Gardening Articles: Health :: Garden Travel

Gardening in New York, NY

by Richard Goodman

It is impossible to generalize about New York City's millions of inhabitants. It is just as impossible to generalize about its gardeners. Here -- if not literally side by side, then metaphorically, at least -- you have community gardeners creating little Edens out of rubble-strewn vacant lots in East Harlem. At the same time -- just twenty blocks to the south -- you can take an elevator up to the penthouse apartment and walk out onto a wrap-around terrace garden so opulent with flowers and trees that it looks as if it were created by a landscape architect. (It usually has been.)

And you have everything in between. Manhattanites grow corn in backyards, and they raise rare tropical orchids in brownstones. They get down on their knees in public parks and collect broken glass as volunteers, and -- sometimes those same volunteers -- hand out millions of dollars to rehabilitate those parks.

Thus, "gardening" in New York means very different things to the vastly different populace here. Even if you garden on an extremely modest scale with an equally modest budget, though, you should not deny yourself certain voyeuristic pleasures: A stroll in Greenwhich Village or in Soho past antique shops that often sell extraordinary 19th century gardening implements. Or a walk up Madison Avenue past the money-is-no-object flower shops. This is New York.

Manhattanites are cocky. They like to think that everything they do or make is better than what other mortals do or make. But it would be a stretch even for a New Yorker to claim that this city produces the best gardeners and gardens in the world. (I would be willing to bet, though, that you'd find one or two who would.)

Still, there are loyal and passionate gardeners here. (Remember how they stood off Rudy Giuliani when he tried to auction off hundreds of community gardens in 1999?) People tend to their plants like they do their pets--with fierce attachment and pride. Lurking behind those apartment doors, riding the subways with emotionless resignation, screaming at wayward cab drivers---are New York's variegated gardeners. Any list of resources for such an eclectic and hardy group of individuals will be, at best, a generalization.

Libraries and their cataloges
The New York Botanical Garden Library
. It's on-line catalog, CATALPA, represents one of the great collections of botanical and horticultural literature in the world. As with many libraries today, you can access the catalog on the Internet and e-mail a record of a book to yourself. If they have time, the staff will answer questions via letter, fax, phone or e-mail. You cannot, however, check out books; all research must be done on site. The LuEsther T. Mertz Library at the New York Botanical Garden, Bronx; take the Metro North from Grand Central Station; (718) 817-8728.

The Brooklyn Botanic Garden Library. LINEAUS, the library's on-line catalog, is not as sophisticated as CATALPA. You cannot, for example, e-mail a record of a book to yourself. (This, of course may change.) Here, too, books cannot be checked out. NOTE: there is link to a Gardener's Resource Center where you can see information about the Gardener's Help Line. At certain hours and on certain days, you can call the staff and they'll answer your thorny questions.

Also, don't miss the BBG's New York Metropolitan Flora Project. This is an ongoing project whose goal it is to identify and catalog every species of tree and flower growing within a 50-mile radius of New York City.

Personal note: To this reviewer, the BBG holds more charms and is far more accessible than its larger, world-famous sibling in the Bronx. Take the 2, 3, 4 or 5 train to Eastern Parkway.

The New York Public Library. The General Research Library is a constantly inspiring resource. Just when you think they couldn't possibly have that book, they do. Here, as with the NYBG Library, you can e-mail yourself a record when you're on-line; and here, like the NYBGL, you cannot check out books. You have to make a visit to 42nd Street and 5th Avenue. However, the setting -- the Main Reading Room -- is one of the most civilized spaces in the city, and just sitting there with your book will make you feel Johsonian. Hours: (212) 661-7220; reference: (212) 930-0830.

The Horticultural Society of New York. Located in Midtown, it has a nice-sized library (no on-line catalog) which you can use if you make an appointment. Also sponsors lectures and classes. Membership required for full privileges. 128 W. 58th Street. Tel: (212) 757-0915. Fax: (212) 246-1207. Email: hsny@hsny.org.

Nurseries and Garden Supplies
One of New York City's most well-known, nurseries -- with very fair prices -- is Dimitri Nurseries. They sell just about everything -- from fountains to house plants, to soil, fertilizer, furniture, even irrigation systems. Find them at 1992 Second Avenue (between 102nd and 103rd). Phone: (212) 876-3966; fax: (212) 831-2810; e-mail: agatanas@aol.com. They are open seven days a week except in July and August and on major holidays.

Chelsea Garden Center. On the edge of both the East Village and Soho, this friendly, stuffed-to-the-gills place is one of New York's most satisfying. It's serious, and it's fun. 321 Bowery @ 2nd Street. Phone: 777-4500.

Smith & Hawkin. The national company with the well-known catalog has a store in Soho. They sell plants as well as their wonderful British and French implements and tools. 394 West Broadway. Phone: 925-0687.

If money is no object -- or if you just want to dream -- go to The Garden Antiquary at 724 Fifth Avenue. Beautiful things. Call (212) 757-3000.

Don't forget the Flower District. Sprawling around the Avenue of the Americas and 27th Street, this enclave of shops, particularly in the early hours, is the heart of flower and plant buying and selling in New York. While many of the stores only sell to retail customers, many will also sell to you.

Compost
The Lower East Side Ecology Center. This non-profit organization has been making compost -- and collecting compostibles -- since 1987. You can buy compost (at $1 per pound) at four locations -- including the Union Square Farmers Market -- in Manhattan as well as turn in your own vegetable peelings and egg shells. LESEC will also deliver compost -- which, at .50 a pound with a 100 lb. minimum, is cheaper. Call (212) 420-0621 or (212) 477-4022 for specifics. Or e-mail at oreinc@earthlink.net.

Books
Ken Druse's New York City Gardener (City & Co., $15) is a very good paperback devoted to practically anything a New York gardener would need. It's divided roughly in half: How to; and Where to. Druse, who has gardened in New York for over twenty years, knows of what he speaks. He lists nurseries, landscape gardeners, where to order seeds, societies (herbs, orchids, etc.) and where to find garden supplies. The only drawback is that this book was published in 1996 and has not been revised. Telephone numbers and even address may have changed, so: call before you go.

Help and Advice
If you need some doctoring for a sick plant or just want to know how much water it needs, help is at hand. Ring up Horticultural Help (212) 807-7642; fax (212) 807-8943; e-mail wcreed@erols.com. Expert William Creed will come to the rescue. He specializes in indoor plants -- which makes sense -- and has been caring for plants for 20 years. He is "open" 7 days a week, and he will make house calls.

Landscape Gardeners
Holly, Wood & Vine. Rated the best in New York by New York Magazine, they are smart, creative and fair. And on time. They will design, install and maintain your garden, whether it be terrace or backyard. Call (212) 529-7365; fax: (212) 529-6961.

Elysium. Landscape gardener Steve Whitesell has over twenty years experience in the business of designing and creating gardens. He prefers to work "in the ground" rather than on terraces. He promises "more adventurous planning" than his rivals. To take him up on that, call (718) 591-6621. Or e-mail him at Elysium214@aol.com.

Garden Societies
Since, by necessity, many New Yorkers grow their plants indoors -- and often under artificial light -- the more help you can get in this delicate undertaking, the better. Fortunately, there have evolved through the years various societies devoted to providing said help. The broadest in scope is The Metropolitan Chapter of the Indoor Gardening Society of America. "Our members grow everything you can grow indoors," says President Ciceil Gross. Experts lecture at meetings and plants are sold, too. (Remember that most if not all of these societies are linked to a national organization.) Phone: (212) 226-8903; fax: 226-0996; e-mail: Gross@redconnect.net.

Other societies: The New York Branch of the American Begonia Society. Meets the second Tuesday of every month at The New York Horticultural Society. Call (212) 580-9692 or e-mail: NYBegoniaSoc@cs.com.

The New York Cactus & Succulent Society. President Richard Stone says that at past meetings topics have included, "Mesembs," "Perlargoniums," and "The Crassula Family." Phone: (212) 744-2265; e-mail: rhs@nyct.net.

The New York Bromeliad Society. Meets at the New York Horticultural Society the first Tuesday of every month. Contact President Herb Plever at (212) 227-0744, or e-mail him at hplever@earthlink.net.

Manhattan Chapter, The North American Rock Garden Society. Upcoming events include Scott Canning of the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and his talk, "South African Bulbs to Grow and Enjoy." For information about membership, call Steve Whitesell at (718) 591-6621; or e-mail him at Elysium214@aol.com.

The New York Mycological Society. Mushrooms, that is. Though this society is devoted mostly to finding mushrooms in the wild, some people do grow them in Manhattan. Call Maggie Vall, the president: 212-877-1312.

Let's not forget the Greater New York Chapter of the American Gloxinia & Gesneriad Society. Call President Al Romano at (201) 227-0744. Or e-mail Wallace Wells: wwells@idt.net.

Strictly New York
The web page of The Metro New York Home and Gardener: It's a commercial site that is just getting started, but it has very decent links and a forum in which you can post questions about gardening in New York City.

Cornell Cooperative Extension of New York City. The famous agriculture arm of the land grant college has an office here. It is almost uniquely devoted to community gardening and gardening for children, and they don't answer individual queries. But there is a very good list of resources about plants, insects, composting, recycling and weather.

National Gardening's Calendar of Garden Events. Just select the state "New York," and type in 2001 (for instance), and you will find many garden events coming up in the area in the next months. A few years ago, I attended a startling orchid show at the World Financial Center. In retrospect, if I'd missed it, it would have been very dispiriting. Check the calendar.

Those New Yorkers involved with community gardens can consult the American Community Garden Association. It's a wealth of practical information. They've been helping community gardeners for twenty years, and they know what they're doing.

If you want to get local and political, go to Earth Celebrations, a passionate site about -- among other matters -- what community gardens are about to be bulldozed and what you can do about it.

New York, In General
Botany.com, provides information regarding the general description of plants, the various methods of cultivation -- such as indoor or outdoor planting -- soil and temperature requirements, pruning, and the means of propagation (seeds, cuttings, division, etc.).

Richard Goodman is an avid gardener and lives in Manhattan, New York.

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