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Gardening & More: A photo album can help keep your garden organized

FLOWERING OASIS — Chet Okonczak of Cheektowaga has found that Virginia creeper and trumpet vine grow nicely up a trellis and across the roof of his deck. He advised to gardeners to avoid planting bittersweet, because it is too invasive. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko.
SPRINGVILLE — If you want to keep track of all the plants in your garden, take some tips from Chet Okonczak of Cheektowaga.

He uses a three-ring photo album, to hold hand-drawn maps of the six beds in his backyard. The maps show the approximate area that each plant fills. On the same page are photos of that bed, at various times of the year.

Okonczak keeps the plant tags in the pocket on the back of the page, so he can double-check the name and planting information.

He also compiled a list of the common and Latin names of all of his plants. The binder keeps everything organized and in one spot.

Okonczak keeps notes about the weather, as well as information about the growth of his plants, in a separate spiral notebook. He said that the plants bloom within approximately four days of the date they bloomed, in previous years.

Interested parties may visit Okonczaks’ gardens, during the National Garden Festival’s Open Gardens, which will be held from June 27 – Aug. 2.

This is the first time Chet Okonczak’s garden will be featured. His backyard will be clustered with gardens in nearby Lancaster. To find out the times and days that each garden is open, purchase the festival’s directory and open gardens guide for $8. Visit the National Garden Festival’s website, for details.

Okonczak does woodworking as a hobby and, with help from his wife, built the deck in the above photo.

“Pat helps me with everything,” he said. When the family wanted to put a roof over an uncovered patio, “I was throwing sheets of plywood up to her and she was nailing them on,” he said.

Okonczak said that he had wanted vines to grow up the side of the deck and across the roof. He tried wisteria, but he could not get the plant to bloom. Then he tried bittersweet, but the vine was too invasive and he ended up spending two years trying to eradicate it.

Now, Okonczak’s deck sports Virginia creeper, which the gardener said he likes for its leaves. He also grows trumpet vine, which gets beautiful flowers in the summer. The vines form a lacy canopy over the deck.

“I hack the trumpet vine [on the roof] back to almost nothing, in the spring, or it would take over,” he said.

A dappled willow stands by his steps. The shrub thrives in that wet spot, where a spirea did not do well.

The Okonczaks used to have an above-ground pool. After their children grew up, the couple got rid of the pool and installed a pond.

The family has had problems with heron’s eating the fish out of their pond, so they have a statue of a heron standing guard. These birds will not come to a pond, if they see another heron’s already living there.

The couple has received visits from other creatures, as well, because of the local surroundings. A vacant, woodsy lawn sprawls behind the yard, a creek runs nearby and a park is located, just down the street.

When I visited the location, I spotted a deer’s, walking into the next-door neighbor’s yard. The Okonczaks’ chain link fence normally keeps these animals out of their yard.

The couple recently noticed that something was eating the fish out of the backyard pond. Their Yorkie, Sam, later caught the culprit – a mink!

“You should have seen the claws and teeth on it,” Okonczak said. “Sam is fearless.” The dog has also caught a bat and often chases visitng raccoons.

The Okonczaks moved into their house in 1972, but did not begin to develop their garden beds until 1997. They added beds, one at a time. Okonczak advised moving slowly, when attempting to create a plant-filled yard like his.

“In the first place, you’re not going to be able to afford it, if you try to do it all at once,” he said. “In the second place, it would drive you crazy.”

Connie Oswald Stofko is the publisher of, the online gardening magazine for Western New York. Email

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