State park’s gardens a labor of love for Urkevich

If you drive Route 9 just south of downtown Saratoga Springs, there’s a good chance you have seen Da

If you drive Route 9 just south of downtown Saratoga Springs, there’s a good chance you have seen Dan Urkevich’s handiwork.

Urkevich is the park employee who designs, plants, weeds and waters the two semi-circular flower beds at the entrance to Saratoga Spa State Park.

The beds, a mix of annuals and perennials, measure approximately 20 feet deep by 100 feet long. And come summer they are glorious, not only with the blooms of thousands of plants but also with the combinations of spiked, succulent or strapping foliage. Colors that run cool to hot, each deliberately chosen to complement neighboring plants and be visually pleasing to people driving by.

Drama comes not just in the magnitude of the beds, but also the sweeps of color and varied plant heights — some specimens tower at eight feet or more with leaves as large as umbrellas.

This garden is one of the jewels of Saratoga.

Its gardener is a modest, blue-eyed fellow who says he learned about gardening by reading books and horticulture magazines. Wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap, Urkevich is easy to be with, generous with his knowledge and — like gardeners everywhere — can’t walk along the beds without reaching down and pulling out the occasional weed and noting things that need to be done.

“That sedum needs to be moved.” “The sunflowers need transplanting.” “Those hostas should be divided,” he said as he stopped at various points in the garden.

Creating the garden and keeping it up is an ongoing and time-consuming project that goes on year-round, from planning in winter, to planting the end of May when danger of frost is past, to maintaining it all summer. The reward is a show-stopping entranceway that has as much dazzle as the celebrities who come to SPAC to perform.

Blooming golf course

Urkevich worked for the park’s golf course for 20 years. One of his tasks was planting flowers. “I picked up things, learned as I went along,” he said.

When the course privatized, he moved to park maintenance. Now he is responsible for the gardens at the Victoria and Peerless pools, the median along Route 9, the areas around the toll booths and in front of the administration building. He and two helpers do the planting and upkeep.

It’s a big job.

Urkevich noted that there are more areas than can be watered in one day. “I’ve tried. It can’t be done. Not if you are going to do it right,” he said. How often are the gardens watered? “Every other day,” he said.

To keep things manageable, Urkevich uses plants that once established can handle dry conditions.

“I try to do low maintenance annuals. Those that need no deadheading. Celosia is a good one. It holds up well for the whole summer,” he said. Other choices are wave petunias, salvias, cosmos, columbine and coleus.

Aggressive in a good way

Some of the plants would be considered invasive in a home garden, but here, where there’s a lot of ground to cover, the aggressiveness of a plant — such as bee balm — is appreciated.

The workhorses in the beds include heliopsis, maiden’s grass, bee balm, obedient plant, black-eye Susans, cleomes, foxtails, Veronicas and Joe Pye weed. Each year there’s a fair amount of moving plants about to fill in other spaces in the park and keep the beds from being overrun.

Then, 56 truckloads of compost are worked into the soil of the different beds around the park and a 14-14-14 timed-released, granular fertilizer is worked into the soil to prepare the ground for the hundreds of new annuals — around 50 flats — planted each year.

In addition, Urkevich uses a water soluble fertilizer when he waters. “They are constantly getting a little bit of fertilizer,” he said.

Some of the plants are chosen based on their visual impact. The Queen of the Prairie with its pinkish plumes is one example. Another is the tropical Alocasia whose leaves are as large as elephant ears, which is it’s common name.

“I found an old photo of the park from the 1930s and they used a lot of Elephant Ears in the plantings. When I saw that, I knew I had to add it to the garden,” Urkevich said.

And each year, new plants are tried. This year a few mullein have been added to a border. “I’m always looking for taller things,” Urkevich said.

Each area presents its own challenges. Woodchucks occasionally devour wide swaths of flowers. Voles chew through the base of junipers, killing them. Bindweed pops up here and there and twists around the stems of desirable plants. And there are the usual insect pests such as Japanese beetles and aphids.

Urkevich takes it all in stride. “You do what you can. This is a park. There’s lots of wildlife here,” he said, noting that one of the pleasures of the border is the number of birds and butterflies is draws.

Does he have a garden at his Mechanicville home? “Yes, but not like this. My vegetables are in containers. The rabbits can’t get them and I don’t have to weed,” he said.

Categories: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply