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Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham

Like plants, gardeners belong to distinct species. That was the lesson from Cornell instructor Charlie Mazza many years ago, teaching future horticulture agents about their gardening customers. Over the decades I, too, have recognized wildly diverse motivations, interests and behaviors among gardeners. See if any of these “gardener” species sound familiar to you:

• The Decorator, who wants a few container plants to pretty up the front porch or patio, but doesn’t want to know the details.

• The June Gardener, who gets spring fever in May, plants lots of flowers in June, but doesn’t want to be tied to the garden all season.

• The Property Manager, who just wants the yard to look pristine, for pride or real estate value.

• The Keep-Up-With-the Joneses type, who wants what they have.

• The Collector, who loves and collects every plant, is constantly learning, without so much interest in design and others’ opinions. (Sometimes collectors focus on one genus at a time.)

• The Scientist, who explores, investigates and tests what works.

• The Engineer or Builder, who solves problems and builds or manipulates tools and structures.

• The Ecologist, or Earth Mother, who cares most about the eco-system and well-being of all living things.

• The Producer or Hobby Farmer, who grows much of the family’s food, may share or sell produce, and does it for the health and quality.

• The Teacher, who does it for the class or her kids or grandchildren.

• The Social Gardener, whose life revolves around other plant people, and who may make plant organizations a vocation, second career or dominant avocation. (Many of these make all our gardening events happen.)

• The Competitor, who shoots for the first tomato, biggest pumpkin or prize-winning rose.

• The Artist, who uses plants as part of a design, plays with texture and color and is creative with furnishings, artifacts and art.

• The Performance or Show Gardener, who does it all well and shares it with the world.

Have you been analyzing which one(s) describe you? (You are only human.) I admit to Collector, Nurturer and the social component, and once I was quite the Producer during my young family days.

The point is there are many kinds of gardeners, with vast differences in what they want, how much they want to garden and what they care to know. Understanding this might help a master gardener volunteer working a hotline, a TV or radio gardening expert, a nursery or garden center professional, or a landscaper (CNLP) consulting with a customer.

And when you meet gardeners on a garden walk or tour, or visit a gardener’s home, you might also think about what makes them tick.

Show Gardeners

Probably more than 100,000 of you (and tens of thousands more outside visitors) have seen many of Buffalo’s famous gardens and will do so on Garden Walk Buffalo weekend (July 25 to 26). Many thousands more this month are enjoying other town or neighborhood garden walks or Open Gardens ( You are seeing Show Gardeners in many cases, with many overlapping categories. You will meet Ecologists and nurturers showing native and pollinator plants, as in Lyn Chimera’s (East Aurora) or Mary Jane Bolo’s (Eden) Open Gardens. You will see Engineer/ Builders (combined with Artists), as in Jim Charlier’s amazing new “shed” (a shed as art!) on Lancaster Avenue. You’ll see myriad Artists’ gardens in Allentown, and Collectors’ gardens – as in the Sully, Shadrack, Sylvester and Whittemore gardens – in the southtowns. So many gardens, so many kinds of gardeners.

What a Show Garden requires

Gardening isn’t always that easy, so what does it take to have a garden ready to show to hundreds or thousands of visitors?

• It takes years: Sure, you can throw together a good-looking garden in one season by planting mature flowering plants and pretty pots – to a point. But look at the Garden Walk Buffalo and Open Gardens, and you’ll know that they did not happen overnight. Observe the huge clumps of mature perennials, the thickness of tree trunks and vines, and long-planned pairings and orchestration of flowering times.

• It takes money: Yes, you can grow a lot from seed, but most of these gardeners have bought hundreds of plants (some exotic), soil amendments, tools, products, decor and invested in the hardscape or structures of the garden. They put some money into their passion, and most are not wealthy people; they have jobs and bills to pay.

• It takes talent: Anyone can garden, but some gardeners do have greater gifts. Some are more educated, some more artistic or skillful designers. Most study to increase their gifts.

• It takes hard work: No matter how many “low-maintenance” plants you buy, how many tools for easing the labor and whether you hire some help for grunt-work, elaborate gardens take a lot of hard work, with strain on hands, backs, knees and hips – in sun, heat, cold, rain and mud.

• It takes adaptability: Nature messes with gardeners. We had the worst winter ever, record drought in May, huge windstorms and recently record rainfall, all conditions damaging plants and changing what to expect by “show time.” Gardeners adjust.

• It takes optimism: Alec Humann of Lancaster Avenue wrote: “It was a crazy growing season with the hot, dry May and then all this rain! I lost my climbing iceberg roses to the ground this winter and had my dragon lady columnar holly defoliate after the severe cold. Things look lush now, you’d never believe February happened!” He predicted a great week ahead.

• It takes courage and generosity: Do you feel pressure before a dinner party? The gardeners put themselves out there, share their personal spaces with strangers (who sometimes even judge them). What generous, brave and gracious folks. We can only thank them – and shake our heads in wonder.

• It takes long hours: I am sure that every gardener worked outside most of last weekend, and is gardening on every possible day or evening until dark. And the Show Gardeners are doing it with a deadline: You are on the way.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.