Ear to the Ground: The Insider Dirt to Gardening in Upstate NY

Buffalo-Style Gardening Isn’t Just a Book … It’s a Thing!

by cathym on March 12, 2019

story by Sally Cunningham; photos by Jim Charlier

It’s official: Buffalo now has the largest gardening tour in the country, and it’s caught on across Erie County and beyond. Now, in July, about 1000 gardens open to the public for tours or walks or as open gardens. This proliferation didn’t happen overnight, but grew steadily, spurred forward by the Buffalo tourism momentum, twenty-five years in the making. Happy 25th Birthday and Many Happy Returns to Garden Walk Buffalo!

Jim Charlier’s garden shed.

Something else happened that defined this regional garden tourism event: Garden bloggers had a meet-up, and Garden Writers (Gardens.Comm) had a national conference in Buffalo, and they all began to tell our story far and wide. We became famous for being … different. And somebody coined a term: “There is a Buffalo-style garden! Just like there are Italian gardens and Japanese gardens … Buffalo has a style!

Buffalo-Style Gardens book cover.

Meanwhile, a couple of years back, while squirming in an airplane seat en route to Atlanta, I had a brainstorm. Jim Charlier, longtime president of Garden Walk Buffalo, and I were attending a conference for garden communicators. Sitting in row 23, I scratched out an outline, and sent it back to Jim in Row 33: “Hey Jim… Do you think there’s a book here?” The concept grew. We sent out fully fleshed-out book proposals and were rejected. We kept visiting gardens, dragging our spouses and friends. Jim kept photographing; I kept writing. And finally great news: The publishers from St. Lynn’s Press of Pittsburgh, known for classy garden books, said yes!Thirty-one months later, we have this book.

What is a Buffalo-Style Garden?
(The Elevator Speech)

If you have attended Garden Walk Buffalo (last weekend in July) you could take a crack at the description: People see intense, urban gardens with lots of art and super containers. They see creative hardscape—pergolas, arches, trellises, and walls. They see solutions to difficult landscape problems: huge trees and trees roots, imposing neighbors’ garage walls, and limited or compacted soil. But it’s more than concentrated urban gardening: Visitors exclaim about the personal, uninhibited self-expression and the over-the-top enthusiasm and friendliness of the individual gardeners. Words like “unexpected,” “offbeat,” “funky,” and “wow!” often pop up. 

So the publisher, Jim, and I agreed on the book’s subtitle: “Create a Quirky, One-of-a-Kind Private Garden with Eye-Catching Designs.” And in the elevator or airport or party, when someone new asks, “What is … ?” we say, “Buffalo Style is about extremely intense, original, art-filled gardens created by home gardeners, often in urban spaces.” You may find them from Lake Erie to Rochester—about seventy-five individual gardens from Western New York are seen in the book—but you’ll know them when you see them!

The train garden, complete with a garden shed decked out as a ticket station, in the garden of Barbara and Dave Whittemore, Hamburg
A secluded space between two garages in the garden of M.J. Szydlowski and the late Frank Sheuttle, in Buffalo’s Parkside neighborhood
The Asian-style entryway to the garden of Don McCall and Jeff Lach on Buffalo’s Lancaster Avenue

Design and Good Horticulture Rule
With all this unleashed exuberance, can a professional or experienced gardener learn from these gardens? Certainly! First, many gardeners, such as the Sully, Shadrack, and Whittemore couples of Hamburg and Eden are deeply knowledgeable plant collectors and teach as you visit. Others, such as Irey/Locke, Coyne/diNezza, and the Blyths, of Buffalo and North Tonawanda, display rare annuals or less-known perennials. And the walk can be a garden design primer: See how the gardeners envisioned the lines and materials for paths and walls, placement of focal points, and use of their spaces. The book takes on serious design principles, plant selections and combinations as well. Perhaps the best lesson of all: these gardens are not pocket-book gardens, unattainable, or impossible to copy. You can borrow and re-interpret all that you see. You too can have a Buffalo-style garden!

Sally Cunningham is a garden speaker and co-author with Jim Charlier of Buffalo-Style Gardens (February 2019, St. Lynn’s Press). She wrote Great Garden Companions (1998, Rodale Books), and writes for the Buffalo News and Buffalo Spree magazine. She is a CNLP (certified nursery and landscape professional), and currently leads Great Garden Travel for AAA of Central and Western New York. buffalostylegardens.com

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