How her garden grows
By Ciara McCann
An “explosion of color” is how Albany City Gardener Judy Stacey describes the thousands of blooming tulips in Washington Park that signifies the arrival of the Tulip Festival each year in May.
This year marks the 60th anniversary of the festival on Mother’s Day weekend on May 9-11. It’s exhausting work, but the spectacular outcome far outweighs the labor.
“I absolutely love my job,” she said. “I love making the city beautiful, working with my crew who are all creative and fun, and I love the response from the community.”
Meet the gardener
Stacey grew up on Long Island and came to the Capital Region to attend SUNY Albany, where she received a bachelor’s degree in European History and Drama and a Master’s in European history. Following graduation she moved to London and worked odd jobs before eventually settling in Australia for several years where she ran an antique and furniture restoration business. A historical project in California brought her back to the US in the late 70s and in 1979 she returned to Albany.
“I went to Washington Park to walk around and saw people playing music and hanging out and I said to myself, ‘I’m staying here’.” After being gone for almost 10 years, Stacey fell in love with the city all over again.
A self-taught lover of historical architecture, she found work at the City of Albany Community Development office, where she dealt with housing rehabilitation in Arbor Hill.
Stacey discovered her love for gardening as she volunteered her time planting bulbs for Tulip Fest. By 1996, with no one else at the helm, she was named the city’s full-time head gardener and left her job in the community development office. She is now in charge of all of the planting throughout the city. This includes Washington Park, Lark Street, traffic dividers, small pocket parks around the city and around the visitor’s center and city signs.
Planning & planting
With no formal training in her background, Stacey taught herself everything about the beautiful flower. She travels to Holland a number of times during their tulip season, which begins in April, and speaks with expert growers.
Her first order of business is to order the bulbs. “I already ordered in March for the 2009 festival.” She tries to get tulips in every color possible, including every shade of red and orange and in numerous variations. Incidentally, the number of tulips planted reflects the current year. This year there are 208,000 bulbs planted, next year there will be 209,000.
The shipment of bulbs arrive around October 1, and with the help of her permanent crew of five (she has three or four seasonal workers as well) the actual planting of the bulbs begins later that month and continues until mid-December. Aside from being extremely labor-intensive, the crew has to endure whatever the weather brings.
“From October to December we don’t stand upright,” Stacey said. “It’s back-breaking labor in every kind of weather. The ground froze early this year and we practically had to pickax through the soil.”
Deciding on where to plant the different bulbs is a job all in itself, but one that comes naturally to Stacey.
“I do it all in my head, I don’t write it down or have any plans drawn up,” she said. “I walk around the park by the beds and listen; they’ll tell me pretty much what they want to be.”
Members of the crew also have their own bed that they design. This allows for different color combinations, bloom heights and times, which results in greater variety.
During planning, Stacey has to decide whether a spot is what she calls a “pedestrian” or a “drive-by”. Pedestrian marks an area with a lot of foot traffic, where people can get close to the flowers and see every detail. For these beds she likes to plant more ornate tulips, like those with “fringy tops” or stripes; flowers with detail you can appreciate.
Drive-bys, however, consist of bolder colors that will catch people’s attention, such as reds and oranges. These can be found along the sides of roads, in traffic islands and surrounding city signs.
“I look for colors that are really going to draw the eye and wet the appetite that spring is coming,” she said.
The next step in the process is a waiting game. Until the end of March when the weather begins to warm up, all Stacey can really do is cross her fingers and hope the squirrels haven’t gotten to too many of the bulbs.
A bulb called Fritillaria (Crown Imperial) is used to try and ward off vermin. These bulbs have a skunk-like odor that fends off squirrels and keeps the tulip beds safe. Luckily, because of the large numbers of bulbs planted, even the squirrels can’t completely decimate them.
In April, with the festival just a little over a month away, the workers begin to clean up the garden beds of leaves and debris that have accumulated over the winter months. They label everything carefully, as it is important to know which type of tulip is where, and what family they come from. Depending on the temperatures and if they receive a good watering, the tulips usually start to bloom towards the end of April. After that, Stacey says they require little to no upkeep, “one of the wonderful things about this type of flower.”
Most tulips last around 10 to 14 days, prefer it cooler rather than hot, and most have different bloom times.
“We plant the tulips according to their bloom times with the idea in mind of having a tulip season stretching over about six weeks, not just for the festival.”
The luscious beds of flowers make for great photos; however, for some it can be quite tempting to keep their hands off.
“People of the city are so proud and watchful over the tulips that even when I’ve gone to take a flower from a bed I’ve had the police called on me!” she laughed. “The community really has a love affair with the tulips.”
As for the novice gardener who wants to begin growing tulips, Stacey offers some advice.
“If you want a spectacular showing, buy new bulbs every year.” Tulips are not guaranteed to come back the second year, and if they do they’ll be fewer and most likely smaller and shorter.
Stacey’s job as City Gardener is a never-ending one. Once Tulip Festival has come and gone, she has to dig up the tulips that have run their course and plant approximately 250,000 summer plants and hanging baskets. After that, it’s onto the fall mums and planting tulip bulbs for the following spring, and then the winter greens.
Dealing with so many different types of flowers each year, does one stand out more than the others? “Tulips are definitely my favorite. The type changes from moment to moment, but today it’s the Russian Lady.”
Q: I am interested in taking care of my lawn organically. What can I use to control weeds in my lawn using organic methods?
A: Organic lawn weed control is always a challenge for the environmentally-friendly homeowner. Now there is a new product widely available at your favorite lawn and garden center that is going to make organic lawn weed control a lot easier. Concern All Natural Weed Prevention Plus is a pre-emergent herbicide plus organic fertilizer. Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? But this product is made from corn gluten meal, an animal feed by-product from the manufacturer of corn starch. A scientist at Iowa State University discovered that corn gluten meal spread on your lawn will prevent the growth of dandelions, crabgrass, quack grass, purslane, plantain and many other common lawn and garden weeds. I hope it works on ground ivy, aka Creeping Charlie, too. Concern corn gluten is dry, granular and very yellow. Apply corn gluten with a drop spreader at about the same time as the daffodils or crocus are in bloom in mid-spring at the rate of 15 pounds per 1,000 square feet of lawn. Apply just before a steady rain to get best results. Children and pets can play on the lawn after application, but don’t inhale the light dust of the product because of potential allergic reaction. Do not use corn gluten on a newly-seeded lawn until after the first mowing. I will keep you informed about how well it works for me. For more information about Concern Weed Prevention Plus visit www.concerngarden.com..
Q: I want to grow roses, but I have heard they are very difficult to deal with. Also, what are some good roses to grow in this region?
A: A lot of people don’t grow roses because these beautiful blooming shrubs have a well-earned reputation for being fussy. All of the criticisms are valid if you are growing the wrong type of roses. Hybrid tea roses, the ones with the beautiful fragrant flower shop blossoms and the ones with names like “Princess Diana” and “Peace” are the fussy ones that need the extra tender loving care.
But, the new trend in rose growing is to return to the more cold hardy, disease-resistant, low-maintenance roses that are even more beautiful for a couple years.
Now is the time of year when people should be ripping out their problem roses and replacing them with easy-care varieties. It is also when lawn and garden centers will have the best selections of roses and the mail–order catalogues will be fully stocked. Anyone can grow a rose bush as long as they have a somewhat protected, well-drained site that receives at least six hours of sunshine each day. Roses don’t grow well in windy and dry conditions, they don’t like soggy soil and they don’t like shade.
If you want glorious flowers for your landscape or a delicate bouquet for the table, and if you prefer to spend your time admiring your roses rather than sweating over them, I advise you to grow the newly re-discovered old-fashioned looking shrub and climbing roses that are now widely available. Rugosa roses are best known by many as the beach roses along coastal New England. They are cold hardy even in Canada; they are fragrant, bloom all summer long and produce rose hips for the birds in fall on shrubs that will grow four to five feet tall.
Some of the prettiest rugosa roses include ‘F.J. Grootendorst’, ‘Hansa’, ‘Therese Bugnet’, ‘Henry Hudson’,‘Blanc Double de Courbert’, ‘Fru Dagmar Hastrop’ and many more. Betty Prior’ is a cold-hardy floribunda rose, which mean they produce clusters of blossoms on bushy shrubs. This variety is also quite resistant to black spot and mildew. It will grow four to five feet tall and produce pink flowers all summer long. ‘Carefree Wonder’ and ‘Bonica’ are two reliable ever–blooming, disease-resistant shrub roses that will easily survive our coldest winters. They both produce medium-pink clusters of beautiful roses.
English roses are a new line of old-fashioned looking and very fragrant roses developed over the last 20 years by breeder David Austin. He has blended the voluptuous charm of old roses including damask and gallica with the vigor and repeat blooming of modern hybrids. There is no doubt they are incredibly beautiful with old-world names like ‘Cottage Rose’, Brother Cadfael’, English Elegance’, ‘Fair Bianca’ and many more.
For really small garden spaces people should think about growing ‘The Fairy’, a two-foot-tall polyantha rose bush that is covered with small, light pink flowers from June until late September.
Climbing roses can add great dimension to a small urban garden by rambling up on flower-packed canes that can reach 20 feet long. All you need is sunlight and a sturdy support like a trellis or an arbor. Two of the very best easy care climbing roses are ‘New Dawn’ and ‘Climbing Cecil Brunner.‘
All of the roses I mentioned are resistant to the two main rose diseases: black spot and powdery mildew. If you have these diseases with your existing roses, spray them with a sulfur-based fungicide or homemade solution of one tablespoon baking soda, one tablespoon ordinary liquid dish soap and one gallon of water.
Bugs are another matter. Aphids and Japanese beetles are roses’ two biggest insect enemies. Insecticidal soap and Neem, both available in garden centers and catalogues, are quite effective. Ladybugs feast on aphids and I enjoy controlling Japanese beetles by paying my kids to pick the bugs off by hand and stomping on them or dropping them into a container of soapy water.
Larry Sombke is a regular guest on WAMC and the editor/host of his blog website www.beautifuleasygardens.blogspot.com. He is a landscape consultant and the author of Beautiful Easy Flower Gardens. Send your garden questions to him at email@example.com.