This Ain’t The Botanic Gardens: Confessions of a City Parks Volunteer

    Getting more dirt than you bargained for is always the case when you donate your time to the city’s soil

    “So you got this garden writing gig…but you don’t have a garden,” my mom stated/asked. I love it when the source of my existence questions my path. She was right, though: I was a plotless thot who dabbled in window boxes and houseplants. How was I going to get a grasp on the horticultural scene all pent up in pandemic-apartment life? Dirt in my borough is zoned, fenced, and rat-riddled. But where there’s dirt, there’s bound to be some way to dig into it.

    On an Aerate assignment, I interviewed people with actual gardening jobs, and while cyberstalking some botanists, I stumbled upon a call for horticultural volunteers at Marine Park in Brooklyn. Google Maps outlined a bike path that plunged 45 minutes down Bedford Ave. between Avenues U and Z. It’s Brooklyn’s largest park, in fact, and mostly protected wetlands. Cool! As a Marine Park volunteer I would pluck horseshoe crabs from Cheetos bags before they suffocated. Or transplant reeds for a sandpiper haven. Probably while wearing some trendy-looking waders. 

    Turns out citizens need gardens more than sandpipers, so our group of two-to-four people was often stationed by the sports fields and playgrounds, cleaning up beds and sowing them with native plants. In mid-March, on my first day of volunteering, the head of the horticultural department applauded the ski suit, fur hat, and mittens I’d worn to trim back perennial grasses in an impending sleet storm. “Most of this training is learning how to dress for the weather,” she said. The Caro Community Center felt like my chia pet and I was its barber, but the blow dryer of the Atlantic was glacier-cold and gale-force. I endured for 90 minutes before biking home. 

    As spring warmed, sure, it felt gratifying to learn about our indigenous flora and make the neighborhood a little greener, but it was those long showers, after I returned from biking up Bedford Ave., muddy, sweaty, and shivering (or later, schvitzing) that felt like the real reward—especially after I grabbed ahold of a dirt clot that turned out to be dog poop. “This ain’t the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens,” Pam, a horticulturist from Bensonhurst chuckled.

    It certainly wasn’t the lush, manicured, taxonomized collections I loved to amble through. You have to work your way up to those, Pam told me. Nor was this the community garden behind my apartment building, where members leisurely tended raised beds and nursed their organic strawberries with home-churned compost. 

    A smaller phragmites root I pulled up. Credit: Aliza Gans

    We wrangled invasive species (my proudest achievement was digging up a six-foot phragmites root completely intact), pruned back pricker bushes, and drove fence posts into the ground with a clunky, loud thing called a rammer. We picked up lots of litter along the way (a volunteer accidentally included the ice-cold passionfruit La Croix I brought as motivational refreshment one morning, grr.) Pam showed me how to use a weed-whacker, too. I threaded the plastic line through the rotor and went to town on that mugwort like the Terminator. Then, I broke out in hives from all the debris that whacked back at my uncovered arms and legs. 

    I was glad not to be getting paid for this landscaping (or was it horticulture?) because I wasn’t very good at it. This was finishing school for all the things my dad never taught me, or never thought I needed to know. If I do ever graduate from renter to owner, I might not have a team of ski-suit-clad, dog-scat handlers to tame my yard. YouTube can only teach you so much, right? (And there are ads.) 

    The bed where we planted partridge peas (and I grabbed a glove-full of scat.) Credit: Aliza Gans

    Working from home for my garden-media day job, boxed into an apartment, with few places to go, I was really grateful for the opportunity to convene with a few other crazy people to beautify the park—or at least salvage some sense of mastery over littering idiots and aggressive weeds. It felt like exactly what I had signed up for: getting to know the dirt of Brooklyn, and the people who tread it. At a tree-planting ceremony on Arbor Day, I helped pickaxe two ditches for flowering dogwood saplings. The family who donated the trees placed notes into the pit for their deceased patriarch. I took a picture for the family, smiling and huddling around the hole. After they’d gone, I filled the cavity with dirt, and the dirt filled me back. 

    Arbor Day’s flowering dogwood I helped plant. Credit: Aliza Gans

    Enjoy more daily content from Aerate on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.

    5 Cult-Favorite Botanical Wallpapers

    From hand-painted chinoiseries to swaying Mid-Century palms, here are five iconic looks whose charms have stood the test of time, and are still going strong.

    A Japanese Garden Master Goes to Prison—and Everyone Feels Better

    “They have plenty of boulders,” Hoichi Kurisu says with a laugh. The award-winning garden master is talking about a project he’s designing on a dry part of Moloka’i, Hawaii, that’s surrounded by big rocks and aggressive plants.