9/15/2012 7:00 AM
By Paul Post New York Correspondent
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. — As summer fades to autumn, the flowers at Saratoga Spa State Park are in full bloom.
Both sides of the site’s main entrance abound with a dizzying array of colors and plants of all sizes, from small daisies to giant elephant ears.
The attraction, which leaves visitors amazed, is the result of a project launched 12 years ago that keeps growing with each passing season.
“It’s really going to get showy in the fall,” said Dan Urkevich, the park’s garden caretaker.
Soon, a multitude of different colored mums will join the display.
“It starts in the spring and keeps right on going until there’s a hard frost,” he said.
The gardens have become so popular that the park launched a first-ever series of weekly tours in August, when thousands of racing fans visit Saratoga. In addition to admiring flowers, participants also got planting, growing and maintenance tips for every plant on hand, and there are literally hundreds of varieties — about 75 percent perennials and the rest annuals.
The subtle hues of sedum, hostas and allium start the season, followed by foxtail lily, phlox and bee balm that bring a splash of bright colors in summer along with native plants such as blue vervain and Joe Pye Weed. Ornamental grasses give the garden staying power during the fall and early winter months.
Urkevich constantly strives to catch people’s attention. He even puts white flowers near lights so that the illuminated blooms will glow on summer evenings.
In sheer size, some of the most impressive plants are a 15-foot-tall sunflower, the 2-foot-long elephant ear leaves and the tall castor bean. Blossoms with more colors than a rainbow include lavender cleome, coral bells, orange zinnias, yellow black-eyed Susans and bright red celosia.
“Celosia come in a lot of different varieties,” Urkevich said. “They’re a great plant because they really take off. You can even use them at Christmas for making wreaths.”
Many flowers have been donated by Sunnyside Gardens, in Saratoga, as part of the New York State Independent Flower Growers Marketing Council’s “Plants in Parks” program.
It’s hoped that this pilot project will take root at state parks across New York, with local nurseries donating flowers to sites in their respective areas.
Also known as “Flower Power,” the council’s mission is to promote New York-grown horticulture and educate people about where to find New York-state grown flowers and plant materials. The group also provides information on planting and caring for flowers that will thrive in New York state’s diverse climate.
“Horticulture is the second biggest agriculture business in New York state, behind dairy,” said Ned Chapman, council president and Sunnyside Gardens owner.
Floriculture alone generates almost $200 million per year in wholesale activity. The figure nearly doubles when factoring in other horticulture products, from sod to Christmas trees.
“Plants in Parks” is a joint effort between the council and state parks system to make park visits more enjoyable for patrons, as well as to promote horticulture. Events such as the recent garden tours encourage people to buy and plant things at home.
However, keeping the gardens in tip-top shape takes a green thumb and lots of hard work.
“We use a whole 200-gallon tank of water on each side every day,” Urkevich said. “Plus, there’s a lot of weeding, mulching and we hand-mow the lawns here in front. It takes a lot of hard work; everything you’d do at home. It’s just a much larger scale.”
In addition to this summer’s extreme heat and occasional thunderstorm, caretakers also faced enemies such as chipmunks, woodchucks and voles that like to feed on the plants.
But for every foe, the flowers attract a multitude of friends. Honeybees and bumblebees work the blossoms non-stop, butterflies are attracted to milkweed and colorful yellow finches like to eat sunflower seeds.
“If you come on a hot, sunny day these flowers are covered with bees,” Urkevich said. “I think it looks its best at this time of year. Tall plants have reached their full height, flowers are at their peak and the light is just right.”
The park is home to Saratoga Performing Arts Center, where the New York City Ballet and Philadelphia Orchestra make their annual summer residencies. The Saratoga racing season ended on Labor Day, but the “Spa City” will continue welcoming thousands of visitors this fall.
Flower beds are at the park’s Route 9 entrance, the southern gateway to the city.
“This is the first thing a lot of people see,” Urkevich said. “We really want these plants to have an impact with their color and height so that people see them from the road. A lot of people are interested in this. They love it.”
For information go to flowerpowerny.org.