Open Garden

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 by Stacey Hirvela; photos courtesy Proven Winners

‘Miss Molly’ butterfly bush

You’ve probably read the news stories on the “insect apocalypse”: the recent steep decline in insect populations and the potentially dire consequences it holds for us and other animals. It’s easy to get discouraged listening to all the doom and gloom, but the good news is that this is an issue we can all play a part in resolving. The solution is so simple: plant something. Plants and their flowers play a crucial role in sustaining insects, and they in turn sustain everything that eats them, and this continues up the food chain.

The relationship between plants and insects is a vital, even foundational aspect of our ecosystem, and it’s well past time for us to rid ourselves of an antiquated “bugs are yucky” mindset. Inviting insects to your garden and observing their behavior, watching them interact with each other and with your plants, is truly one of the most fascinating and rewarding parts of being a gardener. Even if you’ve never planted a thing in your life, it’s not too late to get started and take the first step toward a better environment. Here are some tips to help you pick the right plants, plant them in the right places, and grow them with maximum benefit to insects—as well as to you and your community.

AnnualsPerennialsShrubs
“Vermillionaire” cuphea“Decadence” baptisia
(late spring bloom)
‘Ruby Anniversary’ abelia
(late summer-fall bloom)
“Heat It Up” gaillardia“Fun and Games” heucherella
(spring bloom)
“Miss” butterfly bushes
(summer-fall bloom)
“Suncredible” helianthus“Summerific” hibiscus
(summer bloom)
‘Kodiak’ diervilla
(summer bloom; foliage supports larvae of hummingbird moths)
“Truffala” pink gomphrena‘Sweet Romance’ lavender
(early summer bloom)
“Satin” roses of Sharon
(summer bloom)
“Luscious” lantana“Pardon My” monardas
(summer bloom)
“Gatsby Gal” and “Gatsby Pink” oakleaf hydrangea
(summer bloom)
“Snow Princess” lobularia‘Cat’s Meow’ + ‘Cat’s Pajamas’ nepeta
(late spring/early summer bloom)
“Scentlandia” itea
(summer bloom)
“Sunstar” pentas‘Midnight Masquerade’ penstemon
(summer bloom)
“Vanilla Spice” + “Sugartina” ‘Crystalina’ clethra
(summer bloom)
“Supertunia” petunia‘Denim n’ Lace’ perovskia
(late summer bloom)
“Double Play” ‘Doozie’ spirea
(late spring-fall bloom)
“Rockin’” salvia“Color Spires” salvia
(summer bloom)
“Bloomerang” lilacs
(late spring bloom, summer-fall rebloom)
“Meteor Shower” verbena“Magic Show” veronica
(summer bloom)
“All That Glitters”/“All That Glows” viburnum
(early summer bloom, fall fruit; foliage supports hummingbird moth and spring azure butterfly larvae)

A PLACE IN THE SUN
When planting to support pollinators, prioritize spots that get at least six hours of sun. Insects need the sun because their body temperature is dependent on their surroundings, and they quickly become sluggish and inactive in cool, shaded conditions. Plus, plants in the sun will bloom more, their flowers will produce more nectar, and they will see far more pollinator activity than plants in the shade. Though there are plenty of shade-tolerant plants that can benefit pollinators, choosing a sunny site is the most efficient way to support the most pollinators. 

HOST A BANQUET
To sustain all types of pollinators throughout the garden season, you’ll want plants that attract them from the earliest spring days to the last chilly moments of autumn. To do this well takes planning and research before you buy. Since spring tends to be the biggest garden center shopping time, most people’s gardens tend to favor early blooming plants that look great during this period and peter out later. Both you and the pollinators will find reward in expanding your garden to include plants that bloom in summer and beyond. Late season blooming plants, like abelia, caryopteris, and the September blooming seven-sons tree are especially valuable, since they provide new nectar sources when pollinators need them most—before they go dormant, lay eggs, and/or migrate.

One way to accomplish this is to include all three main types of plants in your garden: annuals, perennials, and shrubs. Annuals bloom all summer, helping to make up for any lulls between the bloom of perennials and woody plants. Combining all of these keeps your garden interesting to both you and to pollinators. Here are my top ten annuals, perennials, and shrubs for pollinators to get you started on your plant picking.

THE NECESSITY OF NATIVE PLANTS
Native plants are a key component of any garden for pollinators. Insects have evolved to rely on these plants for food, shelter, and reproduction, so they hold particular appeal. Even if a plant is not native to your specific area, you’ll likely find that native plants, in general, attract more or perhaps different pollinators than non-native plants do. A garden doesn’t have to be 100% comprised of native plants to support pollinators, but it should contain at least some native perennials and shrubs. 

TAKE IT TO THE BANK
When creating a pollinator garden, avoid planting just one of anything. It’s easier to create more naturalistic designs by grouping plants in odd numbers (three, five, or seven are all good numbers for residential landscaping), plus creating banks of plants encourages uninterrupted foraging for pollinating insects. It’s kind of the horticultural equivalent of your reaction to seeing a plate heaped with cookies versus a plate with just one. Abundance is simply more enticing!

LET THEM EAT LEAVES
Many people have an immediate negative reaction to seeing the leaves or flowers of their plants being chewed. And it is true that there are pest insects (Japanese beetles, for example) that cause enough damage that they may need to be managed. However, native insects feeding on leaves is completely natural and a sign that you are truly supporting insect populations. In fact, a caterpillar won’t turn into a butterfly or moth unless it feeds on leaves for several weeks first. If you see holes in the leaves of a plant, don’t automatically assume that chewing means something bad is happening—spend some time digging into the cause. Plants can easily withstand insects feeding on their foliage, and except in a few extreme cases, won’t suffer or be set back by it.

DON’T USE PESTICIDES
Obviously, if you are trying to support insect life, using synthetic chemicals or other strategies that kill insects is going to be counterproductive. The truth is that there are few cases where pest insects become so serious that they need control, and that by treating your garden as an ecosystem of multiple species working together to support one another, you create a self-sustaining predator-prey balance—provided you refrain from spraying pesticides, whether they are organic or conventional. 

This approach applies to more than just insects. For example, moles are important predators of grubs, and can play a key role in managing Japanese beetle and other pest beetle populations, so rather than get out the trap or poison at the first sign of a mole tunnel, think of them as free pest control.

GET TO KNOW YOUR NEW NEIGHBORS
It won’t take long for pollinators to begin stopping by your garden to check out the offerings. Get to know who’s visiting with these resources:

  • Garden Insects of North America by Whitney Cranshaw. This picture-filled book is a fantastic value and a must-have for anyone looking to learn more about insects. 
  • Pollinators of Native Plants by Heather Holm. Heavy on the photos and information, this very well-researched book will help you better understand the relationship between plants and pollinating insects.
  • Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide. The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation does lots of important work to sustain pollinating insects; its book is a great reference, as is ots website:
    xerces.org.
  • The Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center—its native plant directory is outstanding and includes specific information about how the plant benefits insects. I rely on this heavily for information on caterpillar host plants especially. Visit the website at wildflower.org/plants-main.
  • Butterflies and Moths of North America—This fantastic website, butterfliesandmoths.org, is invaluable for identifying butterflies, moths, and their larvae. 
  • The internet in general—When I encounter an insect I can’t immediately identify, I find that I can quickly narrow it down by doing an image search using general terms, like “fuzzy, black-orange caterpillar.” If you’re able to snap a photo, you can also try something like Google Lens to match it to visually similar content online.

You can start making a difference today—so what are you waiting for? Get out there and plant something. Let’s stop the insect apocalypse together!

Stacey Hirvela is a graduate of the School of Professional Horticulture at the New York Botanical Garden. Her first book, Edible Spots & Pots, was published by Rodale in 2014. She currently works as the marketing manager for Proven Winners ColorChoice Shrubs.

We prefer not to use trademark symbols in this publication, so we’ve removed them here. Named cultivars are in single quotes, while trademarked names, which also sometimes designate a series, are in double quotes. All plants pictured here are from Proven Winners. —Ed. 

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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 gardeningwithwhatyouhave.com.

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