The Finger Lakes Gardener’s Challenge
If you’ve gardened in the Finger Lakes area for more than one season, I’m sure you’ve already experienced a multitude of challenges. Heavy clay soil mixed well with lots of rocks (after all, if it weren’t for all the rocks, we wouldn’t have the great foliage colors in the fall). Cold rainy springs, followed by hot, humid summers, powdery mildew, black spot and insects galore, are just a few of the cruelties that Mother Nature hands the upstate gardener. Most of us face the challenges and overcome them, but then we experience a little success and start going hog wild in our gardens. First come the books, usually packed with gorgeous pictures of usually English gardens (estates, more likely). Then comes the Internet with endless information that at least 80 percent of the time does not apply to our climate in the Finger Lakes. Now we’re building the stress levels to the point where gardening becomes a chore, and we are never satisfied with the way our gardens look.
Many years ago I attended a gardening symposium given by an expert gardener from England. After her presentation she explained three things to me that changed my gardening philosophies forever. First, England has very few insects. Second, England is Zone 8 or 9 on the growing zone map. In case you don’t know, the growing zones are set up by using the coldest and hottest recorded temperatures for the area. Most of the Finger Lakes area is in Zone 5, a little milder up near Lake Ontario where it’s Zone 6. England is the same temperate zone as our southern states, except that it doesn’t have the extreme heat and humidity that our South has, plus it has a lot of nice gentle rains. The last thing she told me was that England has something in flower all but about five weeks during the entire year! I’ll let you think about that one for a second. We have almost five months when there’s nothing in flower (what am I saying?), there’s nothing doing anything! At that moment the thought occurred to me that we are doomed to failure if we are to emulate the British gardens. We buy their beautiful books, watch their TV programs, and yet there’s no way they would deal with the conditions we have to contend with every day.
It was at that moment that I decided we need to give ourselves a lot of credit. We have an enormous challenge here in upstate New York. As gardeners we need to realize that we are doing a pretty amazing job. I also decided that I would try to help my fellow upstaters make the most of their garden season as it is, and show them some tricks to extend the season. We can do some special things to make the garden look good (or at least interesting) even in winter.
Here are some of my best tips for each season. Starting with early spring, plant spring-blooming perennials such as Arabis (Rock Cress), Aurinia (Basket-of-Gold), Epimedium (Bishop’s Cap), Pulsatilla (Pasque Flower), Bergenia (Saxifrage), Woodland Phlox, Erica (Heath), Pulmonaria (Lungwort), Brunnera (Forget-Me-Not), Primula (Primrose), Doronicum (Leopard’s Bane). The list goes on, but you can see how this will get a head start on the season. These plants start in April, some earlier, and give you many weeks of flowers long before you can safely plant your annuals. Interplanting spring bulbs is another way to have great flowers starting as early as March. I especially like to plant between my shade plants because all the foliage from plants like Hosta and Astilbe do a great job of covering the spent foliage of Tulips and Daffodils. Deciduous shade gardens get plenty of sun in the spring before the leaves come on the trees to grow your tulips and daffies. In Fall, plant the bulbs in big clumps of 10-12 bulbs per hole right close to the perennials, you won’t hurt either plant, and you won’t have to worry about what to do with the old foliage while the bulbs die back.
The summer season can be extended by using several tricks. First, plant perennials that are long blooming. This list is short because most perennials bloom three to four weeks at most. Some of my favorite long bloomers (six weeks or more) are Garden Phlox (June-August), Echinacea or Purple Coneflower (July-August), Coreopsis “Moonbeam” (June-September), Knautia (June-frost), Astrantia major (June-frost), Dicentra “Luxuriant” or Bleeding Heart (May-September), Scabiosa or Pincushion Flower, Monarda or Beebalm (July-September), and Hemerocallis “Stella D’Oro” or Daylily (June-September).
Second, extend the summer season into fall by planting late-blooming perennials. Here’s a list of some of the best: Chrysanthemums, not just the fall mums, but also the single daisy forms like Mary Stoker, and Hillside Sheffield Pink, Anemones (Wind Flower), Cimicifuga (Fairy Candles), Tricyrtis (Toad Lily), Physostegia (Obedient Plant), Sedum “Autumn Joy,” ornamental grasses especially Miscanthus, Rudbeckia (Black-Eyed Susan), Calluna (Heather), Asters, Boltonia and Hardy Begonia all give you fall flowers.
Thirdly, there are many perennials that give you foliage color or seed pods that add interest to the late season garden. Some of these are: Amsonia, Belamcanda, Bergenia, Ceratostigma, Euphorbia, Cimicifuga, Gillenia, Lysimachia, Platycodon, Autumn Fern and Christmas Fern.
The fourth trick to extend flowers in the garden is “deadheading.” This is the technique used to cut the spent blossoms from the plant in order to force it to keep blooming. Once a plant has set seeds it thinks that its job for the season is done, so in many cases if you prevent the plant from setting seeds, it will keep blooming. This technique also prevents the rogue plants from seeding themselves in places where you don’t want them. In some plants you cut individual blossoms, in others you cut the entire flower stem. For instance, Delphiniums get cut down to the ground after their first flower stem is done(around June), then they re-bloom in September. Campanula (Bellflower) benefits from deadheading individual blossoms very carefully, because the next blossom is often close behind the last. Aquilegia (Columbine) will often bloom right into July if carefully deadheaded.
Now for the real challenge in the Finger Lakes region — the winter garden. In general, I teach my students to cut down their perennial plants in fall to prevent diseases and insect problems from carrying over, but I also leave some of my plants for the seed heads and interesting structure in the winter. The birds benefit from the seeds, and sometimes brown is better then no color at all. I’ve also used some great deciduous summer-flowering shrubs in borders or foundation plantings, and they give the landscape some winter interest as their woody stems stand strong in the snow. These shrubs have dwarf varieties which work easily into most gardens, but if you have the space, the big ones are also terrific; things like, Weigela, Buddleia, Clethra, Fothergilla, Itea (Sweetspire), Diervilla, Hydrangea, and Tree Peony. There are several evergreen shrubs, and dwarf conifers that are my favorites for winter features. Dwarf conifers are misunderstood and under-used in our area, but I blame that on the garden centers. Having someone on staff who can explain to gardeners how to use them is all that is needed. They are a great way to add texture and structure to a perennial border, rock garden, or foundation planting (as shown). There are many varieties of the False Cypress, or Chamaecyparis, Hanoki, pisifera “Cream Ball,” nana “Lutea,” that are slow growing, low maintenance, and have interesting foliage shape and texture features. The dwarf Rhododendron yakushimana “Ken Janeck,” or “Princess,” are short enough to go in front of other shrubs or in the border for great spring color and dark green winter foliage. Never forget that texture counts for a lot in winter, using ornamental grasses, rocks, statuary, metal sculpture, and bark. Trees and shrubs with interesting barks can add a great deal of interest and color. The river birch tree, the Larch, paper bark Maple, red-twig Dogwood, and my new favorite, Heptocodium (Seven Sons), are all spectacular.
Now, start to think outside the yew and the arborvitae, buy some perennials for their shape and texture instead of their flowers, combine your trees and shrubs for all four seasons, and you’ll be meeting the challenge. I defy any English gardener to come to the Finger Lakes and do what we do. The next time you take out one of those beautiful garden books, remember those people probably didn’t have the kinds of challenges we have, and their gardens only looked like that for the second the picture was taken!
by K.C. Fahy-Harvick
K.C. Fahy-Harvick is the former owner of the perennial and aquatics nursery called Hawk’s Nest Nursery. Today, she’s a garden consultant and designer, and perennial and aquatics manager at Grossman’s Country Nursery in Penfield. Visit K.C.’s website at www.gardeningmatters.com.