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Private gardeners prepare for public showing

During a recent gardening symposium, we fell victim to plant lust. The speaker showed us Echinacea ‘Marmalade'; we drooled for marmalade. Up went the picture of daylily ‘Primal Scream' – we screamed. We were helpless. Each of us had to take home a Big Bang Coreopsis, a new Leucanthemum (shasta daisy), Heuchera (coral bells) or Agastache. Those plants represented our dreams: bigger flowers, longer blooming periods, gardens that will overflow with color – all part of why we plant, why we garden.

And that is why my garden is a plant collector's garden, without regard to design theory. I see a wonderful plant; I try it – sometimes in a couple of places. I match the plant's needs with the closest suitable site, whether or not it enhances the landscape. Then I observe and nurture the plant as it grows and shows me its ways, over the next years. A walk through my garden is a slow walk, with many stops to notice individual plants. There is always something happening. This is personal, private gardening, and it's quite a different thing from gardening that is for the eyes of others.

Two weeks from now the National Garden Festival opens in the Buffalo region, and 75 gardeners will offer "Open Gardens" that are free to visit once a week for five weeks. I can only imagine the pressure. I suspect they garden differently knowing that 50 to 500 visitors will be coming through, expecting something spectacular. Similarly, over 800 gardeners will be on stage during one of 14 garden walks or tours in the coming weeks, and they, too, are preparing to open the gate for strangers who will gawk, photograph, comment and judge.

What these gardeners do and how they garden is different from what many of us know as gardening. For us dilettantes, the garden has its ups and downs, we try this, we try that, and we know we'll do better next year. For them, there's a deadline and final exam. The public is coming and it has to look good.

> Public gardens

Gardens in commercial and public places have certain characteristics:

* Formal designs – straight lines and symmetrical patterns in bed design and plant layout.

* Large sweeps of one species – 25 coreopsis, 40 Russian sage, a front edge of 60 salvias.

* Blocks of strong flower or foliage colors, to be seen at a distance.

* Long-lasting or repeating blooms.

* Ornamental grasses, often used for long-season drama.

* Low or routine maintenance needs – no plant-by-plant deadheading required.

* Plants chosen for average soil and site conditions.

* Plants that do not flop or spill, generally; sturdy, tidy, upright varieties preferred.

* Watering systems are built in, or supplied by grounds crews who don't necessarily attend to plant preferences.

* Edging and mulching strictly maintained, as important as flowers for a pleasing appearance.

Two or three decades ago, I also would have written that annuals (then called bedding plants) are commonly used for the sweeps of color in public gardens. Now we usually see less formal public gardens filled with perennials, for two reasons: Most institutions use volunteers instead of professional gardeners, and now the plant industry offers lower-maintenance perennials that perform better. Look around a golf course, church or Niagara Square — they are hhmostly perennials. On the other hand, our classic Victorian-era Botanical Gardens wears a grand necklace of contemporary annuals for a period-appropriate show.

> Making preparations

I've seen some private gardens that will be on tours this summer, and I've helped plan for parties in some gardens. How are these private gardens, preparing for public viewing, different from a collector's garden or a casual home garden?

* Close planting: The proper and economical way to plant perennials is to observe recommended spacing for each plant's mature size – basically planning for a full look three years from now. Sometimes gardeners fill in with annuals, or just tolerate a sparse look while a new perennial garden gets going. However, for the immediate impression, many gardeners pack the flowers together, knowing that the time for dividing and thinning will come soon. Notice a border of yellow 'Happy Returns' daylilies bordering a parking lot and you may see the plant crowns only 8 inches apart.

* Intensive planting:Mixed gardens, with a variety of annuals, perennials, bulbs and shrubs, are also planted with many kinds of plants sited closer together than the mature plants will require. The gardener will move plants when necessary and toss or give them away (or make a new bed). One famous Garden Walk Buffalo gardener freely shares her secret with guests who are dumb-struck by her garden: She packs together annuals and perennials, all in pots, for one amazingly floriferous display.

* Timed for the show: You may notice that certain plant species dominate garden tours that usually take place from late June into August. Gardeners favor the plants that flower dependably when they need them.

* Last-minute packing: Many gardeners wait until the week before a tour or event and then fill the holes with flowering plants – a good idea as long as you can find the plants in the garden centers.

* Containers:It's equally smart to grow lovely mixed container plants, and place them in dull places in the garden.

* Professional help:It is not cheating to hire professional landscapers or gardeners to tidy up (edge, weed, mulch, deadhead) or plant fill-ins before the big day. (You hire a caterer for the wedding, and a hairdresser before the gala, don't you?) Most of the gardeners in our National Garden Festival do not hire professional help – you're seeing nothing but their sweat and passion in those beds. But it's a relief and maybe a matter of survival to know when to ask for help.

Gardeners garden for different reasons, some for the joy of it and some for an event – the queen is coming for tea, a tour bus from Ohio, or garden walkers are on the way. Hats off to all – especially to those who work so hard to share the beauty with the rest of us.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.