Chautauqua in bloom: BTG event returns with new eco-garden category

Mina Miller Edison might be historically known as the wife of Thomas Edison, but she has become a local celebrity at Chautauqua for her contributions to the Institution. But Chautauquan folklore isn’t always the most accurate source of information.

According to Barbara Zuegel, the vice president of the Bird, Tree & Garden Club, Edison did not “found” Chautauqua In Bloom, BTG’s biennial tribute to gardens at Chautauqua, despite popular belief. The gardening event began in 1999 after Zuegel and her husband started coming to Chautauqua Institution.

Though they had no trouble gardening at their home in Rochester, New York, Zuegel and her husband found gardening here to be difficult, as their new property had lots of shade and coarse soil. They were inspired by the work of Heather Johnson, the director of gardens and grounds at the time, to improve their own garden and those of their neighbors.

“We were so amazed by what great gardens Heather made,” Zuegel said. “My husband thought we should encourage people on the grounds to follow her lead and make this place a real paradise.”

Since then, Chautauqua In Bloom has taken place every other year under Zuegel’s leadership. The event recognizes the best gardens in four categories: sun gardens, shade gardens, container gardens (on porches or patios) and eco-gardens, a new category this year. Registration for this year’s event ends July 15, and registration forms can be completed at

Zuegel said BTG added the eco-garden category this year largely because of the Institution’s recent initiatives to protect Chautauqua Lake and sustainably manage the grounds. The category looks at the amount and types of fertilizer and pesticides that are used in each garden, as well as whether the garden uses native plants.

“It doesn’t have to be all native plants because this is an educational process,” Zuegel said. “We’re not going to say, ‘Tear up your garden and get rid of anything that isn’t native.’ The idea is that we’re trying to do things that will be good for our environment.”

Improving the health of the lake, Zuegel said, requires the collective efforts of many individuals.

“It would be great if people started using ecological practices in their gardens so the lake wouldn’t get so much runoff and pesticides and fertilizers,” she said.

Zuegel did admit that part of the event was inspired by a similar event run by Mina Edison during the 1930s, when Chautauqua was on the brink of bankruptcy.

“Because times were tough, people were letting their gardens go, even letting their houses go,” she said. “Mina was trying to get people to keep up their property.”

Edison divided the Institution into different districts that competed with each other. But Zuegel felt her version of the event was too time-consuming for contemporary gardeners.

“Women would spend hours counting all these plants, and I looked at that and said, ‘No way, Jose.’ They must have had a lot more time than we did,” she said. “But, in both cases, our purposes were similar: we both wanted to improve the beauty of the grounds.”

Zuegel said the judges of the event are not associated with Chautauqua or anyone at the Institution, except for one individual who serves as a master gardener for BTG. The judges take into consideration how each gardener uses the space they have so that larger gardens do not have an unfair advantage.

When Zuegel first came up with the idea for the event, she and her planning committee were confronted with whether or not to accept gardens that were not designed by the homeowner, but by a gardening company or someone else they had hired.

“So we went back to our original purpose of Chautauqua In Bloom, which is to encourage beautification of the grounds, ecological practices and neighborliness,” she said. “We decided that, as long as you have a nice garden, we accept your registration. Very often, the gardens that are planted by the homeowners all by themselves are chosen by the judges because they have so much more personality.”

Zuegel said the event is meant to be a fun way to recognize the hard work of all the gardeners here, not just the winning gardens for each category.

“I think a lot of people get into the spirit of the thing, because really it’s hard to have a garden here at Chautauqua,” she said. “Some of these people don’t get here until the season starts. They have to compete with others who are here year-round and can take care of their garden in the fall and early spring.”

When people first arrive at Chautauqua, she said, pruning and weeding is not always the first thing on their list of things to do.

“So we’re appreciative of all these folks and how hard they work to take care of their stuff,” she said.