I’ve been in New York for over a year now, and it is the first time I’ve not had access to some kind of outdoor space, or at least decent window space in which to grow plants. I didn’t realise how much this was affecting me until I returned from an all too brief visit to the West Coast, where I luxuriated in access to a garden, a tiny greenhouse slash potting shed and glorious countryside. While I was there, I spent an inordinate amount of time visiting garden centres and botanical gardens, roaming the chaparral and photographing wildlife. I even optimistically purchased some brightly-coloured biodegradable pots and saucers which I stuffed in my suitcase, eager to use upon my return to the metropolis.
Upon my return to Gotham, however, reality settled in. My solitary 2 foot by 2 foot window faces the apartment block next door and gets minimal light. In the summer, my tiny room turns into a humid furnace from hell, located approximately 2 miles from the surface of the sun. In the winter, the landlord-controlled steam-powered radiator heats the room up to uncomfortably hot even when it’s not cold outside, and then unaccountably switches off for hours on end so the temperature plummets to frostbite cold. For approximately 2 months of the year, there is a happy medium. So what chance do plants have in a place like this? I am not optimistic, but have ventured, so far, to pot up some succulents and a tiny little spider plant:
I’m also trying to propagate some African violets and Hoya plants:
So, you may ask, has your need to grow things been suitably satisfied? No, not by a long shot, I would reply, if you asked. If anything, I feel more wistful than ever. While I am already attached to my menagerie of window plants, a bunch of peat moss in a pot cannot in any way compensate for the feel of soil between your fingers, the smell of the earth in the springtime, the sight of tiny seedlings bursting forth from your vegetable patch or tomatoes reddening in the sunshine, the pure joy of scrabbling for hidden potatoes and pulling up carrots that have skulked underground, teasing you with their leafy tops. I miss digging. I miss sowing and planting and tending and harvesting. I miss mud.
Yet I feel lucky. There are kids in this city who have never seen a plant grow from seed, who think that vegetables come wrapped in plastic from the store, who view the outdoors as the place you have to travel through to get from one indoor place to another. I’ve heard people say this is the price you pay for living in a big city, but I’ve lived in other cities and never felt this removed from nature. Sure, there’s Central Park to stroll through, and a fleeting glimpse of flowers in the tiny triangle of space at 72nd street station, but this is not interaction with nature as I understand it; it is more akin to strolling by an exhibit in the National History Museum with big signs plastered everywhere saying ‘Do not touch the exhibits’. Where are the opportunities to get hands on? In London there are allotments; in Seattle there are P-Patches; every city in Germany I’ve lived in has had Kleingaerten; Tokyo is awash with community gardens – in fact JR East, one of Tokyo’s largest railway operators, has just opened up its third Soradofarm on top of the company’s Lumine Ogikubo Building – a massive rooftop community garden for Tokyoites to get dirt under their fingernails. Here in Manhattan there is a distinct dearth of community gardens. Have a look for yourself. Between 14th street and 96th street, Oasis NYC lists five community gardens. Five. Think about how many people live on the Upper East Side, Upper West Side, Midtown, Murray Hill, Gramercy, Chelsea, Stuy Town and Flatiron District. Each of those community gardens has a handful of allotments available and the waitlists run on for years.
Green Thumb, billed as the largest community garden program in the nation, apparently grants licenses to certain groups to grow fruit and veg on lands under the jurisdiction of the Parks department, so I have emailed them to find out more information. I’ll be interested to receive their response.
In the meantime, however, I am left wondering how people survive like this? Is there not an innate human need to grow things? There seems to be an ever-increasing demand for organic and locally-sourced produce. Chains like Wholefoods and local organic stores like Westerley Market are all the rage. Farmers’ Markets like Union Square Greenmarket are always bustling with shoppers. So where is the disconnect between wanting organic, locally-sourced food and growing your own? I’ve read of people using an interesting form of hydroponic gardening – called window farming – which started in Brooklyn and is catching on elsewhere – great if you have window space – but then again, if I had window space I’d probably just use good old-fashioned soil and topsy-turvy planting for tomatoes. I also read an article recently about a group of seniors in Manhattan who set up an illegal vegetable plot on land owned by the Parks Department which, upon discovery, was closed down and destroyed. Now I don’t know the background to that incident – perhaps they had contacted Green Thumb for permission and were turned down, perhaps they just did it because they enjoyed the subterfuge – but it demonstrates to me a clear desire for gardening space in this city.
I shall wait to hear back from Green Thumb, and for the time being console myself by watching for my African violet leaves to take root.