Urban Landscapes: Secret Gardens

Sun, 27/10/2013 - 09:34

........ from Carolina Allspice to Oak Leaf Hydrangea

The geometrical grid system of roads and density of building in New York City hides a secret – over 600 little flowering gardens tucked away in corners and angles of the city. Involved in their creation include the Green Guerillas, the New York Garden Preservation Coalition, the New York Restoration Project and NYC Green Thumb (GT), the largest community garden program in the States to name but a few, and over time these gardens have transformed New York City. Of course, they are well known to their local communities but to strangers in New York, it is a delight to discover their existence. 

Gowanus Canal on Carroll Street

About a couple of blocks down from the Gowanus Canal in Park Slope, lies the Gil Hodges Garden, named after one of Brooklyn’s baseball heroes. Once an unassuming quiet corner community space on Carroll Street founded over 30 years ago in what is now a rapidly changing neighbourhood, this garden has recently undergone a dramatic facelift. Like so many community gardens in New York, the Gil Hodges Garden served its Brooklyn community well for many years as a place to meet, play, and grow food and flowers. Even composting, New York’s latest passion, had started up in conjunction with the local Root Hill Café. But over the years, the city changed around the Gil Hodges Garden - it was time to give it a new purpose and identity. 

Rain Garden beside the Gil Hodges Garden © River of Flowers

Hurricane Sandy was the trigger. The Park Slope residents were shocked when the formerly placid, green-scum waters of the Gowanus Canal swelled to bursting with polluted water. The canal is affectionately known as ‘Lavender Lake’ due to its not so fragrant emissions on hot summer days but this was something new. One solution to preventing storm water run off is to create areas where it can be absorbed and plants are great absorbers. This slice of old Brooklyn was transformed into a 21st century state of the art rain garden or more accurately, a ‘river‘ of rain gardens complete with pathways, stepping stones, raised beds for edibles including basil and etched slate signs was created in the Gil Hodges Garden itself with long specially constructed rain gardens called bioswales on the sidewalk beside it, all designed to absorb any future flooding. 

Eastern Blue Star © Sten Porse 

By accident or design, this arrangement has created a perfect little River of Flowers eddy, a circular pollination stream revolving between the native ornamentals and edibles in the garden and those of the sidewalk, all providing forage and habitat for local urban pollinators and other wildlife. One sign in the garden marks the spot where the native wildflower Carolina All Spice (Calycathus floridus) will eventually bloom. This plant, with its unusual, dark-red, waterlily-shaped flowers, combines the scent of strawberries, banana, and pineapple, and its leaves and bark release a clove or camphor-like scent when crushed. It lies alongside another native wildflower, the Eastern Blue Star (Amasonia tabernaemontana) although I am not sure whether this is scented at all, as well as aromatic asters, the vibrantly scented and coloured blooms of Orange Azalea or (Rhododendrum austrinium), a native of Florida and the velvety trumpet shaped red flowers with cream-yellow linings of Spigella marilandica, sometimes called the Little Redhead.

Little Redhead © River of Flowers

The Gil Hodges Garden makeover came about as the result of a partnership between Jo Malone London, a fragrance company, the New York Restoration Project (NYRP) and the NYC Department of Environmental Protection, which was undertaking a major program of rain garden and bioswale construction throughout the city. The Gil Hodges Garden is a showpiece extravaganza of what can be achieved when key organisations such as the NYRP come together with city government to improve urban amenities. Of course, a decent amount of funding helps too!

Bette Midler © Piero Ribelli

There’s a bit of a razzamatazz when I arrive for the Gil Hodges Garden re-opening, with lots of people jostling past a herd of blunt nosed cameras trying to catch sight of Bette Midler as she cuts the green garland. Outside of the USA, I wonder how many people know of Bette Midler’s role in founding the NYRP, which over the past 15 years has stepped in to clean and restore parks and community gardens in many of the more impoverished areas of New York. There are many celebrities flying the flag of ‘green street-cred’ today but when Bette Midler started the NYRP, it wasn’t that fashionable an idea. Her legacy of beautiful spaces, which will flower for years in the city is one to celebrate and wherever possible to emulate. 

Cutting the Ribbon © Piero Ribelli

Twenty-five years before the NYRP was more than a twinkle in its founder’s eye, another redoubtable woman had begun to transform the decaying Lower East Side in Manhattan, blighted by the financial crisis of the 1970s. A new resident of the neighbourhood, Liz Christy had been walking past an abandoned lot on the corner of Bowery and Houston to her studio for weeks, constantly disturbed by the ten-foot high piles of rubbish. One day, after seeing a little boy nearly seal himself into an upturned fridge, Liz decided that enough was enough and things had to change. She and a group of neighbors and friends formed the rebel Green Guerillas, and they set out to clean up the mess and transform the space into something resembling the Dutch ‘bouwerij’, the term for the farmland that once covered colonial Manhattan.

Liz Christy in one of her East Vilage Gardens

It took the Green Guerillas a year to clear the space and plant the Bowery Garden, and fight off the local drug dealers with pitchforks and shovels, but when the garden was finally planted up and looking beautiful, its greatest threat came from the city. Officials tried to shut the Bowery Garden down on the grounds that it lay on city property. The move failed and the city leased the lot to the Green Guerillas for a dollar a year. Liz Christy started to help other community gardens to flourish in the East Village and a ribbon of community gardens began to flow through the area known as Alphabet City so-named because it was traversed by Avenues A, B and C. It was discovered that the Liz Christy Garden was lying directly above the F subway when the Green Guerillas, while digging to plant a redwood tree, accidentally broke through to the subterranean depths, and found themselves staring straight down at people standing on the subway platform below! 

F Subway Line on Second Avenue

Liz Christy has been described as an artist who knew more about garden design than practical gardening. Her mother, Patricia Law, was related to the legendary landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, the designer of Central and Prospect Parks. Liz and the Green Guerillas started off by experimenting with different ideas in the garden. One of her concepts was to place curving and meandering paths through the garden a counterpoint to the grid structure of the city roads. These wandering paths helped visitors to find peace and relaxation in the islands of shade in the garden by slowing the pace at which they were able to walk around it and softened the view for those who preferred to rest in it.

Liz Christy Garden © River of Flowers

The Liz Christy Garden became the catalyst for the Community Garden Movement, which not only spread to other cities in the US including Chicago and San Francisco but to other parts of the world. However, the very popularity of the community gardens had resulted in the revitalization of their neighbourhoods, and with property prices rising, the community gardens became desirable real estate. Due to its location about the subway, the Bowery Garden could not be built on but in the 1990s, once again the city intervened in the shape of Mayor Rudolf Giuliani who tried to shut the Bowery Garden down. Community efforts to improve their neighbourhood were considered ‘communistic’. After over 2,000 people signed the petition to save the Bowery Garden, it stayed open permanently and was re-named the Liz Christy Garden after its legendary founder. Other community gardens were not so lucky and many were bulldozed over.

Liz Christy Garden

The gardeners banded together to form the New York Garden Preservation Coalition and, supported by State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, were able to hold off the auctions until Guiliani’s successor was in place. Two nonprofit groups bought 114 gardens with 250,00 dollars from Bette Midler and the NYPR and the rest were transferred to NYC Parks - and so the story comes round full circle.

Liz Christy Garden © River of Flowers

I went to visit the Liz Christie Garden recently and I could see by comparing it with old photographs that it now lies in a much changed and distinctly more up-market neighbourhood of Manhattan. However, the garden is still being taken care of in a tender and thoughtful way and is a haven for wildlife. The community that it formerly served has probably moved out to the suburbs or even retired to Florida. It has a new group of visitors including those who desire to eat their lunch in peaceful surroundings. The Liz Christy Garden now shares an intersection and an ethos with Whole Foods store, which has run a couple of projects in the garden including workshops by taking over one of the plots in the garden to farm. The Green Guerillas still exist today, albeit in a different format, training and mentoring teenagers or youth tillers to grow food in their community gardens. 

The Garden of Union can also be found in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It is a jewel of a garden and full of life. My senses were filled with a sea of native wildflowers meandering delicately through the luscious edibles and a heavenly buzzing and whirring of multitudes of pollinatorsAnnie’s Garden was the original garden space of the Garden of Union. It was named in honor of its founder Annie Thompson, who lived across the street with her husband John, and who worked with neighbors to have the site of a burned down bakery legally turned into a garden in the early 1970s.  One of Annie’s primary concerns was that the children of the neighbourhood should have a green space to explore, enjoy and spend time in. 

Garden administrator Claudia Joseph helped to set up the garden's distinctive ‘honor system’ for harvesting, which she explained to me. Individual members do not have ‘ownership’ of specific beds or crops - all of the plots are communal because the members work them and share the produce, quite a feat to achieve in the territorial sensibilities of a big city. 

Oak Leaf Hydrangea © River of Flowers

It was also my first encounter up close and personal with one of North America’s few native hydrangeas, the Oak Leaf Hydrangea, a plant beyond gorgeousness and a perfect paradise for bees. The Garden of Union reveals a balanced intermingling of nature with nurtured edibles. All of the plots are communal because the members work them and share the produce, quite a feat to achieve in the territorial sensibilities of a big city. The Garden of Union has also become the heart of composting in the area, and the deep richness of soil in this special garden says it all.

Washington Park  © River of Flowers

Further down the down in the grounds of the Old Stone House is Washington Park, another native wild treasure trove and there are many places in between providing forage and habitat for the River of Flowers in Brooklyn, NYC. This delightful trail is a blueprint of how a city community should be, supporting one another by growing food, flowers and friendship.

New York has 5,000 acres of vacant lots, not counting the vast acreage of spaces on the roofs. I imagine there will be many more gardens to come!

Vacant Lot © River of Flowers

I spent the rest of the day wandering around Avenues A, B and C and found many treasures hidden among the skyscrapers and busy roads. Here are a few of them:

The Secret Garden is at the corner of 4th St. and Avenue C

Secret Garden © George Hirose

Creative Little Garden describes this serene little garden tucked away on 6th St. between Avenues A and B

Creative Little Garden © River of Flowers 

6th and Avenue B Garden is located between 6th St. and Avenue B

6th and Avenue B Garden © River of Flowers

6 BC Botanical Garden is found at 6th St. between Avenues B and C

6 BC Botanical Garden © River of Flowers

The Earth People Garden lies on 8th St. between Avenues A and B.

Earth People Garden © George Hirose

The 9th Street and Avenue C name describes the location of this large friendly garden with plots full of flowers and food

9th Street and Avenue C Community Garden © River of Flowers

Also on 9th St. between Ave B and C lies La Plaza Cultural Armando Perez

La Plaza Cultural Armando Perez © River of Flowers

And Winston Churchill even has a comunity garden named after him on the corner of Downing Street, naturally!

The Winston Churchill Garden © River of Flowers

With thanks to

Piero Ribelli for giving his time and talent to photograph the re-opening of Gil Hodges Community Garden. See his latest work here 50 Main Street here.

Anne Tan of the New York Restoration Project for our invitation to the re-opening of the Gil Hodges Garden and for her courtesy and graciousness.

Anna of the 9th St. and Avenue C Community Garden for her kindness in showing me around.


Carolina Allspice © Ulf Eliasson 

Secret Garden and Earth People Garden by George Hirose taken from the Magical Gardens of the East Village © Alison Zavos of Feature Shoot

Find out more

Watch this great little video: Eco Tipping Point - Urban Community Garden

Green Guerillas circa 2013 

NYC Parks