They come to Buffalo every July from as far away as Alaska, Austin, and Phoenix and as nearby as Toronto, Rochester, and Syracuse. What brings this geographically diverse crowd to the City of Good Neighbors? Gardens.
Between Garden Walk Buffalo — the largest free garden walk in the United States with more than 300 participating gardens – 14 smaller garden walks scattered throughout the Buffalo metro, and Open Gardens, which gives visitors a chance to peak into a curated sampling of 100 exceptional gardens on Thursdays and Fridays throughout the month of July, Buffalo has become what garden writer Teresa Watkins has called “an inspirational flower extravaganza.”
The city’s status in the garden tourism world was confirmed this past spring when The American Gardener, the magazine of the American Horticultural Society, made Buffalo the first city featured in a new section of the magazine called Garden Destinations.
“We garden on a scale not seen in most places,” says Laurie Ousley, a Parkside gardener and President of Gardens Buffalo Niagara.
Ousley was introduced to Buffalo’s gardening culture in 1997 when she moved here to go to graduate school at the University at Buffalo and attended Garden Walk Buffalo, then in its third year. It was a surprising and fortuitous introduction to the city that would become her new home.
“I loved it. The gardens were amazing – just overflowing and extravagant,” she says. “And the gardeners were so happy to show them off, so proud of their gardens, homes, neighbors, and neighborhoods. So friendly! Outrageously friendly, in fact. I saw all this as evidence of people who love their homes, as expressions of love and care.”
Ousley’s journey from visitor and observer to gardener, Garden Walk Buffalo participant and President of Gardens Buffalo Niagara began that day. In the summers that followed, she would take visiting friends and family to the many garden walks and tours found throughout the greater Buffalo region. She also began planting roots in the city’s Parkside neighborhood.
“I was a garden tourist long before I ever even had a garden to open to anyone else,” she says.
That began to change when she was approached by the organizer of the Parkside Garden Tour, Tom Ziobro, about joining the tour that has now been absorbed into Garden Walk Buffalo. Ziobro would stop by her home and leave notes encouraging Ousley to share her garden with visitors.
“I was hesitant, at first, to open my own garden,” she says. “And I’ll admit it took a lot of convincing because I didn’t think my own garden would be special to anyone but me. But Tom wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, so I did it.”
It’s a decision that changed her life. She eventually joined the board of Gardens Buffalo Niagara, the not-for-profit organization that oversees Garden Walk Buffalo and a host of other garden related events. In her time with GBN, she has been a part of the team that has overseen a dramatic growth in garden tourism with the launch of Open Gardens and the East Side Garden Walk, the Garden Art Sale, a Conservation Day, Urban Farm Day and a Children’s Garden Festival.
“I have found my people, so many friends, through the gardens,” Ousley says. “That’s magic and I am utterly grateful.”
Through this sense of community and place, she says she’s also found a much larger purpose, a platform which she and Gardens Buffalo Niagara use to advocate on behalf of ecological and environmental stewardship.
She points out that her garden and many other stops on Garden Walk Buffalo and Open Gardens are certified as Habitat Gardens by the National Wildlife Federation, a designation that recognizes how essential private gardens are to the health of the local ecosystem, particularly pollinators and birds.
“We have a critical mass of gardeners eschewing the use of pesticides and considering the health of the landscape over the traditional lawn,” she says. “Every garden in this region is vital. Every garden contributes to our collective ecological health and well-being.” In Buffalo, gardens create habitat, build community, reinvigorate neighborhoods, cement the bonds of friendship, change perceptions, and inspire tourism – an impressive return on investment by any measure. “Buffalo Niagara is a magical place in this way,” Ousley says. “It really is.”