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Plant people ; The Perennial Diva and 'Wicked Plants' author bring their homegrown wisdom to Buffalo

If there's one thing gardeners love to do almost as much as working in the garden, it's talk about working in the garden.

Two nationally known garden writers -- both of whom happen to be funny, effervescent women -- will bring their expertise and advice to Buffalo on consecutive Saturdays as part of the new National Buffalo Garden Festival.

First up is Stephanie Cohen, the Perennial Diva, who will make two local appearances on Saturday. She will speak on perennial garden design as part of a daylong seminar in Lockwood's Greenhouses in Hamburg, followed by a talk on "The Summer Garden" in an event that begins with a 7 p.m. reception at Nichols School.

Cohen quotes the famous -- and famously apt -- remark by gardener and writer Mac Griswold, "Gardening is the slowest of the performing arts," as she talks about how gardeners create lasting beauty in their ever-evolving surroundings. Preserving beauty as flowers bud, bloom and fade and everything else, with luck, grows and flourishes, is the topic of her new book, "The Nonstop Garden."

"You have to decide where your big trees are going to go and leave them alone," says Cohen. "But anything else is fair game. If you're dealing with annuals, perennials and small shrubs, of course you are going to move them."

But even the perfect arrangement on paper leaves a lot to chance. "Gardeners have no control," says Cohen. "It rains too much, we have too much sun -- whatever it's doing, we don't like it. Too hot, not enough heat, we should have watered yesterday ..." She laughs as she rattles off the familiar refrains.

Cohen says she writes books for people to use, and is delighted when she's asked to sign a battered copy that has been held by soil-stained hands. "'The Perennial Garden's Design Primer' has been out a few years, and people come back and say, 'I know this looks terrible, but will you sign it?' I say, 'I would love to. This shows me that you have used it.' "

>Deer hate alliums

Many of her books reflect her personal struggles -- with summer heat in her southeastern Pennsylvania home, where, she says, full sun can produce "Southern Fried Plants," and with the deer that feast on her gardens. "I live cattywampus, as I say, from a state park, and it's not unusual for me to see seven deer in my garden," says Cohen. "I tell people, 'I prepare the loveliest salad for the deer.' I hate those things! It's always a challenge, but if you can find a couple of things, like alliums, deer hate them. You can have alliums going from spring through November. There are all different ones."

The mention of alliums, a member of the onion family whose sharp taste deters deer, reminds her of a basic principle of the nonstop garden, which suggests that plantings include 5 percent vines and 5 percent veggies and herbs.

"A lot of people would plant alliums in an herb garden, but I plant them all through my garden. Another great herb for the garden is sage," says Cohen. "The flower on a sage is just as pretty as any flower, and if you want a variegated leaf, grow variegated sage."

>Worldwide plants

Amy Stewart, author of the quirky and fascinating book, "Wicked Plants: The Weed that Killed Lincoln's Mother and Other Botanical Atrocities," visited Garden Walk Buffalo a few years ago from her Northern California home.

"It's amazing, it's extraordinary, it's an incredible event," raves Stewart, who attended at the urging of her friend, Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, with whom she co-writes a blog called "Garden Rants."

Stewart's latest book is "Flower Confidential: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful in the Business of Flowers."

" 'Flower Confidential' is kind of a behind-the-scenes look at the global flower industry, so it's a little bit of an expose," says Stewart. "I talk about the pesticide use and the labor issues on the farms in Latin America, but it's also just kind of 'Gee whiz, who knew everything that went into making a bouquet?' There's an incredible amount of technology, a lot of people and a lot of logistics behind getting flowers into people's homes. The breeding is very interesting, and they're very different from garden flowers."

>Where's the scent?

Her research for the book took her to Europe and South America, and into such interesting topics as why florists' roses have no scent. "The scent got bred out in part because they were breeding for longevity, and in part because fragrance is a regressive gene, so you're just going to lose it when you're breeding for anything else," says Stewart.

Now, she says, some breeders are finally focusing on scent. "It took them too long, in my opinion, to wake up to the fact that their customers wanted flowers to smell good -- that's what people want in a flower! Now they are trying to bring back some fragrant roses, but they have to manage people's expectations about how long they are going to last."

Her book, "Wicked Plants," published in 2009, "has continued to do really well; it's had a nice long life," she says. With its eerie etchings and drawings of plants and their nefarious uses, she says, "I really wanted to get the murder-mystery crowd. Too often, when we talk about the plant world, we tend to leave out the bigger cultural and historical aspects in favor of 'five easy annuals for fall' and the other how-to stuff, and I think that's a mistake."

Even the most common plants have stories, sometimes dramatic ones, she says. "In 'Flower Confidential' I told the story of the Stargazer lily, which is so ubiquitous in flower shops and in the garden. Lots of people grow Stargazers in their gardens, and probably it never occurs to them that there's this person, there's this guy who had the idea for this flower and made it happen and lost his life's fortune over it. It's a sad and very dramatic story. It's not just a flower that came out of nowhere."

What's next for Stewart? "The next book is "Wicked Bugs," which is coming out this time next year," she says. "That's going to be a lot of fun."

e-mail: aneville@buffnews.com

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