I went out yesterday searching for community gardens in Brooklyn. My idea was to see how, during this particular planting season, a community is managing to work together in narrow plots coached from the rubble of vacant lots. Plants don’t cotton to social distancing: By summer, the abundance of greenery spills over boarders as if to remind everyone what a tight-knit community is.
Also, what’s being planted? With the price of food going up and meat possibly on its way to becoming scarce, are there more vegetable beds than perennials? Fruit tree saplings instead of lilacs? More Victory Gardens than Claude Monet’s fields of flowers?
The first garden on the list turned out to be a spit of a triangle off a very busy parkway with two benches and a border of boxwood hemming in a gay gathering of iris.
My second stop required three circles around the block until I figured a tiny sliver of light between a garage and a bodega might be something. Out the gate walked Gregory, reading to close the garden for the day. Either the white woman appearing suddenly before him was going to serve him a summons for something he couldn’t imagine he did or was possibly a developer’s scout.
“Then I saw your notebook and I said, okay now, this is going to be interesting,” he said and let me inside his garden.
Thus commenced a deep lesson on all the ways the garden’s presence lights the neighborhood. An orchard of peach, pear, and plum trees surround a pond. Raised beds hold leafy greens. A pot of hops from a guy up in Harlem might be used for a border, another of chocolate mint given to him by one of the vendors at Brooklyn’s main produce and garden markets could contrast nicely under the twisted trunk of the old grape vine.
Gregory pointed to a patch filled with old bikes and water barrels. “This is going to be an edible garden to teach the kids in here what good candy tastes like.”
His life is a perfect book that encompasses the 1980s art scene (“Keith Haring was my bro.”), early graffiti art, through the blight of drug epidemic on inner city neighborhoods, and his own rebirth as a horticultural artist twenty years ago (of his garden, he said, “this is my Mecca”).
After closing his garden, we drove a couple of blocks to what he called The Farm. It turned out to be a huge corner governed by an 80 years old matriarch who has maintained it for most of her life. A couple of years ago, a misguided city agency tore it to pieces to fit their idea of an urban community garden. When it didn’t sit well with the neighbors, they abandoned it.
“She’s got a vision and it’s my job to bring it to life. We disagree a lot but we’re coming to an understanding,” he said.
Gregory just finished building raised beds, including one that’s a little higher than the rest to accommodate his patron. All of the beds will flourish with vegetables. He’ll continue a winding path along the perimeter–the only part remaining of the previous garden. Wild herbs and flowers native to Brooklyn will brush along traveler’s legs.
“Every garden is like children,” he said. “You look at them and say, ‘I brought this into the world.'”
I told Gregory I’d be back to weed. If I have the privilege, hopefully I’ll be invited to sit awhile with this strong old woman and listen to her firm ideas about farming in Brooklyn.
I’ll keep you posted on the harvest.