A garden at Ground Zero

My partner, Esther, likes to say that she bought our apartment in the financial district right after 9/11 with the idea that someone would come and operate the patio. When I moved in a few years later, I was ecstatic. “I’m going to make a garden,” I thought at the time. “What could possibly go wrong?”

A lot, it turns out. The 800-square-foot parapet, which sits 10 stories above Broadway at the corner of the ground floor, is a surprisingly inhospitable place. The Federal Reserve Bank of New York, just east of us, robs us of the morning sun while a 54-story building clad in black Darth Vader sucks in the daylight of our afternoons.

And while its 800 square feet looks like it can accommodate a lot of salads, only the east side gets enough light to ensure a sizable harvest. It’s also the side that’s most exposed to what my neighbor Mark Bower liked to call “a harsh Siberian wind” – a distinctly non-Zephyr gust that punishes anything that dares to germinate. On top of that, whenever a New York sports team wins a championship, the ensuing Canyon of Heroes parade covers us with duct tape. For years, I pulled strips from the compost when the Giants beat the Patriots in the Super Bowl in 2012.

But in the middle of summer, between 11 am and 2 am, there is light – “A little flower between two abysses”, as Liszt said of the second movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Growing this little flower a little more has been my obsession for 16 years.

The first step in coming up with my own idea for a garden at Ground Zero was to go beyond my neighbor Mark’s idea. It was a huge reorientation. Mark, an uncompromising personal injury lawyer, had walked downstairs, so to speak, when our building was transformed from a commercial telephone company to a co-op in 1979. He had harassed the board of directors and obtained permission to renovate and tile what had been a tar paper affair and turned it into a fenced, code-compliant outdoor space.

Throughout the 1980s he was at the center of the party. Some of the original Saturday Night Live cast are said to have made an appearance. Years later, in the weeks following 9/11, Mark had shoveled three feet of World Trade Center debris from the terrace with his own hands. Since then, he had maintained the garden like an explosion of flowering rebirth. Thoughts, worries, lilies, lupines. It was Mark’s thing. But my thing was vegetables, and I told him that when I moved in.

Mark’s strategy, like the Giants’ offense, had been to flood the area. Every May, we would go to a nursery in New Jersey and put about a thousand dollars on potted flowers. In September, they would be dead, or dying. The rest of the year the gloom descended. The sun disappeared from the horizon in the deep winter, and we would wait, like a druid, for it to reappear in March, rising first in the gap between the Fed and the national debt relief building. It was in those first days of spring, when the sun was shining on the glass, that I had my first idea for improvement: reflection.

There were five non-functional screen doors around our shared garden terrace. I realized that I could turn them into solar boosters. Cover them with foil and position them around what I was starting to see as the most favorable end of the patio. I tried lettuce and to my delight it worked. It wasn’t like I had set up a solar field or anything, it just seemed to increase the light enough for the plants to be like, “OK, let’s try to make this work. Mark, busy thinking one morning, looked at my crop. He told me he looked almost good enough to feed his giant iguana, Murray.

The following year I became more ambitious and put in tomatoes. Courted by the names of seeds (as novice gardeners always are), I chose a variety bred by the Soviets called “Cosmonaut Volkov”, believing that she would have the means to survive Siberia. Alas, Volkov crashed to earth. But over the next few years, I realized that in addition to thinking, another key strategy was selection. Over time, saving the seeds from the most successful plants from the previous year, I was able to select a variety of tomatoes that were particularly well suited to Ground Zero Garden. The Mendelian approach worked. I haven’t bought a tomato seed in years.

And yet, despite gradual improvements in yield, I still found my plants regularly mowed by this strong wind. Marc was right. This wind was positively Siberian. How to win this cold war? Thinking about this last puzzle is what led me to the missing element, which would make the garden both sustainable and more productive: protection.

It is always helpful for a gardener to spend time in a garden, not gardening. Just being there and watching what’s really going on is usually revealing. It was on an idyllic autumn morning that I began to understand my enemy. The Siberian wind begins, as it should, in the east, blowing off the river and then up Maiden Lane. But before it reaches my terrace, it whirls above a turret and climbs a pressure gradient to the 10th floor. To stop the wind, I realized I had to block it from the side and from the top. I concluded that fruit was my best defense.

I bought Frontenac and Concord grape starts from a nursery in the upstate and started the slow process of creating an arbor to block the wind from above. Once the arbor was done, I made cuttings and started clones along the edges of the garden to stop the assaults on the sides.

Finally, during a visit to a friend’s farm in Virginia, I brought back a dozen raspberry plants and installed them as a direct barrier in the middle of the terrace. I now have a three foot tall raspberry hedge supported by a piece of plexiglass that I salvaged from the endless stream of high quality garbage from my building. My bushes are now producing enough raspberries each year to provide a light dusting on the cereals in July and August. As for the grapes, every few years I get enough for a single bottle of wine, which I brand with the name “Château Nul”.

Credit…Illustration by Elisha Cooper

Was it all worth it? Twenty years after September 11, what I can say is that in this harshest and least green urban environment, I made a garden that allows my family to be self-sufficient in salad from April to October. From November to February, I have grape leaves for the stuffing and canned hot peppers for the chilies and salsa. In March, I have my seeds from the previous year to plant in my closet, travelers to the future that make winter seem a little shorter.

What’s next for the GZG, as I affectionately call my Ground Zero Garden? With global warming and the increasingly hot summers, I started to think about citrus fruits – lemons and blood oranges would be fine, and I can move them indoors if things turn Siberian again. With legalization, maybe a few potted plants – a tribute to the feast days Mark ushered in when he gardened in the ’70s. But I do all the gardening now. Mark has moved, now retired to Colorado where he sometimes sends me pictures of the garden as it was then.

Meanwhile, new neighbors have moved in next door. A beautiful young couple that we like but who don’t know how to work the land too much. But they seem interested and they just had a baby.

Maybe my remaining task before I move on myself will be to grow another gardener.

Paul Greenberg is the author of “The Climate Diet – 50 Simple Ways to Trim Your Carbon Footprint”.

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