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Garden Walk Buffalo draws huge crowds and much praise

The 17th annual Garden Walk Buffalo had been over for less than an hour, and already Jim Charlier was musing about how to make next year's walk better.

"We're going to need more buses," said Charlier, who has been president of the garden walk for six years. "The hotels are full, the streets were full, the gardens were full, and our buses were full."

Charlier's own garden on Lancaster Avenue was constantly busy, he said. "In the past, in my garden there have been lulls, where for maybe 10 minutes no one shows up. But there were constant people this year; it never, ever slowed down."

In a word, he said, this year's walk was "awesome." Saturday there was "Chamber of Commerce weather," he said, and Sunday featured "a few sprinkles, but that doesn't stop a gardener."

Arlan Peters, whose Norwood Avenue home has been on the garden walk since the second year, said Sunday was "exceptionally busy, at least in our area."

"Saturday was more usual, but Sundays are always the busier of the two days," said Peters. "There were many out-of-town and out-of-state visitors. I ask a lot of people, and it was surprising how many were from Cleveland, Toronto, Rochester, Syracuse. That makes us feel good, of course, because that means that people farther away are starting to hear about us."

In his own garden, Charlier spoke to people from Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Florida, Nebraska and Washington, D.C., as well as a woman who lives "150 miles north of Toronto."

But Charlier looks beyond the out-of-state license plates and tourism dollars. "The community development part of this is huge," he said. "This year everyone is focused on all the people from out of town, but really, the unintended consequence of all this is we're helping to redevelop neighbor-hoods."

A gardener who plants a few flowers inspires a neighbor to do the same, which inspires other residents to spruce up their homes and plant gardens. The neighborhood improves, and, Charlier said, "all of a sudden, you've got a nicer city."

Even people whose property is not on the garden walk were busy pruning, mulching, planting and sweeping, even painting and repairing their houses. "This is one of my favorite things," Charlier said. "When you've got company coming over, you want it to look good."

Garden Walk Buffalo was founded in 1995 by Marvin Lunenfeld and Gail McCarthy with 29 gardens around the Norwood-West Utica area. This year, more than 350 Buffalo gardens within a five-mile radius are included.

But the founders' original principles still stand, Charlier said. "There was no judging, to encourage more people to join. And the creed was to keep it free."

Board members also work to keep the focus strictly on the gardens. "We have seen all kinds of garden tours with vendors, bands, fried dough," said Charlier. "We try to keep commercialization out of what we can control, the gardens. As long as we keep our focus on the gardens, we are going to be successful."

The hard work of the 20 volunteer board members and the hundreds of amateur gardeners is rewarded, Charlier said when the eager viewers descend on the gardens. "It blows my mind," he said. "I look at the crowds and say, 'We did this?' "