by Connie Oswald Stofko
That’s the lesson I took away from the gardens of Jerry Powarski of George Dr., West Seneca.
Powarski gave me a sneak peek last week as a preview of the West Seneca Tour of Gardens, which will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, July 18 and 19.
The garden walk season kicks off this weekend with the 10th annual Lewiston GardenFest, which will be held 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, June 20 and 21, on Center Street in Lewiston.
There are so many garden walks—15 in all this year!— that I’m trying to spread out my coverage. That’s why I visited Powarski’s garden last week.
His garden will look very different when you visit during the West Seneca Garden Walk in July. He uses many annuals, including elephant ears, which will get huge in the next few weeks. He says his garden looks even better in August when the plants are massive— See a photo from late last summer below.
I really appreciate Powarski giving me an early peek because we can see things we wouldn’t see on a garden walk. The “bones” of the garden show a little more at this time of year and we can see the structure and elements that make his garden successful.
Let’s take a look at some ways that going big can work in a garden.
Think big by seeing the whole yard
So many of us start gardening by buying a few plants we like and plunking them into the ground. As our gardens expand, we tend to string garden beds around the perimeter of the yard.
What makes gardens like Powarski’s successful is that they use the yard as a whole.
A stone path leads from the back deck toward the back of the yard, drawing people into the yard. The path bisects a large oval garden bed.
“They can walk through the garden,” Powarski said. “They can explore. They can see different things from different angles.”
The gardens have evolved and are still evolving. One garden bed had a path bisecting it, but this year a triangle of wooden planks within the bed forms the pathway. It allows Powarski to better reach the plants for weeding, too.
But the paths aren’t the only walkways. Notice that the grassy areas around the beds are walkways, too.
When you go on garden walks looking for inspiration, turn your attention away from the pretty plants for a moment to look at the placement of the beds, paths, gates and arbors.
Use large swaths of the same plant
Some gardeners are plant collectors, buying one of this variety and one of that variety. But you don’t have to have dozens of varieties of plants to have an interesting garden. You can create drama with mass plantings of one variety.
Powarski uses begonias for several reasons.
First, he prefers annuals to perennials because annuals will bloom all summer. He pointed to a bleeding heart, which is a perennial.
“It looked beautiful for five days,” Powarski said, “then I have a big bush. I don’t want a big bush.” He said he cuts back the bleeding heart after it blooms and it comes back every year.
Powarski also enjoys changing the look of his gardens from year to year. In past years he used a lot of petunias. Then he used impatiens until downy mildew started affecting them. He said one day he was watering the impatiens and thought mist was flying up, but it was powder from the downy mildew.
While some people still want to use impatiens, Powarski said he puts in too much effort to take the chance that his plants will die.
Now begonias are his annual of choice.
“They’re very forgiving,” he said. “They can take a beating. They’re sturdy.”
While they work in the shade, they do well in the sun, too.
Begonias are colorful. While he usually goes with red, he is trying some pink this year.
As you can see in the first photo, he uses begonias in large areas; they fill in nicely. He also uses them in container plantings, which you can see below.
Powarski estimated that he has 700 or 800 bedding begonia plants and 70 pink and 70 red dragon wing begonias.
He is able to buy the plugs (small seedlings) in March, which is less expensive than buying larger plants. He has to nurture them inside under lights until it’s time to transplant them outside.
One thing I should also mention is that it takes a lot of time to plant annuals every year. Powarski, a restorer of collector cars, is now retired. For several weeks he spent about four to six hours a day, three days a week, preparing the beds and planting the annuals. Altogether, he used about four truckloads of compost and mulch– your soil is very important, he noted.
In addition, it can take him an hour just to water all those plants.
“But I enjoy it,” Powarski said. “It gives me time to contemplate.”
Chose tall plants
Don’t forget that you can include trees in your garden. Powarski has several trees in his yard, including a dawn redwood or dinosaur tree, which is fast growing and can get 90 feet tall. It was three feet tall when he planted it nine years ago, and it’s about 20 feet tall now. It looks like an evergreen, but what you think are needles are actually soft leaves that turn orange-gold and fall off in the autumn.
A blue spruce that was encroaching on the arborvitae was left in place. Powarski had it carved by a local artist. He asked the artist to include a heron since Buffalo Creek is nearby and he has heron fly over the house.
What most people notice are the tall annuals: elephant ears, which I mentioned before, and tall ornamental grasses that get about 10 feet high. He pointed to the King Tut grass, which has a fluffy top that looks like fireworks. It’s only about knee high now.
“If you see it at the nursery, it looks so pitiful,” he said. “But if you grew it and saw it at the end of the season– Wow!”
See an image showing the mature grass below.