New York's secret gardens
Surprising, serene refuges soften the city's hard-edged corners, cacophony and crowds.
By Susan Spano
Broadway runs on a diagonal; the D train goes to Yankee Stadium; for bagels, go to H&H on the Upper West Side.
There are plenty of guidebooks to tell you things like that. What they don't explain and what many visitors never understand is how residents stay sane in big, loud, helter-skelter New York.
The Met, Central Park, St. Patrick's Cathedral are havens, of course, and tourist favorites, but not the stuff of most New Yorkers' everyday lives. As gardeners know, good mental hygiene requires a place nearby with birdsong and flowers, where people can go to rest and renew themselves. But where in New York are you going to find a place like that?
When I lived here, I discovered such a place while walking in my Lower East Side neighborhood one afternoon. As usual, there was a drunk on the stoop; nobody had bothered to pick up after the dog; my favorite coffee shop had closed.
I was thinking about moving to Connecticut by the time I reached East Houston Street and the Bowery, one of downtown's most blighted corners. Then I saw it: a cottage garden in full flower on an otherwise empty lot. The gate was open, and there was a bench beneath a dogwood tree. I went in and sat down, smelled honeysuckle instead of garbage, heard the buzz of bumblebees instead of cars and found equilibrium.
My urban oasis, the Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden, is a rare and precious islet of repose, but it's hardly the only one in New York City.
"People tend to think the cliché, that the city is a concrete jungle," says Anthony Smith, president of the Horticultural Society of New York. "But there is a tremendous amount of green in New York. There is a lot of gardening going on."
Gardens — distinct from parks, where people play — have a special function in the big city. "They have a civilizing influence," says Adrian Benepe, commissioner of New York City Parks & Recreation. "People walk in at a brisk pace, then slow down, put their hands behind their backs and stroll."
So stroll with me now among a patchwork paradise of small city gardens, tucked away in unexpected places, where the blare of traffic is muffled, concrete and steel edges soften, the bleakness brightens, time slows and the tight web of city life gently untangles.
The Horticultural Society I went searching for gardens in mid-May, during a particularly soggy spring after a hard winter. I got there too late for bulbs and too early for many perennials but at just the right time for lilacs.
My first stop was the Horticultural Society of New York, on West 58th Street in the Carnegie Hall section of midtown. The society, which is not a garden per se but an organization that encourages city gardening, was founded in 1900 and has a 12,000-volume library open to the public, which includes a shelf of clippings in old brown file folders covering the world of growing things from abelia to Zygophyllaceae.
It offers training to aspiring floral designers and, at the end of sessions on wedding bouquets, novice flower arrangers give the fruit of their labors to newlyweds at City Hall. The society also supports a garden project at the New York jail complex on Rikers Island, attended by 125 inmates a year. Rikers' general population has a 65% recidivism rate, but only 5% to 10% of those who graduate from the prison garden program are rearrested after release.
Smith, the society's president, knows the city's secret gardens like the back of his trowel, and he sent me on a walk up Fifth Avenue. There, ritzy apartment buildings, including the one at 1040 where Jackie Onassis lived, are fronted by carefully manicured flower beds and tree pits. The south face of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum at East 91st Street and Fifth Avenue, a 1901 Andrew Carnegie mansion, is draped with wisteria vines and has a garden cafe surrounded by a wrought iron fence. I drank a cup of tea there and found a maple sprout.
Above the Cooper-Hewitt, tourists are rare, traffic subsides and trees make a leafy bower over the avenue. Central Park goes up to 110th Street. But at 105th, anyone in need of a garden's solace has to stop.
The Conservatory Garden This six-acre idyll is the quintessential New York City secret garden, founded in 1899 as a complex of glass greenhouses (no longer there), then left to run amok during municipal budget crises in the 1960s and 1970s. It is, after all, a part of Central Park, a public garden open from 8 a.m. to dusk, where people picnic, walk their dogs on leashes and sometimes pick flowers illicitly. As Parks Commissioner Benepe says, "Public gardens are even more precious than private ones and more challenging to maintain."
Despoliation didn't seem to be a problem when I was here, though the unseasonable weather meant I missed the blossoming of the Conservatory Garden's fabled crab apple allée. The trees, usually heavy with pink and white blossoms in early May, bracket the Italianate greensward you see when you come through the front gate, taken from a Vanderbilt mansion at Fifth Avenue and East 58th Street.
The north garden, with its "Three Dancing Maidens" fountain and formal parterres, is French and a particular glory in the fall, when planted with thousands of Korean chrysanthemums. The south garden is more natural, in the English way, set around a bronze statue of Mary and Dickon, who helped an invalid boy find health and happiness in Frances Hodgson Burnett's beloved children's book "The Secret Garden."
The nonprofit Central Park Conservancy got this garden back on its feet in the early 1980s and continues to maintain it, paying for the five gardeners who work there and the 45,000 bulbs they plant every fall. Wedding parties pose for pictures under the wrought-iron pergola covered with wisteria, and infants sleep in carriages attended by hostas and peonies.
Curator Diane Schaub told me she once met a young mother who'd brought her newborn to the Conservatory Garden, hoping to make it her baby's first memory.
Wave Hill The leafy Riverdale section of the Bronx is home to another unforgettable garden. Wave Hill is no secret to people who live nearby, but for almost everybody else, it takes a little doing to get there from mid-Manhattan (by bus, subway or Metro-North trains). It's worth the trip uptown because the 28-acre horticultural laboratory and showplace has special rewards.
The first is revealed at the end of the path from the parking lot, where visitors get a magnate's view over the Hudson River to the New Jersey Palisades, framed by a pergola festooned with hanging baskets. This bluff-top vista was the focal point of two estates owned by financier George W. Perkins and his heirs from 1903 to 1960, then donated to the city. Together with the two manor houses, grounds and river overlook, six stupendous century-old copper beech trees were thus saved from urban sprawl. Into their shade, visitors pull wooden lawn chairs that look like Art Deco Adirondacks; these are Wave Hill trademarks, based on an early 20th century chair by Dutch architect Gerrit Rietveld that is now in the Museum of Modern Art.
A knobby cedar fence encloses Wave Hill's lovely flower garden to the right. Yews clipped in gumdrop shapes and climbing clematis are the backdrop for beds of such self-seeding annuals as poppies, columbines, larkspur and old-fashioned 'Silver Moon' roses.
In the flower garden I met Scott Canning, recently named director of horticulture after a decade as chief rosarian at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. His palette has broadened at Wave Hill, which maintains a vast and diverse collection of plants, including 1,200 genera and 3,250 species. Using these, Canning has created subtly artistic effects, echoing colors and textures from plant to plant. Such techniques make Wave Hill a place of intense horticultural refinement, attracting demanding master gardeners and people with unschooled eyes, like me, who may not understand precisely what makes Wave Hill pleasing but somehow feel the intelligence and attention to detail that shape it.
Canning also showed me tropical plants, cactuses and succulents in the greenhouse, a wild garden and a blue cedar from Morocco, staked to a pergola so that it seemed grow horizontally. The wild garden, especially delightful in the spring when daffodils and other bulbs bloom, rambles over a hillock surmounted by a rustic gazebo, my favorite nook at Wave Hill.
The Heather Garden Parks Commissioner Benepe calls the heather garden in Fort Tryon Park "the little garden that could" because of the way it came back to life after two decades of neglect. Its original plan was the work of Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who designed it at the behest of John D. Rockefeller Jr., as part of a 67-acre park at the northwest corner of Manhattan. Now, thanks to the efforts of city gardeners starting in 1985, low-lying heaths, heathers and brooms, all acid-loving plants that thrive in wastelands, recall the moors of northern England on terraces almost 260 feet above the Hudson River.
Most people come to this distant green edge of the city to visit the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum of Art dedicated to medieval European architecture and art. Its treasures include the fabled Unicorn Tapestries, woven in Brussels around 1500, and three perfect cloister gardens, one of which has an outdoor cafe set amid flowerpots and statues of the Apostles from the Middle Ages.
These are secret city gardens worth exploring, as is the whole of beautiful Fort Tryon Park, with its rusticated walls and bridges built of dark, cool Manhattan schist, wandering walkways and airy hilltop terrace of lindens. First, though, follow the ribboning 600-foot path through the heather garden. The perennial section is on one side; heathers, heaths and brooms are on the other, producing tiny lavender, yellow and white blossoms from summer to fall.
The more you look for gardens in the city, the more you find.
On East 61st Street, in the shadow of the Queensboro Bridge, the Colonial Dames of America tend an intimate spicy-smelling garden with handsome inlaid brick walkways. It wraps around the historic Mount Vernon Hotel, a country retreat in the early 1800s when the city extended no farther north than 14th Street.
There's the garden hidden behind the Episcopal Church of St. Luke in the Fields on Hudson Street in the West Village; the terrace of St. Bartholomew's Cathedral, at Park Avenue and East 50th Street, decorated with flowerpots, where Sunday brunch is served; the rose gardens at the U.N., overlooking the East River; the Katharine Hepburn garden, near the actress' Manhattan pied-à-terre, and lovely little St. Mary's Garden, flanking a Catholic church, both on Dag Hammarskjold Plaza. And then there's that community garden on the Lower East Side, to which I welcome visitors even though I think of it as my own.
The Liz Christy Bowery Houston Community Garden The Liz Christy garden was just as I remembered it when I went back in May, with beehives buzzing, a family of turtles in residence in the pond and dogwood, redbud, pansies and purple and yellow irises all flowering, thanks to the loving labor of people in the neighborhood, who have been cultivating this lot since 1973. Seeing it again brought to mind what the sister of a little boy with a magical green thumb says in "The Secret Garden": "Our Dickon can make a flower grow out of a brick wall."
This was one of New York City's first community gardens, started at a time of deep fiscal woe, when landlords were defaulting on taxes and the city was taking over their buildings, then tearing them down. The community garden movement, which has brought similar oases to some of New York's poorest, bleakest neighborhoods, was more about reclaiming menacing empty lots than about horticulture. Now there are about 700 community gardens citywide, including an astonishing 50 in a 10-square-block area of the Lower West Side.
Of course, development never stops in New York and has obliterated some of these community gardens, which exist at the whim of real estate moguls and the city. A sweeping plan was recently approved to create a commercial and residential complex in the Liz Christy area, but the garden is so well entrenched that it was incorporated into the blueprint.
As I sat again on my old bench in the Liz Christy, a spray of lilac looked over my shoulder. So I put my nose into it, smelled deeply and was transported. We're simple creatures, really, whose angst tends to scatter on the scent of a lilac, wherever it may grow.