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A head for gardening: Albany DGS worker Bernie Fana. :Photo by Chris Sheilds

The Secret Life of Plants
And the unsung heroes who keep Albany's public gardens in full bloom
B y Darryl McGrath

There is a secret to getting Albany to burst into bloom every summer, against the odds and in the most unlikely places. It’s when rubble-strewn soil sloshes over with color, in the form of roses and marigolds and impatiens.

That secret is water.

Water can make flowers clamber over fences and planter boxes for a few precious months, despite a painfully short growing season. It can coax life out of streetscapes that barely look like they can support the buildings, let alone a patch of geraniums.

“Water is the single most important thing,” says Judy Stacey, who has been the city gardener for five years. “There’s no point in putting flowers in if they’re not going to be watered.”

But to get water, you need volunteers willing to tend Albany’s hundreds of public gardens. Stacey and a crew of four year-round laborers from the city Department of General Services—along with a staff of seasonal workers—couldn’t begin to keep up with the effort.

In Stacey’s favorite story of volunteer spirit, she recounts the time the Delaware Avenue Neighborhood Association bought wagons and plastic buckets, filled the buckets at their firehouse and then carted the water to a patch of public gardens that the city could not get to in time.

Residents like these can be found throughout the city. They are the tenants and homeowners willing to stretch hoses across sidewalks and carry heavy watering cans from their kitchen sinks night after night.

“They’ve gotten together ahead of time and decided they want to do something,” Stacey says. “There are community gardens where people have gardened for years, but a lot of people are gardening right in front of their house. It says, ‘Somebody who lives in this house cares.’ ”

Judy Stacey tools around Albany in a Department of General Services Ford Ranger pickup truck cluttered with rakes and sprinkler parts, her straw hat with its pink grosgrain band pitched behind the driver’s seat. As she drives, she recites statistics.

Albany plants at least 200,000 spring bulbs every year, and the number may be as high as 250,000.

“I lose count after about 150,000,” Stacey says. “I put the last of the tulip bulbs in this year on Christmas Eve.”

She works with nearly 40 volunteer gardening groups, many connected to neighborhood associations. There is work for all, because the city has about 450 flower gardens, 750 hanging baskets and 132 varieties of flowers. Washington Park alone has 80 gardens.

Stacey, 57, is deeply tanned and athletic-looking, with brown hair hanging in a ponytail halfway down her back. She is a self-taught gardener who doesn’t have the time to plant a garden at her Albany home. She works year-round and earns a base salary of $34,161. In the winter, she and a staff of four DGS laborers shovel out snowbound elderly or disabled residents during storms.

She can be seen all over the city in hiking boots and shorts, stopping to poke the soil or check a new planting. She takes delight in the fact that someone once called the cops on her, mistaking her for a vandal desecrating a city flower bed. To Stacey, that means people care.

“What we’re finding is the gardening is bringing people out of their house and talking to their neighbors,” she says. “It may only start with a few tree wells.”

Green thumbs up: (l-r) City gardener Judy Stacey with volunteers Jessica Butler, Diane Clancy, Lester Guynup and Terry Butler. :Photo by Chris Sheilds

Stacey doesn’t like to talk about herself; she likes to talk about her volunteers. Her volunteers don’t like to talk about themselves, either; they like to talk about their gardens. Listening to them, you get the feeling that all of these people are having a lush, summerlong love affair with flowers.

The volunteers have traditions and rituals that they repeat year after year. There’s Arbor Hill muralist Yacob Williams, who has underscored his wall-sized paintings on building exteriors with scarlet lines of rose bushes while supervising neighborhood cleanup projects.

There’s Park South resident Glen Snider, 78, who signed on as a volunteer at the Ten Broeck Mansion garden a dozen years ago, and is now the head master gardener there. (The nonprofit mansion is not a city garden, but Stacey considers it one of the city’s showcases of volunteerism.)

Peter Rumora, 72, has been gardening for 40 years and could qualify as the dean of Albany gardening volunteers. Rumora tends the conifer and wildflower gardens in Academy Park, which faces City Hall and is arguably the quirkiest, most fascinating of the city’s green spaces. Yes, there really is a plant called ironweed, and you can see it here: tall spikes of leaves topped with purple flowers.

Both plots hark back to a beautification movement in the 1980s, when wealthy families became plant patrons. The Harrimans backed the conifer garden, while contributions by the real-estate entrepreneur Irving Kirch got the wildflower garden going.

“Putting out plants is the most economical way to dress the city up,” says Rumora, who moved from Albany to Schenectady six years ago but still travels to Academy Park to tend the gardens. “It’s an incredible bang for your buck.”

It’s not easy to get Albany into bloom every year. The city’s trademark tulips are actually a major pain in the neck to produce, because squirrels react to tulip bulbs the way humans react to gourmet chocolates, and eat them as fast as they can find them. The thousands of bulbs that bloom despite the squirrels get dug up at the end of the season anyway, because they look best when they’re planted fresh each fall.

“After our long, gray winter, to have that brilliant, electric color makes up for all the problems,” Stacey says. “And once they’re up, they’re trouble-free.”

DGS Commissioner Bill Bruce credits Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings with expanding the department’s mission into beautification. To that end, the city will help a neighborhood gardening project by tilling a vacant lot or dumping a truckload of soil.

The three-season gardening effort in Albany, which begins with the tulips and ends with chrysanthemums, costs about $98,000 in bulbs and plants, which are purchased through public bid.

“For a city the size of Albany, with our budget, it’s a substantial amount, but a good investment,” Bruce says.

Not that anyone is complaining, and Stacey would be ready for them if they did, armed with passionate arguments about the benefits of gardening.

“It’s certainly a small price to pay for the enjoyment it gives the citizens,” she says of the time and money and love required to get the city blooming after six months of winter. “If people are happy here, if they can take pride in it, if it can take those hard edges of concrete off—they’re going to contribute back many, many times.”

A family that hoes together, grows together: Ridgefield Park gardeners. :Photo by Teri Currie

Garden of Eatin’
Going strong and getting stronger every day, Capital District Community Gardens provides better living through gardening for the area’s urban population
By Kate Sipher

For many city dwellers, those small gardens nestled between buildings and within parks are merely oases of green leafy goodies for the eyes, nose and mind. A welcome respite from concrete and glass—a five-second breather as we traverse the city streets. Or perhaps we use them as a spot to rest and ponder.

These are perfectly legitimate functions, but the roughly 600 area families who participate in the communal plots can attest that there are even further rewards for those who garden within—although one can’t completely get away from the glass.

“A lot of the soil is urban soil,” says Amy Klein. “You know, an interesting mix of soil, clay and broken glass.” Klein is the director of Capital District Community Gardens, the 30-year-old nonprofit service organization that manages the gardens—spread throughout Albany, Schenectady and Rensselaer counties, with the vast majority in urban areas.

More than half of the participants are low-income families, who supplement their family’s diet with food they grow in their plot, which is paid for on a sliding scale (they’re called “contributions” rather than “fees,” since you only pay what you can). In a season, a gardener can grow $1,000 worth of food, and any who are savvy about extending their growing season and storing their produce will reap further rewards.

There are 39 gardens under the umbrella of CDCG’s management, and Klein says the organization is looking to create more—one hope is that there will be three more by the end of this summer. “We’re looking for a site in Cohoes, and we’re looking for a new site in the Mont Pleasant neighborhood of Schenectady—we don’t have any in that neighborhood,” Klein says. “And another one in Albany.”

“Albany could support quite a few more,” Klein admits. Take one Albany neighborhood near Lincoln Park that has with a cluster of gardens: Even with the huge 51-plot garden at the bottom of the park, the Lincoln Park garden, the 3-year-old Chuck Shoudy Memorial Garden on Martin Luther King Boulevard in the park (15 plots) and another garden right around the corner at Irving Street and Myrtle Avenue (18 plots), the gardens are all filled. “We could definitely use more space in that area,” says Klein.

The city of Albany actually has 18 community gardens, with one—unique for the whole region—on the border of Albany and Delmar: Normanskill Farm garden, which provides more than 40 plots, called “fields” in this case, that are 1,000 to 2,000 square feet per plot. This is a garden for Albany residents, and gardeners who want the extra space will travel outside of their neighborhoods to garden there—an exception, generally, to the rule that people garden close to home.

“We try to encourage people to garden as close as possible to either where they live or where they work,” Klein says, “because the closer you are to the garden, the more likely you’re going to come often, and take care of it.” Which brings us to an important rule of the community gardens: Take care of your plot.

It’s not a difficult rule, no more difficult than the actual gardening—which, contrary to many observers, is not an easy undertaking. Once the season gets rolling, which is supposed to be by June 1—another rule—CDCG staff patrol the gardens, making sure everyone is happy, that the shared space looks good (everyone shares the duties of mowing the pathways, picking up litter, things that make the whole garden healthy), and making sure everyone is actually keeping up their plots.

Which sometimes isn’t the case. “Usually life intervenes and something comes up,” Klein says, discussing why people drop out of the program. “And when it’s a situation where there’s an illness or something like that, we obviously try to help them as much as we can, and get other gardeners to help them so they can carry through the season.

“And sometimes people just abandon their plots because it was harder work than they thought it might be, and they aren’t up for it,” she continues. These abandoned sites can also get noticed by the garden coordinator, which many of the gardens have—an individual who has agreed to keep an eye on the site, and who is in somewhat constant contact with the CDCG staff. Coordinators will alert the staff to water issues, compost and wood-chip issues, and what have you, as well as let the gardeners know when the free plants and seeds are available—they’re always available, just at different times.

Water is a huge issue for a garden, which is no surprise, but for our area’s gardens it’s not as dire a situation as it is for other regions. “Last summer we went to a conference for the American Community Garden Association,” Klein relates, “and we walked away feeling really positive about the program we have here in this area.” When a discussion about water arose, fellow community gardeners were shocked at the ease of water distribution within the CDCG community. “We provide all of our gardens with water in one way or another,” relates Klein. “Most of them have water spigots, and if they don’t have a water spigot, then we have barrels that the fire department comes and fills for the gardeners. This is such an alien concept in other parts of the country. People in New York City almost fell off their seats in awe that the fire department would do that and that so many of our gardens have water spigots.”

Klein and the rest of the CDCG staffers, while constantly working to manage the gardens, also keep busy in an effort to increase the public’s awareness of their existence. “When I came here I used to say this is the best-kept secret imaginable,” Klein says. “I thought I knew a lot about what was going on in this area in the environmental field, and I didn’t know anything about this organization.”

CDGC has come out of the closet during Klein’s six years with the organization, and the program just keeps getting stronger, with increasing garden sites, maintenance and repairs a regular occurrence, a new and very large office space that can now house more staff, volunteers and interns, an educational program on the near horizon and one a little further out.

The group’s imminent educational agenda includes the new position of garden educator, a staffer who can work one-on-one with novice gardeners. “To get more low-income people to really use the gardens so they can provide food for their family,” Klein says.

“Gardening is hard work,” she continues. “So many people think it’s such a nice little pursuit, but it’s really much more than that.”

The long-term educational program stirring in the minds of Klein and the other CDCG staff members involves a gardening-education center on a two-acre plot adjoining one of their Troy gardens (it’s actually on the site of their old offices). “Right now, we’re in the imagining stage—the beginning planning stages,” says Klein. They’re imagining a classroom and greenhouse facility as well as an outdoor classroom for demonstration purposes. “We can teach composting techniques; we can teach rooftop gardening; different types of gardening techniques; extending the growing season,” explains Klein. “All kinds of wonderful hands-on techniques that you just can’t do in a classroom setting effectively.”

And CDCG will continue to maintain and create garden plots throughout the region, and many people will continue to grow a large amount of their family’s food. And perhaps fewer of us will merely pause outside the gate to gaze at the luxuriant vista. Perhaps more of us, especially with the promised training on the way, will enter the garden.

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