“No experience necessary. All welcome.” The posted sign captures the inclusive and inviting spirit of this ornamental garden at 91st Street on the middle level of Riverside Park in New York City.
I have always loved this garden, officially known as the 91st Street Community Garden. It stopped me in my tracks when I moved to New York City 30 years ago and it still delights me every time I pass it.
To me, this garden represents hope. It is an improbable garden built on top of railroad tracks in the middle of one of the most dense cities in the world. One can only imagine how compacted the soil must have been and it is surprising that vandals haven’t destroyed the place. For all its virtues, New York City is the sort of town where anything not locked down is up for grabs.
Like New York City – which I describe as a celebration of humanity in all its wonderful forms – this garden embraces diversity – a celebration of many types of plants and design styles. “Sections” include: tropicals, a rock garden, pollinator plants, roses, and topiary. This garden breaks traditional rules: there are shade plants requiring full sun; tall plants in front of shorter plants. There are color combinations that I have not seen before. And it all works. This garden invites us to both take it in as a whole and also to look at its many individual details. There is only one rule for the 40+ volunteers who manage plots: no vegetables. (Given the growing popularity of using edibles as ornamentals, I think that this rule may start to relax.)
How does this special garden work? Part of the secret is that the “chaos” sits nicely within simple, formal geometric sections. A black cast iron fence gives the space additional structure and keeps plants in place. Three pleached burning bush trees anchor a large octagon. A narrow brick path bisects the large rectangular bed. Everything is well taken care of and intentional. It helps that the area around the garden is well groomed.
Amidst heightened awareness around difference in our society, this landscape reminds us of what can happen when we all bring our unique gifts to a community project.
Here's just a small selection of what's in bloom now.
This garden’s roots date back to 1977 when a group of gardeners took over a vacant lot. Four years later, that lot was bulldozed to make way for condominiums. So the group moved their garden-making into Riverside Park. Since 1984 the group is known as “The Garden People.”
Don’t miss this landscape the next time you are in New York City. This year, this garden celebrates its 35th year. Happy anniversary!