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Growing up in Niagara Square

In the past I have shared reports about the gardens of Niagara Square, the jewel -- we often call it -- of downtown Buffalo. But there is more to public gardening than plant selection. It's about gardening style and about people, and our particular Buffalo gardening choices are ones you may face in your own private or public projects. So here is the story of growing, and perhaps growing up, in Niagara Square.

> Annuals or perennials

In 1994 the Buffalo in Bloom committee, supported by the Buffalo Green Fund, took up the challenge to plant flowers in Niagara Square. A wonderful designer planned a symmetrical design using annual flowers. (There are four quadrants to the square, two beds each, and they mirror each other.) Over the first years there were Snapdragons, Sweet alyssum, Salvias, Petunias, Cannas and others.

The design remained fairly stable, while the color palette changed each year. It was always dramatic from a driver, pedestrian or office-window point of view. There were funds to buy the annuals, mulch, tools and soil amendments -- and hundreds of volunteers. It was a big push every spring, some maintenance all summer and a big fall project to pull the annuals and plant the bulbs.

However, the trouble with annuals is that you need to buy them over and over, as well as plant, water, fertilize and remove them. They're ideal for making the most intensely colorful garden over an entire season, but they don't block weeds or become lower-maintenance as perennials tend to do. Our fund-raising, committee energy and volunteer count pointed toward a move to perennials. With a new design, Niagara Square became a garden of ornamental grasses and perennials.

> Formal or casual

Another choice you may face is style and degree of formality. In Niagara Square, the plants themselves led us away from a formal style to a more casual one. Traditionally, public spaces across the country -- copying European traditions -- were always planted in formal, geometric patterns. Annuals fitted those styles, and usually hired gardeners did the work. Once we moved to perennials, lines quickly blurred -- literally -- in the symmetry and shapes we could maintain.

Perennials by nature spread or drift -- not in straight lines. Each quadrant of Niagara Square has its own traffic, wind, sunshine and weeds, so the plants grow differently. The Square took on a relaxed look, reflecting American gardening style.

> The project today

A relaxed style doesn't mean we don't have to weed, cut back, move clumps around, re-mulch, and fill in a little each season. It's a mature garden now, which includes some assertive weeds well established. It takes real gardeners who see what to do, rather than hundreds of community-service volunteers.

A small group (still through Buffalo in Bloom) does most of it, and we want new helpers to teach about the plants and discuss the decisions. (If you want to get involved, write to: Lmg1363@aol.com or just join in some Tuesday about 5:30 p.m.)

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer and former Cornell Extension educator.

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