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Into the Garden: Designer describes landscape challenges

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At the recent West Virginia Nursery and Landscape Association meeting, design guru Matthew Urbanski of Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates of New York and Massachusetts, described some of the large-scale projects he's done.

The firm, with a staff of 65, has worked on such assignments as the master plans for Brooklyn Bridge Park and Wellesley College, the redesign of Pennsylvania Avenue at the White House and, closer to us, the Allegheny Riverfront Park in Pittsburgh.

Echoing the lament of many landscape designers, Urbanski gave his take on working with clients.

"No one notices the design, they just notice the maintenance," he said to an appreciative audience.

Urbanski attended Harvard in the late 1980s, so a project to renovate Harvard Yard starting in 1993 was close to his heart. The elm trees lining the historic square were iconic and beloved, and, like those at many other college campuses, were dying of Dutch Elm disease.

"We replanted with a diversity of trees that could be pruned into an elm-like tree," he said. "We also worked with T Fleisher to introduce all organic maintenance." Fleisher, director of horticulture at Battery Park City Parks Conservancy, is known throughout the country as a specialist in managing public spaces organically.

The Allegheny Riverfront Park was a particularly challenging project for Urbanski.

"There are two parks: one down on the river that often floods, and one up by the city," he said. He showed photos of how the area for the lower park was enlarged using steel beams jutting over the river's edge, and the upper park was formed through the relocation of a 50-foot-wide traffic median in Fort Duquesne Boulevard.

One comment caught my attention and made me think Pittsburgh must be a wealthier city than Charleston. Urbanski said the flooding along the river made the light fixtures "almost sacrificial" in that they could be wiped out by flowing water. That's a very different approach to landscaping than I take, for certain!

To dye or not to dye

In the plant world, there's a debate raging about the use of dye.

For years, florists have pondered the same question: To dye or not to dye? Most have a strong opinion. Some believe that if they need a flower that doesn't grow in a particular color, using dye (either by spraying the flowers or by allowing the flowers to absorb color by dying the water they are in) is OK. There's always a bride who wants all of her flowers to be a certain color of blue, and many times those flowers are nearly impossible to find or are quite expensive.

Other florists believe that natural is the only way to go -- if it ain't in nature, it ain't in their bouquets.

Now this issue is popping up in the live plant world. Rijn Plant Breeding introduced a dye-infused anthurium ('Princess Alexia Yellow') to the European market last year. While it's not available in the United States (yet!), its introduction caused a stir.

Growers' responses fall into the same two categories as the florists. The naturalists believe consumers won't want artificially produced products. They suggest better breeding is the answer to the need for different colors in blooms.

Other growers say they should give consumers what they want, and if it's dye-infused plants, so be it. They do caution that the plants will need to be clearly marked telling the purchaser that they won't rebloom with the same color as when they were purchased.

What do you think? Is adding dye to a growing plant a travesty or the next great thing?

Cold frame workshop

West Virginia State University Extension Service is hosting a workshop on gardening using cold frame greenhouse systems 10 a.m. to noon Feb. 22 at the Rock Lake Community Life Center, 801 Lincoln Drive, South Charleston.

Cold frames are small structures with transparent roofs that are used to protect plants from cold weather, allowing for an early start to the growing season during late-winter months or as a season extender in late fall.

"Home gardeners looking for season extension can learn to build their own cold frame structure to enjoy early salad greens or to simply get a jumpstart on the season," said Scott Byars, program leader for agriculture and natural resources at the WVSU Extension Service.

The fee is $40 and the class is limited to 20 participants. Attendees will receive their own cold frame construction kit. Call 304-766-4288 or email extension@wvstateu.edu.

Reach Sara Busse at sara.busse@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1249.


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