Two Must-See Gardens

At Grace Gardens, customers repeatedly walk the gardens making sure they haven't missed any prize blooms.
story and photos by Derek Doeffinger

Iris and Peonies for May and June

If you love flowers and enjoy exploring back roads, then you’re in for a real treat this May and June. Hidden in the farmlands between Seneca and Canandaigua Lakes is a nationally renowned garden that is celebrated by the plein air painters who flock there to capture its beauty.

A drive to the iris and peony gardens created by Dana and Sylvia Borglum will deliver you to what may be the best parking spot in the Finger Lakes. It’s surrounded by gardens bursting with flowers, awash with fragrance-filled breezes, and bordered by dapper red barns and a potting shed.

As you wander on its paths, keep an eye out for the Irisarian, a fanciful creature that bustles from flower to flower with a ball cap skewed on its head, a grin creasing its face. You’ll recognize him by the clump of irises he clutches in one hand and the shining saber-like spade he grips in the other.

Don’t be alarmed; it’s only Dana Borglum. For the past 20 years or so, he and his wife Sylvia have been transforming three acres of former farmland outside of Hall into stunning live masterpieces.

As you read this, the results of their work may already be presenting their annual explosion of color. Glorious irises stand tall and wave their resplendent banners to display colors that could only come from nature. In addition to the variety of bearded irises, you’ll also see lots of Siberians and other non-bearded varieties including Versicolor, Spuria, Louisiana, and Japanese. Most are the Borglums’ unique creations.

Creating new irises – hybridization – is Dana’s passion. To do it, he “simply” takes the place of a bee to transfer pollen from one plant to another to create seeds for a new plant. He’s a self-taught hybridizer, he says, but as he starts to explain, he pauses. A grin appears and his eyes shine brighter. “I think it’s in my blood – I used to be an artificial inseminator of cows.”

He lets that sink in and then continues: “I like to try and make things better.”

He has succeeded. Dana’s hybridized irises have been honored by the American Iris Society, winning the prestigious Morgan-Wood and Randolph Perry awards.

But more than irises abound here. In an adjacent field, more than 200 named peonies bounce their boisterous pom-poms in an effort to draw you to their beds. You’ll also find daylilies (in July) and hostas. The lupines, bleeding hearts, coral bells, clematis and other flowers planted among mature trees may convince you that you’ve stepped into a Beatrix Potter storybook. Enhancing that feeling is the frequent presence of artists. You’ll find yourself dodging one artist’s easel while glancing at another’s to notice that you’ve been immortalized in their work.

Borglum Iris Gardens was recently purchased by longtime neighbors, sisters Reba and Sara Ann Martin, who renamed them Iris Country Garden. Sara Ann has worked alongside Dana for many years, and has learned the ways of the iris. Excited to be taking over such an esteemed enterprise, the Martin sisters plan to continue Dana’s hybridizing program.

For another year or two, Dana and Sylvia will continue living on the grounds in the Borglum family home and assisting at the gardens.

Visiting information

Iris Country Garden
(formerly Borglum Iris Gardens)

Open mid-May to October
Monday through Saturday (now closed Sunday)

2202 Austin Road Geneva, New York 14456-9118

Thousands of Gorgeous Daylilies for July

In rows and in patches, freshly dug up and riding in closely guarded wagons, packed away in customers’ pickups, under trees, behind bushes, on printed lists, in secret patches – everywhere you look there are daylilies – all sizes, shapes, colors, and stages of bloom. There are more than 40,000 cultivars [different types of plants]. Forty thousand. And guess who wanted to see them all (it wasn’t me)?

If you’re a gardener or flower lover, welcome to heaven. If you’re simply accompanying your favorite gardener, then know that there are seven wineries nearby – one within walking distance – because you may be in for a long day.

Grace Gardens, just off Rt. 14, 10 miles south of Geneva, is owned by Tom and Kathy Rood. It’s named after Tom’s mother. The Roods have been involved with daylilies for a very long time, and their outstanding garden is an official American Hemerocallis Society Display Garden featuring more than 2,200 registered varieties.

Like the Borglums (who are their friends), they love to hybridize. I watch Kathy do this; she starts by selecting two plants with traits she’d like to combine. From one desirable plants she plucks off a stamen, the “male” portion that holds pollen, and rubs it against the pistil – the female portion – of the other desirable plant. And that’s it, sort of.

The Roods have to gather the seeds in the fall, plant them, and then wait a couple of years for them to bloom. If they like the result, they will wait a few more years and evaluate them as mature plants. They do this thousands of times, which elevates the activity to an entirely different level.

Kathy and Tom agree the hardest thing they do isn’t dead heading (remember: 40,000 plants), weeding, or handling orders. The hardest thing they do is choosing which hybrids to keep. “One of the discussions we have, quite hotly by the way, is how many we can keep,” says Tom. Kathy adds, “They’re like our children [they have several grown children], so it’s very hard to throw them on the compost heap.”

The fun parts of gardening include all the people they meet and naming new varieties. Their hybridized lilies sport the names of friends, family, and people they want to honor. But as Kathy remarks, “If you name a flower after one family member, then you have to name flowers after all of them.”

Like the Borglums, the Roods are friendly and helpful and love to talk about daylilies. They are truly daylily activists. As master gardeners, they founded the Finger Lakes Daylily Society, and they’ve held many positions in other daylily organizations. What’s more, the two have presented talks and classes over much of the eastern United States and Canada.

Classes are also offered at the garden showing people how to hybridize and raise daylilies.

The message that comes through loud and clear at both gardens is this: the gardeners love what they’re doing, and love to share their passion and knowledge for flowers with others.

Visiting information

Grace Gardens

Open late June to early August
Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.;
Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Sunday, 12-4 p.m.

1064 Angus Road, Penn Yan, New York 14527

The open house is Saturday, July 21. To avoid crowds, go a day or two – even a week –
earlier or later, though you risk diminished stock.


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