Public plantings: the horror



That’s what I’m ranting about these days. (I’m also ranting about unnecessary tree removal.) Public beautification is a necessary evil in urban neighborhoods, but suburban, exurban, and even semi-rural areas often have community plantings as well.

Who takes care of them all? Do angels swoop down, watering, pruning, weeding, removing empty 40-ozers and bags of syringes? Are there somehow troops of city workers, whole departments dedicated to the art of public beauty? I don’t know how everyone else handles it, but here in Buffalo, it’s up to us. The Olmsted crew takes care of the parks, but if you want tubs, hanging baskets, and little pocket gardens, you better find the funding and the sweat.

In Allentown, we have big concrete Wassau planters, a gaggle of baskets and a couple pocket parks. It’s easiest when the stuff is in the ground or a big raised bed. We’ve been doing very well with Russian sage, grasses, tall daylilies (no, not Stellas—ew), rudbeckia, and the like in those places. For the planters, it’s petunias, canna, and zinnias, all homegrown by local gardeners. Those take watering and there’s nothing for it but to carry or drive buckets around every few days. We save our money for the baskets—there, we’ll pay whatever it takes for professionals to fill and maintain them (best if the same company does both).

So far, I’ve had to order some—kind of—threatening guys to get out of one of “my” planters (they protested that there should have been a sign indicated it was not a seat), and gingerly removed many a disgusting object. A drunk crashed his car into one of the planters, destroying it (and that takes some doing, they’re heavy), and a couple of the baskets were stolen. On the whole, though, everything still looks pretty good. Meaning that it still provides color and it’s not dead.

Is there another way? Perennials tend not to overwinter in the planters, and I won’t consider plastic. I do love to see the street flowers, but their care simply does not provide the same satisfaction as even the most grueling personal gardening. It’s just a chore. Have any of you found the solution? Anyone else doubling as a public gardener? Come whine with me!

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Kudos to you all for everything you’re doing for your wonderful city. I wish I could report keeping up with my own civic beautification and enlivenment projects but damn, carrying water is a drag. FOrtunatley, after adopting the pocket park near me and planting it up with my leftovers, my good buddy the city gardener has adopted it back to keep up the watering and weeding. I feel guilty every time I pass.

  2. You’re a far better woman than me. I won’t even tolerate planters and pots (and especially not baskets) unless they are drought tolerant enough to get what they need from rainfall. And that’s in my own yard! Typically, I’ve found that only weeds do the job to my total satisfaction (and even those don’t survive in baskets).

  3. “Are there somehow troops of city workers, whole departments dedicated to the art of public beauty?”

    Well, yes. Portland has a Forestry department and a Parks and Recreation department. I’m not sure which of these (maybe both) maintain the flower plantings uptown and around the Eastern and Western Promenades, but they have a truck with a water tank and somebody in Public Works goes around taking care of the plantings regularly.

    Portland sees a lot of summer tourists, which is probably a big part of why it’s done, but it’s still nice to have giant cannas surrounded by other annuals all summer and the gorgeous tulip beds in spring.

    I admire your willingness to do this kind of work — I complain every time I have to water my small yard, which takes 2 hours to do everything thoroughly.

  4. Firefly,
    Well, we do have a parks dept, but they only do parks. One of these days I’ll post about the public plantings at Niagara-on-the-Lake just across the border–those are done by a horticultural college and they are amazing.

    You already know about the forestry problem.

  5. I also am admiring of your hard work keeping public places attractive. I suspect that here in Canada most cities’ Parks and Recreation departments plant and maintain hanging baskets and planters as well as looking after parks. That was certainly true in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan where plantings along the central meridian of major roads into town and numerous planters in the downtown and Broadway area provided a feast of colour and inspiration all summer. In this small town of Revelstoke, the downtown streets have beautiful hanging baskets during the summer and there are raised beds planted with perenials in the plaza where our Farmer’s Market takes place.

  6. Yeah, but just try getting a city employee to understand that impatiens are out and cannas are in. The Arcata plaza is managed by volunteers and mostly planted with passalong plants, and what’s so cool about that is you can see how a plant gets trendy among a certain group of gardeners and makes its way around a community. I was a government employee for a long time and proud of it, but you rarely see city staff planting anything other than the same-old-same-old.

  7. Austin has water trucks like Firefly mentioned, which it uses to water new trees and the like in major public areas. Beautification of weedy medians along busy neighborhood streets, however, is up to volunteers, and my neighborhood has been pretty active lately and put in some nice gardens.

    I take care of a large native perennial bed at the corner down the street from my house. Yes, it’s a pain to water and keep everything trimmed, but it does make the street prettier and friendlier. Nearly every time I work in that garden, strangers stop to tell me thank you and even, sometimes, hand me some money. Now if they would only volunteer to come out and trim with me . . .

  8. Some places around here have public works departments and hire high school/college students to maintain the plantings during the summer months. I posted about inspired plantings in one nearby community and a different private shopping plaza recently.

    Last year I helped out with a garden via the “Keep (City Name) Beautiful” program. We get a certain number of donated annual flats each year–you can request colors and specify shade/sun, but what you get is what you get and may not be what you requested. The rest of what you do is up to you, but we didn’t do much in the way of perennials because they either get stolen or don’t overwinter well in those huge containers, either.

    One thought, though… any place at your house to “heel in” pots of perennials for the winter so you can replant them in the spring?

  9. In Cincinnati, the Parks Dept does an amazing job with beds planted on an overpass that leads from downtown to the ballpark. Giant cannas, grasses, etc. Even looks gorgeous when you’re driving on the highway under it. There are also substantial island beds in the gateways to many neighborhoods. Some merchant associations in smaller neighborhoods maintain pots of annuals on the street — they use money from the parking meter revenue to pay a landscaping company to plant, feed, deadhead — and water 3-4 times a week from May to September. It takes a LOT of time and effort to keep pots looking decent. And you still get things stolen, smokers dump their butts (eewwww), and cars occasionally hit them.

  10. I can so identify with the hauling of buckets of water. We water planters in our town of Ilwaco as well as street trees, thus hauling and dumping 24 5- gallon buckets of water every third day! Every other day would be better, but the third day schedule is about all we can manage with our time. I have found that I am deluding myself if I think that a good summer rain means we can skip a day, because rain, no matter how fierce, just does not penetrate down into the planters.

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