You might think of Buffalo for its spicy chicken wings or snow in winter, but it’s time to think of Buffalo in a new way—for its gardens. Each summer Buffalo goes all out with incredible flora and fauna displays at private homes, public buildings, parks, historic sites, and tourist attractions unrivaled by anywhere else in the country. It’s apparent that Buffalo loves its gardens.
Garden Walk Buffalo
The highpoint of this botanical greatness is the last full weekend of July (July 25-26, 2020) when some 400 private gardens open for visitors to tour. Now in its 26th year, Garden Walk Buffalo is America’s largest garden tour. It’s a free, self-guided event that brings more than 65,000 garden lovers from the U.S., Canada and beyond. Free hop-on/hop-off shuttles buses stop in key locations, making it easy to take in as many gardens in two days that you have time and stamina to see. And they even provide a map so you can plan your visit. You will want to see as many gardens as possible because these are not your typical landscaped yards.
Buffalo has a unique style of gardening that uses a lot of individual creativity, a touch of whimsy, elements of the unexpected, and a desire to use every square foot of land that can hold a plant. It seems that no matter where you are in town, you will find gardens that take up the front lawn, extend to the side yards and behind the house, and some that even use the small strip of land between the sidewalk and the street. Simply put, Buffalo’s garden frenzy is amazing.
In just one day, I toured gardens with unusual plants like one with a twisted black locust and one with 150 varieties of daylilies. Others had colorful flowers, roses, and organic veggie and herb gardens. I saw gardens that used repurposed architectural pieces from some of Buffalo’s old buildings and one with bowling balls turned into a sculpture. I also saw gardens with pergolas, arbors, water gardens, fountains, outdoor kitchens, waterfalls, potting sheds, and even a putting green.
Some had more formal elements like boxwood parterres and espaliers of pears and apples. While others used containers to hold cold-sensitive plants, knowing that these have to be moved indoors before the first frost. And in every garden I visited was a gardener waiting to talk and show off their masterpiece. When you go, be prepared to linger and take in the joy of Garden Walk Buffalo.
If you can start your trip earlier, show up for the Open Gardens tour on Thursdays and Fridays in July. Another 70-plus gardens are open to tour for free, but you’ll need to buy the book with the location details. Any time you visit Buffalo in summer there is sure to be a community garden tour being held somewhere in the metro area.
To better understand Buffalo’s gardens, pick up a copy of the book Buffalo-Style Gardens (St. Lynn’s Press, 2019) by Sally Cunningham and Jim Charlier, two local gardeners and experts on Garden Walk Buffalo. The book describes this unique style of gardening, and also how you can create a “quirky, one-of-a-kind private garden”.
Buffalo’s Early History
Buffalo became a booming trade and manufacturing center on the shores of Lake Erie with the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The waterway ended here, opening the region up as a transportation hub for boats traveling on the canal from the Hudson River to Lake Erie and onto the other Great Lakes. The new trade brought more development and business flourished. All the big names came here to capitalize on the city’s success. Frederick Law Olmstead designed many of the neighborhoods, parks, and boulevards. Architect Louis Sullivan, the creator of the modern skyscraper, designed several of the city’s most impressive structures. Frank Lloyd Wright built over a dozen buildings here, with 11 still standing including the Martin House Complex.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Martin House
Darwin D. Martin of the Larkin Soap Company was the highest-paid executive of his era. He hired Wright to build a complex of five interconnected buildings for his family and sister. It was unlike anything seen before in Buffalo. Built from 1903-1905 on a 1.5-acre lot in the city’s Parkside neighborhood (a community that was planned by Frederick Law Olmstead), the design of the Martin House was considered Wright’s audacious best of harmonizing his Prairie style of architecture with nature. The main structure is the 15,000-square foot family home, a masterpiece of blending the interior with the exterior.
The Martin’s were avid gardeners so Wright’s design incorporated outdoor rooms to give them a setting in a garden environment. The gardens were recently renovated and reinstalled using Wright’s plans down to some of the plants he suggested over 100 years ago.
The main house is connected by a pergola to the conservatory, where the statue “Victory” is a cast of the original found in Paris. Other structures open in the complex are the Barton house built for Martin’s sister and the Gardener’s Cottage that was built a few years later. The complex is open year-round by reservation with daily tours offered, including seasonal garden tours.
Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens
In 1900, another important structure opened in Buffalo. The conservatory at the Buffalo & Erie County Botanical Gardens. The premier designers of Victorian glasshouses, Lord & Burnham, modeled the one in Buffalo after the Crystal Palace in England. They also created its twin, the Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco. This year marks the 120th anniversary of the Buffalo conservatory.
The center of the conservatory’s 10 indoor glasshouses is the Palm Dome soaring 67-feet tall and filled with palms and tropical fruit trees. Also tucked into this area is a prickly cycad that was given to the conservatory when it first opened.
The complex is laid out in a large rectangle with the majority of the gardens under glass. To the right of the dome, the Aquatic Garden has a showstopper koi pond. A popular plant in the Asian Rainforest is a dwarf Buddha’s belly bamboo, along with a tea house and moon gate. Go left from the dome to the Florida Everglades and Panama Cloud Forest sections. There are also rooms filled with cacti and succulents, medicinal plants and carnivorous plants, orchids, and ivy. The gardens are starting an 18 million dollar expansion this fall that will add 40,000-square-feet that includes a butterfly conservatory.
Outside is an International Peace Garden installation, a stop on the Peace Garden Trail that spans across the Greater Niagara, Finger Lakes, 1000 Islands and Seaway regions of New York State. Interpretive panels in the garden tell the story of the War of 1812 and commemorate the peace that has existed between the United States and Canada for over 200 years.
When You Go
Niagara Square is the hub of the city with streets radiating out from this central point. North from downtown is one cool neighborhood after another – Allentown, the Cottage District, and Elmwood Village with shops and restaurants. Buffalo is a bike-friendly city with bike lanes and paths found throughout the town.
You can kayak or canoe the Buffalo River in downtown or zip line between the old grain silos that hug the shore. Explore Buffalo offers 75 different tours of the city and offers an immersive experience while in Buffalo. Dining options in Buffalo range from its famous wings dished up everywhere to fine dining offered at places like the Dapper Goose and the Hotel Henry.
Delaware Park is the jewel in Buffalo’s Olmstead Park System created by the famed landscape architect. Here you can take a walk, go to the zoo, wander through the rose garden, visit the art museum, rent a rowboat, dine at The Terrace restaurant overlooking the lake, or take in a Shakespeare performance in summer.
InnBuffalo is a nine-suite boutique hotel in a historic mansion in the Elmwood Village community. The rooms include private bathrooms, luxury finishes, and a gourmet breakfast served each morning. The large front porch is a prime gathering spot before heading out to tour Buffalo. The owners left some of the original mansion features uncovered so guests can see these elements of the home that have been untouched for 115 years. The inn is within walking distance of popular restaurants like Coles, eclectic shopping and many of the gardens on Garden Walk Buffalo.
Buffalo is a gateway for Niagara Falls, an easy 30-minute drive from downtown. When you are done being mesmerized by the power of the falls and taking a boat ride on the Maid of the Mist, take a look around at the lovely garden plantings found in the parklike setting here.
For more info about Buffalo and the garden tours, check out visitbuffaloniagara.com.