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Tips for the best Garden Walk experience

When I ask groups, “How many of you have participated in Garden Walk Buffalo?,” I see many hands, but hear others say, “Oh it’s so crowded.”

Well, yes – wonderfully, happily – it can be crowded sometimes, in some places, but you can overcome that problem with a few strategies.

Here are some tips:

• Don’t go to the areas with the most dots on the map. People gravitate toward clusters of gardens to see the most within a short walking distance. Some of those clusters, as in the Cottage District, include unforgettable gardens you must see some time, but if you have seen them every year, go to other gardens. See outliers, single or triple dots on a block on the fringes of the map, and you’ll find lovely surprises. A few, such as a special garden on Baynes, get discovered after a few years and become destination gardens.

• Don’t try to keep your group together in congested areas. Agree upon a meeting point and time, such as the end of the block. While it’s nice to share your observations, a day of seeing gardens can be deeply personal. Taking it in alone may be the best way to absorb ideas and nurture your reflections.

• The driver should drop off passengers before finding a space. At the meeting point she can lead you to the car. Parking is never impossible; you just have to watch for somebody moving on.

• Do plan a lunch break since almost nobody can keep going all day. But it gets busy. If you’re choosing a popular Elmwood Avenue restaurant, go well before or after the lunch hour. (Some places take reservations but please honor them; many won’t seat you if the group isn’t present.) Or drive a half mile or so to other great Buffalo restaurants. Or take a picnic down to the marina or a park.

For your comfort

Need I mention walking shoes? It’s a garden walk, and not the place to show off your new heels or flip-flops. (I’m showing my age here.) Even with a cooling maxi dress, your running shoes look fine; nobody cares.

Here are some more tips:

• Apply sunscreen. Wear a hat. It seems obvious. (Here I sound like a mother.) But I see sunburns on so many tourists and wonder why they seem to think the sun is less harmful in the city than at the beach. Remember to re-apply sunscreen halfway through the day.

• Hydrate. Have water in a cooler in the car or carry some. Convenience stores or delis have it, too. Don’t underestimate how easy it is to become dehydrated.

• Plan ahead for restroom stops. Facilities are available at the three Garden Walk Buffalo headquarters (see sidebar for locations). Know when you’ll be near them. Drink water before lunch, and use the restaurant restroom.

• Sit in a garden or two. Stretch. Some gardens and public spaces actually have benches. Use them.

For the learning

The garden peeping experience isn’t just about seeing pretty flowers. You can learn so much, even if the gardens you see are entirely different from what you have or what you want. Keep a notebook and jot down plant names, plant pairings, design effects, style, uses of art, hardscape materials and how the landscape is used. If you take pictures, you will wish later that you had written down plant names or locations. GWB also reveals lots about the quality of life and the terrific people in our great city. For many it’s an image-changer.

For the garden hosts

The Ten Commandments of Garden Courtesy have circulated among gardeners as long as I can remember. They warn that “Violators will be composted.” Sadly, violators rarely are even admonished. The gardeners are generously sharing their homes, their beloved plants and the result of their hard work. We owe them consideration and manners. Most visitors are sensitive, but a few reminders wouldn’t hurt. Here are some applicable commandments, with slight variations on the original.

Thou shalt ...

• Leave pets at home, and not in the car. The pavement is too hot for feet without shoes. Pets can damage the gardens and people can hurt or scare the pets.

• Monitor children extremely closely, if they accompany you at all. It’s not cute if they pick a flower, climb a tree, splash in the fountain, run after your pet or handle anything – unless specifically invited to do so by the gardener. We all want to inspire the gardeners of the future, but do think hard about whether the young gardener is ready for hours of garden viewing.

• Stay on the paths or lawn (unless it’s blocked off). Never step on soil. Teach nongardening guests – tactfully – that their footsteps damage soil structure and hurt organisms or plant roots under the surface.

• Keep your swinging purses, tripods, umbrellas, skirts, etc. under strict control. It’s so easy to knock off a daylily bud.

• Avoid touching plants, even if normally it’s OK to pet a lambs’ ear. Hundreds of people touching it are way too many touches.

• Resist picking up labels to read them. They get bent, cracked, misplaced (and sometimes stolen).

• Consider the gardener, who is meeting hundreds or thousands of people and answering the same questions over and over. Most are friendly and generous with their attention, or they would not do this. But if she has retreated, leave her alone. If he has plant tags and signs to answer popular questions, read before you ask. Thank the gardener. Sign the guest book if indicated. Especially don’t make disparaging remarks if you don’t like something; one negative comment can be hurtful and you can never tell who is within hearing distance.

Besides the garden hosts, others deserve but rarely receive thanks. The volunteers in the headquarters, Visit Buffalo Niagara and sponsors, Garden Walk Buffalo Niagara committee members who plan, advertise, write blogs, distribute signs, find funds and make maps: It wouldn’t happen without them. Thank you, all.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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