A Garden Grows in Brooklyn

Amidst the stone and steel high-rises of New York City, “outdoor space” typically means a small terrace overlooking the East River (if you’re rich) or a fire escape overlooking a dumpster (if you’re not).  Scattered throughout New York City, however, are community gardens, little urban jewels that provide us city-dwellers with a lush respite from New York’s hustle and bustle.  The St. Mark’s Avenue community garden in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn is just such an oasis.

St. Mark's Avenue Garden in early spring

The St. Mark’s Avenue community garden is part of the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust, a not-for-profit organization that encompasses 34 community gardens in Brooklyn and Queens.  According to their website, 32 of the BQLT’s 34 community gardens are used for urban agriculture.  Many community gardens participate in educational outreach programs, providing daycare and gardening classes to neighborhood children. Several BQLT gardens are part of an urban beekeeping study being conducted by Long Island University.

The St. Mark’s Avenue garden was founded in 1975, when Prospect Heights residents became fed up with their neighborhood’s trash-filled vacant lot—and the rats it attracted.  They organized a massive cleanup and soon began planting vegetables and flowers.  Today, the garden is organic, employing a 3-bin compost system and forbidding poisons of any kind.  An urban beekeeper has set up headquarters toward the back of the garden.  Perhaps most remarkably, in a city known for its insanely competitive real estate market, individual plots in the St. Mark’s Avenue garden are available to Brooklynites for a mere $20, along with a two-hour per month time commitment.

On a recent Sunday visit to the St. Mark’s Avenue garden, I chatted with my friend Rebecca, who was busy planting vegetables in her corner of the community garden.  Rebecca hails from the loamy farmland of Nebraska and grew up eating farm-fresh vegetables.  It wasn’t until she moved to Brooklyn, though, that she decided to plant a vegetable garden of her own: “It seemed like a good way to connect with my community and my neighbors,” Rebecca said, digging her hands deep into the soil of her garden plot.  Indeed, a convivial, neighborly atmosphere permeates the garden; throughout the afternoon, fellow gardeners came and went, exchanging friendly greetings and gardening tips.

As Rebecca pulled weeds from her plot and watered the soil, she told me, “Gardening is a way to play.  The dirt on my hands feels good, and anything I get to eat from my own garden is kind of a bonus.” Rebecca’s garden plot is home to strawberries, fennel, heirloom tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, broccoli, and hot peppers.  Mint, basil, and lemon balm also thrive in individual pots.

The seeds planted in New York’s community gardens yield not only bountiful produce and beautiful flowers, but also a sense of community and connection. The St. Mark’s Avenue community garden, once a neighborhood eyesore, has become a welcoming sanctuary for casual passers-by and green-thumbed Brooklynites alike. Now, that’s some valuable real estate.