Share this article

print logo

Great Gardening by Sally Cunningham: Gardens say a lot about a neighborhood

Our city smells like lilies. Our city looks like a flower garden. And especially last weekend our city sounded happy, with people from so many neighborhoods out on the street exclaiming about flowers.

What is largely responsible for those smells, looks and sounds is the phenomenon called Garden Walk Buffalo. With more than 11 other competing events on the same weekend, this garden-sharing experience is undoubtedly the one that lingers longest in the minds and hearts of its 60,000 to 80,000 visitors. After most events, the trash is picked up, the bands leave town and the tents come down. After this one the flowers keep blooming, the tomatoes continue to ripen and thousands of visitors remember a friendly, green city. Along with the 400-plus gardeners, they are probably also smiling. Their spirits are lifted. Gardening does that for a city and its people.

Small delights

Over the last decade most has been written and photographed – including for national publicity – about our grand, lavish, amazing gardens on West Delevan, Lancaster, Norwood and Richmond avenues, and about the densely packed and adorable Cottage District. Deservedly so; our famous gardens and the dedication of the gardeners is extraordinary. But beyond the massive achievements and garden artistry, small encounters touched me most this year as I experienced Garden Walk Buffalo.

• On North Pearl Street: After Garden Walk hours on Saturday, I was getting bean dip from my car for a gathering of garden writers. I was approached by a tall, unfamiliar man who said: “That’s just way cool ... they put those rocks and little flowers all around the tree roots. Awesome.” Indeed awesome, a so-called “hellstrip,” on a shady, tree-lined street, inducing a passer-by to see beauty and comment to a stranger.

• As I entered the Putnam Street Community Garden: A woman spoke to me from a rocking chair on the porch next door, saying: “Make sure you see those giant tomatoes in that bed farthest back!” I might not have walked back that far, but I did and she was right – great raised beds, great squash and herbs and tomatoes. As I left I heard her talking to another guest: “All the neighbors get together in this garden; you get to know each other. You learn what’s going on in your neighborhood.” More than the tomatoes, that’s really the point.

• A quiet moment: One came upon me, in another community garden late on Sunday. I was tired, and a corner garden provided a retreat, where I could sit on a rock for a few minutes – and hear birds. No voices, no traffic and only plants in sight. Was it the Serenity Garden on West Avenue, or the Fargo Estate Community Garden at Jersey Street and West Avenue? I don’t know now; even my camera had quit. But just as intended, just as many a working person might find at the end of the day, the garden gave me peace. I was refreshed.

• In the exquisite daylily garden on Livingston: I walked with Wayne to the back area where he keeps a naturalized, relaxed space with native trees and shrubs for birds – and for the dogs, he said. We both have lost beloved pets in the last year and spoke about it. A place to play or sit with the dogs is as important to the gardeners as their bountiful flower garden. Gardens are personal. Gardens are extensions of our lives.

Gardens for greater good

On Saturday during Garden Walk, I traveled around with John Beaudery, who reinforced my reflections about this event being bigger than a beautification program or outdoor flower show. John is a landscape designer and contractor from San Diego, Calif., who was visiting to research and photograph for a book. Instead of judging our gardens by design principles or plant uses, he looked at the collective gardening effort and remarked: “Hundreds of people in an urban setting getting their hands in the dirt and experiencing nature – it’s so healthy. Gardening transforms people.” We talked about how relatively few people now have easy access to natural systems in forests and fields, and how often kids don’t know where food comes from. Gardening makes those connections. “As we nurture our own gardens we might recognize that we are nurturing the planet,” he said.

The pollinator plant contribution is another part of this greater good. Imagine how many actual acres of blooming flowers these gardeners are contributing, whether the gardens are part of Garden Walk Buffalo, or in neighboring yards, or in gardens in all the region’s walks and tours. If you’re a bee, it all helps!

My final lingering impression is of the tired but fulfilled gardeners I saw near the end of their two-day marathon. Around 4 p.m., I saw neighbors and families on several streets getting together in the gardens, bringing out the lemonade and beer, cheese platters and pizzas.

In most neighborhoods the gardeners were slow to take the signs inside because people were still walking around holding their maps open. I joined friends that included the artist Carol Siracuse and her husband, John Palamuso, who’d been outside with me at 7:30 a.m. for a live TV spot. They were still going strong. Leslie Charlier – who planted the flowers this season while her husband, Jim, built a stylized garden shed, said, “It’s all great but it’s exhausting. You talk and answer questions all day, and then you get up and talk and talk again.”

I was tired, too, but so grateful. I’m so glad those gardeners planted and nurtured and then shared it all. We have a better city with greater joy and sense of community because of the gardeners. And it looks and smells good too.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.