Q & A: City bursting with color at hands of gardener Judy Stacey

Washington Park is full of color this weekend, as Capital Region residents visit green acres for the

This May, tulips are the late show.

Cool spring weather delayed development of the red, yellow, pink and white flowers planted last autumn in Albany by Judy Stacey and her gardening team.

“They’re later than ever coming out,” Stacey said, “so I’m wondering if this might be the year that every variety of tulip is out at the same time. Normally, the way I plan it is for them to come out over a successive period of six weeks.”

Washington Park is full of color this weekend, as Capital Region residents visit green acres for the city’s annual Tulip Festival. The party ends today, after an afternoon of song and sightseeing.

Chief gardener Stacey is Albany’s perennial tulip queen. She’s the architect behind splashes of spring color throughout the city and was happy to talk tulip with The Sunday Gazette.

The 63rd Annual Albany Tulip Festival

For more info and music schedules, click here.

Q: What are the most popular tulips at the festival?

A: Oh, there is no one popular one. Within the reds, people love the Apeldoorn, the traditional red tulip. But there are people who turn their noses up at red and all they like are pink. Some people come to the park and tell me the only reason they come is for orange tulips. Other people say they love them all. I haven’t found a particular favorite, and I ask people every year.

Q: How many are in the park?

A: About 90,000. I’ve got a lot of new ones, and I have a lot of old species, heritage tulips. These would be some of the tulips that were around in Holland in the 1600s at the time of the great tulip mania. It was the same sort of greedy financial bubble that we’ve experienced these days except people were mortgaging everything they owned on single tulip bulbs. They spent the equivalent of $25,000 today for a tulip bulb no bigger than your thumbnail.

Q: Sounds like they were nuts.

A: Yes. And I think they’ve been reincarnated to the 21st century.

Q: How many people put the festival together, on the flower side?

A: My staff has been reduced. I have five seasonal people and I have three permanent people, so it’s eight people until we get them all in the ground and that was Dec. 12. We average about 33,000 bulbs a week so there’s a lot of bending over, a lot of being down on our hands and knees. We try to average between 5,000 and 7,000 bulbs a day. I have bulbs that go around the rest of the city as well. I plant a total of 263,000 bulbs. I’ve got about 450 locations. It’s a lot of tulips and a lot of moving around. I plant 211,000 tulips and then plant about 50,000 muscari, which are fabulous little electric blue flowers and they edge all the beds in the park. Then I plant about 2,000 other spring bulbs.

Q: What are your favorite flowers?

A: At this time of year, it’s definitely a tulip. I’ve come to really love them. I like the colors for one thing. After our long gray winter, I want color. I like the fact that many of them change colors. They start out one color. For instance, Flairs start out buttery yellow, and within a few days, develop these streaks of orangy-red. Then it looks as if they’re on fire. I like the fact that tulips are so incredibly tough. They’re in the ground all winter long under all that snow and ice and they’re virtually infallible. They come up and they behave themselves. I can count on them. They’re reliable, they’re going to bloom and they’re full of surprises.

Q: Can you name a surprise?

A: The outside of the Negrita is a lovely mid-purple. You look on the inside and look down toward the bottom and there’s a lovely, large blue star in the bowl of the tulip, and that quite often can be outlined with another color. It’s nice to be able to look on the inside of the tulips as well as the outside.

Q: What do you like growing at home?

A: In terms of big flowers, I’m a great lover of Canna lilies in the summer. And I love coleus, a foliage plant. Let me see, what else? There are so many I like . . . nobody’s ever asked me about summer flowers before. I tend to like the bright yellows, I like calendula.

Q: How about marigolds and petunias?

A: Marigolds are absolutely wonderful. I finally fell in love with them this past summer. I’ve always planted them because they’re useful and they don’t need a lot. I’m not particularly fond of petunias in large plantings because they require maintenance. But if I have some in a pot on the back deck, I can sit there and dead-head them at my leisure. They’re useful because they’re early color.

Q: Rochester is known for its annual lilac festival. How about lilacs?

A: I absolutely love them. I can never get to see them because it’s the same time as the tulip festival, but I think they’re magnificent. They’re so easy to grow, and they smell wonderful.

Q: Can you give any advice for people planning tulip beds this fall?

A: Look through the catalogs and order early. Have their beds prepared and give them a good feed of organic bone meal. Plant them and watch out for squirrels and deer, they both consider tulips to be gourmet feasting. There is a bulb, if you plant it near the tulips it tends to keep critters away. It’s called the Crown Imperial, and it’s in the lily family. The bulb itself smells like skunk, and since skunks are carnivores, they eat baby mice and moles and little creatures like that. So critters that eat your tulips know enough to stay away from anything that smells of skunk.

The other tip is, if you’re looking for spectacular, buy new. Tulips are only guaranteed to bloom the first year. If they come back, they’re going to be shorter and smaller. So buy new. You’re doing all that work anyway.

Q: What’s the gardener’s job like during the winter?

A: We’re on snow patrol. Because my crew and I are so good at shoveling brown stuff during the summer, we seem to get the shoveling jobs in the winter, so we plow, we shovel, we fill in wherever we’re needed in the city work force. It might be recycling, it might be sanitation. We drive small plows, we take care of the small streets that are hard to get to with the big trucks. What does a gardener do in the winter, that’s probably the most frequently asked question. Have you ever met a woman who couldn’t find work to do? I always have a list of jobs for my crew.

Categories: Life and Arts

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