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The Others: Garden strolls take you off the beaten path

Ron Ehmke

I think I've finally found a way to deal with the hyperactive overscheduling of summer fun in WNY.

In the 1980s and early '90s, we all had our handful of warm-weather rituals: Greek Fest, Allentown, Taste of Buffalo, the Italian Heritage Festival, Canal Fest, county (and/or America's) fair, lather, rinse, repeat a year later. That was easy enough, but over time our collective dance card has grown fuller and fuller until it's completely impossible to keep up. If you add the various garden walks—14 at last count, with 900 individual gardens included, and the City of Tonawanda joining the crowd for the first time this year—and the other events of the still-new National Garden Festival, we're talking utter madness.

Which brings me to my latest technique for coping: Fewer old standbys, more first-time adventures. (Think of this as my version of Elizabeth Licata's "Summer Resolutions" in her June 2011 "Bflo Days" column.) Mind you, some of what I'm counting as "new" has been around for ages; case in point: the 14th annual Parkside Garden, Architecture, and History Tour. I'd been vaguely aware of it (as I am vaguely aware of many things, thanks to my years at Spree, but it was never fully on my radar until the "great green umbrella" of the national festival put it on my calendar. I think that's exactly what both the NGF and Citybration (another umbrella spreading over the tour) were intended to do, and I think it's brilliant.

I've become a big fan of the "other" garden walks (i.e., other than the big one) for several reasons: They tend to be far less crowded, you're far more likely to get snacks from strangers, and you get the chance to see what's in bloom during different weeks of the growing season. In my case, as a 'burb-dweller, I am particularly interested in how folks in areas beyond Allentown and the West Side deal with some of the distinct advantages and disadvantages of a suburban lawn--more space to work with, different microclimates, less critical mass with the neighbors, and so on. (This doesn't apply in Parkside, but I have noticed that the farther outside the city core you get, the more rare it is to find a large concentration of front-yard gardens near each other. In such places, the "Garden Walk" is often more of a "Garden Drive." And when you hit a concentrated area--a block with 3 or more stops on it--you can see that gardening is often a viral concept that spreads quickly. The problem is how to get that momentum started where it does not currently exist.)

As Nancy J. Parisi noted in our June "WNY A to Z" City Guide, Parkside is a wonderful neighborhood for leisurely strolls year-round, even if you omit the park and zoo, the new Sweet_ness 7, and a certain world-famous architectural treasure. As one of the first suburbs in the nation (not that you'd ever see it as one today), it serves as a perfect illustration of the class system inherited from 19th century Buffalo: less opulent than the Nottingham mansions on the other side of the park, more upscale than the neighborhoods to the north and east. On the Garden Tour--just a few years younger than the Buffalo one, by the way--you are invited to discover all sorts of hidden gems in both the built and planted environment. In my travels I marveled at, among other things, an outdoor jungle room uniting two back yards, an design-mag-worthy in-ground pool where I didn't expect to see one, and a couple of secret-garden scenarios. (I didn't take the time to watch and listen to the intriguing-sounding history lecture that was going on when I slipped into the main headquarters for a bathroom break, but I was impressed that it included a mention of a local landmark rock where high school kids have apparently engaged in all manner of quasi-legal activities since Darwin Martin's day. That's my kind of history!)

Taking the tour made it clear to me, yet again, why the architecture and gardens of our region are among our major calling cards, both as symbols of local pride and as enticements to out-of-towners. While the city still seems saddled in the popular consciousness with a rep for poverty, unemployment, and bad weather, what natives and tourists alike actually experience when they take the time to see a given neighborhood with their own eyes--not just drive through it or catch a soundbite on the news--is a community of very resourceful people (I never cease to be amazed by the things gardeners transform into lawn art, and by the ways they can turn a few humble plants into a lush oasis) who are also blessed with a rich history and some gorgeous buildings, both grand and vernacular. This isn't a cookie-cutter version of life, by any means. 

This isn't a cookie-cutter version of life, by any means. In Parkside, as in other parts of Buffalo, the --which, as we recall, was born not far from this very neighborhood--has taken on a new layer of meaning over the last 5 years. The now-ubiquitous blue and white signs have become a kind of garden ornament themselves, suggesting that making one's private living space greener, like the refusal to tolerate violence, is an act of reclaiming reality from myth. Citywide, it's a sign that we are rejecting the outdated stereotypes foisted upon us, and a proclamation that our progress demands and rewards the attention of visitors. I intend to add more of the smaller walks to my itinerary this year and in coming seasons, and encourage you to do the same. (Here's the full list for 2011.)

Looks like we've got a week off before the triple shot of Hamburg, Lockport, and Snyder/Cleve Hill, and there are plenty more after them. Allow me to strongly recommend the fifth annual "Starry Night" tour of Black Rock, the evening of Saturday, August 6--the area's first night-time tour, which brings a whole new dimension of fun to the concept. It's more like a multi-site block party than the scene in Allentown, and offers yet another way to see what folks are up to in terms of lighting, night-blooming plants, and outdoor entertaining. (The very fact that I have trouble getting anyone to join me in Black Rock at night--but that everyone who has done so can't wait to go back--is an even better illustration of my point about those "peaceprints" gardeners are leaving. And I tell you, gardening at night is the next big thing.) I probably won't be able to make that one this year, but I've got my eye on Ken-Ton's brand-new night-time tour on Saturday, July 23 to make up for it.

See? That's the glory of my strategy for summer overload: Always something new to try, just around the corner.

PS. Got any favorite 'other' Garden Walks to recommend? Share your tips for towns, 'burbs, even specific blocks, in the comments below.


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