What’s a Buffalo-style garden?
Fun. Quirky. Artsy. Personal. Imaginative. Funky. No rules. Eclectic. Whimsical.
Those are all words people use to describe a style of gardening that’s emerged from the unlikely garden hot spot of Buffalo, N.Y.
That’s right. The Canadian-border city better known for snow than snowdrops is gardening’s latest trend-setter, site of America’s biggest garden tour, and home to hundreds of some of the most creative home gardeners you’ll find anywhere.
The phenomenon has spawned a new book called “Buffalo-Style Gardens” (St. Lynn’s Press, 2019, $24.95 hardcover) that dissects the approach and arms other gardeners with inspiration to build their own quirky/artsy/imaginative garden.
The Garden Walk
Buffalo’s Garden Walk fueled the rise of Buffalo gardening.
A pair of Buffalonians spearheaded a neighborhood garden tour 25 years ago, and from that seed grew a tour that is now 400 gardens strong. The Walk is held the last weekend of every July.
Some 70,000 “walkers” turn out to see the gardens, making Buffalo a leading garden-tourism destination.
It’s free, too. Just show up, grab a map at one of the three Walk headquarters, and start garden-gawking.
What’s so special?
From the beginning, each garden seemed to have “its own kind of welcoming energy and unique personality that spoke volumes about its creators,” writes “Buffalo-Style Gardens” authors Sally Cunningham (a local garden writer) and Jim Charlier (a long-time Walk gardener and organizer).
There are no cookie-cutter landscapes here, no designing by rules, and no “checkbook gardens.”
In fact, many Walk gardeners never even gardened before.
Charlier and Cunningham say these folks just have some “natural artistic sense” and the gumption to have fun and wing it with found objects, repurposed creations, and whatever plants grab their eye.
Most of the gardens, the authors write, “just kind of happened.”
Building a Buffalo-style garden
Since Buffalo-style gardens, by definition, aren’t based on rules, there aren’t any designs or patterns to copy.
Rather, the gardens and the book aim to ignite the idea tank to help others create their own personal, one-of-a-kind garden.
Do it well, and as the authors say, the result should bring joy to the gardener and an unforgettable experience to the visitor.
Look beyond what’s there
A good starting point, Cunningham and Charlier say, is avoiding the “trap of what’s there.”
“Think like a designer: What could this space be?”
What you have doesn’t have to stay where it is — or stay at all.
Pick the features/plants you like and imagine what the rest could be if everything else were gone. Or picture the space as a blank slate.
Set a mood
Many Buffalo gardeners started their makeovers with a use, interest, or “mood” they wanted to accomplish, then moved onto the layout and specific plants from there.
Do you want a place to relax? A place to play? The feel of a natural habitat? A space to entertain or dine outside? A place to house your birdhouse collection?
Add some humor
Make your garden memorable by adding at least one fun or interesting thing that stands out.
One of Buffalo’s best examples is the “bowling ball totem pole” that one couple built in their back yard to commemorate their first date – a bowling night.
If you have something that visitors notice, Cunningham and Charlier write, “your identity is emerging!”
Buffalonians are particularly good at repurposing found objects into unique garden features and building their own visions instead of just buying objects.
A prime example is the dad who build a treehouse for his daughter in a big but plain juniper – except this treehouse was painted in Victorian colors and landscaped with flower-filled window boxes.
“Ask anyone in Buffalo about the garden with the treehouse, and they’ll know exactly what house it is,” say Cunningham and Charlier.
You never know what you’re going to find when you walk back a narrow Buffalo side yard or turn the corner in a plant-packed Buffalo back yard.
That’s part of what makes a garden visit interesting, intriguing, and memorable.
People like surprises. Don’t show them the whole yard in one view.
One way to avoid that singular whole-yard view is to break the yard into “rooms,” just as is done inside the house in carving the space into rooms by their different uses.
Walls, hedges, and fences are some of the ways to divide spaces outside. Then you can build a different kind of garden in each space, like the above outdoor living room these Buffalo gardeners built.
Walks and gates
Complete your room-building by using gates (or arbors or pergolas) to be the “doors” into the different rooms and planning walks that lead from one room to the next.
Walks can be more formal, such as bricks or pavers, or they can be more natural, such as grass or mulch, depending on the area’s mood.
In fact, some gardeners even start with their walk placement to create a nice traffic flow through the yard.
Buffalo gardeners don’t get too hung up on carefully coordinating flower colors. Their gardens tend to be full, bountiful, and blooming profusely – whether the pairings match the color wheel or not.
“There’s nothing wrong with ‘colorful chaos’ so long as the plants are healthy and the garden is well groomed,” Cunningham and Charlier write. “Most of all, your garden should delight you.”
The above popular Garden Walk garden has no grass at all in the front yard and is loaded with blooms of all kinds and colors.
Walls and fences as opportunities
So many people put up a privacy fence and let it stark and bare. Buffalo gardeners see walls and fences as creative opportunities. They’re seldom not decorated in some way.
This gardener hangs artwork on a fence, which barely reads as a fence by the time the foreground plants grow up and the vine-covered trellis fills out.
Other fence ideas include window boxes, hayracks, half baskets, and colorful objects, such as ceramics, dishes, signs, or antiques.
Another key feature of Buffalo-style gardens is that the plants and gardens are finished with some sort of accessory or decoration.
Most people add these inside to their coffee tables, living-room walls, mantels, and bookshelves, but few think to do the same kind of decorating outside.
Buffalo examples include old bed head-boards, mirrors, picture frames, tires, bikes, and curtains.
“We’ve learned that people — especially non-gardeners — see and remember the things in your garden more than most of the plants,” Cunningham and Charlier say. “The good news is that usually the unforgettable gardens are born of creativity and have very little to do with money.”
Charlier decorates his yard (above) with homemade glassware flowers.
Decorations are one way to add a personal touch to the garden.
But so are pieces of garden art, signs, outdoor furniture, and even giving the garden a name.
The gardener above used colorful wine bottles to make a creative screen for his patio.
Think about your yard, and if there’s nothing in it that says it’s your own personal creation, it’s time to come up with one.
Blocking the “uglies”
Buffalo gardeners often find themselves facing someone else’s garage wall or some other less-than-desirable view.
The way to fix a view or an object that’s not yours is to insert something, Cunningham and Charlier say.
Sometimes it’s a conventional approach, such as a fence or a few tall, narrow evergreens, but more interesting ways that many Buffalonians get the blocking job done is by installing vine-covered trellises or pergolas, planting tall shrubs or flowers, or by setting containers on stands.
Most people start garden makeovers with plants.
The Buffalo way is to set the mood, get the features and paths in place, and think about the views and problems first, then pick out and plant the plants last.
Cunningham and Charlier say when it comes to plant-picking, think about each plant’s “job” in the garden and not just whether you like it or not.
Rather than pick from pretty pictures in a magazine, they say it’s better to develop plant “specs” for each area, then to look for plants that you like that meet the needs and conditions of the area.
Want to see for yourself?
I’ve seen at least seven Garden Walk Buffaloes and rate it as the single best place to get ideas for your own home gardens.
If you’d like to tour this year’s 25th anniversary Garden Walk, I’ll be leading a three-day bus trip this July 26-28.
Details are on my website’s Talks and Trips page.
Or hop in the car, book a hotel (they fill up for Garden Walk weekend), and block out two days for seeing as many of the 400 open gardens as your legs allow.
More details can be found on the Garden Walk Buffalo website.