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Secrets of those extraordinary gardens

Last Sunday in Buffalo I daresay more people visited gardens than on any other day, ever, anywhere in the United States for Garden Walk Buffalo, the final event of the second National Garden Festival.

Even nongardeners are moved by the evidence of the gardeners' passion and their generosity in sharing. The gardens are personal, and through them we glimpse the owners' lifestyles, personalities and sometimes their hearts.

Here are some questions and musings I heard repeatedly, and you may wonder about these upon visiting any extraordinary garden:

It is so colorful; how do they keep it blooming?

Really colorful gardens, packed with bloom, don't just happen, and they mostly aren't like that all the time. Some gardeners absolutely cram in the blooming plants, tighter than you would normally space them, and they will thin or move them later. Some have lots of plants in containers that they use to fill in the blank spaces. This is not cheating; it's show biz.

Second, many of these gardeners favor the plants that perform in late July. This isn't easy, as plants don't come with a timing guarantee. During any given July the daylilies might finish too soon or the rose of Sharon won't open on time.

In general, the biggest flowering displays depend upon some staple perennials or shrubs. We see these used in masses in most late July gardens: daylilies, Asiatic or Oriental lilies, rose of Sharon, Monarda (bee balm), shasta daisies, lobelia, Russian sage and Rudbeckia (the familiar black-eyed Susans and the tall 'Herbstonne'). More gardens than ever also feature the orange-red flowering Crocosmia. Take out those perennials and you would see little bloom except for annuals.

The annuals or tropicals (including tubers/bulbs such as dahlias and cannas) are the other component of the most colorful displays. Many gardeners pack zinnias, marigolds, petunias and amaranthus in the beds. Others place overflowing containers of colorful annuals -- coleus, impatiens, verbena -- around the garden, or group them on driveways when the planting beds are full.

Nearly every gardener uses hanging baskets -- mandevilla, portulaca, scaevola -- to raise the eye and connect the house to the garden.

*This garden is so peaceful, calming, and it's mostly all green.

Green is indeed the main color of all gardens, and some gardeners use it artfully. The winning ones use their foliage and plant shapes in some specific ways.

Contrast is key. Artful gardeners consciously place contrasting textures and shades of green against each other, and they usually do it with large blocks of plants. It's almost impossible to do this (and why would you?) without hostas -- the ultimate plant that offers every possible green pattern and texture variation. Look at the oooh-inspiring all-green gardens, and you will probably see hostas next to fine-leaved ferns, Hakone grass, bleeding heart or Epimedium.

Contrasting shapes also impress the eye. Look for tall, thin junipers juxtaposed against wavy chamaecyparis or flowing oak-leaf hydrangeas. Several gardens on tour feature elegant Japanese maples draping over hostas, dwarf evergreens, mosses or ginger. Many also use rock or other hardscape for textural contrast.

Clean edges and defined spaces also impress us, and they are essential features of superior gardens, especially when the scenes are mostly green. Our eyes like neat, sharp edges, whether the edge is mulch against grass, pea gravel against bricks, or raked soil against pavers. Some serene, elegant gardens feature a few, carefully chosen plants with ample space between them, covered with evenly mulched soil.

*Who would have thought of that?

Often art, hardscape or furnishings are what make a garden memorable. Take a quick glance at any garden and then look away, and what image remains? It's likely the pergola, white trellis, swing, statue or fountain.

Art is certainly the most controversial aspect of garden design. Taste, design sense, creativity and humor are personal, or sometimes family or cultural values. One person's whimsy is "kitsch" to another. An ironic flamingo, boldly placed mirror, or sculpture of a torso or dog may delight, offend or challenge you. That's art. Many gardeners -- especially in Buffalo -- use it boldly.

Gardeners and organizers are breathing more deeply this week (except for our Black Rock/Riverside friends open for touring this weekend), while the visitors continue to think about what they saw and how they might do it. Imitation is the highest form of flattery.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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