Community Column: Roosevelt Island Garden Club

Julia Ferguson, Secretary,
Roosevelt Island Garden Club,
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"'All that is very well,' answered Candide, 'but let us cultivate our garden.'" –"Candide", Voltaire

In the May Flowers article, Roosevelt Island Garden Club Director Ron Musto was quoted as saying, “The gardens are 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.” The Roosevelt Island Garden Club (RIGC) has cultivated over 125 member plots as well as open common areas, like the rose garden and the landscaped beds, for visitors to enjoy.

The founding members began creating beautiful gardens and green spaces on the Island in 1979. RIGC was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization in 1987. Today, it is a volunteer organization for gardening and garden-related community building. We have been gardening at our current location (north end of the Island, across from the fire department) for over 20 years.

We are now reaching out more than ever to support community gardening and promote green spaces on the Island and beyond. Last spring, we invited one of the New York Botanical Garden landscape design teachers to offer a workshop/walk-around with our gardeners. More recently, we were honored with a workshop by five Consulting Rosarians from the Manhattan Rose Society, one of 300 local societies of the American Rose Society. They taught us the best techniques for the fine art of pruning. The garden was filled with a concentrated quiet as they worked alongside members in the spring sunshine. We love these visits from specialists, and have many expert gardeners as members. Soon, June will arrive, and the roses will be in full bloom, followed by the irises, peonies, and daylilies in July. We are now busy preparing the gardens to open for visitors in May!

This year, RIGC started a project to make our pathways more accessible to wheelchairs, strollers, and pushcarts. Since mid-March, we have had all ages of gardeners working alongside young adult volunteers to rake, clear out old gravel, level, and prepare paths for the 3/8 minus special mix that will soon go down. Beverly Shutes is heading this project with panache. RIGC has always had three accessible blacktopped paths that lead to H-plots for gardeners who need raised beds or who may work from wheelchairs, but this is one way that we hope to improve accessibility to all corners of the garden. In 2014, we were proud to host the annual picnic of the International Association of Gay and Lesbian Judges in the garden. Another member brought in a Cyanotype/Sun Print Workshop for all ages and all artistic levels.

We look forward to what 2015 will bring. Watch for our booth on Roosevelt Island Day (June 13), and join us as we support the RIRA team in Relay for Life. We also plan to gather a group to volunteer with Trees Count 2015!

In 2012, Karen Lee began leading the club back to composting, which had been standard in earlier years. We started offering regular classes on composting to all gardeners. In 2014, the club banned all black plastic bags and reduced our landfill waste by 90%. Karen believes that we all have an obligation to take care of the earth for future generations. This year, we will expand the classes to include other interested Islanders. Anthony Longo, our Compost Committee Chair, is helping the Octagon Garden group with their composting program. He has taught us his simple motto: “What comes from the earth, returns to the earth.” We have initiated a new dialogue and working relationship with the experts at NYC Compost/Build It Green in Astoria. Are you a composting aficionado? We’d love to have you join us.

The garden is also available to host children’s groups and class visits. Last year, we had PS/IS 217 students visit with ­iDig2Learn’s Christina Delfico, as well as Island Kids and Day Nursery campers for summer workshops. The children spent time touching and smelling herb cuttings, learning about worms and snails, and planting seeds. They enjoyed an exploration walk through varied sections of the garden, saw vegetables growing in the dirt, sorted organic materials, and observed the cycle that turns apple cores into compost. When the children brought their parents back into the garden during open weekend hours, we heard them explaining to the adults, “Look, Mom. That’s a tomato! Use your eyes. Don’t pick or touch.”

Last summer, we hosted a teen volunteer from the Lab School for 20 hours of high school community-service learning. We want to offer this program again for two high school students this summer. Currently, we have teens helping us on a pathways project. They will receive community service credit hours at their schools, Cardinal Spellman High School and the United Nations International School. Several of the teens have left the work days saying things like, “I can come back tomorrow if you want.” It sounds simple, but it takes time and work. It is so important for our city kids to touch a plant, feel some dirt, learn to rake, and understand how our food is grown.

“Our garden” can represent the changes that happen whenever we work together as a community with the earth. Roosevelt Island is a green space in this great city, and our community of green spaces is growing. RIGC welcomes this with open arms. We are ready to advise or help out as volunteers. We live or work daily here on this “Island Garden,” where daffodils are planted by Girl Scouts, cherry trees are about to bloom, and a native plant meadow lies waiting to grow at Southpoint. How can we work together to provide a spot of green here, a welcoming smile there, or add some bright colors to that small corner in the shade? “Let us cultivate our garden.”

The RIGC gardens are open to the public to visit every weekend from May through September. Please stay on the main paths and enjoy viewing the beautiful collection of garden spaces that we work hard to prepare and sustain. All member gardeners and associates are volunteers who work carefully to tend the gardens, each in their own special way. For more information or to fill out a membership application, visit If you would like to arrange a group visit or know a high school student interested in outdoor volunteer work, email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

Tags: Community Column Island Life iDig2Learn

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