GardenWalk Cleveland: Changing neighborhood perceptions through creative landscapes

Since 2012 GardenWalk Cleveland has provided an opportunity to showcase Cleveland at its best. This annual, free event features self-guided tours of hundreds of private and community gardens and public green spaces in various neighborhoods throughout the city.

From new gardens to old favorites, first timers and seasoned experts welcome visitors into their yards to view their private gardens, landscaping and backyard design.

The work of hundreds of Cleveland gardeners will be on full display throughout the city this Saturday, July 13 and Sunday, July 14.

GardenWalk West Park 2023GardenWalk West Park 2023“GardenWalk is about acknowledging the pride and creativity of the gardeners,” says Marie Kittredge, former GardenWalk president, current board and committee member, and longtime resident of Broadway-Slavic Village. ”It’s about having a good time and celebrating the work people have been able to do.”

In addition to opening their gardens to the public, the gardeners will also follow the great tradition of sharing their experiences, ideas, tips, and tricks, as well as their appreciation for the beauty of outdoor spaces.

This year’s tour features more than 400 gardens in 11 Cleveland neighborhoods—ranging from flower and vegetable gardens to perhaps some more unique garden interpretations.

“Maybe someone has a beer garden with all kinds of seating around their yard because that is how they use their yard,” says Kittredge, “or someone has color everywhere with all types of different plants flowering.”

Regardless, she says practically anything goes when it comes to what’s featured at GardenWalk each year.

“There are one or two gardens—both in my [Broadway-Slavic Village] neighborhood and in Fairfax—where elderly gardeners plant artificial flowers,” says Kittredge. “They work hard at it and want to share it with others. So whatever your physical limitations might be and however you see gardening, you are welcome to join us.”

On Saturday, July 13, the walk will focus on Fairfax, Glenville, Ohio City, Old Brooklyn, Tremont, and West Park. On Sunday, July 14, Broadway-Slavic Village, Clifton-Baltic, Collinwood, Detroit Shoreway, and Little Italy will be featured. 

GardenWalk history

In July 2010, GardenWalk Cleveland founders Jan Kious and Bobbi Reichtell visited GardenWalk Buffalo, where 353 gardens were showcased throughout Buffalo neighborhoods. They recall being pleasantly surprised to see so many gardens blooming in a city that, like Cleveland, often has a dismal reputation.

Kious and Reichtell say the tour changed their perception of Buffalo and they knew that a Cleveland garden walk could help change perceptions of Cleveland neighborhoods as well.

“I was the executive director of Slavic Village Development for many years, so I care passionately about neighborhoods,” says Kittredge. “When I first learned of GardenWalk, I immediately realized its’ potential and what it could mean for my neighborhood.”

GardenWalk Edgewater 2023GardenWalk Edgewater 2023Blooming neighborhoods

GardenWalk organizers say they hope to not only nurture community, beautify neighborhoods, and encourage civic pride, they say they also want to expose people who live in the suburbs to the vibrancy and unique personalities of some of Cleveland’s inner-city neighborhoods.

“People walking around neighborhoods like Glenville and Fairfax have heard negative stories from 50 or 60 years ago that still somewhat color how they feel about those neighborhoods,” says Kittredge. “This event is a way to invite them to really see the neighborhood and meet the people who live there.”

“Every year, people get to meet their neighbors and welcome visitors from around Greater Cleveland,” says Kittredge. “And it always great to see how much gardens make people smile.”

Anyone who lives in a participating neighborhood is eligible to showcase a home garden, says Kittredge.

“It is important to be as open as possible as to what is considered a good or beautiful garden,” she explains. “For some people it is acknowledging and honoring [the effort]—whether it is a physical, financial, or another [challenge]. If they are able to plant a flat of marigolds and keep their garden weeded, then that is a triumph, and we want to celebrate that with them.”

From Garden Finders—volunteers who recruit gardeners in their own neighborhoods to showcase their grounds—to planning and marketing, to manning the information stations located in each neighborhood during the event, the GardenWalk volunteers are the people who make the event happen every year.

“GardenWalk is a very independent, grassroots organization,” says Casey Hill, current GardenWalk president, a gardener in Old Brooklyn, and former Garden Finder. “We are totally run by volunteers and funded by donations, which is what differentiates us from something like a home and garden show. My number one goal as president is to be as inclusive as possible and keep the momentum going.”

Clifton Baltic GardenWalk 2022Clifton Baltic GardenWalk 2022Getting involved

Fairfax resident Vernice Smith looks forward to the summer months every year, so she can get out and start digging in the dirt. “I love gardening,” she says. “When I go to a nursery, I am like a kid in a candy store.” 

Five years ago, a notice in the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corporation newsletter, urging city residents to join GardenWalk, prompted Vernice Smith to start recruiting gardeners in her neighborhood by becoming a Garden Finder.

Each year, she walks around Fairfax, talking to fellow gardeners, and looking for new gardens to include on the Walk.

“The job of a Garden Finder is an awesome experience, but it can be overwhelming,” says Smith. “I tell each gardener how beautiful their garden is, and how we have to be the voice of our neighborhood. Often, if one person decides to do it, another neighbor will do it too.” 

Smith says the number of Fairfax gardens participating in GardenWalk Cleveland has grown from seven to 30 in the past five years.

“It’s a nice way to beautify the neighborhood, bring residents together, and spread the good news of what our neighborhood has to offer,” she says, adding that she believes the benefits of showcasing the gardens reaches far beyond her neighborhood.

“Bringing people into the inner-city neighborhoods is good for Cleveland,” says Smith. “If we are not the cheerleaders of Cleveland, then who will be?  If we don’t promote our neighborhood and erase that big divide between the East and West, then who will?”

After attending the Buffalo GardenWalk in 2014, David Horneck, a West Park gardener and GardenWalk marketing committee member, wondered why Cleveland didn’t have a garden walk. He then learned of Cleveland GardenWalk and set about including his neighborhood. 

“I went to the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood during the event and inquired at the information table how I could get West Park on the walk,” he recalls. “I received an email, was on the [marketing] committee the next year, and was proud to have Westpark and my vegetable garden on the tour the following year.”

Ten years later, West Park is now one of the largest participating neighborhoods with more than 60 gardens on the tour this year.

“People volunteer to show their garden for many reasons,” says Horneck. “Having a beautiful garden takes a lot of time, care, and equity. So you are proud of it and want to share it with other gardeners and the neighborhood. You also hope to inspire other people to start a garden by sharing ideas that they can take home and try in their own space.”

GardenWalk West Park 2023GardenWalk West Park 2023A new view of Cleveland

While many people are prompted to attend GardenWalk because of their love for gardens or simply out of curiosity, others come to reminisce and catch up with what’s happening in the neighborhood.

“Some people grew up in the area or remember coming to this neighborhood as a child to visit their grandmother, great-grandmother, or uncle,” says Horneck, “It is often that type of connection that brings them back.”

GardenWalk also provides an opportunity for visitors to learn more about neighborhoods they might not otherwise see.

“People not only walk the gardens, but they explore the neighborhood—looking for parks, shops, and restaurants—and they often stop to eat lunch,” says Horneck, “so they get a better sense of what it actually feels like to live in that neighborhood.”

Horneck stresses that GardenWalk is not a contest or a competition. “GardenWalk is [meant] to celebrate the pride and creativity of the gardeners,” he says. “We are not trying to judge which garden is the best or who is a better gardener. Your garden could be a thousand flowering plants or just a single tree. They both inspire people in different ways.”

Kittredge says it’s impossible to see the gardens in all 11 neighborhoods in just two days, so she suggests visitors be selective.

“If you are visiting Garden Walk for the first time, I recommend choosing one neighborhood, pick a spot to start, and just enjoy,” she says. “Be open to the possibilities.”

Horneck likens GardenWalk to going to an outdoor art museum.

“Instead of standing at a wall looking at a piece of art, you are walking through it,” he says. “You are seeing things, smelling things, hearing birds and bees, so it involves all of your senses. It truly is like a total sensory outdoor art museum.”

Horneck says it’s impossible to count the total number of attendees each year. “Some people visit a neighborhood twice in one day or come to the event both days. We keep track of zip codes at the information stations, so we know what areas people are coming from and if they are from zip codes that have not attended before.”

Neighborhood maps of the locations on the 2024 GardenWalk Cleveland can be downloaded on the GardenWalk site,  and free guides will be available at each neighborhood’s information station during the event. Some local nurseries and retailers also have guides.

GardenWalk Cleveland is free and open to the public. The event runs Saturday, July 13 and Sunday, July 14 from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit the GardenWalk Cleveland website or Facebook page.

Jo Donofrio
Jo Donofrio

About the Author: Jo Donofrio

Jo Donofrio is a freelance writer and marketing professional with an interest in medical and health care topics and human interest stories. Her work has been published in various outlets including Cleveland Magazine, MD News, and Angels on Earth (Guideposts).She enjoys the outdoors and recently tried her hand at Pickleball.