Michelle Sutton

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.

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.


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.


Site assessment for busy people

by cathym on March 13, 2021

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton

One of my most important mentors, Dr. Nina Bassuk, taught a fabulous urban forestry course that I got to take while in graduate school. Bassuk gave us the opportunity to try out the most professional site assessment tools, protocols, and applications. For instance, to measure soil compaction, we got to use a device called a soil penetrometer that tests the resistance of the soil to pressure, giving you a result in PSI (pounds per square inch).  

The sole surviving box-store wildflower, a lovely, forgiving toad trillium (Trillium sessile)

Bassuk showed us to how to take soil core samples, dry them out in the lab, and then calculate the bulk density of the soil, which is the weight of soil in a given volume. (Bulk density is another indication of compaction and therefore how root-friendly or unfriendly a soil environment is.) She taught us how to systematically take soil samples across a given site and then how to interpret the lab’s findings as to pH, soil texture, and soil nutritional makeup. In her course, we looked at and quantified every possible facet of site assessment.  

That level of testing and documentation is especially important for large-scale projects, like the one that Bassuk and her colleagues Barb Neal, Bryan Denig, and Yoshiki Harada did, at nothing less than … the National Mall. The team was commissioned to analyze the site and the ailing American elm (Ulmus americana) trees and come up with recommendations. You can bet that for something this high profile, they were busting out the penetrometer and all the other gadgetry. Their site findings and their ultimate recommendations are extensively documented in two publications (see Resources). They are fascinating reading—I highly recommend—and spoiler alert: The National Mall has an insupportable American elm monoculture that will continue to be in massive decline. 

To meet this crisis, Bassuk and colleagues came up with a twenty-year, phased plan for systematically diversifying the trees of this iconic landscape. As the failing National Mall elms are removed and a diversity of new tree species is planted, the plan provides for a similar visual coherence that the elms have had, but with the benefit of biological diversity, making the outcome much more sustainable than the elms have proved to be. 

Having worked as an educator in urban forestry for nearly twenty-five years, I’ve found that in everyday practice, the site assessment that urban foresters and tree planting groups do is not always as thorough as the one done for the National Mall project. It’s understandable. Spring or fall planting season comes with a rush; there are sites that need to be filled and trees that need to be planted in a hurry—especially if they’re bare root—and sometimes, because of numerous pressures, not every site assessment box gets checked.  

However, when it comes to matching trees to sites in cities or deciding what to plant in your yard, perfection is not required; in fact, as with all things, perfection can be the enemy of the good. A lot of times, simple observations go a long way, no gadgets required. All this applies to our assessment of our own landscapes, as we work toward creating the gardens we desire that provide the beauty and ecosystem services we hope for.   

I sure as heck didn’t perfect the art of casual or rapid site assessment right away. In fact, I had a lot of failures in my current home gardens when I put them in ten to eleven years ago. I was enamored of plants I had used for clients for many years in Rochester or intrigued by certain plants I saw for the first time here in the nurseries of the Hudson Valley. I didn’t do the most thorough site assessment. I wanted to try stuff, and that’s ok too. I learned from the failures. I present to you a quick tour of some of them.  

In my boney, sandy, overly well-drained fill soil, I planted a rush (Juncus effusus) that needs clay soil and wet conditions, and I put it in near the hot asphalt driveway. I am amazed that it is still alive and has even managed to clump out microscopically over the last eleven years.  

I bought nursery-grown—one hopes that label was truthful—wildflower tubers and other propagules from the big box store down the road for the likes of trillium, wild ginger, and trout lily. I put them on the north side of the house (good), in sandy soil (not so good), and far from the property’s sole outdoor faucet (doom). 

I put in a weeping redbud too darn close to the house. Why did I do that? It had to be moved. 

The currants I planted (one red, one champagne), which prefer soil with the opposite characteristics of mine, produce a good crop if I water like crazy. The chipmunks get to eat most of the fruit before I do, but they are so stinking cute when they scale those vertical branches and stuff their cheeks. I just can’t dwell on how much water it takes to produce every currant.  

I planted a lovely wispy form of coneflower from the native plant nursery, and the woodchuck ate it repeatedly, until I dug it up and gave it away, so it would have a chance at life. 

When I interviewed him for a story in this very publication, the late, great Ted Collins gifted me with two lilacs—one, a ‘Rochester’ lilac (Syringa vulgaris) that is used as a parent in many crosses, and the other, a ‘Mrs. W.E. Marshall’ lilac that has the purple flowers I covet. These poor babies are growing in gravelly fill and are coping by remaining small and not blooming much. (Here you might be wondering why I didn’t amend my soil with massive amounts of organic matter back in 2010. We didn’t think we’d live here more than a year or two. Over the years, I’ve top-dressed with compost I make, but it’s never enough to meaningfully change the essentially challenging nature of the soil here. To do that would be a wholesale remove-and-replace proposition, which would be wildly expensive … and makes me tired just writing this.)

The professional approach to site assessment is best seen in the Site Assessment Checklist and Instructions I’ve listed in the Resources. Meantime, here’s a simpler version for folks in more of an “I-bought-this-and-now-I-have-to-find-a-place-for-it” situation. 

First and always first: Call before you dig! 811. There’s no shortcut around this one. In addition to eliminating any potential safety hazards, you will get helpful information about where your yard’s underground utilities lay, so you can avoid planting a notoriously thirsty tree near the water line—and things of that nature. Seeing where the utilities run will help you determine how much below-ground space is truly available for tree root growth. Above-ground space is simply: how big can this tree get, and is there adequate space here for that to happen gracefully? 

USDA Hardiness Zone: This is super low-tech. Just see where you’re at on the commonly available map.

Microclimate Factors: Might there be heat radiating from nearby surfaces that will bump up the hardiness by half a zone or more? Or is the spot in a low-lying, colder pocket that drives the zone down? Is it super windy in that spot? That will put the tree at more risk of desiccation. 

Sunlight Levels: Is there full sun (6 hours or more), partial sun/filtered light, or shade on the spot you have in mind? Red switch grass (Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’) has been so successful in my south-facing garden that I put a division of it in the backyard, which gets partial shade, to test out its versatility. Poor Shenandoah is just barely hanging in there; it wants back out in the sunny front yard. 

Soil pH: You can take a bunch of samples from all over your yard and send them to the lab or use a quality professional level pH kit … or you can observe what’s already growing and where. On the property where I live, there’s a naturally occurring hedge of blackcaps (Rubus occidentalis) but the fruits don’t get very big, which could be explained by the dry, sandy, excessively well-drained and low-fertility soil they’re growing in. The presence of other intrepid pioneer plants like eastern cedar (Juniperus virginiana) and staghorn sumac (Rhus typhina) also speaks to the challenging site conditions, such that I could see early on that roses (other than rugosas), azaleas, and other ericaceous plants, and thirsty plant species in general were not going to be good matches here.  

Soil Texture: Again, you can take a bunch of samples from all over your yard and send them into a lab that tests for texture or you can try soil texture assessments at home. What plants are growing well on the site? Are they plants known to be tolerant of clayey/poorly drained conditions, or are they ones that require good drainage? The naturally occurring mix of plants will collectively point you in the direction of your soil’s sandy, loamy, or clayey texture. 

Compaction Levels: You could buy or borrow a penetrometer, and they are fun to use. Or you could use a shovel to find out how hard or easy the soil is to dig, a technique that has served me well over the years. 

Drainage: You can test percolation by digging a hole and measuring how many inches drain per hour. Here again, existing plants can tell you a lot, as can your own observation about how long water pools (if it does at all) in a given spot. If water pools there in spring, but the same site gets really dry in the summer—not to worry, there are plants for that! (See resources below) 

Cornell Urban Horticulture Institute (UHI) Team Evaluates Condition of National Mall Elms

UHI Produces Plan for a Sustainable National Mall Treescape

UHI Site Assessment Checklist and Instructions

Woody Shrubs for Stormwater Management

ABOVE: Highly recommended reading about site assessment on a big and hugely important scale, and management recommendations to create a sustainable National Mall landscape going forward

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.