True Green Cities / Can Gardening Save the World?

Finley, the Barbet, checking out his new bone-shaped pool by night.

Finley, the Barbet, checking out his new bone-shaped pool by night.

The Buffalo Garden Walk, the largest garden walk in the country with almost 380 participating homes, may just be the new symbol for urbanity, walkability and green thinking. It’s a grass roots way to think and support locally by reaching out globally.  My sister and I participated in this year’s 19th Garden Walk by opening her historic house and yard to the event.  We are not experienced gardeners by any stretch of the imagination but it’s something she has wanted to do for years and all the stars aligned this year to make it possible.

Kolby prancing around the pool and enjoying the vibrant flowers.

Kolby prancing around the pool and enjoying the vibrant flowers.

Reaching Out and Opening Up Your Garden

For the past 19 years, Buffalonians have been opening up their gardens to friends and strangers for free.  It’s a way to share your garden, and meet both your neighbors and other garden aficionados.  It’s a way to encourage sociability, community, walking and the best a city has to offer – its people and its architecture – both building and landscape.  It has become a quiet economic boon for the city, created purely by a nonprofit manned by people who have and love gardens.  It gets no help from government sources but raises its own funding through partnerships and sponsorships and good old volunteers.  This year it is estimated that at least 60,000 people participated and visited gardens across the city, tens of thousands of whom came from out of town, stayed in hotels, went shopping and ate in local restaurants.  There is no competition and no judging.  The Garden Walk executive committee takes everyone who submits an application at their word and lists them in the program and on the map.  The only requirement is that you provide access to your garden for two days from 10am – 4pm.  Four shuttles are provided all weekend long to key stops in the core area from Buffalo’s downtown to the edge of the world famous Delaware Park by Olmsted & Vaux.  The shuttles are free as well.  Garden tourism has become big business and almost no one has noticed. A new book on the Art of Gardening has just been published and Buffalo figures large in its pages.

The new pool and fountain were added to the back porch, left hand side.

The new pool and fountain were added to the back porch, left hand side.

So Why Would Anyone Do It?

This past winter I moved back to Buffalo after 25 years and almost immediately we started talking about the Garden Walk.  For my sister, it’s been on her bucket list since she bought her historic 1911 Dutch Colonial Revival house in the Delaware District seven years ago.  It would be a way to force her to do work in her yard she’s been meaning to do and a way to participate in a great urban event.  She decided in May, just before the applications were due, that she’d submit so then the race was on!  The gardens we liked the most were ones with themes.  Joanne’s theme was easy to choose – a canine inspired garden.  She bought her house specifically to give her first dog, Kolby, a Wheaten Terrier, his own yard.  His swim-obsessed Barbet brother Finley joined the family five years ago.  And Joanne ultimately opened up a business last year with a business partner to give her French Water Dog Finley a place to swim year round. My regular readers will have read my blogs about Canine Splash, a dog swim recreational center in an old warehouse in Buffalo.  Joanne’s yard would become an extension of that idea but as an oasis for both dogs and people alike. 

And what a learning experience it was.  The main focus would be a water feature in the back yard combining a pool for the dogs and a fountain for our comfort.  We chose an area in the yard adjacent to the back porch, which was always sort of a black hole.  By adding the pool area to the porch, the porch was extended and connected in a way it hadn’t been.  The garage had a loggia and pergola attached to it. We removed the wood pergola, which was in pretty bad shape, extended the loggia’s patio with recycled slate and opened up the yard in a way it hadn’t been before either.  We kept all the existing plants and trees – lilac trees, dogwood bush, Japanese maple, forsythia bush.  Existing rose bushes and hydrangea were relocated.  We started by choosing new plants to fill out both the front and back yards that were canine-inspired – “Kong” coleus, “Kangaroo” paws, Obedient” Plant, “Dogwood” Tree & Bush, Snapdragon aka “the Dogflower”, “Rex” Begonia, “Dusty” Miller, “Labrador” violets, “Can­na” Plant, “Siberian” Bugloss, Delphinium (“Dol­phin” was the inspiration for Finley’s name!). 

The Campagna House on Saybrook Place was built in 1911 on land formerly owned by Millard Fillmore and his family.

The Campagna House on Saybrook Place was built in 1911 on land formerly owned by Millard Fillmore and his family.

Finishing Out the Yard

The Campagna house is a delightful yellow Dutch Colonial house built in 1911 on land formerly owned by President Millard Fillmore and his family.  Once the backyard features were constructed, original works of art of Finley and Kolby by international underwater dog photographer Seth Casteel and Canadian painter Amelia Ballak were installed in both the front and back yards.  A bronze Dog Spinner, canine bird bath, “Brutus” sentinels statues, “Hunter” - the moss topiary, and Willie, the dog, garden art rounded out the canine theme. And finally we added some great tropical color with Juniper trees, a Mulberry tree, Hibiscus, Roses, Hydrangea, Bougainevillea, Banana Plants, Mandevilla, Abutilon and Lilies. We tried to choose primarily perennials and only bought flowers and plants from local nurseries.  We interspersed container gardens with the planting beds, planting the tropicals in the containers so we could bring them in during the winter.

We invite you to view photo galleries of both days on my Facebook page.  You don’t have to be a Facebook member to check them out.  Photos from Saturday, July 27th, 20013.     Photos from Sunday, July 28th, 2013. 

Over 200 people visited our garden, enjoying the garden, the dogs and new friends.

Over 200 people visited our garden, enjoying the garden, the dogs and new friends.

Who Actually Visited Our Garden?

Our house was the first one on our street, Saybrook Place, which is across the street from Forest Lawn Cemetery, to participate on the Garden Walk.  We are a real outlier, with many of the other gardens concentrated in the Elmwood Village and West Side.  We invited all of our Facebook friends by creating a Facebook event and were very fortunate when the Buffalo Garden Walk itself featured the dog pool and fountain on their newsletter and Facebook page the week of the Walk.  We got about 100 visitors each day, for about 200 total.  We were beyond thrilled with that number.  It was never too much to be overwhelmed, but a steady stream that kept the yard active.  More than 75% were strangers.  We had visitors from our neighborhood and many from the nearby suburbs and cities - Lewiston, Devil’s Hole, Elma, Hamburg, Snyder, Amherst, Williamsville.  People came from Medina, Syracuse, Rochester, Toronto, California, Boston and Florida!

For some visitors, it was just about the flowers.

For some visitors, it was just about the flowers.

And why did they visit our garden?  Some saw the Facebook posting, some loved dogs, others tried to visit all the gardens with water features, some came every year and liked to visit the new gardens, some liked to go to the outlying ones that wouldn’t be so crowded so they could actually talk to the owners about flowers, a few were our friends.  By Sunday we had a bit of a buzz, and had a stream of people who had heard about our canine garden from others who had visited it.  We met some wonderful people.  We provided limeade and chips/guacamole and salsa for visitors so some stayed longer than others, chatting and refreshing themselves.  We also made a card that listed the main features and plants.  A few visitors brought their dogs.  And for those who didn’t mind the dogs, we let Finley and Kolby out to entertain us in their pool.

Joanne and Finley share their lessons learned with Garden Walk visitors.

Joanne and Finley share their lessons learned with Garden Walk visitors.

Can Gardening Save the World?

Improving urban spaces with plants and flowers contributes enormously to our emotional and physical well-being.  The more healthy green plants there are, the better it will be for all of us in managing climate change.  And the more people who get out and walk in downtowns, the healthier and happier we all will be.  So, these gardens are not LEED certified, or they're not trying to meet the Living Building Challenge.  But they show how us how to live daily with beauty and great thought. 

The backyard and loggia during the Garden Walk.

The backyard and loggia during the Garden Walk.

Next year will be the Garden Walk’s 20th year, and big plans are afoot.  Will we do it again?  We hope so.  We’re still recuperating, but other than the cost, it was a totally positive experience! We met the folks from the three other Garden Walk houses in our immediate neighborhood and we were all sending people back and forth to each other.  We learned about the heartbreak of flowers and plants that suddenly die overnight for no apparent reason and what flowers will bloom the last week of July.  We got very friendly with a new terrific nursery, Gardenville Blooms, and are rather addicted now to our weekend excursions there.  My sister and I spent a lot of quality time together and learned we could work on something this intense together and survive. And finally, we now have a glorious yard to rest and relax in, with our friends, families and dogs.  For urban living, it doesn’t get any better than this. 

The yard before construction, with the deteriorating pergola still in place.

The yard before construction, with the deteriorating pergola still in place.

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