Street Level in NYC: Sidewalk Gardens

Sat, 22/06/2013 - 21:56
Mountain Mint
Mountain Mint

....... from Catmint to Mountain Mint

Life’s not pretty for a floral plant in a tree bed or a garden planted directly in the sidewalk, up close and personal to the curb. Besides trampling feet and curious dogs, alternate dehydration or flooding, drowning under leaves in the fall and pickling by road salt in the winter, such plants have to survive to thrive in iron-hard compacted soil. Despite this, around Williamsburg, Brooklyn, nearly every street has a trail or ‘river’ of tiny gardens created around trees - a potential floral feast for pollinators in the city.

Sidewalk Garden in Williamsburg, Brooklyn © River of Flowers

Some of these gardens of the street are tree-less, magnificent, profuse constructs, stepped high above the ground, faced around with railway sleepers and planted with a wide range of ornamental flowering plants. I have seen a lot of lavender flowered Catmint in these, native to Europe but a benign naturalised plant in North America. Catmint is a long flowering nectar source for honeybees and even hummingbirds, a food plant for certain butterflies and moths, a repellent for aphids and squash bugs, and drought tolerant. 

Catmint (Nepeta curviflora) © Gideon Pisanty

Other sidewalk gardens veer in the other direction, simple and understated, lying level with the sidewalk and faced by recycled barriers such as old copper piping. In some, tenderly nurtured tomato plants and currant bushes flourish next to flowers and grasses.

Sidewalk Garden in Williamsburg, Brooklyn © River of Flowers

There are many tree bed gardens, which look as if they are doing the tree no good service. The plants are piled in so densely, growing close to the tree rather than around the edge of the tree bed or the soil has been heaped up high around the base of the tree in order to raise the bed with the attendant problem of rotting the bark. Many sidewalk gardens are full of straggling plants sprouting from seeds that have blown in from the nearest vacant lot - a sidewalk garden made by nature.

Kent Avenue, Williamsburg © River of Flowers

Every so often, I come across a delight such as the planting on the Old Fulton Ferry Road leading away from the Brooklyn Bridge Park where a lovely trail of median strips in the central reservation, curated by the park’s horticulturalist Rebecca McMackin, reveals a profusion of wild native plants including Milkweed and Mountain Mint. This beautiful, densely white-flowered plant provides nectar for a spectacular range of pollinators, honeybees, wild native bees, wasps and moths, throughout its long flowering period. It would be a great native alternative to Catmint. Mountain Mint 'loves the city’ and is very attractive to native pollinators.

Tree beds in Dumbo, Brooklyn © River of Flowers

Throughout the city, many different communities and organisations have created tree bed and sidewalk gardens in a multitude of ways. These include: neighbouring apartment dwellers lacking gardens of their own, local business owners enhancing the space outside their stores to attract customers, greening community outreach programs of the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, Greenbridge and Bronx Green Up respectively (more on these later) that have encouraged whole blocks both residential and business-centred to Create the Greenest Block in Brooklyn or ‘green up’ the Bronx, activist and guerilla community organisations intent on beautifying their city and increasing the edible productivity of nearby vacant lots, and those lying adjacent to the myriad of community gardens owned and managed by various agencies, and include those sidewalk gardens that the Department of Environmental Protection is using as rain gardens or as specially constructed, sloping, curb side bioswales to help clean up New York’s rivers, streams and bays. 

Rain Garden © DEP

On days of heavy rainfall, sewage swollen by the torrent of storm runoff overwhelms New York City’s 14 wastewater plants, slips into and befouls the city’s waterways. Rain gardens help to prevent this by soaking up and filtering the storm water before it reaches the sewers in the first place. They are mainly found in the Bronx and Queens with some being created in Brooklyn. Since they are 20 feet long, five feet wide and five feet deep, they are trickier to establish in Manhattan because of the utilities crowding under the street. 

Bioswale in Brooklyn © DEP

Planted with wild native plants topside, the bioswales can not only provide protection from storm runoff but also provide floral forage and add to the ‘pollination stream’. It’s what I love seeing in New York – the ingenuity to solve more than one problem at the same time with the added value of beauty for the passerby.

Bioswale on 99th Street, Manhattan © DEP



Short-toothed Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum muticum) © SB_Johnny

With thanks to:

Rebecca McMackin: Brooklyn Bridge Park

Nina Browne: Brooklyn Botanical Garden Greenbridge

Ursula Chanse: New York Botanical Garden Bronx Green-Up

Kim Estes-Fradis: Department of Environment Protection

North American Butterfly Association

Native Plants for Rain GardensStreet Tree Bed Care

Butterfly Gardening

Greenbelt Native Plant Center Great Pollinator Project