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Word is getting out: Buffalo is a city of gardeners

In Ohio, a woman is sitting at her computer, comparing flights to Buffalo at the end of July. A couple from Michigan consider vacation choices for summer 2012, and decide on Buffalo. Six women garden bloggers who get together every summer are planning their return to Buffalo. These people -- and about 30,000 more -- know about the phenomenon of garden tourism, and they're coming here.

Meanwhile, at a table in Kenmore, your sister is visiting and says, "Hey, I read about all those Buffalo gardens in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and they even mentioned some in Kenmore and Black Rock! Did you go see them?" A Hamburg man's cousin from Canada is urging the relatives to hold the reunion here this year, so they can do the Hamburg Garden Walk and drive the Open Gardens trails.

Far and wide, gardeners and travelers are talking about Western New York gardens and gardeners. Something big has happened here. We should all be able to tell our own story.

>Roots of a phenomenon

Buffalo's emergence as a gardening showplace started in 1994, when two groups formed -- one planning a citywide flower gardening contest, and the other organizing a simple neighborhood garden tour to see each other's gardens.

Group one called itself Buffalo in Bloom, modeled after Philadelphia in Bloom and a similar tourism promotion in London. Inspired by these, Kate Bukowski and her friend Holly Donaldson approached Mayor Anthony M. Masiello about creating a citywide contest to encourage front-yard flower gardening.

That they did. By the third year, more than 700 gardeners entered the Buffalo in Bloom contest, representing all nine districts. The awards ceremony, applauding everyday people who garden, was a three-hankie affair. The Bloom committee, meeting year-round at the Towne Restaurant, fostered a gardening epidemic, as block by block, Buffalo front yards began to flower.

After a few years, the contest was no longer necessary; recognition was enough. In 2011 they "bloomed" 4,000 front yards in every part of Buffalo, planting a little sign to recognize and thank the gardeners. Buffalo in Bloom also maintains Niagara Square.

As for group two -- 29 neighbors who started a little West Side tour -- Buffalo owes it a standing ovation. That neighborhood tour became Garden Walk Buffalo. By its 17th anniversary, on the last two-day weekend in July, this event alone drew 55,000 visitors to a three-square-mile area of central Buffalo to see 372 gardens.

It is the largest garden tour in America, featured in more than 40 national papers and magazines.

>Going national

Based on Garden Walk Buffalo's success, and all those Bloomin' front yards and public spaces, Visit Buffalo Niagara directors brainstormed on how to leverage our gardening story to create a larger tourist attraction. Besides Garden Walk Buffalo, we have at least 14 other garden tours in the region, and world-class Botanical Gardens, and Olmsted Parks. Could we pool our efforts and make one great big Buffalo Garden Festival?

Perhaps someone said " 'Go big or go home!' There's nothing else like it. We'd better call it the National Garden Festival!"

And now we have it, entering its third year. The National Garden Festival is ours; it's about nearly 1,000 gardeners who don't just garden for themselves but open their gardens to visitors. More than 800 of them show their gardens during their area's garden walks or tours, spread over six weekends (from Lewiston to Hamburg, Lancaster to Tonawanda). About 70 superior gardens open for self-guided tours on six Thursdays or Fridays. Another 40 or so become bus tour stops. And landscape professionals transform an entire block. Generous gardeners, all sharing.

Certainly the gardening buzz is image-changing. Tourists see a green and welcoming city, and forget the rust belt and blizzard images.

While they're here, they also go to the Burchfield Penney Art Center or the Darwin D. Martin House; they drive to the Roycroft Inn in East Aurora and Niagara County wineries. One tourism expert reports that garden tourism is worth $10 million to the region. A survey company reported that 20 percent of visitors come from outside Erie and Niagara counties, representing 29 states and Canada.

>Tooting our horns

It often is said that Western New Yorkers must learn to "toot our own horns" better. If we live here we should all know and report our own stories. Tell guests about our architectural heritage, art galleries and Philharmonic. Take them to Forest Lawn and the Erie Basin Marina; explain about Frank Lloyd Wright and Frederick Law Olmsted's parks system; show them the oldest glass house in the country -- the Lord & Burnham-styled architectural and botanical wonder that is our Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens.

And over the breakfast and dinner tables, tell everyone that Buffalo is a gardening Mecca. Then schedule their next vacations here between June 22 and July 31.

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Sally Cunningham, a garden writer, lecturer and consultant, is executive director of the National Garden Festival.

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