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Notes From the Lawn

Secret Gardens

Now a New Yorker, our resident green essayist brings her yardwork series to the big city, even if it means breaking into private plots.

I owned a key to a garden once. It was in London, in Notting Hill. For three years I was entitled to a key to Ladbroke Square Garden because I lived in the neighborhood. I worried about the exclusivity of this for about 30 seconds, then used the garden almost every day. I walked its pebbled path, read by its crescent-shaped rose bed, picnicked beneath its enormous plane trees. Three times I celebrated Guy Fawkes day around a bonfire (and I still like to say “Penny for the guy?” on November 5th, though I have no idea what it means). When it was time for us to leave London, I gave the key to an Australian friend who does not live in the neighborhood but who now gets to enjoy the garden secretly, perhaps even more than the privileged locals who don’t have to worry about the day the locks are changed.

Recently I moved to New York City (after a few years trying to become a gardener in Virginia), and my home is again very close to a private garden. This garden, though, is private in a distinctly American way—you can obtain a key not by virtue of where you live (although we have those, too; see Gramercy Park) but by virtue of what you are willing to do. It’s a community garden; you must cultivate an assigned plot. A few open hours per week are for everyone else to enjoy your work, making the place a distinct hybrid of public and private. This garden, called La Guardia Corner Garden, sits 17 floors below my new home, perhaps the same distance as Ladbroke Square Garden was from our mews house in London, just down instead of over.

But the 17th floor is high. No dappled sunlight up here: we’re above the shade trees, those green cotton balls between buildings. A dog walker might as well be a bunch of swinging arms and legs walking an apostrophe. You can hear buses and sirens, but not the convivial clinking of china at a café. (The mariachi band that plays occasionally at Señor Swanky’s, however, comes through well.) In other words, it’s too high, but one friend I complained to said, “Don’t let anyone else hear you say that,” so I’m trying to get over it.

After we moved in, I walked by the La Guardia Corner Garden for three weeks before I found the gate open. I had only 10 minutes before I had to pick up my daughter at school, but I couldn’t resist. I adjusted my bag on my shoulder and stepped inside.

We’re above the shade trees, those green cotton balls between buildings. A dog walker might as well be a bunch of swinging arms and legs walking an apostrophe.There was a short, older woman working in the potting shed. I didn’t want to surprise or scare her, so I walked over to say hello. She was dressed all in white—real gardeners don’t care about stains, and white makes a lot of sense because it’s cool in hot weather—and could have been my grandmother if my grandmother had had a French accent and a bob. Before I could say anything, she told me she had to close the garden and walked past me. It was obvious I was supposed to follow, and quickly.

From behind her I said it was a beautiful garden.

No response.

I asked how the plots were assigned.

“You have to write to a P.O. Box,” she said ominously. “There’s a long, long waiting list.”

We were outside the garden now. I pointed to a phone number while she locked the gate.

“No. Not a phone number. A P.O. Box.”

There were several signs posted on the fence, but we couldn’t find it.

She said, “It’s always here,” and we looked some more. Maybe there was a sign we couldn’t see? Covered in part by the gorgeous clematis?

That is when I swear the woman said something like, “I’ll bring it to you if you wait here,” and then dashed away and disappeared into the café across the street.

The couple sitting in front of the café must have thought I’d been expelled. They’d watched me enter, and now here I was, locked out just two minutes later. They stared as if trying to assess what I’d done wrong. Embarrassed, I nevertheless tried to look purposeful: I reread all the signs, I smelled the clematis (a non-fragrant variety, but I hoped they didn’t know that), I looked at my watch (twice). Finally I decided the woman was not buying me a welcome pastry but must have had a bathroom emergency of some kind—she had walked very fast, pitched slightly forward—and I raced off to get my daughter.

That night after dinner, I peered longingly out my window and saw several people sitting in the garden. It was dusk and one of them seemed to be playing a mandolin. If the gate was locked, I figured I’d beg.

The gate was wide open, but the man with the mandolin said, “I just put away the guest book.”

“There’s a guest book?” I said, thinking this was hopeless—the English have nothing over us when it comes to horticultural exclusivity.

But the man looked a lot like the Burl Ives narrator/snowman in the classic TV Christmas special about Rudolph and turned out to be just as friendly and full of history; if only he’d shaken in horror when he was talking about the bulldozers that threaten this garden the way the cartoon character does when describing the abominable snowman, the resemblance would have been complete. Jeffrey has had a plot here since the early 1980s and he confirmed that one must write to a P.O. Box for an application. The waiting list is long, he said, but apparently people get themselves on the list during good weather, then get the call during bad weather and are less interested. He looked at me with confidence, as if he knew I would never be so capricious.

“Sometimes as many as seven names pass over the opportunity!” he said.

I was touched and honored. I know a neglected perennial bed in Virginia that was laughing uproariously as I shook my head and said, “Can you believe it?”

I craned my neck to look up at my new apartment—lost for a moment in a low cloud bank—and vowed privately, as I have many times before, to be a better gardener should I ever get a plot.

“Do you know the address?” I asked.

He recited it from memory.