Islanders and visitors seeking refuge from city life will soon be able to spend time in the quiet company of tulips and peonies. The Roosevelt Island Garden Club, a community garden nestled between the Octagon Soccer Field and the Pony Field at the north end of the Island, will open its gates to the public on weekends starting May 6.
This year, the group is also hoping to catch the attention of off-Islanders by printing a brochure inviting visitors to the garden. The brochure, which will be available at the Tram Kiosk, offers directions for getting to the gardens and highlights plots designated as award winners by the club’s Standards Committee.
“It’s fun to have a little competition,” says Neal Weissman, the Garden Club’s current president.
The brochure was Weissman’s idea – one he acknowledges was not entirely without controversy. “Some members had reservations,” admits Weissman. “They think, ‘Oh, but this is our secret garden!’ We have over 50 people on the waitlist now; some worry it’ll grow a mile long.” But Weissman persisted. “I think we have to engage with the population.” He hopes the outreach effort will give tourists coming off the Tram another reason to explore the whole Island – not just the southern end.
On a gray and wet Friday morning, Weissman leads a tour past rows of plots just beginning to bloom. “In another month, all of this will be filled with color,” he promises.
A member of the Garden Club since 1987, Weissman sees the garden plots as a microcosm of Roosevelt Island itself. When the Garden Club originally started, located where Manhattan Park stands today, only the WIRE buildings (that’s Westview, Island House, Rivercross, and Eastwood – now renamed Roosevelt Landings) existed on the Island. Today, while WIRE-building residents still comprise three quarters of the membership, all of the Island’s buildings are represented.
Weissman says he can see a difference between the gardens of long-time members and the newer generation. Older plots tend to be a bit wilder, according the Weissman, with found objects scattered playfully among the plants, while the gardens from residents in some of the newer buildings tend to be more orderly, with everything “just so.”
“It’s gentrification, I guess,” says Weissman with a laugh.
Joining the Club
Any Island resident can apply for a plot in the Garden Club. The space currently features 132 plots, eight of which are designated as spots for the disabled and are wheelchair accessible. But don’t start polishing your spade just yet. According to Weissman, it typically takes four to five years to get off the the group’s waitlist – although one of the disabled spots is currently available (applicants must have a disability, but do not need to be in a wheelchair).
In addition to full memberships, the group also offers associate positions. These members don’t have their own assigned plot, but rather pitch in around the garden to maintain common areas or to help other members who may not be able to tend their plots due to illness or travel.
“Once a person gets into the club, they really don’t want to leave,” Weissman says of the long wait list. “They get attached to their plot and their plants.”
The group is in the midst of a multi-year effort to update the garden facilities. Weissman says they’ve nearly finished resurfacing the garden’s pathways with a finer gravel to make them wheelchair accessible. They are in the process of replacing the 30-year-old wooden borders around the individual plots.
“It’s a huge task,” says Weissman. He also proudly shows off the club’s compost center, which contains used coffee grounds from the Island’s Starbucks store.
Other improvements are less obvious. Weissman says the group updated its organizational structure following a 2013 scandal that resulted in dueling presidencies, accusations of arson and indecent behavior, and some very public infighting – landing the group not only on the front page of The WIRE, but also in The New York Times.
According to Weissman, the group has rewritten its rules to add more structure to the Garden Club’s governance and added more members to the board, placing less power in a single person’s hands.
“It’s much more orderly now,” agrees fellow gardener Michael Bieganek, pausing in the process of thinning out his radish seedlings.
To apply for membership, Islanders can visit www.rigardenclub.org and download the waitlist application form.
Starting in May, the garden will be open to the public Saturdays and Sundays from 9:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. until September 30. Guests are welcome to bring children and leashed pets. Tables are provided for picnics.
“Come smell the flowers,” says Weissman enthusiastically. “Just don’t pick them!”