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Get the most out of garden tours

Next weekend, thousands of tourists will be going on Garden Walk Buffalo. Some will partake lightly, comment on the lovely flowers and go to lunch. Others will study as many of the 250 gardens as possible, making notes for the garden back home. Some of you might even feel discouraged upon seeing the best of Buffalo because your own garden doesn't come close.

>A little perspective

If you're prone to the "Garden Envy Syndrome," remember this: Many of these gardens have taken a decade or more to look this fabulous. The gardeners are passionate. They work at it; it's a lifestyle. Also, many of the gardens are designed for reaching a peak toward the end of July. If you're really jealous, tell yourself how great yours was in May or June and, hey, won't theirs be dull in September? (Well, maybe not!)

Even by national standards, many of these are truly extraordinary gardens. As a visiting editor of Garden Gate magazine said this week: "This is the largest and most intense concentration of superior gardens anywhere in the country!"

>Effective voyeurism

* Carry a notebook and digital camera. You won't remember as much as you think you will. After the first few gardens, impressions get blurry. If you take photos, also take notes or the pictures won't help much.

* Get more than plant names: If a plant fills you with lust, you'll need the true name (Latin) or a good description to find it. The gardeners might only know common names or the genus without the cultivar. Note the height, location (sun or shade, etc.) and flower details.

* To help with identification, an expert will ask about leaves: Are they "simple" or "compound" (small leaflets attached to a stem)? Are the edges smooth or "dentated" (toothy)? What are colors, top and bottom? Smooth or fuzzy?

* Notice a plant's friends: What other plants and "hardscape" (walls, arbors, rocks, decor) complement the beauty?

* Take the wide view, with or without the camera. Look at the whole yard or garden. A garden isn't just a bunch of plants; it's the groups of plants in relation to each other and to the buildings, paths, street and large trees. Does the design hold together? Is there a theme?

* Look at the art, garden decor, artifacts: These choices make the difference between boring and breathtaking. Art works, or it falls flat. There's a fine line between whimsical and weird, adorable and tacky.

>Courtesy for all

Please don't smoke, drag the dog or free-range children; keep your bags and umbrellas to yourself. Stay on the paths. Never put a foot in anyone's soil. Leave the plant labels in the ground. Understand that the gardeners may not want to answer the same question 2,000 times. Look at the books and pictures they've offered, and say thank you.

And, above all, don't talk about the Japanese beetles!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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