Iif you listen, I mean Really listen, you’ll hear your garden talking to you. Mine, which sits on a terrace in Manhattan on the 10th floor, a stone’s throw from where the World Trade Center was located, spoke to me for the first time on a crisp September morning 20 years ago. I had to be a jury that day and I decided to walk the two miles south of my house in Greenwich Village. to the courthouse in the financial district.
But when I turned south on Sixth Avenue, I looked up and saw a burning orange hole in the center of the tower in front of me. A nearby woman fell to the pavement, yelling something about a plane. It didn’t seem like a good day to go downtown; however, something forced me to continue south. When I got to a gas station on Canal Street, a boom sounded and a puff of smoke billowed out just behind the tower. “What was that?” I asked a taxi driver, filling his tank nearby. “Well, those two buildings are connected with pipes,” he said with the undisputed authority endemic to New York taxi drivers. “When you catch fire in one, it spreads and sets you on fire in the other.” Makes sense, I thought, and pushed south.
At one point, people in suits started jogging and then running in the opposite direction. They were kept spinning by spirals of office paper. Still, I continued south. Somewhere on Walker Street I was stopped by a policeman. “Dude, where the hell do you think you’re going?” he said.
“To court,” I said producing my subpoena. “I have jury duty.”
“You know what?” said the policeman, raising his hand. “Jury dismissed.” The rest of the day, as they say, is history. I went home and saw the towers fall in real time.
A year later, my friend Esther found a 120-square-meter open-plan loft, in a building dating from 1927, that sat in the shadow of the now-disappeared towers. Government grants designed to incentivize the district’s recolonization made it cheaper than Brooklyn’s emerging hipster enclaves. It had a terrace the size of a basketball court, shared with two other apartments. A little later we started dating. Then I moved.
Shortly after that, I started a garden.
Why a garden in this paved and unnatural place? Why try to grow something in a neighborhood where the power of capitalism turns off the sun with its broad, glassy shoulders and raises real estate values so high that no one would dare waste a piece of land on a little green? As a New Yorker, I tend to avoid West Coast-style spiritualism, but have come to believe that it was something the garden was telling me about the world, and that big burning hole drilled into the building next door, which did start. plant. The planes that crashed into the twin towers did not fall from the clear blue sky. The United States had been following a geopolitical strategy built around propping up oil. That ever-expanding infrastructure seemed like part of a wasteful tactic he didn’t want to participate in. So when I settled in Ground Zero, it seemed natural to try to bring something into the world that would oppose all of that.
Well then a garden. Something that does not waste, but takes advantage of waste. Something that said, “Stop expanding and settle for what you have.” But the first signs that anything could flourish on my terrace were not good. In midsummer, the sun graces us with three hours of light before disappearing behind a black building similar to Mordor in One Liberty Plaza. A lanky bamboo plant withered in a corner, while Esther’s ex-lover’s photography lamp lay on a windowsill casting cruel light on another defective bamboo. Our neighbor hung up pansy baskets, giving a beautiful burst of summer life. But they didn’t last, withering and darkening after the sun passed its high solstice. That first summer, all I could do was watch things die.
But it was watching things die that I received my first lesson in how to make things live. When I took a good look at the aftermath of my first growing season, I realized that the flowers that did the best were perched on the highest reaches of the trellises. The extra light a few feet of elevation gave meant the difference between failing and thriving. That’s when I alerted our Russian construction engineer, Simon, who was looking for some good rubbish. Simon, who in Soviet tradition had an almost visceral hatred of throwing anything away, duly obeyed. Soon he left ruined boards, filing cabinets, and all sorts of trinkets that helped get the garden up and running.
To equalize my ascending territory, I found plant species that turned vertical in a similar way. A climbing green salad called Malabar spinach turned out to have the heat tolerance and acrophilia to perform in the scorching heights of Manhattan. By summer number two, the highest parts of my trellises were full of vines, and salad season (thanks to Malabar and other heat-tolerant veggies like chard and Swiss chard) stretched from cool spring to the coolest part. hellish summer.
When I stood on my risers, the garden began to tell me something else: that reflected light was almost as good as direct light. Around me, as the replacement towers of the World Trade Center began to rise, light bounced from window to window – “sunny bunnies,” as Simon called them in Russian. What if I get the sunny bunnies to work in concert with my cause? There were a lot of old screen doors and plywood sheets everywhere. What happens if I turn them into solar panels? It was easy enough to do. Sheets of sturdy aluminum foil were spread along the door frames and curled around the edges. Later, I switched to more durable and efficient Mylar sheets. In due time, the tomato plants I bought from the nursery were cheated. They actually flourished, tricked by sunny bunnies into producing tart tomatoes that hardly ever ripened.
Almost half a decade later, the garden’s voice grew even louder. He told me that instead of randomly buying a single tomato variety from a nursery, I should grow 10 varieties from seed and choose the ones that thrived for my seed stock. I turned a photography sink into a nursery and set up a series of lights. Electricity bills skyrocketed. I changed the bulbs for LEDs. The bills went down. And now that I am switching my electricity supply to a renewable energy provider, I hope to reduce the carbon footprint to zero. My whole closet and energy efficient Mendelian tomato experiment has worked fantastically. Two varieties stood out: ‘Egg Yolk’ and ‘Black Cherry’. I have worked with his progeny ever since.
This same methodology has worked with other teams. Of the eight raspberry plants, one lived (sadly I can’t remember which one) and was able to be transplanted into what is now a hedge that protects the plants from the strong wind blowing from the East River. Four grape varieties were introduced in the early 2010s. Only two plants, a Frontenac and a Concord, survived the year. These two strains are the mothers of countless cuttings distributed throughout the terrace. Every few years the vineyards produce enough grapes for a bottle of wine that I call Château Nul.
I created a composting system. Two large garbage cans are in the far corner of the terrace, far from where anyone can smell them. Underneath, two aluminum trays sit and collect the “compost tea” that seeps through all that organics. This elixir stopped the yellowing of my crops and I finally had a full growing season on my hands.
As we reach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, construction on Ground Zero is almost complete, with five gleaming towers that I grudgingly thank for the reflected morning light. For Esther, myself, and our teenage son, this was a special blessing over the past year. The added light and heat made the occasional socially estranged outdoor meal with friends a respite from the isolation of a pandemic that would claim thousands of lives in New York, including that of our beloved Russian engineer, Simon.
Now, as we try to regain a foothold in life, I realize how an ecosystem has started to form around my garden. Bumblebees gather and pollinate my crops, and swallows and sparrows have settled in to feed on the caterpillars trying to chew my tomatoes. I’ve even seen a woodcock. There are too many pigeons, but I have my eye on an abandoned turret next door that I think might be an ideal nesting spot for a hawk. I’m sure such a bird wouldn’t mind the easy pigeon breakfast it might offer. Even snails have appeared this year. When I asked ecologist Carl Safina how they got to the 10th floor, he responded without missing a beat: “Very slowly.”
And so, in short, is how a garden is made at Ground Zero. Very slowly, feeling your way to nature as you feel your way to you. Even in a place where the living world has been paved and torn down over and over again, nature will find a way. You just have to listen to it.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism