Thursday, December 6, 2007

Planting bulbs and microclimates (A Word of Thanks)

(lily-flowered tulips like these 'Queen of Sheba' were among the many different varieties of tulips and daffoldils planted at the 96th Street branch of the New York Public Library by local teenagers)

Yesterday I had one of those days that reminded me why it is so important that we do what we do here at The Horticultural Society.

As people were bundled up and ducking inside or underground to avoid the cold and falling snow I was preparing to do just the opposite. Melissa Fisher, Director of our GreenBranches program, was busy installing a new GreenBranches learning garden out in Whitestone, Queens, and she had asked for my help. As part of our GreenBranches programming we plant bulbs in the fall with young children and teenagers at a number of our library gardens throughout the city. The recent weather was keeping the Whitestone installation on a tight schedule and Melissa had phoned to ask if I could run the workshop planting bulbs with teens up at the 96th Street branch of the New York Public Library here in Manhattan. Luckily my schedule for the afternoon was free of meetings so I said, “of course”, got the details from Melissa, and was on my way.

Well, as the afternoon rolled on I must admit I began to get nervous. I began to fear that the ground would be too frozen to plant, and I wondered what I was going to do with the hundreds of tulips and daffodils. The workshop was scheduled from 3:30 to 5:00pm and as the temperature continued to drop I then feared that no teens would even show in the first place. Certainly the looks of complete bafflement I received from the bundled commuters didn’t help, but I continued to swim upstream with my big bag of tools and reinforced steel shovel.

I arrived at the 96th Street Library, and it was amazing how my fears began to melt away. It was actually my first time at the 96th Street branch and entering the small backyard garden it looked so beautiful with the fresh dusting of snow on the evergreens. I always refer to our GreenBranches gardens as real oases here in the city, and this was no exception. I pulled a trowel from my bag took a stab at a piece of barren soil between a rose and some bergenia. To my surprise the ground was soft and the trowel penetrated the soil easily. I stood back and began to laugh to myself. Of course, I thought, microclimates! How could I have been so foolish?!

In the midst of getting myself worked up I had forgotten one of the basics. Here in the city we always have to consider microclimates. To understand microclimates in the city we have to take into account all the abiotic factors here in the city that might affect our gardens. Abiotic factors are nonliving, often man-made factors that affect our natural environment. For example the positioning of a terrace on the 20th floor that faces the water might be much colder and windier than your typical garden plot on the ground. Equally so, a backyard garden surrounded by large heated buildings might have slightly warmer soil temperatures compared to if it were out in the open. Microclimates are not to be thought of as being good or bad, but we certainly must consider them when discussing or performing urban horticulture. In this case the presence of a microclimate was to our advantage.

A few minutes later I was happily proven wrong a second time as a number of young teens joined me outside and asked what we were going to be doing for the afternoon. Wired on their large cups of hot chocolate these kids were amazing. After explaining what bulbs are and how they grow the boys and girls couldn’t wait to get planting. We laid out the bulbs, tulips and daffodils to flower from early- to late-spring, and we all got busy planting. Eventually the darkness forced us to quit for the evening, but not before we planted a couple hundred bulbs in this little oasis behind 96th Street. I was reminded how fearless kids can be and I felt I was learning just as much as they were. Furthermore it reminded me of the power and value of horticulture here in the city, and how important it is that we engage everyone to make this a greener, healthier, and happier place. I know those kids will be keeping a close eye on the GreenBranches garden at 96th Street, and I can’t wait to hear and see their reaction next spring. Even more I can't wait for those kids to continue to learn and grow, knowing how they will influence others to embrace horticulture in our city. Thank you to the amazing staff at the 96th Street library, the kids who now know and care about the importance of gardens and plants, and all the members and supporters of HSNY who make these programs possible.

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