvasives at nyimapinvasives.org.

Be tick vigilant, even in your own garden. Ticks are becoming more prevalent across New York and since they can carry a variety of diseases it is imperative that we take precautions to avoid being bitten. Since finding a tick on myself last summer (after working in the garden) We wear our tick outfit whenever I’m in the garden. It’s not pretty, but it works. Wear light-colored clothes so it’s easier to see ticks. Tuck pants into tall socks and tuck your shirt into your pants. Wear shoes or boots, not sandals. This can help keep ticks away from your skin. Top it off with repellent head to toe. As a reminder, we keep a can of repellent by the door. Do a tick check when you come in. Ticks can be  very small, think poppy seeds to sesame seeds. That’s what you are looking for. Read and follow the label when using repellents as they are pesticides. For more information on ticks check out the “Don’t Get Ticked NY” website at nysipm.cornell.edu/whats-bugging-you/ticks.

It seems that every year now it’s not uncommon for an extended dry period. Maybe not a full-blown drought, but several weeks of little or no rain is the “new normal.” What can you do to make your yard and garden more drought tolerant? If you’re starting out, group plants together based on water needs. Keep plants that will need regular watering closer to the house. Use drought-tolerant perennials, shrubs, and trees farther out. Lawns need regular water to stay green. Reduce lawn areas that are not used frequently. Mulch around trees and shrubs and in gardens to help conserve soil moisture. You can even mulch your pots of annuals. Consider setting up a rain barrel or two. Water efficiently. Water plants deeply when you do, not shallowly every day.  Use soaker hoses or drip irrigation for efficient, deep watering  Eliminate weeds, as they also suck up water. You may have to pick your battles in a drough—water trees and shrubs as they would cost more to replace than annuals or even perennials.

Tomato growers—make sure your plants have consistent water as they set fruit. Blossom end rot is common during hot weather and infrequent rain. It can also affect peppers and eggplant. This is not a disease but rather a lack of calcium. Usually, the problem isn’t that you don’t have enough calcium in the soil, but that the soil is too dry for the plant to take it up. Consistent moisture is the key.

Plants in containers need regular fertilizing to maintain blooms as well as regular watering. Some containers may need water twice a day depending on size and location. Deadhead annuals to keep them blooming until frost.

Looking for a good summer read? We highly recommend Nature’s Best Hope by Douglas Tallamy. Tallamy is a professor at the University of Delaware in the Department of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology. He researches how plants that evolved elsewhere (nonnative) impact food webs and biodiversity. He is also a leading voice as to why we should plant more native plants in our gardens to support local biodiversity. No, you don’t have to give up your hostas and daylilies, but be more mindful of what you do add to your landscape. Nature’s Best Hope gives homeowners practical advice as to how their yard, no matter the size, can have a positive impact on pollinators, beneficial insects, butterflies, and birds. Get inspired!

—Jan Beglinger, Genesee County Master Gardener coordinator and Brandie Waite, Master Gardener volunteer

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