It takes weeks of grueling physical and mental work to prep the autumn-themed flower arrangement at the Route 9 entrance to the Saratoga Spa State Park. And Dan Urkevich is the man for the job. Born and raised in Mechanicville, Urkevich started gardening in the park while in his 20s, planting flowers at different areas on the golf course when it was run by the state. Impressed with his gardening skills, park management asked him to take charge of the flower designs when they decided to create the fall display in 1999, and he’s been responsible for Saratoga’s most Instagrammable autumnal photo-op since.
“It’s a destination spot in the fall,” says Urkevich of the display he finishes constructing mid-October and is in full pumpkin glory by Halloween. ‘It’s all about impact from the road. It’s an eye-catcher.” He “changes it up every year,” working closely with family-owned Sunnyside Gardens in Saratoga Springs. This year, fall flower-admirers can expect to see mums, asters, ornamental cabbage, sunflowers and fountain grasses in addition to the existing annuals.
With the help of assistant gardener Gail Riecke, Urkevich creates gardens that showcase destinations all over the park: the Victoria Pool, the administration building, the Spa Little Theater and the toll booths. Beaming with pride and tan from the calling of outdoor work, when the gardening duo talk about their vision for the park’s gardens, it’s clear they have enviably satisfying work.
Between obsessing over the weather, hoping for that perfect balance of sunshine and rain, and protecting the gardens from persistent wildlife, Urkevich works tirelessly to keep everything beautiful and fresh. “We have bugs, rabbits, squirrels and moles,” he says. “You have to work with them because they’re not going to give up! It’s very hard work, but people really appreciate it. They go out of their way to thank us. You work hard, but you get to look back on it and say it was worth it.”
The humble, self-taught gardener is not concerned with titles. “Horticulture Specialist!” suggests Riecke, who says Urkevich has earned his knowledge through years of hard work, trial and error, reading books and magazines, and sheer determination. “There is no one who does what he does,” she says. “People ask him questions all the time and show him photos of their gardens. They beg him to come to their home!