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A lot has changed in the horticulture world in the last 20 years. My perspective isn’t everyone’s, but I’d like to share the changes I have observed over the last two decades, especially in Western New York.

My qualifications? Twenty years ago I worked for Cornell Cooperative Extension’s consumer horticulture and Master Gardener program, with broad exposure to the viewpoints of the public, the university, the organic community and the landscape industry.

I was also (and still am) an intense gardener, reader and shopper: I was fully immersed. Today I am an active CNLP (certified nursery and landscape professional) and just as immersed. When I consult, lecture and travel, I hear from the gardening public. And I notice what has changed – from the paradigms and assumptions to specific knowledge and facts.

Let’s look at the state of horticulture, then and now:

1. WNY sophistication vs. the country’s

Then: Many of us apologized back then, with a sense that WNY was generally behind in gardening styles, plant availability, organic gardening and other trends. We seemed to be a little slow.

Now: I believe that WNY is as cutting-edge and sophisticated, horticulturally speaking, as almost anywhere in the country. Ask the 100,000-plus who visit Buffalo-area gardens every summer: They say we’re hot!

2. Front yard gardening, urban beautification

Then: Garden speakers were urging us to get flowers into front yards and public spaces, like you might observe in San Francisco, Philadelphia and other cities. Few blooms were in public view here.

Now: Thanks to two projects, each 20 years old, Buffalo is famous for flowering front yards and a mecca for gardening tourism. Garden Walk Buffalo started in a small West/Central Buffalo neighborhood, and now it’s the largest event of its kind in the country and the spark behind our burgeoning garden tourism. Buffalo in Bloom started a citywide front yard contest and continues to reward gardeners, so that front yards and streetscapes have flourished from Riverside to the East Side. They made Niagara Square a showplace. Tourists flock to the trial gardens at the Erie Basin Marina, and Grassroots Gardens and other groups created gardens all over the city: The flowers are out front.

3. Organic gardening, pesticide use

Then: We organic gardening authors and advocates represented a fringe and often belittled group. We searched beyond Cornell, to Rodale and NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) to learn organic gardening. My public audiences expressed some willingness to try organic methods, but a huge sector was extremely pro-pesticide and condescending about any talk of beneficial insects or cooperation with nature.

Now: We have collectively learned a lot more about the real dangers of casual pesticide use, and both professionals and amateurs are concerned and respectful about their product choices. I don’t hear the macho voices anymore, claiming no fear about pesticide exposure. A large and increasing population of 20- and 30-year-olds is growing vegetables and wants to do so organically. The land-grant colleges and the landscape industry have embraced IPM (Integrated Pest Management) and are paying attention to the growing organic market. While the organic gardening movement has emerged more slowly in WNY than in some regions, nobody mocks it any more. The Buy Local Foods and CSA (community supported agriculture) movement is finally getting the attention it deserves.

4. The plants we use

Then: We have experienced a sea-change, from the late 1980s to now, in terms of the plants we can find and use. While even then Buffalo had an above-average variety of nurseries and garden centers compared with many places, the plant selection was limited. Passionate gardeners used catalogs. Average gardeners bought predictable annuals – impatiens and petunias – in flats and six-packs. The perennial gardening movement was only beginning. Sharon Weber was introducing ornamental grasses – big on Long Island but hardly used here. Landscapers and nurseries offered a limited list of shrubs and trees. The industry needed public demand to motivate diversification.

Now: Demand happened. Diversification happened. Now we have garden centers and home landscapes that are the envy of visitors from many cities. Gardeners can find cutting-edge, new and improved annuals, perennials, shrubs and trees in area businesses, and even plant collectors rarely need outside sources. The public’s perennial passion and knowledge have leaped forward. The annuals market, from hanging baskets to Euro-pots, has exploded. Gardeners and garden centers produce giant, dramatic mixed containers. Ornamental grasses are common in home landscapes. Homeowners are requesting and buying shrubs and trees that were unheard of in 1994.

5. Invasive plants, native plants

Then: USDA Soil & Water Conservation experts and other naturalists were beginning to explain that non-native invasive plants were serious threats to natural habitat. Native plant availability and appreciation were minuscule, although some smart plant geeks such as master gardener Dave Tubinis tried to promote them. I drove to Pennsylvania to find native shrubs.

Now: I think our public generally knows something about invasive species and respects the problem. Some nurseries offer a good selection of native plants. We have regional native plant experts such as Ken Parker and Lyn Chimera. A New York State law will soon catch up with other states, causing the industry to eliminate some of the worst offenders from our landscapes.

6. Landscaping and arboriculture

Then: It was an uphill climb for the industry and the public everywhere to embrace modern plant science. Nina Bassuk, of the Urban Horticulture Institute, led us into the 21st century, teaching methods that would alter landscaping as we knew it. Other scientists were learning so much so fast about plant physiology and growth, soil, micro-organisms, ecosystems, lawn, gardening and tree management. We did a lot wrong until we learned otherwise.

Now: We dig wide holes, we use compost, we respect soil life and avoid soil compaction, we water better, and we (mostly) shun “volcano mulching.” I think our public has more respect for professional arborists, landscape and nursery professionals. The CNLP credential is becoming known. More landscapers are better educated about plant selection, hardscape and design. Plant WNY is a leader in New York State’s nursery and landscape industry.

Surely we have room for improvement, as gardeners and as plant professionals, but a 20-year retrospective tells me we have traveled far along the path to superior horticulture. Let’s keep learning, gardening and landscaping.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.