If you live here in Saratoga, or have even visited at any point, chances are good that you have experienced the jaw-dropping seasonal beauty that adorns the Route 9 entrance to the Saratoga Spa State Park from early spring through autumn.
With each passing year, the beautiful arrangements of plants (and pumpkins in the fall) become more impressive, with displays that can’t help but catch your eye as you walk, jog, bike or drive past.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am more than a little obsessed with these displays, and I return time and again, at various times of day, to photograph the flowers and plants as they morph with the seasons, and to appreciate their beauty in the changing light as the sun makes its way across the sky. (Late afternoon is currently VERY cool, as the sun is beginning to drop behind the tree line and it creates some fantastic shadows).
Currently, the beds are ablaze with mums and a variety of pumpkins, in addition to corn stalks and the remnants of summer blooms. Most recently, an assortment of jack-o-lanterns has been added, bringing an entirely new dimension and a definite Halloween vibe to the overall picture.
Due to its overwhelming popularity and the constant parade of people stopping by to photograph the displays or pose their children, or even to have wedding photos taken, I decided to find out a little bit about the people behind all this magic.
The person responsible for the design of the plant beds is Dan Urkevich, who has been working at the Saratoga Spa State Park since 1978; designing, planting, grooming and maintaining the plants and flowers throughout the park. He does this singlehandedly, with part-time help from his “crew” of one, Derek Kolberg, a college student who helps him out in the summer, and part-time in the fall.
I asked Dan about the design and layout of the beds at the park entrance. He said he plans it all out on paper, but reports that “animals change the design” for him. Animal damage to the plants is a huge consideration as he contemplates his designs. In late August, when we see the sunflowers beginning to look droopy and brown already, it is not because their life span has ended; but rather, because the animals have been biting away at the stalks of the flowers and gradually killing them. These are all things he takes into consideration when working on his designs, with a goal that the summer blooms all reach their peak in August.
Dan gets all his plants and flowers at Sunnyside Gardens, right here in Saratoga, and enthusiastically states he would not be able to do this without their generous support. He has worked strictly with them for years, and appreciates the fact that, with Sunnyside, he can place orders for unusual plants or flowers before the season that they might not ordinarily carry, and they will grow them specifically for his use. And, as we have all seen, the quality of the plants is top notch, they bloom at the appropriate time, and fit perfectly with the overall design of the flower beds.
In agriculture, “succession planting” is a method of planting that makes efficient use of space and the timing of the plants. In this case, they mature at staggered dates, thereby establishing a continuous display over an extended period. Anyone familiar with the Route 9 entrance to the State Park can testify to the fact that there is never a “down time” when transitioning from summer blooms to autumn mums; everything just blends, grows, and is added or removed as necessary. Dan is obviously an expert at his craft.
Most recently, we have seen the addition of many elaborately carved jack-o-lanterns and, most specifically, the GIGANTIC carved pumpkin in the center of the display on the left as you turn onto the Avenue of the Pines. This work of art was created by artist, Phil Singer. Its intricate design is a true testament to Phil’s skill. When I asked him about how he created this jolly/silly creature with the jagged teeth, wrinkled face, bushy eyebrows and tufts of hair (aka straw!), he replied, “It took a little over 12 hours. I used mostly ribbon loop cutting tools, knives, a Scotch Brite scrub pad to smooth it with, Super Glue and a couple of sticks to attach the ears made from a separate pumpkin, and some acrylic craft paint to shade it.” He almost makes it sound simple. Almost.
Phil additionally creates detailed sand sculptures (which you may have seen in recent years at the Home and Garden Show at the Hudson Valley Community College), as well as snow and ice sculptures, in addition to his caricatures. You can learn more about his art by visiting his website.
If you haven’t visited the Saratoga Spa State Park recently, you should really plan to take a drive and check it out. Bring your kids, bring your camera and be prepared to take a lot of photos. You will be blown away!