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City's blooms impress tourists

Living in a place where the civic zeitgeist hovers somewhere between stubborn pride and deep-set inferiority, Buffalonians aren't always accustomed to hearing out-of-towners say nice things about the once and future Queen City.

Gardening enthusiasts from across the country must have missed the memo.

Skeptical city residents might have considered getting their ears checked Saturday as thousands of visitors descended on the city to sing the praises of its neighborhoods, architecture and, above all else, its gardens during this year's Garden Walk Buffalo. The two-day event, now in its nineteenth year, offers visitors and locals alike a chance to tour more than 360 carefully tended gardens surrounding homes from Elmwood to Allentown. It is the nation's largest garden tour, according to Jim Charlier, president emeritus of Garden Walk Buffalo.

“The city's beautiful,” said first-time attendee Barbara Bonvetti as she admired the vibrant gardens and brightly colored brick homes of the Cottage District with a group of horticulture enthusiasts from Delaware. “It's the profusion of gardens,” she added.

Garden Walk Buffalo attracts more than 50,000 people annually, roughly 20 percent of whom travel more than 50 miles to be here, according to a study event organizers commissioned in 2011. That makes for a 10,000-person influx of visitors like Bonvetti into the city in a single weekend.

Many of those folks spend the night in local hotels. They dine in area restaurants, and frequently attend other cultural or tourist attractions while in town. The study found that the average out-of-town attendee spends $248 in the area. All told, Charlier estimated that the garden walk's total direct economic impact on the Buffalo area is $4.5 million.

What makes Buffalo, of all places, a destination city for gardening enthusiasts?

Speaking with out-of-town attendees Saturday afternoon made for a telling litmus test of how Buffalo's reputation has come to encompass more than blizzards and chicken wings in recent years. Visitors from out of state, and even out of country, listed Buffalo's unique neighborhoods, storied architecture, and welcoming residents as reasons why Garden Walk Buffalo draws crowds and wins awards year after year.

Michel Gauthier knows a thing or two about garden walks, having been a ranking member of organizations like the Ontario Garden Tourism Coalition and Canadian Garden Tourism Council. The Ottawa man said he came to this year's garden walk after years of hearing rave reviews of Buffalo's horticultural offerings. “This is where I think Buffalo has made a name for itself,” Gauthier said.

In May, Gauthier was on hand when the Garden Tourism Conference in Toronto awarded the National Garden Festival, a local network of garden walks anchored by this weekend's event, “Promotion of the Year.” Buffalo was the only American city to claim a prize in the “International Garden Tourism” category – other recipients hailed from Portugal, Japan, and beyond.

Why Buffalo? According to Gauthier, the concept of inviting total strangers into hundreds of private residences across the city is virtually unheard of elsewhere. The closest cousins Gauthier could name were the so-called “open-garden schemes” found in Australia and the United Kingdom, which feature fewer properties and less freedom for visitors to explore. “To have it on this scale is unbelievable,” he said.

The event's openness was not lost on Bonvetti and the 25 others who traveled here as members of the Delaware Center for Horticulture in Wilmington. The group wandered down Summer Street, stopping to snap photos, chat with homeowners, and admire the sizeable pink-and-green leaves of a coleus plant. Trip planner Marcia Stephenson explained that the friendliness of city residents adds a lot to the garden walk's appeal. “There's a quaintness and a charm here that's different than what we have” back home in Delaware, she said.

Stephenson first heard of the garden walk through a group member with family in the area. After attending her first event last year with her husband, she returned home with a photo-packed slideshow for her fellow members. “People were blown away,” she said. “Everybody just thinks Buffalo is under snow eight months a year.”

For the Delaware group, Buffalo's gardens were just the beginning – up next were a visit to the Roycroft Inn in East Aurora and, today, a tour of Frank Lloyd Wright's Darwin Martin Complex. Stephenson had her eye on the H.H. Richardson Complex as well, and said she would make a point of including it in future visits if and when the former asylum is remodeled.

Perhaps no one was enjoying her first Buffalo garden walk more than Diane Mattis of Havertown, Pa., who traveled here with the Delaware group. The 78-year-old horticultural photographer said she lives next to a Buffalo ex-pat who raves about his hometown. When she returns home with a camera full of garden photos and five pounds of sponge candy (her neighbor's favorite local product), Mattis said she would have this to say about Buffalo: “It's everything you said it would be.”