Annual Tour Touts Perennial Tale of Urban Gardening
BY JANE ARGODALE | On the sunny Saturday morning of June 25, members of the Chelsea Garden Club gathered at the intersection of Eighth Ave. and W. 22nd St. to embark on their annual tree pit tour. Alone or in pairs, volunteers from the club tend to tree pits located on the islands that separate bike lanes from car traffic on the stretches of Eighth and Ninth Aves., between W. 17th and W. 30th Sts.
The tour was fairly informal — people came and went as they pleased, and there was no single tour guide leading the group. As the group stopped at each tree pit, the pit’s adoptive caretaker, if present, would point out their plants and explain what they had done with their pit.
The tour showcased a wide range of flora, along with the gardeners’ skills in growing and tending to healthy plants. Thanks to their hard work, flowers and trees inside the pits flourished in spite of the many hazards that surround these mini-ecosystems.
Chelsea Garden Club members work on a small scale — on one island on Eighth Ave. and W. 23rd St. sits a planter about a foot in diameter, that Kent Wang found on the street, filled with soil, and planted with Russian sage. His tree pit, about a block away from the planter, contained lavender, yellow and pink roses, and coralbells.
“There’s always something blooming here,” said Wang as he removed a lighter that had been disposed of in his pit.
A common challenge the gardeners faced was appropriately fencing off their tree pits to provide their plants some protection from humans and their pets, who often step on plants and leave their refuse. Some choose not to use fences at all, but the majority use metal fences, rocks, and bamboo to protect their pits. The short metal fence Alyce Broul and Carol Hackett installed around their tree pit — where they grew marigolds and carrots — had been pulled out and pushed in towards the plants.
“I don’t know why — why would they do something like this?” Broul exclaimed as she attempted to reposition the fence. At the same pit, she pointed out a fresh cigarette butt in the soil. “People are truly disgusting.”
Along the tour, the volunteers would regularly pause at tree pits to check for weeds, and would often begin pulling them out. “Our first motto is ‘Flower Power!’ and our second motto is, ‘Is that a weed?’ ” explained Gloria Schofner, a Chelsea Garden Club member who takes care of a tree pit on Eighth Ave. and W. 22nd St. The fact that even during the tour volunteers were cleaning out trash and pulling weeds highlighted the constant care the tree pits require to survive in such a busy urban area.
At his tree pit on Eighth Ave., just a few blocks south of Penn Station, Keith Peterson said, “I know when the cops do their sweep of the homeless people in Penn and they all come down here, I know when a dog has walked on my plants, I know when a human has walked on my plants. I never fenced my tree pit, but maybe I should.”
Despite these challenges, the tree pits showcased a stunning variety of design and vegetation. In her tree pit, Phyllis Waisman grows ferns, day lilies, and Russian sage, or “fake lavender,” as she called it. At one of her large pits on Ninth Ave., Missy Adams pointed out her peaches and hollyhocks. In his tree pit on Eighth Ave. and W. 18th St., Andy Thompson used cocoa shell mulch, that filled the air around the pit with the rich smell of dark chocolate each time the wind blew. In the mulch grew cosmos, cleomes, and blue salvia. Paul Bodden tended to asters, blue asters, cosmos, and Russian sage in his pit.
In Milt Verstandig and Carol Weinburg’s pit, nicotiana or “flowering tobacco” grew in abundance. Harold Gilstein and Maureen Melle-Rothstein grew roses and a plantana tree, with prostrate spurge lining the edge of the pit.
The tour ended where it began, at Eighth Ave. and W. 22nd St., after making a circle up Eighth Ave. to W. 30th St., then down Ninth Ave., looping back to Eighth Ave. via W. 17th St. Though the tour was somewhat strenuous — as three hours of walking in a bright midday June sun can be — it was a rewarding look at one way members of the Chelsea community have worked to make their neighborhood a little more green.