All photos by Jim Charlier
All photos by Jim Charlier

The Buffalo-style Garden

by / Jun. 20, 2018 4pm EST

The Buffalo-style Garden

In the last decade, the city has gained a reputation among enthusiasts for a particular aesthetic. Here’s how they describe it.

Blame The Atlantic for coining the term.

In December of 2009, Andrew Sprung, a native Buffalonian living in New Jersey, wrote in the The Atlantic’s online column, The Daily Dish: “There are Japanese gardens, English gardens, Russian gardens…and what I would call Buffalo gardens – eclectic, funky mixes in which found objects and exotic-looking surrounding rooftops figure prominently.”

Does Buffalo really have a style of gardening all its own? Did Sprung see something we did not? Do we not recognize it because it’s just what we do—and don’t think it unusual or different from gardens in other parts of the country?

That’s the first inkling anyone had had that maybe what was going on here in Buffalo was unique. Garden Walk Buffalo itself was certainly unique—up to that point garden walks and tours were primarily Junior League-type events with select, vetted (and monied) gardens open for viewing for a day, for an admission price—usually donated to a charitable organization. Garden Walk Buffalo’s founders, Marvin Lunenfeld and wife Gail McCarthy upended that paradigm in 1995 by asking anyone that had a garden to be on the tour—no fancy garden criteria, no fees to enter, no judging, no competing. They made the tour itself free for visitors.

I don’t believe Marvin and Gail, or any of those early volunteers, could have foreseen how Garden Walk would grow—sharing our gardens with the world–let alone see the spark of a new style of gardening that would emerge from the culture of weekend gardeners they birthed in their Norwood Avenue neighborhood. 

Is it really “a thing”?

Alan Becker, on his Montreal-based garden blog Alan Becker Garden Guru, wrote, in 2012, “Have you noticed the Buffalo style gardens that have been evolving in western Upstate New York? This type of gardening is considered by some to be an original American contribution to urban landscaping. Although the style pays homage to Romantic English gardens, its unique and distinct local flavor sets it apart from other gardening idioms.”

For this online, armchair garden tourist, the following four characteristics identify such a garden: 1] Front yard lawns are replaced, entirely or partially, with dramatic perennial flowerbeds, and the strip of grass that separates the city road form the public sidewalk is similarly and painstakingly landscaped. 2] In older parts of town where Victorian architecture abounds, the exterior of the homes are painted in vivid shades that disregard the colors of nearby houses and flowers. 3] Gardens are defined by very dense and very lush plantings, a Romantic spirit, a liberal use of foliage, and an intense attention to texture, form, and color. 4] Neighbors design their front yard flowerbeds to compete with each other for attention.

Becker goes on, “Once, the city of Buffalo was considered the grungy rust belt of America. Now, a community of avid, amateur gardeners is transforming it into what Martha Stewart Living online suggests might become the epicenter of American horticulture.”

After having read these, and other articles and blog posts we even tried to come up with a definition on our own. Elizabeth Licata—one of those early Garden Walk Buffalo volunteers, a long-time Garden Walk participant, Buffalo Spree Magazine editor, and a founding contributor to America’s most-read garden blog GardenRant.com—gave it a shot:

In Buffalo, you’ll find small urban gardens that pack a big punch—including cheerfully brash juxtapositions of colorful perennials and unique annuals, minimal or no lawns, and creative uses of found objects and architectural artifacts as sculpture. A Buffalo-style garden will have the patina of a well-used, customized space, often with complete disregard for garden design conventions. Buffalo gardeners take advantage of the sides of houses and fences by hanging artwork, sculptures, grates, mirrors, plants and more—incorporating the impressive and diverse architecture found throughout every neighborhood.

Anyway it gets described, it would appear that defining characteristics include found-object or original art, lots of color, small in scale, little lawn (if any), incorporating the structure of the homes and fences that enclose the space.

These are characteristics of gardens everywhere, but seem to all come together in concentrated forms here in Buffalo. But then there’s that something else…

Marianne Willburn, of Lovettsville, Virginia, on her blog Smalltown Gardener, says it best, …each garden has one thing in common: a uniquely personal feel that is not always present in garden-tour gardens. The term ‘Buffalo-style Garden’ is now regularly used to reflect this idiosyncratic approach to gardening – an ideal one for those who might not consider themselves gardeners at the outset but who have many other interests that can easily be incorporated in their outside spaces.”

It’s the gardeners, not the garden
It’s the personal, intimate thought and creativity added to our gardens that makes them special, extra-ordinary, and memorable (and irreverent, funny, shocking, and enjoyable). Buffalo has a population of very creative people—painters, sculptors, chefs, actors, dancers, writers, curators, designers, singers (and one puppeteer!) and so on. Our creative community is rather large considering the size of our city, and it’s reflected in our gardens. But as impressive are the gardens by non-creative professionals—these gardens still have a charm derived from surprise, drama, and humor—in any combination. And we have these in quantities not seen in other cities!

I tell anyone that will listen that Garden Walk Buffalo is like visiting hundreds of different art installations. There are no two gardens alike in the hundreds you can visit for yourself on Saturday and Sunday July 28 and 29. We know that, and slowly the rest of the continent is realizing that by Buffalo garden coverage in national magazines, books, newspapers, blogs, and social media. Buffalo has also hosted a national garden blogger meet-up and the Garden Writers Association 2017 annual conference—touring our gardens and creating evangelists from the nation’s garden communicators.

Garden Walk Buffalo will be celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2019. I am currently co-writing a book on garden design with author, TV garden personality, and Buffalo News and Buffalo Spree Magazine columnist Sally Cunningham. The book, published by St. Lynns’ Press, Pittsburgh will launch next spring and feature many Buffalo gardens and examine more of what it takes to have a personal and memorable garden to share with your favorite people—or to share with the world.

Jim Charlier is past president of Garden Walk Buffalo and principal in Charlier Communication Design.