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Ideas from the Buzz Around Hamburg Garden Walk

Last weekend I had only limited time to visit gardens during the Buzz Around Hamburg Garden Walk. Still, the experience in just three gardens reminded me of the value of the whole regional phenomena. (Western New York offers five weeks of walks, tours and Open Gardens that comprise about 1,000 private gardens that you can visit.)

No matter where you go, gardens will surprise you, stimulate ideas, and may even change your mood and outlook for an entire day, week, or longer – as the following did for me.

Bright colors and hospitality

Some gardens just say “Come in, sit down, have a beverage, and stay awhile!” That is the Washut and Kelkenberg garden in Hamburg, one of my perennial favorites.

The café-like setting, with great cushioned seats and multiple umbrella tables, is visually exciting and just feels like a happy place. Gardener Kathy Kelkenberg told me the original idea was to buy one picnic table with umbrella, but somehow one became three, and now? “When we put the umbrellas down, the party is over – it looks like nothing,” she said.

Good reminder to us all: Provide seating and tables – generously – so that people will want to stay.

While first impressions in this garden are of brightness, color and furnishings, it’s also a study in garden design and use of space. For instance, how would you use the space in a village corner lot, to allow for some privacy?

The banana plant in the Washut/Kelkenberg garden. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

The gardeners created a west-facing perennial border (great for pollinators as well as passers-by) that faces the sidewalk and is backed by shrubs that close off the yard.

Inside, garden paths effectively create outdoor rooms and lead guests to specific planting beds and artifacts. A pondless waterfall, surrounded by proportionate shrubs and flowers, divides the café area from other sections and provides a calming effect.

One visitor wrote in the Guest Book: “This is a good place to meditate – with my eyes wide open!” I agree. Beyond design, the garden also shows off special plants. Bright planters overflow with grasses and tropicals, looking effortless, but with more analysis you can identify a lot of fine gardening and experience underlying this appealing garden.

I really did not want to leave this space, but I took with me the determination to brighten up my seating areas and to keep my eyes open for more dramatic containers. And I must sit still more often and just look.

(Note: See more photos of the Washut and Kelkenberg garden in Hamburg – as well as gardens in Lockport and Lackawanna – in this Sunday’s Home & Style section.)

Make an original statement

I asked Marg Rust, who coordinates Buzz Around Hamburg, what garden I should show on TV this season – maybe a newer one that I hadn’t shown or written about?

“The Povinelli garden,” she said. “It’s, well, less about plants and more about really amazing hardscape and design creations. They’re so original.”

She was surely right … cobblestones salvaged from a factory floor on Ohio Street, slate from old Hamburg Village sidewalks, a potting table made from original posts that were part of a porch built in 1882 (dated and signed by the craftsman), a collection of cobalt-blue glass panes that stand behind yellow daylilies – salvaged from St. Brigid’s Church, built in 1859 and burned in 1968.

Another treasure – that most people would have left to deteriorate – is a Goshen Glide Settee that Tom Povinelli’s parents bought in 1940. It spent decades “moldering in a barn” before he restored it.

Treasures came from many places to create this most original garden. Janet and Tom Povinelli trucked in a 2-ton boulder from Gernatt Asphalt Products that they informed is a “Leaverite.” They said that with a wink. Then I learned: People who move boulders like to say, “Leave ‘er right there.”

The original Povinelli approach didn’t end with hardscape items. They transformed a hilly mount of grass into the most unexpected, dramatic, Japanese-inspired raked-stone garden. This flat, quiet space is surrounded by a round berm, with woolly thyme covering the inner wall. You must see it next summer, or if you’re lucky, make friends sooner with these cool, creative people.

My thought leaving this garden: Sometimes artistry – being “original” – is a matter of keeping one’s eyes open and having the imagination to see an object that others don’t, and knowing that it’s worth keeping, restoring or repurposing. The Povinellis certainly have the eyes for it.

Dave and Barb Whittemore's garden in Hamburg was also featured in The Buffalo News in 2015. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News file photo)

Intense, passionate collectors

The Whittemore garden is an Open Garden and a tour bus destination this season, and I’ll take people to it whenever I can. Words, and even pictures, don’t capture the intensity of these artistically arranged and densely packed collections of hostas (more than 350) and dwarf conifers and perennials, complemented by moving train sets no less.

Barb Whittemore told me this happens often: A woman carrying a garden tour map starts down the ramp into the back garden, and will gasp and turn around, saying “Oh, I’ll be right back!” Return she does, leading her husband, who’d chosen to stay in the car after seeing enough gardens that day. This one is also for him.

In fact I can’t imagine who would not be impressed by so many plants, so beautifully tended, in a small yard, with the additional achievement of making several railroads operational. The Whittemores are diligent, passionate, accomplished, and eager to share.

When you see gardens on tour, remember how much these people are giving of their time and effort, and the risks they are taking, exposing their taste and choices.
It’s such a gift.

The fourth garden

After touring that day I returned home with the intention of doing some computer work and starting some laundry. My garden called me instead. There they were: the fluffy, pink Filipendulas and the hedge of Sorbaria blooming, the bright daisies surrounding a yellow rose, and so many daylilies just opening – one more delightful than the next.

I was so happy I’d dragged out the blue birdbath and blue bottles for the bottle tree, and I’d made the little fountain work. It’s not a showplace garden like those amazing ones, but it’s my favorite of all. And that may be the important thing: Garden for the joy of it, whether guests are coming or not.

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.


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