by Laura A. Russo
A mainstay of the Island, the Garden Club offers residents the chance to be part of a movement that harkens back to the urban pioneers who transformed vacant lots into vibrant green spaces on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the 1970s.
Dr. Ali Schwayri, a participant in the first Earth Day celebration in 1970, founded the Roosevelt Island Garden Club 36 years ago. Back then, it was located in the area that is now Manhattan Park Green. “The area was completely wild,” says Schwayri. “We didn’t request any help or seek any approvals, we went in and cleared the rubble ourselves and started planting.”
Ron Musto, Garden Club Director and an early member, remembers when he and his wife, Eileen Gardiner, saw the garden for the first time in 1985. “We were enchanted,” he said. “One of the very first things we did after getting our first apartment in Westview that fall was to join the Roosevelt Island Garden Club.”
A lot has changed since.
Membership to the Garden Club has always been coveted, with prospective members often waiting up to three years for a plot. But, the club recently made two important changes to address this issue. First, the bylaws of the club were changed to limit membership to residents of Roosevelt Island. Second, the club’s wait-list is now updated every six months in order to increase the availability of open plots. Schwayri said, “with people clamoring for a spot, it was important for us to try and speed up the process and meet the demand.”
Schwayri also noted that the opportunity to work in the garden is not limited to someone with a regular membership. Residents can join the Garden Club as “Associates,” either assisting a member who requires help with their plot or working on one of the club’s committees like maintenance, compost, or the rose committee. Associates are also allowed and encouraged to participate in the club’s community outreach
Community outreach is extremely important to Schwayri and members of the Garden Club. This year, the club will not only continue working with students from P.S. 217, but will also be offering composting classes to Island residents starting in the spring said Schwayri.
The classes are an outgrowth of the newly expanded composting program adopted by the club. As part of a recent agreement with RIOC, the club receives garbage pick-up only once a week, on Mondays. The club remedied the issue by banning all plastic bags and composting most all of their organic materials. Expanding the program not only drastically reduces the amount of garbage produced, but also results in a major conservation effort
The Garden Club takes conservation very seriously. In addition to the expanded composting program, the club began a tight ban on wasteful irrigation practices late last year. Schwayri noted that signs have been prominently placed around the garden imploring members to conserve water, and that all water usage is monitored closely.
Musto echoed the importance of the Garden Club’s work in conservation and outreach, stating, “The gardens are now an active partner in Island changes: a vibrant participant in a new awareness of our shared space, our ecological concerns in everything from composting to stewardship of trees and green spaces, and in our outreach on Roosevelt Island and throughout the city.”
After the controversy surrounding membership and election practices in 2013, Schwayri proudly notes a burgeoning new era of the club. “The Garden Club has been rebuilding and is stronger than before, the problems of 2013 are definitely behind us,” he said.
Schwayri encourages all residents of Roosevelt Island to witness the changes firsthand. “We welcome the community to come and visit us, we want to see the community involved,” he said.
From May through September, residents will be able to take Schwayri up on his offer - the garden will be open to the public on weekends, from dawn until dusk.