It’s easy to get lost in Fran Morrison’s garden.
In the nearly half-acre wonderland, a waterfall flows down a stone wall and into a pond. From there, a stone path leads to a sky blue bridge, which arches over two ponds where fish swim. Past the bridge is a wooden arbor entangled with trumpet vines and juicy, green concord grapes. The tall apple trees, purple phlox, white daisies, pink and white cone flowers and light purple lilies are almost dizzying.
“I feel like I’m in Savannah, Georgia,” said Stacy Kranz, an onlooker.
Actually, Stacy, you’re in downtown Buffalo.
Morrison opened up her West Ferry Street backyard on Saturday and Sunday during the 20th annual Garden Walk Buffalo. Nearly 400 city homeowners – reaching from South Elmwood to Forest Avenue – showcased their gardens and shattered the stereotype that Buffalo is too cold and too urban to hold the biggest garden walk in America.
And don’t underestimate the power of ripe tomatoes, colorful hydrangeas and blossoming lilacs – gardeners swear that their yards are making the City of Buffalo a better place.
“Everyone still has this vision of Buffalo being a Rust Belt city,” said Cindy Loomis, the president of Garden Walk Buffalo. “Once people get an idea that we aren’t what everybody envisions from the 1977 blizzard, then they’re blown away.”
An estimated 60,000 people from across the country walked into backyards throughout the weekend, passing by children’s lemonade stands and chatting with homeowners about gardening techniques.
Pete Loomis, Cindy’s husband, stood on his backyard deck on 16th Street, under a ceiling of grape vines – with enough grapes to make 100 jars of jelly – and hanging pots of flowers.
“You can use wire mesh; that’s what I did,” Pete Loomis told passer-by Maggie Cook, of Syracuse, who asked him for advice on her overgrown grass back home.
Cook and her garden friends Jackie Pavia and Elizabeth Jones have driven to Garden Walk Buffalo each year since 2009.
“The architecture and homes are so beautiful and old and different,” said Cook, after Pete Loomis invited the ladies to sit down on his deck and talk about gardening. “I get enjoyment looking at the houses as much as the gardens.”
As they talked on the deck, Michelle Blazina and Damon Turk, of Lakewood, Ohio, walked into the yard and looked at the orange day lilies, purple hydrangeas and pink and creamy white double-blossom roses.
The 30-year-olds got married three years ago and have become “obsessed with gardening,” growing flowers, plants, peppers, squash and tomatoes in their new home.
“We heard this was the biggest one in the state, so we were excited to come,” Blazina said.
“The garden walks always give us ideas,” Turk added.
Pete and Cindy Loomis never gardened until they bought the house on 16th Street in 2001 from the former president of Garden Walk Buffalo. They felt obliged to learn how to take care of it, and three years later, 17 of their 19 neighbors had created gardens, too.
“I’ve seen a rejuvenation of homes,” said Pete Loomis as he talked about Garden Walk Buffalo’s effect on 16th Street. “People have been fixing up their homes, we’ve been able to purge ourselves of absentee landlords and the housing values in general have come way up.”
Gardens have been contagious on other streets, too.
About two miles down South Elmwood Avenue, on Rabin Terrace, Linda Costa’s home, garden and neighborhood look like they belong in the charming suburb of Snyder rather than downtown.
Costa, a widow, is a positive person. Her garden reflects that. Jazz music played through her second-floor window as strangers walked past colorful lilies, shasta daisies and blanket flowers, and under an arbor that leads to Costa’s shaded patio.
Her approach to life mirrors her approach to gardening: If something doesn’t work, like a plant failing to grow, move it to a new spot; try something new. Don’t give up. Stay positive.
Her garden has changed her neighborhood. She started it 19 years ago, and now dozens of her neighbors garden. Down the block, on Prospect Avenue, house after house had signs on their lawns inviting folks in for Garden Walk. Years ago, though, Costa wouldn’t walk there alone.
“[There was] a lot of drug use, a lot of prostitutes standing on the corner; it was run down,” she said.
Now, like Rabin Terrace, neighbors on Prospect chat while they garden; strangers come by and compliment their yards, and it sparks conversation.
Madison Barrett, 21, of Clarence, sat on a stone fixture in the community garden on Prospect Avenue with two of her college-age friends. It almost didn’t feel like they were hanging out in the city.
“It’s cool to see the juxtaposition of the gardens in an urban setting,” she said.
Passing by Prospect Avenue was 21-year-old Luis Rivera, heading to his apartment on Georgia Street and smoking a cigarette. He gazed around at the visitors carrying Garden Walk Buffalo maps, and the college students, elderly couples, groups of friends and young children chatting in his neighborhood.
He liked it, he said. People were coming to his neighborhood to see its beauty.
Pete Loomis agrees.
“I think it’s one of the best things the city does,” Pete Loomis said. “Not just for gardening, but for the effect it has on neighborhoods.”