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Buffalo Garden Walk gives guests time to stop and smell the flowers

Lush hydrangeas, bright pink and red climbing roses, grape-colored dinner-plate dahlias and bunches of striking oriental and day lilies in bursts of orange, lemon, red and pink.

Mix in just about every kind and color of perennial and annual flowers that a passionate gardener could dream of. And, of course, an abundance of ornate garden sculptures, fancy ponds and three-tiered fountains galore, or even a self-made backyard waterfall not far from what’s believed to be Buffalo’s oldest elm tree on Windsor Avenue.

There are tropical landscapes as well, complete with 7-foot-tall banana trees. There’s even a natural grass putting green in an urban oasis in front of a castle-styled home on Busti Avenue overlooking Front Park near the Niagara River.

Garden Walk Buffalo’s 21st annual run was a smashing hit Saturday, when it kicked off its weekend run on a perfect summer day in the city – showcasing many of Buffalo’s charming neighborhoods, each with its own distinctive character, complemented by elaborate gardens resulting from hundreds of hours of hard labor by dedicated owners coming off a harsh winter.

Avid gardeners and curious admirers strolled seven areas – among them the historic Victorian-styled West Village, Allentown, the Cottage District, the Fargo Estate neighborhood, Columbus Park/Prospect Hill, Elmwood Village, Symphony Circle and Kleinhans Music Hall community – to enjoy paradise created in more than 400 urban gardens. They’re expected to draw about 60,000 visitors from near and far over both weekend days.

The vibrant gardens – private, public and community ones – put the Queen City on the map as America’s largest garden tour on the final weekend of July.

Many found it spectacular.

Just about everyone knew the West Delavan Avenue Victorian home of Jennifer and Jim Guercio. Their gardens make such an impression that they’re a favorite stop each year. The front gardens have taken the place of a lawn.

Gardens overflow with a diverse mix of flowers and an eye-catching large, three-tiered fountain.

Nancy Kantor of Rochester felt right at home. She couldn’t wait to climb the porch steps to plop down in a comfortable couch. Her friend, Chris Platt of Rochester, was by her side. Both women have made a day trip of the event with the husbands for the last five years.

“The nice thing about the walk, even though we’ve seen it before – and it’s embedded in our memories – is that it’s a myriad of bloom, a renaissance of memories. And it’s all so fresh,” Platt said as she looked out over the Guercio front-yard creation. “The sunshine brings out their best colors.”

Kantor recognized the home instantly.

“We know this one. This is the one the owners dress up in Victorian costume,” she said. “It’s so full of color and variety and is inviting. We just sit down and enjoy the view.”

Out back, Jennifer Guercio, dressed in a white Victorian dress and hat, was in her glory, chatting about her gardens that she has created and designed over 25 years. They are chock-full of perennials and feature an impressive pond with Japanese koi fish, which, she said, “give it the splash and color.”

“I am the gardener. Jim will trim the bushes,” Guercio said of her husband.

“I like the seclusion when I want my alone time, I can just think,” she said. “And I like it because it makes the neighborhood look nice.”

As for her front lawn that was transformed into a garden, Guercio quipped: “Of course, I have something against grass.”

Isobel Young of Ridgeway, Ont., was in awe. “My friend and I said if this were a bed-and-breakfast, we’d stay here,” Young told Guercio.

Others were overwhelmed, wondering aloud how the Guercios keep track of all their plants, marveling how the garden paradise just seems to “go on and on.”

Walking down the West Delavan stretch of 100-year-old homes was Niagara County couple Brian and Janet Hellner of Burt. They’ve come to the garden walk for 10 years and make the Guercios’ place a stop, likening the huge koi pond to a mini “aquarium.”

“We’re just looking for new ideas,” said Janet Hellner, with a camera around her neck to snap her favorite shots. Her husband chimed in, “She tells me to dig the holes. She’s the brains. I’m the brawn.”

Just a short distance away was Jeff Wilson and Luis Martinez’s home, featuring a second-story front porch, front yard and back garden. Several green garden hoses stretched half the length of the house toward the back gardens.

There, iced tea flavored with mint from the herb garden was offered, and their parrot greeted visitors.

“This is an interest that developed into a passion, into an obsession and which frequently goes into the border of insanity,” said Wilson, whose 52-year love of gardening began by following his grandfather around his gardens. Wilson takes a week of vacation from his Albright-Knox Art Gallery job to get ready for the Garden Walk.

“Gardening is long-term performance art,” he said. “I love gardening. This is for me, and not just for the last weekend of July.”

His back garden used to consist of just a handful of perennials and a tree. Once he got going, it expanded in all directions. A 17-year-old apricot-colored hibiscus got so large it had to be moved from the front porch to the back gardens. Come winter, Wilson lugs it up six flights of stairs to former servant quarters in an attic until the following spring.

On Windsor Avenue, gardener Tom Peglowski loved chatting about his plantings to visitors, showing his handcrafted waterfall, dawn redwood trees, striking day lilies and large dahlias.

“Who would think that in Buffalo, we’d have the largest garden walk in the country? It’s really spectacular,” he said.

Word quickly spread Saturday about Bidwell Parkway gardener Matt Turco’s huge banana trees and tropical oasis, sandwiched in between stunning perennials. What started from one banana tree as a gift from a friend has grown into eight trees. Come winter, Turco cuts off their top leaves and digs them out of their planter box before putting them in big pots in his basement for winter, watering them once a month. No bananas yet, but Turco is satisfied with the flower they sometimes produce. “So, you can grow a banana tree in Buffalo,” Turco said with a smile.

Turco works daily in his gardens and loves the tropical-themed one the best.

“It reminds me of being warm and I like the big leaves,” he said. He grows many of his own plants from seeds that he orders online, such as northern sea oats that provide a striking contrast in the rearmost gardens of his backyard.

On Busti Avenue, a three-tiered fountain sits in the center point of a just-finished putting green in the middle of Jose Palma’s front lawn. He traveled to Pennsylvania a few days ago to get special sod to use in his green. “I’m ripping everything up and want it to be unique,” Palma said, kidding that the putting green “will pay for itself hopefully, after having the ‘right’ friends over.”

Jim Charlier has unusual offerings at his Lancaster Avenue home, including a Harry Potter garden that got its start years ago when his daughter read the popular literary series. He also has created a seven-layer copper fountain to resemble coral bells that he has planted around its base. His latest work in progress is a shed, using attic windows and an old door from his 1897 Dutch colonial home to complement his house when it is complete.

Some just couldn’t get enough. “Could they do it for two weekends, if we bring the gardeners wine?” quipped visitor Robert Jacobi. “Wherever we are, it’s our ‘favorite’ house.”

The free, self-guided garden walk continues Sunday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with free shuttle bus service available.