“There was nothing here — nothing,” said Luis Rosario, 74, gesturing around his Mott Haven plot of land. The verdant vegetable patches of what is now Wanaqua Garden are dotted with cheerful sunflowers.
Ten years ago the empty lot was teeming with trash. Residents used it as a fee-free garbage dump. Then the Department of Parks put up a sign by the plot on East 136th Street, welcoming neighbors to use it for gardening. Rosario gathered a group of friends and set to excavating it.
“It took us more than a year,” said Rosario, one of a handful of gardeners that has stuck with Wanaqua from the start. In the decade since, gardeners have come and gone — some who just wanted to try their hand at gardening, and others who stayed longer.
For greenhorns and gardeners alike, though, this 10,000 square-foot lot is a place to gather, make friends, and feel part of a community. Neighbors pop in to pick up fresh vegetables free of charge, and dozens of children troop in a few days a week to care for the vegetable patches their elementary schools have adopted.
But the long-time gardeners of Wanaqua are the heart of the community. On a recent Saturday afternoon, Rosario, who is Puerto Rican, combed through the tomato bushes looking for ingredients for a salad, while his friend Carlos Mendez, who has also gardened here for years, marinaded beef in herbs and beer for a barbeque. Soon, Mendez’s nephew would arrive for lunch. In the meantime, Rosario invited two passersby to join them — a father and daughter whom he had never met.
Even after a decade, Rosario said the garden, with its rows of beans, yams, pumpkins, and herbs like cilantro and papalo, still attracts new faces. And for Rosario and Mendez, it is a second home. The two old friends visit the garden seven days a week and say even the winter doesn’t put them off.
“It’s a beautiful garden,” said Mendez, 70, who hails from Mexico and has lived in the US for 37 years. “It feels like being in my country in the mountains.”
“It’s perfect,” he said. “Like today, we’ll grill some meat and enjoy a calm afternoon.”
The garden may offer respite on some days, but just as often, it’s alive with dozens of schoolchildren from neighboring Public School 43 and Mott Haven Academy Charter School, harvesting swiss chard and squealing at the sight of bumblebees.
Each school cares for a sizable section of the garden, where the elevated flowerbeds are living, breathing science labs, and the children can follow food from the seeds they plant to the salads on their lunch table.
Candace Williams, a science teacher at Mott Haven Academy, said announcing that it’s time to go the garden is a surefire way to liven the classroom. “The students are super excited. So excited that sometimes it’s a challenge to get them outside,” she said.
Fourth-grade teacher Peter Kalkau’s students at P.S. 43 have learned to test the pH of soil and replenish the nutrients in it with compost, and students at both schools have harvested vegetables for salads and other dishes.
That’s a good recipe for getting kids to try new things.
“Those are the vegetables they planted, so they want to know how they taste,” Kalkau said.
Starting this year, some students at P.S. 43 will have reading classes in the garden, too, following the addition of a garden house this month where the kids can sit outdoors in the shade. The garden house, courtesy of the nonprofit GrowNYC and corporate donors, replaced a dilapidated shed and gives the gardeners much needed storage space.
Even better, it gives them water. Palette Architects, the Brooklyn-based architecture firm that designed the garden house pro bono, created a roof that feeds rainwater into a 1,000-gallon barrel that should fill up in just a few weeks’ time.
For the gardeners, it’s a huge convenience: They had previously been fetching water from a pump on the street.
“It’s great,” Rosario said, admiring the garden house that seems to reward years of hard work on the garden.
He continued searching for tomatoes and soon had a bagful. The garden produces more than the gardeners and their families can eat, but nothing goes to waste.
“I give it away,” Rosario said. “If someone needs it, I give it.”