Urban Farming: NYC's Green Spaces

Jeremy Lehrer

A fig tree that fruits four times a year. Pink champagne currants and chokeberries. Tomatoes, basil, kale, peaches, zucchini, eggplant, nectarines and spinach. In the 600 community gardens throughout the five boroughs, first-time gardeners and longtime urban farmers are harvesting these and an array of other fruits, vegetables, and herbs—proving that "local food" can be grown right down the block.

The urban agriculture movement has been gaining steam as more and more city dwellers recognize the pleasures of self-reliance and the economic and ecological benefits of growing food close to home. Michelle Obama's decision to plant a vegetable garden on the White House lawn suggests that urban gardening is an underground movement no more.

In addition to providing fresh, delicious ingredients for homemade meals, community gardens and green spaces offer a place where neighbor can meet neighbor, and take a break from city life. People who want to farm their own plot can apply for membership at their local garden. For those who aren't yet ready to till the soil, gardens and green spaces offer regularly scheduled open hours during growing seasons when visitors can explore, relax and soak up the greenery.

In Manhattan's Alphabet City, everything in the concisely named 6th and B Garden—Concord grapes, tomatoes, beans, corn, roses and even orchids (the "hearty orchid" variety)—is grown organically. The garden has eco-friendly features such as a rainwater-collection system and an area for composting fruits, vegetables and garden waste. One member uses a "cold frame" growing system to extend the lettuce-harvesting season to eight months of the year. More than 100 local gardeners maintain the 75 beds, which are dotted with sculptures and other bric-a-brac, ranging from Tibetan prayer flags to a mosaic-and-mirror-tiled door frame. In October, 6th and B holds its annual Harvest Festival, with free giveaways of food grown in the garden, music performances and games for the kids.

Riverside Valley Community Garden, located uptown, near the intersection of Twelfth Avenue and 138th Street, is unique among the City's gardens in that it is located within a park—in this case, Riverside Park. Its 10 gardeners harvest lettuce, potatoes, eggplant, peaches, plums, pears and cherries, in addition to strawberries, raspberries and grapes. The site is overseen by Jenny Benitez, who has been tending this land for 25 years, first as a longtime volunteer and now as a staff member of the Riverside Park Fund.

The idyllic Garden of Union, in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, is a bellwether of the burgeoning interest in local foods. Garden administrator Claudia Joseph reports that membership has doubled in the past year. In the garden's distinctive "honor system for harvesting," individual members do not have "ownership" of specific beds or crops; rather, the garden's organically grown produce—spinach, squash, radishes, lovage, chamomile and lots of leafy greens, to name a few—is available to all members, and garden stewards structure plantings with a surplus in mind. Specialty edibles include figs, pink champagne currants and chokeberries, and this year the garden is beginning a mushroom patch, where the oyster and shiitake varieties will be grown. Garden of Union also includes Annie's Garden, a stretch of greenery and quiet nestled between two buildings just a few paces up the street.

Red Hook Community Farm is a marvel that proves an agricultural oasis can sprout from the most unlikely of urban settings. The garden beds are located on what was formerly an asphalt playground in Red Hook, the heart of Brooklyn's old industrial waterfront. The operation is run by Added Value, a nonprofit that trains teens in the logistics (and pleasures) of urban agriculture, from planting seeds to making compost to selling the food. The organization's "farm-based learning programs" bring as many as 1,500 students to the farm during the school year, and both local restaurants and residents buy the farm's produce—more than 30 crops in all, including arugula, beets, okra, heirloom tomatoes, chard, beans, garlic and basil, not to mention cut flowers.

Funded by the rapper's G-Unity Foundation and administered by the New York Restoration Project (NYRP), the Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson Community Garden in Jamaica, Queens, boasts a variety of fruit trees, including peach, apple, plum, cherry and nectarine, which, gardeners say, does surprisingly well in the Northeastern climate. Some of the 20 beds in the renovated garden are raised a few feet off the ground, making it easier for both senior citizens and young children to garden. Seemingly decorative modernist sculptures, painted bright blue and standing 15 feet high, turn out to be functional funnels, part of a catchment system that feeds rainwater into an underground tank.

The George Eagle Carr Community Garden, also in Jamaica, was founded in the late '80s. It now has 12 beds tended by 15 gardeners who grow okra, carrots, peppers, tomatoes and a variety of greens and other produce. A prolific peach tree garners admiring glances from passersby, and members here, as at other gardens, have a long-standing tradition of sharing food with local residents. Wednesdays in the garden are specifically reserved for senior citizens in the neighborhood.

The Westervelt Family and Community Garden, an NYRP site located in Staten Island, currently has an active group of 12 gardeners. Close to the entrance, the garden showcases its yucca, Scotch broom and butterfly bush (which attracts butterflies). In the raised beds in the middle of the green space, local residents grow tomatoes, pumpkins, peas and a wide variety of vegetables. Westervelt, which has a lawn space, a picnic table and a gazebo, hosts special events such as outdoor movie screenings and a Halloween harvest festival.

While the Bronx's Wave Hill isn't a community garden per se, it is a public garden and cultural center where aspiring green thumbs can take classes in gardening and native flora. The 28-acre preserve, formerly a family-owned estate, is nestled against the Hudson River in the bucolic Riverdale neighborhood. The grounds provide an inspiring overview of local and exotic botany as well as a respite from urban life; visitors may momentarily believe that they are nowhere near New York City.