A Gardening Vacation in Ithaca

Where in the northeast can you find a 200-acre botanical garden, along with more restaurants per capita than New York City and over 150 waterfalls–all in a ten-mile radius? If you answered Ithaca, NY, you are privy to one of the best-kept gardening secrets of our region.

The presence of Cornell University, which is not only an Ivy League college but the federal land-grant institution for New York, would be enough by itself to draw inquisitive gardeners, because it administers two experiment stations, one in Ithaca and one in Geneva, and is the home base for Cooperative Extension throughout New York State. However, the university is also home to Cornell Plantations, a collection of botanical gardens and an arboretum that has something of interest in every season of the year.

Cornell’s influence, combined with the unique geography of the Finger Lakes region, nurtures an intense interest in horticulture in the surrounding area. The city of Ithaca prides itself on its progressive urban forestry, and has set apart three acres of Cass Park for a Children’s Garden. And the nurseries! By carefully planning your route, you can make a circuit around Ithaca and hit all the best ones.

Under new ownership, The Plantsmen Nursery aspires to provide the greatest diversity of native plants in central NY. Owner Dan Segal has experience in wetlands management as well as more traditional nursery management, and understands the desirability of creating garden habitats–and of finding that choice plant that no one else has. You can buy a tropical banana, or a hardy, native paw-paw, and chances are good that your neighbor will have neither.

While you’re in the neighborhood, stop by Bakers’ Acres. This is more of a traditional nursery, but with an extremely large selection. For example, they offer Brunnera macrophylla ‘Variegata,’ and ‘Jack Frost,’ and ‘Looking Glass.’ You can grab a bite to eat at the gift shop, or, if you can hold off just a bit longer, make your way to Wilcox’s General Store (Corner of Rt 34B and Ledyard Road, King Ferry, NY 13081,315-364 8076), a very unprepossessing place but obviously known to the locals. The sandwiches are your standard deli fare, but huge–half a sandwich would have been sufficient–and reasonably priced considering the generous portions. Sit on the porch and admire the two well maintained and well landscaped old houses in full view while you eat.

Yes, Wilcox’s is out in the middle of nowhere, but your next stop, Bedlam Gardens, is about a mile further north. Don’t let the name scare you–Bedlam Gardens is worth the trip. Owner Debi Lampman grows 14 varieties of hibiscus and several varieties of hardy fuchsia, many of which she also offers for sale. Chat her up and she’ll reveal her secret for wintering over hardy fuchsia outdoors in Zone 5. She has a knack for discovering good plants and making you want to buy them. I walked away with an unidentified veronica that grows five feet in wet soil, a coral bells bred in California (Heuchera ‘Canyon Melody’), and a gooseberry that she originally got from a fruit connoisseur so picky he imported the scion wood for his cider orchard from France.

Last stop: Der Rosenmeister, a.k.a Leon Ginenthal. This man has roses you can fall in love with, and they won’t die on you. He grows roses from more than a dozen countries, including Poland, Russia, Finland, Sweden and Korea. He’s got drought tolerant roses hardy to Zone 5 bred by Robert Bayse of Texas, many of which are thornless, as well as Griffith Buck, Canadian Explorer, and rugosa roses, all of which have made a name for themselves in colder climates.

Now all you have to do is choose where to eat dinner in a place with more restaurants per capita than New York City.

This essay originally published in Horticulture.