Bushwick’s community gardens provide their immediate communities with spaces to gather, grow their own food and learn how to become more self-sufficient through workshops.

Now, reemerging from the initial shutdown as part of the COVID-19 response, gardens have the option to remain closed or to reopen their gates to the public with some restrictions. In Bushwick, many have opened and are looking for dedicated volunteers and some help from the City Council of District 34.

El Garden

El Garden has practiced urban agriculture since it opened its gates to the public in 2013 and is currently covered in rich vegetation.

Located behind the herb garden, the private and community beds provide fresh vegetables to members and neighbors.

Lindsey Castillo, a recent member and a major force in the gardening community, described the garden’s state after the initial lockdown.

Rats were burrowing underneath the gate, encouraged by the lidless garbage cans on the street. Rotting lumber had piled up in the corner. Members also had trouble leveling the dirt near the entrance. A factory previously built on the plot where El Garden is situated had a basement that was never filled in, and the ground will continue to sink until it is.

“It was kind of a wreck,” she said.

According to Andy Collins, who joined the garden two weeks before the pandemic struck, there isn’t so much a lack of resources as a lack of communication. At the start of the shutdown, a lot of volunteers who had originally signed up stopped coming. Shipment of plants, seedlings and other deliveries came to a standstill. And with no open hours, El Garden couldn’t recruit new members.

“I got used to thinking it was all because of COVID and didn’t even question it, but Lindsey came and said we needed to figure out what was going on,” said Collins.

Lindsey Castillo (left) and Andy Collins (right) stand in the garden they help maintain.

Castillo and Collins are the liaisons for GreenThumb, which facilitates deliveries by the Department of Sanitation (DSNY). Deliveries include compost and woodchips meant to cover a much of the ground in the garden due to concentrations of toxins from previous use of the land.

El Garden recently reached out to Alexis Rodriguez, a community organizer who works with City Council Member for District 34 Antonio Reynoso, to provide him with an overview of what the garden has been working on this past summer and what is needed to maintain it. This included a grant that had been applied for, the rebuilding of beds, and funding from GrowNYC for compost and benches.

Despite having contacted both GrowNYC and GreenThumb, El Garden says they have not received any funding as of yet. However, the Department of Sanitation and Vanessa Ventola, a member of GreenThumb, provided compost and wood chips. As for the grant, El Garden will receive an answer next month.

As its welcome sign emphatically states, all are welcome at El Garden.

Recently, El Garden is having difficulty finding dedicated volunteers interested in becoming members.

“A bunch of people moved away from the area to find cheaper housing and there wasn’t that strong base there once was,” Castillo told Bushwick Daily. “Now, sometimes you’ll get a person excited to help, but then they realize they’re either not that interested or can’t hold the obligation.”

The space holds workshops for those interested in learning how they can contribute and grow food throughout the changing seasons. However, according to Collins, no one had signed up for a recent workshop on fall planning.

The garden is interested in hosting social events like a dye-making workshop to catch the attention of local residents, Collins shared. “We want [the events] to be meaningful and have people invest desire, time and will. You want people to nurture and grow things but that takes time too. So it’s here if people want to do that.”

El Garden is located at 120 Jefferson St. and is open Wednesday evenings between 6 and 8 p.m. and Saturday mornings between 10 a.m. to noon.

Know Waste Lands/Tierra Sin Desecho

Know Waste Lands is primarily a wildlife garden, but they also grow produce.

Know Waste Lands was founded in 2014, stewarded by and co-founded with the nonprofit organization BK Rot, “NYC’s first bike-powered food waste hauling and composting service.”

The space is primarily a wildlife garden, meaning it caters to native plants to maintain the natural wildlife of the area and to attract pollinators. It also provides a space for seniors to get together.

“Normally, what’s so nice about this is that it’s a natural space where people can sit down, said Jessica Saab, a garden member since 2019. “There is a senior residence right on Dekalb — there’s the Buena Vida senior residence — so we have a prevalent senior community, and it’s nice when they visit.”

After the initial shutdown, the garden was able to get enough volunteers to begin efforts to grow produce.

“We got together and thought about ways we could serve the immediate community,” Saab commented.

After the initial shutdown, Know Waste Lands was able to get enough volunteers together to grow a vegetable and herb garden.

The garden began planting vegetables like tomatoes, peppers and broccoli, alongside native plants, Saab explained. The produce allowed them to briefly join the community fridge network, but they were unable to maintain the fridge due to energy complications. The community members are now looking to become more energy efficient in the future. 

The perennial issue, she adds, is the corner of the street where illegal dumping takes place. The garden has put up signs, but trash continues to be piled on the spot.

Household trash gets dumped on the Myrtle Avenue and Cedar Street corner in front of Know Waste Lands.

“There are two buildings where the landlords don’t provide trash areas for the residence, so it’s household trash and when people see it, they add more trash. They’ll give the pawnshop next door a ticket when it’s not even in front of their business. We don’t get the ticket though because we are [NYC] Parks property. It just creates tension in the community,” shared Saab.

Saab and other members have tried to elevate the issue to Reynoso. District Manager of Community Board 4 Celeste León, who is a member of the garden, has also tried bringing attention to the matter through her channels.

According to the Department of Sanitation, the corner is a known location for illegal dumping and Sanitation crews have been at the site at least four times in the last month for clean-up.

The Department reminds New Yorkers that trash is picked up in residential areas across all five boroughs on a daily basis and hopes that recent “concentrated efforts in problem areas” indicate to residents that illegal dumping will not be tolerated.

“Our efforts to speak with the owner of the building for education and outreach have not been successful thus far. We are referring this to our enforcement team, and we remind illegal dumpers that anyone caught dumping refuse from a vehicle faces a minimum fine of $4,000, and their vehicle will be impounded,” read a statement written to Bushwick Daily in response to the issue.

For more information on illegal dumping, you can go to the Department of Sanitation’s website.

As of now, Saab says there’s a lack of volunteers that are from the area. “We’d like to engage more neighbors so that they feel ownership over the space.”

Open hours are on Saturdays from approximately 12 p.m. to 4 p.m. Access the volunteer form here.

La Finca Garden

La Finca hosts barbecues, birthday parties, and seasonal planting workshops.

La Finca, which started in 1986, has developed a reputation as an essential part of the community. The garden is popular for its barbecues, summer celebrations and birthday parties.

“All kinds of people come here and everyone is welcome,” Samuel Monserrate, a long-time member and community leader of La Finca, told Bushwick Daily.

According to Monserrate, the garden is “basically under control,” with scheduled fumigation and maintenance. Seasonal workshops on how to plant are also provided and there are communal plots where neighbors can grow food should they choose to.

For a while after the shutdown, no one came to the space, and the garden beds went without trimming. Plants that had died were removed and those that grew from the previous year’s planting season continue to be cared for. The garden grows a mixture of flowers and vegetables, such as tomatoes and pumpkins. 

The flower bed and vegetable bed lie opposite each other.

Right now, La Finca is looking for more volunteers that are interested in caring for the space and who are able to accept deliveries from GrowNYC and GreenThumb.

“There could always be more volunteers because volunteers have lives outside the garden. They have jobs, classes,” shared Monserrate. “I’m not here all the time either and between me and my two friends, we try to manage with garden hours.”

La Finca, located at 1036 Flushing Ave., is open every day from approximately 3 p.m. until 8 or 9 p.m.

Stop by these community gardens or another one near you during open hours to lend a hand and get involved! Bushwick area gardens include Concerned Citizens of Grove Street, Good Life Garden, Miraflores, The People’s Garden. Find these or another garden near you through the Brooklyn Queens Land Trust site

All photos by Allie Herrera.

Quotes by Samuel Monserrate have been translated by the author.

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