Green Thumbs and Elbow Grease: Chelsea Garden Club Highlights Its Pit Work

PHOTOS AND TEXT BY DIANA R. CABRAL | Gardeners are sprouting up like weeds in the west part of our neighborhood, but you won’t find any of those unsightly wild plants in the soil tilled by tirelessly toiling members of the all-volunteer Chelsea Garden Club.

Lilies, evening primroses, and Russian sage were just a few of the colorful signs of spring on display when the club held its Tree Pit Tour on the sweltering Saturday morning of June 10. As annual tradition dictates, the group met at 10 a.m. sharp at W. 25th St. and Ninth Ave., in front of a pit on the north side of the intersection maintained by Luis Lujan. On the morning of the tour, Lujan was not able to attend — but his gorgeous blood-red lilies were in full bloom. They proceeded to cover ground down to W. 18th St. and all the way up to W. 29th St., along Eighth and Ninth Aves., stopping at various “tree pits” — patches of nature contained within concrete pedestrian islands.

Gardening in Manhattan has its challenges, many in the group admitted. Yet, their reasons for planting and maintaining these tree pits range from getting to know their neighbors to feelings of well-being upon seeing their garden when they arrive home from work.

“It is nice to be a part of a community,” said Lynn Weinstein, who gardens an “inherited” patch of soil on the north side of W. 22nd St. and Ninth Ave.

That sentiment resonated with one of the group’s pioneers. “I decided that there is strength in numbers,” said Missy Adams, who planted the seeds for Chelsea Garden Club while doing her own gardening and noticing others who were flexing their green thumbs. Elbow grease alone, however, wasn’t enough.

“You have no idea how many agencies are involved in these pits,” Adams stated, recalling how former then-State Senator Tom Duane organized a meeting between volunteers and city agencies. Duane secured permits for the club, and the Parks Department gave them mulch and small plants during those first few early years. Over the years, when a problem arises (such as when a volunteer had his pit paved over by the city due to water main construction), gardener Phyllis Waisman has been quick to engage city contacts. These days, they are usually given notice as to when some work will be done in and around the pits.

For Hilda Regier, a club member from its very first days, the perils of city planting are worth it when she sees all her pansies blooming in her patch on the north side of Eighth Ave. and W. 22d St. “The heat and dry weather can play havoc with our pits,” she said.

Kent Wang gardens a pit on the south side of W. 23rd St. and Seventh Ave., where a high volume of pedestrian traffic requires particular vigilance, and constant upkeep. The rewards, he noted, outweigh the challenges. “Living in the city,” Wang observed, “it is an opportunity to be in touch with nature.”

Most tree pits can be found on Seventh, Eighth, & Ninth Aves. from W. 17th to 30th Sts. Visit and follow Chelsea Garden Club on Facebook.

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