This newsletter was originally published
August 18th, 2005. The article referred to in this piece can be acessed
(for a modest fee) in the New York Times archive.
Mid August in Ken's Garden
It has taken a couple of years to get it right, but I think my take on “fountains in the garden” (above photo) finally works. Besides, as you will learn in this issue, I often have too much of the real thing flowing through my garden!
In New York City and other major metropolitan areas, some people opt for a view from an apartment high-rise, while others seek terra firma: a house and a place to garden. Gardens everywhere have a variety of built in vulnerabilities, like suburban Japanese beetle infestations or urban Asian longhorn beetles. City plantings have insecurities unique to their environment. Consider community gardens growing in the shadow of high rise development; but even private gardens are not immune from “improvement.”
Four years ago, Brooklynites Kim Flodin and her husband Farhan Ali learned that a laundromat would be built on the empty lot next door They had no “air-rights” to protect them from a developer building on the commercially zoned plot outside of the bounds of the Historic Preservation District.
The garden, a 20 feet by 50 feet place featuring plants in raised
beds, a tiny lawn and their own patch of sky, had been a refuge. Then
came the news about the building’s massive wall that would close in
their garden and rob a portion of sky—and of course, sunlight.
I learned about their story from my Brooklyn neighbor, Bill Fidelo, a garden designer who worked with Kim and Farhan, to come up with inventive solutions to their dilemma. “Thumbing their noses” at the intrusion upon their space, Bill and Kim came up with some creative ideas for incorporating the wall into the new garden.
I wrote about Kim and Farhan’s urban gardening-crisis-turned-into-attractive-oasis in the August 18th House & Home section of the New York Times. Click this link to find the New York Times archive of this article.
Bill Fidelo grew up in Queens, NY with no garden space at all and always dreamed of having the space to create one. Now his dream has turned into a career. You can reach him at:
phone: 718-789-8219 e-mail: email@example.com
Frustration turned Industrial Chic; a fountain that appears to be fed from a spigot coming from the wall of Kim and Farhan's neighboring laundromat.
City dwellers often fantasize about the peace of rural living, but every country gardener will quickly point out that bad things happen to good people and gardens in the country as well. I have had the dubious honor of experiencing both urban and country garden disasters. And with hurricane season upon us, some very vivid, not so pleasant memories have come to mind.
Since my New York Times piece describes one urban calamity gardeners face, I thought it appropriate to share the story (an adaptation from my latest book Ken Druse: The Passion for Gardening; Inspiration for a Lifetime) of some of the garden challenges we have encountered in the New Jersey garden…and why, in the face of all that can and does happen, I could never stop gardening.
When Bad Things Happen to Good Gardens
I hunted long and hard before I found the beautiful piece of land that has become my New Jersey home and garden. Unfortunately, it was not the rural stone cottage of my fantasies, but a squat colonial-cum shack that most likely started life as a mill store. The property was dotted with dead trees, poison ivy and covered by brush—mostly overgrown shrubs and invasive weeds. But it had the most important elements I had been searching for: an interesting, even eccentric parcel, with varied conditions—and water.
The house perched on the highest part of a small island in a beautiful river, between the fast-flowing main section and a slower branch that had been dammed for a long-gone mill. A narrow canal cuts through the backyard, connecting one branch of the river with the other, and it is spanned by an arched stone bridge. I was charmed by the rustic stone walls built around the property, which contained the sandy soil of the natural flood plain. That first day, as we listened to the river rush along its rocky bed and over the falls of the old dam, the feeling grew that “This is the place that I have been looking for.”
I suspected the dangers of being on an island, surrounded by such an unpredictable force of nature. My suspicions were confirmed when the agent told me that I would be required, by law, to purchase flood insurance. I conducted an informal survey of the neighbors, as well as the people who had owned the house in the past, and received various reports of floods occurring “once in a decade” to “not since 1938”. One longtime resident told me just what my hopeful ears wanted to ear, “never.” I further rationalized that if the island had flooded, how could there be hundred-plus-year-old trees? In the end, the beauty of the place out-weighed my reservations.
Gradually, we upgraded the hovel of a house to an eyesore (one can live in an eyesore). My partner Louis and I worked out a master plan for the garden, including a near-acre size parcel across the slow moving branch of the river we have dubbed “little new jersey”. Over time, as we removed the alien plants and beat back the invasives, we hope to establish an all-indigenous haven for the native plants that grew in this immediate vicinity before European settlers arrived.
The rapid changes in those first few months of ownership were often exhilarating. My worries about floods subsided as a summer-long drought caused trees to drop many of their leaves by August. The river was certainly no threat then, having dropped to mere inches deep. But just weeks later I got a taste of what was to come, when the remnants of a hurricane roared through the region that feeds the river. The canal filled up and overflowed across the garden, stripping the mulch off some newly made beds. We had two more floods in January; and on Mother’s Day, 1996 a freak tornado came up the river. And I’ll never forget the wet, heavy snowfall of 1998 that draped itself over the early-spring garden, and waking up the next day—April Fools!—to discover a quarter of our trees damaged or destroyed.
We were visited by the “thirty-year” flood ‘98; a “hundred year” flood in ’99; and then, on December 3, 2000, an ice storm encased the trees. Heavy winds snapped the largest branch of the white pine in the woodland garden. The fifty-eight-year-old limb (we counted the rings) came crashing down into the center of the oldest Japanese maple on the grounds but, miraculously, caused little damage. The next day, as chainsaws roared and we carried off pine logs, it began to rain, continuing through the night and into the next day. Waves from the fast moving branch of the river crashed against then began flowing over the stone walls, flooding the property. The rain stopped; but the river did not crest until hours later, 2 PM on December 5—the worst flood to date; the flood that the New Jersey governor called the “Millennial Event.”
This two-page spread from Ken Druse: The Passion for Gardening shows my garden as it looked on December 5, 2000.
Dare I ask, what’s next?
• Spring, 2004: the deepest flood (four feet of water covering the garden—and my 35mm camera went into the brink!).
• September, 2004: perhaps the most surprising (so far). Even though it has been the shallowest flood, the fast-moving water caused the most damage of all the floods to date, scrubbing away the soil in several areas.
I recite this litany only to confirm that things happen when we try to create art in a living medium. Does nature test me as some people think God tests human beings? It doesn’t seem to matter that I’ve tried to be good to nature over the years, promoting causes in every way I can (including my right to vote, and with my checkbook to important organizations).
A major player in many of these disasters—the river—is also the attraction and a source of great peace that I and many others find here. The churn of the fast branch, low roar of the water over the dam, and babble of the canal create an ambient hum that soothes the soul and sets the restful place. Houseguests are forever telling me that they slept like a log; my mother says that when the daily trials of life best her, she closes her eyes, imagines herself in this spot, and feels a calmness wash over her.
I—we—have no choice but to deal with what nature—and sometimes neighbors—dole out. It doesn’t help me, in the immediate aftermath, to think of the additional light that will now fall on the beds when a tree comes down. And I can’t imagine someone looks with glee at a fresh concrete wall looming over their city garden and thinks, “oh goodie, a new garden opportunity”. I take no solace from a well-meaning friend’s assurance of future “planting opportunities”. Wounds to the garden are too often wounds to me as well. But as I cart away the debris and prune the stubs so the plants can heal more quickly, I more quickly heal myself as well. Whether I like it or not, the garden is changed; and, eventually, I remember that change is what a garden is all about.