In this city known for snow, the warm weather brings a revelation: Beneath all those gloves and mittens are a lot of green thumbs.
Buffalo has become something of a gardener's haven in recent years, nurturing its homegrown Garden Walk into what planners say is the largest such walk in the country.
This year, 308 urban gardeners are inviting the public into their backyard, alleyway and front lawn sanctuaries to see what has sprung forth since winter's last frost. Organizers expect upward of 50,000 visitors during the July 26-27 event.
The free, self-guided walking tour winds through neighborhoods of stately Victorians and quaint cottages with gardens ranging from formal, manicured plantings to seemingly random jumbles of color and foliage.
"It's probably one of the more eclectic (walks)," said Jim Charlier, president of Garden Walk Buffalo. "Buffalo's got such a great creative community of artists, singers, dancers. I think it's the same with our gardening — very creative."
While many gardens have as their foundation ordinary plants — lilies, hosta and echinacea — that do well in the climate, they are enhanced with fountains, sculptures and as many other touches as the smallish city lots will allow. An "alphabet garden" features plants from A-Z, another has a putting green.
"You get everything from kitschy art — those bent over silhouettes — all the way to fine art," Charlier said.
And while other cities may charge a fee for a peek at selected, often professionally maintained gardens, Buffalo's Garden Walk has been decidedly democratic since its inception in 1995. Anyone within the roughly 3-square-mile target area can show a garden, and organizers are intent on keeping it free, relying on donations to defray expenses.
"No judging, no prizes and no costs for the people that want to see the gardens," Charlier said.
The philosophy spreads a sense of pride, inspiring even those not part of the walk to spruce up their places. That, in turn, keeps property values up in a city which, on the flip side, is grappling with an overwhelming 10,000 vacant and abandoned properties.
Try finding a neglected inch of Jennifer and Jim Guercio's landscape, which was recently photographed for "Better Homes & Gardens," one of several national magazines that have featured participants from Buffalo's walk.
A pretty English garden with roses and a tiered fountain fill the Guercios' front lawn. In the back, grape vines climb up and over a wooden arbor the couple were married under. Nearby is a koi pond occupied by 18 of the enormous Japanese fish and two seating areas nestled in a landscape artfully built with layers of color and texture. The couple greet Garden Walk visitors in Victorian costumes.
It is a labor of love, said Jennifer Guercio, especially considering the fleeting nature of the Northeast growing season, which allows just a few months of blooms. (The fish wait out the cold weather in a pond inside the house.)
"It enhances the city street. It enhances my health level — I'm working out all the time in the sunshine and the elements," Guercio said. "I think the payback is just beautification."
Garden Walk maps available online or at various locations list the addresses of all gardens and group some to help visitors find specific features, such as water elements or native plants. Next year, organizers plan to feature vegetable gardens, which are increasing as the price of food soars.
Arlan Peters' serene backyard is anchored by two old-growth silver maple trees, one of which holds a tree house for squirrels. A neighborhood cat snoozed on a shaded bench recently as he showed visitors around his yard, where wild strawberries grow between concrete steps leading to a tiled porch. A moss garden with model buildings and a misting system occupies a shady, side bed.
"It encourages other people to beautify their property. It lets the rest of the world know it's a beautiful place to live," said Peters, who chaired the walk for five years.
Tourism officials have embraced the walk as a way to dispel old stereotypes about the city on Lake Erie's eastern shore. Garden Walk has even produced a coffee table book and DVD of images from the annual event.
"This helps change people's perceptions of Buffalo: It snows 365 days a year, it's rust belt," said Doug Sitler, spokesman for the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau. "This combats all of it instantly, with one image, one look at a garden. It's alive and well."
If You Go...
GARDEN WALK BUFFALO: Buffalo, N.Y. http://www.gardenwalkbuffalo.com. Self-guided, walking tour of 308 urban gardens. Admission is free. July 26-27, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. No tickets required. A free shuttle bus continuously loops the route. Maps available at various locations or an abridged version can be downloaded.
Source: AP Features