Saturday, August 16, 2014

Public/Private Gardens

 A few weeks ago I visited a community garden on 111th Street and Amsterdam Avenue.  It had been lovingly tended for a number of years by two women, Margaret Doyle and Julia Gabriel, who would garden two or three times a week.  In 2011 Julia died of a stroke and Margaret has since spent a good part of each summer away.   The garden was renamed the Julia Gabriel Community Garden in her memory, but is now largely neglected and ignored.  On the day of my visit, the garden was unlocked and empty, while across the street at St. John the Divine visitors were enjoying a bit of sun.  There is nothing to encourage the visitor to cross the street and sit in Julia’s shade.  No color catches the eye.  The garden is dry and dusty.  Its two devoted gardeners have moved on and there are no heirs.

Julia Gabriel Community Garden

This is not a singular problem.  A 2012 article in the New York Times by Michael Tortorello called attention to the dwindling supply of volunteer gardeners, despite an increase of interest in food gardens.  Neighborhood demographics are changing, gentrification may produce more or less interest, and the first generation of community gardeners is dying out.  This varies across the city, for reasons not well understood.

In some cities, and in all European countries, allotments are more prevalent than community gardens. In contrast to a community garden, an allotment is a small plot of land made available to an individual or a family.  Large plots of land owned by a municipality or another entity are divided up into smaller parcels that are then assigned. There is usually an association overseeing the operation to which gardeners apply for a plot, pay a small fee, and adhere to the rules of the association.  How the plot is used is in the hands of the gardener, but must be reserved for only personal use. 

A community garden, on the other hand, is a single plot of varying size gardened collectively by a group people.  Although the gardens are seen as engines of community engagement, they are owned by a municipality and governed by the municipality’s terms of access and management.
Southwest Corridor Park

Boston is the rare city combining community gardens, parks and allotments in a single stretch -- the Southwest Corridor Park, a narrow, 90 acre ribbon of public open space.  A proposed highway project was successfully blocked by community resistance, rail lines buried underground, and in its place a five-mile stretch of tot lots, playgrounds, flower beds, open green spaces, athletic courts and 150 community gardens and allotments was established.

Many South Enders came from gardening and farming cultures in other countries.  Moving along the corridor you will find Italian plots with fig trees, French potagers alongside Asian gardeners growing vegetables vertically on posts climbing to spread horizontally along overhead lattice.

Boston also has allotments carried over from World War II, the Richard Parker Memorial Victory Gardens.  The once-abandoned gardens are now divided into 450 individual plots, used as the gardener chooses. Individual allotments are fenced and gated, but the larger area is open and anyone can stroll down the pathways at any time of day and peer over the fences.  The Parker Gardens are on publicly owned land and the city supplies only water; everything else is provided by the gardeners and their association.
A Parker Garden's Plot

In New York City, Roosevelt Island works on an allotment system, managed by the Garden Club.  The design gives each gardener 210 square feet, laid out in trapezoidal patterns so that no two gardens are alike.  You sign up, get on a waiting list, and hope for the best.  No one seems to give them up, and you usually have to wait until someone moves or dies. 
A Roosevelt Island Pathway

One gardener is a dedicated pond-builder.  One of the earliest gardeners, he has made extensive use of the debris from the various excavations and construction sites on the Island.  Large slabs of stone from the wreckage of the insane asylum and concrete sections of old foundations –- all carried by hand-drawn cart -- have been transformed into garden sculptures and stockpiled for bleacher-like seats at his ponds. 

The Roosevelt Island gardens are as distinctive as the gardeners who inhabit the space.  Some are meticulous, some are untidy, others are wild.  Some are devoted to vegetable crops, while some are just places to sit and enjoy other people’s gardens.

A Roosevelt Island Plot

The Garden Club provides a clubhouse of sorts in a storage shed.  Community rakes, shovels and hoes are stored in bins available to all.  A limited number of lockers allow gardeners to keep tools close by.  Twice a year the Club brings in soil and provides wheelbarrows for transporting.

In both the Boston and Roosevelt Island examples, city engagement is minimal. Could a version of these large-scale community garden projects, individually rather than bureaucratically driven, engage the general public in maintaining neighborhood parks?  Does the accessibility of the larger area, and the knowledge that these plots are available to all, perhaps encourage individuals more than the collective approach of the community gardens with their own built-in local politics?

What is it that gives these gardens so much more vitality than the average neighborhood park?  Are they affected by the demographics of the neighborhood?  By the cultural values of the times?  Should there be a Jeffersonian principal of home ownership applied to apartment dwellers and renters?  Here is your plot, use it as you wish?  If volunteers in public parks only get to do what is assigned to them, what would happen if that paradigm changed?  Anarchy or a robust landscape?

All the above is only the barest outline of what is actually happening on the ground.  In the coming weeks Emily Walker, Outreach Coordinator for New Yorkers for Parks, will be a guest contributor writing about what it takes to make a successful community garden, and the subtle shift towards allotments in schoolyards and individual plots in public housing.

Monday, August 4, 2014

August Notes

It was not hard to say goodbye to July.  It was a punishing month, with brief, vicious storms almost every day.  Hail ripped the broad-leaved perennials to shreds.  My giant hostas, for which I held high hopes, are tattered.  I could spend August experimenting with cutting them back, feeding heavily and enjoying new growth, but I fear that will set them back for next year. 

The solution for the moment is to do nothing and think about how to minimize the damage in future years. If you are seduced by the largest of the hostas, it may be wise to plant them alongside smaller leaved plants so that any damage will not be too visible. They would do well with other shade lovers --hydrangea, fern, hellebore, epimedium, heuchera.

Mixed Shade Planting

On the positive side, August is the peak month for garden lilies.  Now is the time to select yours for fall planting.  John Scheepers and Van Engelen bulb catalogs have probably arrived on your doorstep by now, so be sure to work your way to the back of the catalogs, past the daffodils and tulips, to the lilies and make your selection.

There are relatively few chores to tend to in August.  Be sure to replenish mulch; it will decompose in the heat of August.  Finish pruning spring-flowering deciduous shrubs. This is the last call to start perennials and biennials from seed. Garden sales start up in August.  Take advantage of them; container-grown plants will continue to drop in price. Butterflybush (Buddleia) disappeared from almost all gardens this past winter, and the nurseries ran out of stock early.  You will probably feel shortchanged in butterflies this August, unless your beebalm (Monarda) survived.

Buddleia and Friends

Among the brightest spots in the August garden are the Big Yellows.  It’s not uncommon to see Cup plant (Silhpium perforliatum) towering over the top of a roadside fence.  A native of tall prairie grass, it is quite common in the Midwest.  It’s one of the few plants that thrive in the hot, humid summers of the prairie states, and so it seems quite at home here.  The yellow daisy-like flowers are two to three inches in diameter and bloom at the top of the stalks.  They hold their bloom for weeks.  It is rarely seen in the garden, although its dark green foliage would make an excellent backdrop for other perennials.  The plants are tall and wide enough to block an unsightly view, enhance a shed, or simply fill up a large empty space. It is reported to perform best if given full sun and sufficient moisture, but we have seen it in dry clay soils, where it seems to be just fine. 
Cup Plant in an Open Field

The Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) is a more manageable late-summer yellow bloomer.  Growing to a mere five feet, it has a full, airy character, and is not nearly as tall as the Cup plant.  The flowers appear as sprays across the surface of the plant, with yellow rays and brown centers.  It starts to bloom mid-summer and continues into the fall.  The literature on species and varieties is somewhat murky, and it seems to be classified as a biennial, although it performs as a perennial for us. The form is lovely, light and full without being dense, and more graceful than the Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta).  It doesn’t block a view or stop the eye; it encourages you to draw closer.

Brown-eyed Susan

Ligularia stenocephala ‘The Rocket’ will do the same for you in the shade that Brown–eyed Susan and Cup plant will do in the sun. Almost four feet tall and as wide, it sends up tall yellow spires that make a strong counterpoint to its shade-loving companions, invariably hosta and ferns.  Ligularia can be a little difficult to locate correctly in the garden, as they need moist soil and shade for the foliage, but enough sun to produce their spectacularly tall blooms.  Too much sun, and the foliage will wilt during the day.     


A native of Japan, Houttuynia deserves to be tried more widely in American gardens.  It’s very showy; mounds of tiny yellow-green blooms are carried above white petal-like bracts. A rapidly spreading, potentially invasive perennial, its heart shaped leaves and unusual flowers make it a worthy risk.  For the strong of heart, it can be partnered with Gooseneck loosestrife (Lysimachia clethroides),  another beauty hard to control.  This loosestrife requires space, and will win out over any competition.  It will take over your garden if you turn your back on it.   
Gooseneck loosetrife

For next August, think about more white flowers.  Shorter days will bring an earlier twilight and a particular luminosity to white flowers in the garden.  Think about Nicotiana and White phlox for next year.  Perhaps a white Rose of Sharon at the edge of the lawn.