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Sally Cunningham: Flowers, wow! It’s been a great gardening season

Exceeding expectations. That sums it up. After all the exclamations were overheard, after all the comments were received, even after the gardeners themselves assessed their season, the vote was tallied: This was one of the best flower gardening seasons we’ve ever seen – and it’s still going, many weeks to come. In several different ways, in almost every way, our gardens have exceeded expectations. Hurrah for the plants, and hats off to the gardeners.

The perfect timing of the flowers

Gardeners almost always say, “You should have seen it last week!” and tell how the daylilies, roses, campanulas, etc., “just finished.” Or you’ll hear, “Such a shame. The Rose of Sharon/Butterfly Bush is still closed!” This time, during the July weeks of walks and tours, only a few gardeners breathed such sentiments. Many, including Plant WNY professionals, told me they thought that plant stages are about two weeks late, but that’s proved to be a good thing in ornamental gardens. Plants that often finish their show before a garden walk or tour did not do so. They bloomed on time and just kept going. The cool nights helped many plants hold their blossoms longer than usual, including true lilies (Lilium) that often blast through their performance weeks.

Nancy Fix, who gardens four properties in Allentown, agreed: “I often wish that Garden Walk Buffalo were a few weeks earlier because the peak for my liatris, echinacea, daisies, astilbes and campanulas happens then. Not so in 2014! I have never had so many blooms at the same time and for so long as this year.” She said she watered only the full sun areas a couple of times, and the plants never once looked at her with that desperate “I’m so thirsty, please help me” expression of summers past.

In her shady garden in Hamburg, Marg Rust also reported that the gentle temperatures and generous moisture benefitted her Ligularia, hostas, coleus, begonias, bee balm and lilies.

Special applause must go to the daylilies this year. Dave Snediker, who grows and sells over 250 daylily hybrids in Lockport, said: “We’re having a spectacular season for daylilies. The plants are multiplying at a great rate, and the bud count tells us we’ll have flowers much longer than usual.” Carol and Anthony Haj of Orchard Park (Lasting Dreams Daylilies, with nearly 1,000 hybrids) also provided proof that you can spread daylily blooms over many weeks. Just ask Pam Hoffmann or Kris Weitz, both veteran daylily growers, or the Sheehans in Holland or the other hundreds of home gardeners that make this plant a summer staple. I’m betting all will tell you it’s a very good year.

Even annual flowers in the ground, such as zinnias, marigolds, cosmos, amaranths and coleus – especially coleus – seem to be outdoing past performances.

The exception: Sometimes pounding rains beat down fine-stemmed plants or fragile blossoms, including a few perennials and many hanging baskets and container plants. Owners of container plants may have lost some because of too much water. They might not have moved a fuchsia out of the rain after a series of downpours, or they might have watered the plants too soon after a deep soaking. It hasn’t been entirely perfect for all flowers. But for people with show gardens (open gardens or bus tour gardens) from Lockport to Holland, and happy gardeners all over the region, the evidence opened before us. All we had to do was look at the results. Wow.

Raising the bar

But there’s more. It isn’t just the plants that have visitors and me shaking our heads in wonder, audibly gasping and sometimes laughing out loud. It’s the creativity and artistry of the gardeners. The original osprey sculpture by a Brooklyn artist on Baynes Street, the free-hanging silver torso in a North Pearl Street garden, original paintings and architectural remnants all create unforgettable one-of-a-kind gardens. Buffalo has no cookie-cutter gardens or formulaic landscapes. Ditto for the suburban and rural gardens open to the public. You will see trends in plants, but the art the gardeners choose and the way it is displayed is never duplicative; each garden is original.

Then there is style, and the Buffalo region’s gardens reflect many – including some not yet named. Some gardeners consciously design the landscape and choose planters and plants to reflect their homes’ architecture and time periods. Given smaller yards, many make the most of what they have, using utility poles or dead trees to support vines, and painting or hanging display pieces on the back side of neighbors’ garages. Some gardeners have built amazing stone walls, fences, pergolas, gazebos and fountains to complement their structures or the natural landscape. Others have created shelves, cubbyholes, nooks and platforms – even 20 feet up in trees – to display chosen art pieces or entire collections. Buffalo-area gardens offer a potpourri of styles, and one can’t walk away without reflecting – “What do I really like? What would I do with that yard?” Expanding your imagination is part of the point of garden touring.

Request to gardeners

During the last five weeks I have seen hundreds of the region’s gardens – not nearly as many as I would like to have visited or re-visited. I’m sorry if I missed yours. Still, I saw enough to know this: You have broken the records, surpassed the standards, bought more, grew more, dug more and built more. Busloads of guests from Canada to Ohio are tired, just looking at your work. Regular gardeners are going home to their meager plots feeling quite inadequate, but generally inspired. Now, stop already! Sit down. Accept our thanks. Breathe deeply. Let a weed grow while the rest of us catch up.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.