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Sally Cunningham: Visitors asked, gardeners answered

I did not see all 430-plus Garden Walk Buffalo gardens last weekend – nobody could – nor every garden on the Open Gardens weekday tours or the weekend tours across the Buffalo Niagara region this summer. But, like about 100,000 garden tourists, I saw lots of gardens and heard questions from locals and out-of-town visitors.

“What did the people ask you?” I asked the gardeners. Here are some top questions and answers:

1. What is this?

Some annuals, houseplants and perennials caught special attention, such as:

• Polka Dot Plant (Begonia maculata ‘Wightii’): This is a tropical, houseplant. Fabulous begonias were everywhere, including many ‘Dragon Wing’ and bright orange ‘Bonfire’ selections.

Supertunia 'Sharon' double perunia (Photo courtesy Proven Winners)

• Hardy Hibiscus: Perennials with huge flowers, including ‘Kopper King,’ ‘Midnight Magic’ and the new Proven Winners’ Summerific® ‘Perfect Storm.’

Acanthus mollis, A. zebrinus (Bear’s Breeches): shade perennial flowered in full glory.

• Petunias may be the most hybridized and generous bloomers of all, with new double, ruffled and multicolored blossoms seen in baskets and pots.

• Bee Balm (Monarda): With mostly bright red or magenta flowers, this perennial was dramatic, taller than usual, and clearly thrilling for pollinators. I even spotted several natives (pale lilac flowers).

• Purple foliage plants produced questions, especially Setcreasea pallida (Purple Heart), a purple datura, and Strobilanthes (Persian Shield).

People asked repeatedly about a few lesser known plants:

Calycanthus ‘Aphrodite’ (Carolina Allspice) on West Delavan Avenue.

• ‘Twisty Baby’ (Black Locust) on 16th Street.

• Katsura trees (in the Parkside neighborhood and Shadrack Smug Creek gardens in Hamburg).

Echinops ritro (Globe Thistle).

Aucuba japonica on Lancaster Avenue.

The new upright sweet potato vine and passion flower vines caused questions in “Mary’s Garden” on Lancaster Avenue.

In the Charlier garden, also on Lancaster Avenue, many asked to identify the yellow and turquoise flowers sticking out of giant hostas. (The answer: Spray-painted allium seed heads.)

Three spreading plants aroused curiosity – Fallopia japonica variegata (Japanese variegated knotweed), Arundo donax (Giant Reed) and Houttuynia cordata (Chameleon plant), but all three could be extremely invasive so the gardeners and I recommend avoiding them.

2. Where did you get this?

Gorgeous pots: Gardeners found them at garden centers, estate sales or occasionally box stores or odd-lots outlets.

Art pieces from statuary to birdhouses: Many gardens now feature mandalas, painted chairs, glass flowers, dragons or large wind-catchers and more that came from the Buffalo-Style Garden Art Sale held in June. Several true artists (Robert Then, Bruce Adams) produce their own garden art.

Plants: I heard gardeners mention several favorite garden centers or nurseries, or plants sales by master gardeners, garden clubs and the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens as well as a few online sources.

One favorite container gardener, Joe Hopkins, buys flats of coleus and other annuals from Amish farmers, but he is always pursuing unusual plants anywhere. He admits to “the thrill of the hunt.”

A few gardeners such as the Blyths and Bannermans start annuals from seeds in their basements.

Repurposed objects: A characteristic of Buffalo-style gardens is quirky creativity, especially noticed in repurposed bicycles, bed parts, window frames, doors, chandeliers, mirrors, parts of furnaces and farm equipment. Several bottle trees were spotted, and many asked how to build a wall with bottles – as seen in the Sako/Hough Buffalo garden.

3. How do you keep this over winter?

Koi keepers either keep a very deep pond open with a bubbler or heater in winter, or they carry them one by one, gently, to a basement tank, such as at the Guercio home. Hostas and some semi-hardy woody plants (figs) are kept in containers and hauled into the garage or tipped on their sides and left outdoors.

Dahlias, daturas or brugmansias, bananas, cannas, elephant ears and other larger tropical plants go into basements (the Locke/Irey and Ballard/Olinski gardens). Some gardeners just let the annuals die – becoming compost – and start over each year.

4. How do you water all this?

Few Buffalo area amateur gardeners have built-in watering systems. Joe Hopkins waters hundreds of pots with sprinklers on timers. Most answer variations: “We water with a hoses at the base of the plants when they need it.” “We do one section at a time each day.” “We practice tough love after the plants are established – almost never water.”

5. How do you keep up with all of this work?

“It is not work if you love what you are doing,” Kathy Shadrack tells visitors.

“This is not work. That’s what I do in my office,” Jim Charlier explains to them.

And many answered similarly. These gardens are labors of love, and sharing them is the gardeners’ gift to Buffalo and to garden visitors from everywhere.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant. She and Jim Charlier are the authors of “Buffalo-Style Gardens: Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs” (St. Lynn’s Press, $24.95).

Enjoy photos by Buffalo News staff photographers of participating gardens from Garden Walk Buffalo, held July 27 and 28:

Garden Walk Buffalo: At 430+ gardens, the largest residential tour in North America

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