seasonal stakeout

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.”  

MORE BERGEN AND LOTUS HIGHLIGHTS
– 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.

{ 0 comments }

Story by Michelle Sutton; photos courtesy the Plant Shack except where noted

Rachel Stepien is the owner of the Plant Shack in East Aurora, southeast of Buffalo. With two locations and a third being planned, she is offering things people need more now than ever: community, creativity, the people-plant connection, and—soon—cocktails!  

Did you grow up in a gardening family?
Rachel Stepien: I grew up in Niagara County, in Youngstown. My love for nature started there and with going to nature preserves with my grandparents. My dad always had a garden (and still does), and helping him pick tomatoes and cucumbers in the summer is definitely something I will always remember. I would help find toads in my gad’s veggie garden or move spiders off the tomatoes before he watered. He had the knack for growing veggies and herbs, and inside the house we had cacti and small trees. One cactus got so large, we had to donate it because it wouldn’t fit in the house anymore. 

How did your plant interest evolve from there? 
Throughout my life, I’ve had a fascination with all types of forests. I always wanted to go explore the Amazon rainforest; I remember being a kid and having this cool pop-up book where you could add different plants and animals to a rainforest backdrop. It wasn’t until a few years ago, though, that I started collecting plants and really getting into the houseplant hobby. 

Before starting the Plant Shack, I had worked at the Buffalo Zoo in the rainforest exhibit (I have a degree from Canisius College in Zoology). After seeing how much my mood improved in the winter because of being surrounded by plants at work as well as at home, my love for them really took off. 

Anna’s cat, Billy, keeps an eye on things.

What was your initial business spark? 
I always had an appreciation for cozy, locally owned coffee shops, and when I was drinking coffee last fall in my home, surrounded by plants, I had a vision of creating a botanical café. I thought, “How cool would it be to actually create this kind of space for other people?” I knew this would be a big endeavor, so I started with plants—getting my name out there, spreading the word and excitement, etc. My end goal is still to become a botanical café: coffee by day, craft cocktails by night—all surrounded by green!

What do you see as your overall business mission and vision? 
This is so hard for me to answer, as I have at least ten missions! Overall, though, my mission is to be a place for the community to gather. My vision is to be a business that supports the community that supports me. To be kind. 

How have you used social media to grow your Plant Shack community? Social media has been my number one place for getting out news and information, advertising events, and gathering a following of fellow plant people. It’s been amazing! We’ve done giveaways with expensive plants so that people who may not be able to splurge to buy one have a chance to win one. I have used our social media to help a foster dog find a home. 

I want people to know there is someone just like them behind the Plant Shack name. I like sharing behind-the-scenes things on social media so it’s more personal. I want people to know that they can come to me for advice or just to chat. I also use social media to provide exposure to other small businesses in our region and to encourage folks to check them out. 

Could you tell us about #TheShackGivesBack and your areas of giving? This comes back to my mission and vision. I want to be a place for the community, to help make our community and world a better place. Animals and nature are my passion, so many of my give-back efforts are related to that. For instance, starting last November, for every ten plants we sell, we plant a tree through the nonprofit organization called One Tree Planted. We have planted 445 trees around the world so far! We’ve also raised money to help those affected by the Australian bushfires.

We have covered the cost of transportation fees for animals who are being transported to our region by plane, and we’ve sponsored cages at the Niagara County SPCA. One of the dogs we helped transport stayed at the Shack during our open hours to greet customers and gain exposure; because of this, she found an amazing new home! Once we get back to normal, we hope to have more “shop dogs.” 

You’re starting a scholarship for college or trade school students. What inspired you to do that?  
I was on a business trip with my other job, and my shuttle driver to the airport was a high school student who was applying to colleges. He is the first of his family to go to college, and he really wanted to go to a certain one that is very expensive. He had this plan laid out, that he was going to go to the local community college for two years, then another college, and then finally transfer to the expensive college so his diploma would be from there. 

I told him that the name of the college wasn’t everything, but after him telling me his plans, how he was saving money, etc., I tipped him very well and said it was for his college fund. I got such a great feeling that I was able to help him out, even in such a small way, that I decided that I would use my business to help someone go to school. We were going to start this year, but due to the coronavirus, we instead donated over $500 in gift cards and Easter dinners to local families who were struggling because of income loss related to the pandemic. 

Speaking of the pandemic, how have you been adapting your business in this strange time? 
We essentially closed for a full month, but after talking to my employees, we came up with a plan to safely open with curbside pickup. We transferred everything to a new website that’s equipped for online purchases. We did that for about a month, and once phase three of reopening came around, we opened to the public but with restrictions (masks, capacity limits, etc.). We have two locations, both in East Aurora. Our seasonal location at Knox Farm State Park will remain closed this year—as it’s just easier with everything going on—but our Main Street location is open.  

Are you still hoping to open a botanical café in the future? 
Yes! We are in the planning phases of opening a separate (different location) botanical café, complete with coffee, patio, indoor seating, and cocktails. I can’t wait to fulfill this goal/vision.  

What kinds of events and classes did you have and plan to get back to? Will you be adapting them to online? 
We had everything! We had introductory German classes, jigsaw puzzle nights, local artists teaching botanical drawing, macramé hanger making classes, succulent arrangement workshops—I can go on! We aren’t adapting these to online, but we are working on having some outdoor events before winter hits. 

The cloth plant pouches are intriguing—can you talk about those? 
The cloth pouches are made by Amiga Wild, a business cofounded by two friends in Venice, California. The pouches have plastic liners in the bottom but the friends thought it would be a fun and different way to display your plants. The safari-themed cloth pouches are the most popular.

Packages ready for curbside pickup last spring. Now folks can shop the Plant Shack in person (using safe protocols).
Houseplant chic: “plant pouches” lined with plastic. The Shack seeks to support as many small businesses as possible. 

What are some other innovative products you’d like to highlight?
Not so much individual products, but I would like to add that many of our gift items are made by local or international small businesses; we seek to support as many as possible. Our candles, cards, jewelry, macramé hangers, and embroidery are all from small businesses. Most of our store furniture was custom-made by Black Dog Wood, based in Niagara County.  

Where do you turn for creative ideas and inspiration? 
When I first started, I would scroll through Instagram for inspiration from other plant shops. But when employees Erin and Anna came on board, they quickly became the source of creativity! Both of them love interior design, so they are always changing the shops around and arranging everything in the most pleasing and unusual ways. 

What interests do you have outside of the business? 
I love traveling with my boyfriend—two of my favorite places to go are St. John, USVI and Wengen, Switzerland. I also love reading and playing video games. You can find me down by our pond looking at bugs and other animals. I’m on the board of Knox Farm State Park right here in East Aurora. 

What’s an interesting fact about you that your customers might not know? 
I served in the USAF reserves for six years. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

Connecting with The Plant Shack 
theplantshackwny.com
info@theplantshackwny.com
facebook.com/theplantshackWNY
instagram.com/_theplantshack_

{ 0 comments }

My pathway through community gardens

by cathym on July 3, 2020

Story and photos by Michelle Sutton 

For about ten years, the author did garden design, installation, and maintenance in greater Rochester. Courtyard gardens were especially fun and rewarding.

I have a community garden to thank for getting me into horticulture in the first place. I was twenty and living in an egalitarian community (secular commune) of about 100 people in central Virginia. Tom was a rare visitor my age who’d come from Northern California for a three-week stay. He was super fired up about growing vegetables. The first crop we bonded over was spinach. Tom was very, very excited about spinach.  

I was fired up about Tom, so I followed him into the fields, and as we spent time tending the rows and talking, his enthusiasm for the vegetables sparked something in me. I had hoped Tom would become a member of the community and provide the romance my life there was missing. Devastatingly, he decided not to stay, but I nursed my broken heart by throwing myself deeper into vegetable cultivation.  

The community’s garden and grounds manager, the lovely Jake, was very kind to me during that time when I felt so raw. Jake, who grew up on a working farm, moved three times as fast as anyone else. He decided what to grow and he delegated tasks, but owing to his superior energy and efficiency, he also did the lion’s share of the work. Because of his dominance of the gardening realm there, I could see that I was only going to advance so far in my horticultural knowledge and opportunities. Also, I really needed to be around more people my age.  

In the summer of 1990, I got a position as a gardener at the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck. We were given room, board, access to some workshops, and $200/week. This seemed like a dream for twenty-year-old Michelle. A woman named Sue headed things up, and she and I and one other seasonal person divided the work. 

The author in 2019.

I made compost with scraps from the institute’s kitchen. I learned how to build a three-bin compost unit (fun side note: when my husband and I went to the Omega grounds to walk around more than twenty years later, the bin was still there). I tried not to fork snake eggs when I pitchforked leaf mulch into the first of the three bins. I gave tours of the garden to well-heeled and gracious New Agers from New York City. In late summer I loved to give them raw corn to shuck and taste, and sometimes there’d be a corn husk completely filled with the black spores and white goo of the corn smut fungus. That was reliably a graphic and fun gross-out for everyone involved. (I’ve since learned that corn smut is called huitlacoche in Mexico and is eaten as a delicacy there. Also, you gotta love how plant pathologists name things so forthrightly, a là nipple gall, butt rot, scabs, and cankers.) 

Even though there were dozens and dozens of staff and several hundred participants coming through every week, I was lonely at Omega, too … lonely in a sea of people. I was a member of a community, but I never felt like I belonged. That wasn’t Omega’s fault. There was actually so much going on all the time there that my introverted nervous system was overwhelmed. I remember a lot of therapeutic crying in the garden shed in the evenings, until my roommate left her internship early and then, praise heaven, I had my own rustic room to cry in.   

In the fall I headed back to my home state of Virginia and got hired by an organic vegetable farm in metropolitan Washington, D.C. There, a community of mostly Bolivian workers had established themselves in affordable living arrangements and would remain year-round. Within a few minutes of being hired, as I was being given a tour of the operation, I saw this really handsome tall fellow stand up and look my direction. That was the sweet jack-of-all-trades Oscar, who loved babies and animals and Bolivian folk dancing. To my parents’ shock, he and I got married after knowing each other for six weeks. I don’t recommend that. Nonetheless, we continued to date for several years after the annulment, and he was extremely kind and helpful to me and my family during some very stressful times.  

The author’s most successful community garden plot year owed to a confluence of factors: going no-till (therefore, not churning up weed seeds), procuring the region’s most lovingly produced seedlings, mulching beds and paths very heavily, staying on top of the few audacious weeds that poked through said mulch, abundant rainfall and moderate temps that summer, and not being on the board at the time.

Spanish filled the air in that farm community, and I delighted in that. Thanks to beloved early childhood neighbors who were from Ecuador and spoke Spanish while I played with their kids, I had a good ear for it and was able to join in conversations. However, on the occasions when Oscar and his sister and brother-in-law didn’t want me to understand what was being said, they would speak Quechua, their third language. Sneaky. 

Oscar and I went to a lot of parties hosted by Bolivians where everyone danced—I mean everyone—there were no chairs around the room. That was fun, although I did have to learn the ways in which our cultures were different and stop centering my own. Arriving at one party, the host greeted me smilingly with, “Hello Michelle! You are fatter than before.” I slinked off to the corner to cry, but Oscar gently explained to me that in his culture, observations of fatness or thinness carried neutral weight. They weren’t insults. (American culture would benefit greatly from getting on board with this.) 

I joined my first official community garden—a grid of plots in a field—in Reston, Virginia. 

My garden neighbor said, “I can tell you know what you’re doing.” The garden did start out swimmingly, with a pretty mandala-like design, but ironically, since I’d started going back to school to study horticulture, I stopped going to the community garden regularly. All of a sudden, the weeds were horror-movie tall. 

Oscar helped me clean the plot out, and I came away with a miserable case of poison ivy. That’s when I knew that there were limitations on my gardening freedom. I could/cannot afford to wade around in bleeping poison ivy. I am very careful about this. So imagine when my surprise when I got it a couple of years ago in January—JANUARY!—from snuggling with my friend’s newly adopted husky. SNUGGLING WITH AN ADORABLE DOG! It’s just so unfair. 

The author’s favorite sunflowers (‘Chocolate Cherry’) from her erstwhile community garden plot.

My first long-term experience with community gardens was after moving to the Hudson Valley in 2010 to be with my then-new husband. We marveled at how at this community garden seemed to be deeply inhabited, with semi-permanent structures like pergolas, sculptures, elaborate fancy-rustic fences, and even a swing! We got a plot and found out that the reason people had settled so thoroughly into their plots was that unlike most community gardens where the entire area gets plowed every spring, in this one, folks could keep their same plot year after year. 

That was cool, since it seemed to generate all this creativity, but it turned out to have a major downside: entitlement. The longer people had their plots, the more inflexible they became. Especially in cases of people like the board member who was an inveterate hoarder. His board member status served as a cover for his gradually filling plot after plot with junk. 

“Snaps“ to these snaps! ‘Rocket Red’ (left side of the bouquet) is the author’s favorite annual.

He was a good-hearted person who truly liked to be helpful to other people—and I felt for him, because he seemed powerless over his illness—but the garbage accumulation was really hard to deal with. When the board finally started to present him with a timetable of “This plot has to be cleaned up by x date, and this other plot has to be cleaned by x date (repeat several times over) or you have to leave,” I was ending my service on the board. Selfishly, I was relieved, because I knew the situation that had come to a boil was going to scald people, and it did. I did very much admire the tenacity of the board president and the board in seeing things through … as I jumped ship.     

Being on the board, I learned about how many long-term squabbles neighboring gardeners were carrying on (if you weren’t on the board, you’d be blissfully unaware.) 

Based on observing those dramas, I can offer some specific advice on how to be a good community garden member: 

  • Keep your fence lines extra clean of weeds, as a courtesy to your neighbors.
  • Research plants first so you don’t plant something invasive that everyone has to deal with for years to come.
  • If you can’t keep up with your plot, ask the board for help rather than letting things get really overgrown. 
  • Don’t build berms that are five feet high at their apex and provide a den for rats. If your garden neighbors say they are seeing rats, don’t deny their reality. 
  • Don’t leave the community hoses on when you leave, flooding your neighbors’ gardens. One wouldn’t think this would need to be said. 
  • Leave your adorable dog at home. 
  • Don’t install an industrial metal fence that is so tall it makes your plot look like a mini penitentiary. 
  • Don’t camp out or get drunk in your plot. 
  • Most importantly, never, never join the board. 

Michelle Sutton is a horticulturist, writer, and editor.

{ 0 comments }