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New York's secret gardens

Surprising, serene refuges soften the city's hard-edged corners, cacophony and crowds.

June 22, 2003|Susan Spano | Times Staff Writer

New York — New York

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 cliche, 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."

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