All dressed up and no place to grow? Take that enthusiasm to America’s largest garden tour. For over twenty-five years, Garden Walk Buffalo, hosted by Gardens Buffalo Niagara, has been a popular attraction for tourists and locals. It makes a welcome return this month after a COVID year off.
In the debut issue of Forever Young (July 2001), former editor Carrie Fascia covered the event, at the time in its seventh year. The tour had a special “Pan-Am flavor” that year, in honor of the centennial of the Pan-American Exposition (see Judith Rucki’s “Twenty years ago this month” on page 14); gardeners researched and planted flowers that would have been seen in 1901.
The 2001 article featured an interview with acting co-chair of Garden Walk Buffalo Arlan Peters, who remains active in the organization. He consented to another interview to reflect on Garden Walk Buffalo’s growth. “Our main goal is to encourage beautification of the area,” Peters shares. Funnily enough, Peters said this verbatim in 2001, which speaks to the consistency and priority of this ambition.
It started in 1995, when Peters’ neighbors Marvin Lunenfeld and Gail McCarthy attended an urban garden tour in Chicago and were inspired to test the concept in Buffalo. Upon their return, they hosted the first Garden Walk Buffalo meeting at their home on Norwood Avenue, which served as headquarters for the next five years. Now, three headquarters stations are determined prior to each year’s event. (In accordance with suggested safety guidelines, there will only be one headquarters this year).
“It started as a block club event with twenty-nine gardens and about one hundred visitors,” says Jim Charlier, former Garden Walk Buffalo president. Today, this largest event of its kind attracts an estimated 65,000 people from Rochester, Philadelphia, Toronto, and more. This free, self-guided tour has over 400 gardens to view in the city and more than 1,000 in the Buffalo-Niagara region. Although many gardens are on display year-round, the main event is held the last weekend in July.
In 2011, Garden Walk Buffalo legally became a corporation, allowing them to seek grants and sponsorships. After Lunenfeld’s passing in 2012, Garden Walk Buffalo established the Marvin Lunenfeld Beautification Grant. Since 2005, over $100,000 has been given to help with garden restorations and structure addition, such as light fixtures and sculptures. Eligibility requirements include a location within the tour’s footprint, visibility from the street, and participation in the tour. Garden Walk Buffalo also created Vibrant Beautification Grants, open to those outside the footprint; so far, $14,000 has been awarded.
Allentown joined the event in 2001, and soon after there was a brief halt on expansion to keep the tour manageable. The footprint for Garden Walk Buffalo now extends from the Peace Bridge to Main Street, and Canalside to Amherst Street. A free shuttle bus was added in 2008 to help spectators navigate the six square miles of gardens. “It’s gotten to be such a large event,” Charlier reflects. “There will be hold-ups at the border.”
The two-day event has had an estimated economic impact of over $4.5 million for Buffalo, stemming from meals, hotel stays, and associated cash flow.
Art, music, and food entities have shown interest in collaborating with Garden Walk Buffalo by adding music, art, or food, but the committee has chosen to maintain its founders’ vision of sole focus on gardens. The event itself relies heavily on dozens of volunteers and a year-round planning committee to organize the maps, garden entries, and beyond. According to Peters, the committee established early on they wanted to be a free, non-competitive event—no rankings, winners, or judges. Part of this mission stipulates gardeners are not permitted to sell during the event. Instead, they are encouraged to hydrate, lather the sunscreen, and engage with guests.
“All you have to do is be proud of your little spot of Earth,” says the committee’s letter to participating gardeners.
Charlier describes the Garden Walk impact as “Urban Greenewal,” explaining that home values have increased as participants and their neighbors, who want spectators to see Buffalo at its best, rush to clean streets, sidewalks, and yards. He shares, “Some realtors actually list houses as ‘Garden Walk houses.’
“It’s unique because there is no set location; it’s all open,” continues Charlier. Gardeners may enter their front, back, side, or porch gardens, and are told in their welcome letters, “It’s the diversity that makes the event a success.”
“Together,” Peters sums up, “the gardeners, their gardens, and those who work to bring crowds of visitors to the gardens every year are the story of Garden Walk.”
Garden Walk Buffalo 2021 will be held July 24 and 25 from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Face coverings, physical distancing, and adherence to all Department of Health guidelines are required. Maps will be available online in PDF form or can be picked up at marked locations or Garden Walk headquarters during the days and hours of the event. (A new cell phone app is in the works for easier access and organization.) Merchandise is also available to purchase online or at headquarters. Visit gardensbuffaloniagara.com/garden-walk-buffalo for more information.
Ashley Ziomek is a freelance writer living in Western New York.