When one thinks of New York City, it’s very likely that gardens aren’t what come to mind. Yet, within a city known for being a concrete jungle, there exists a vibrant network of urban oases where people come together to nurture plants while finding a sense of belonging, camaraderie and shared purpose along the way.
Epicenter’s Curtis Rowser III sat down with Isak Mendes, the deputy director of NYC Parks’ GreenThumb, who spoke about the program’s mission, how he got started with community gardens, how to become a member of a community garden and more.
Whether you’re a seasoned gardener, an advocate for community engagement or simply someone intrigued by the harmonious coexistence of nature and urban living, Mendes’ insight provides a rich exploration of how community gardens are sowing the seeds of unity and growth in the diverse neighborhoods of NYC.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Epicenter: What is GreenThumb?
Mendes: GreenThumb is the community garden arm of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. We have 550 community gardens in our registry, of which nearly 400 are on Parks Department property and are licensed and registered with GreenThumb. The other 170 or so are mainly land trust gardens that are subsidiaries of the Trust for Public Land. The community gardens are city-wide throughout the five boroughs.
In particular, we have a cluster of community gardens in Lower Manhattan, the Lower East Side, East New York and Harlem as well. These were created by community members in the 1970s, 80s and 90s who took over vacant lots and transformed them into the green spaces that we have today. These gardens function as community hubs – places where we host workshops, educational programs and special events.
This year, we are celebrating our 45th anniversary of when the first community garden on Parks property licensed with us.
Epicenter: How did you get started with GreenThumb?
Mendes: I’ve been with GreenThumb for about eight years. I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I’m a child of the community garden movement, I feel. I grew up in Park Slope and there’s a community garden on Sixth Avenue and 15th Street that my family was a member of. And that’s where, as a young child, I originally caught the community garden bug. My mother would save all the food scraps in the house and hang them on the kitchen counter. Once a week, we would walk to the garden and bring them to the compost system and just sit in the garden. They have this big beautiful willow tree. Even at a young age, I was like, ‘this is what I want to do as a career.’ After college, it was still something I was very interested in and it’s been a dream job ever since.
Epicenter: What’s the difference between GreenThumb and GrowNYC?
Mendes: We partner with them and work closely with them with community garden renovations. They have a school gardening program as well. I think they’re most well known for managing our farmers’ markets throughout the city, among many other things that they do.
Epicenter: What is the mission of GreenThumb?
Mendes: So, we have different models of community gardens. We have your traditional gardens, which are a combination of raised beds. Then you might have a social space, perennial or ornamental plantings in the garden, composting systems, maybe a greenhouse as well. Then we have a growing number of more urban farms that are doing high-yield food production inside of those spaces. GreenThumb, as part of being a registered licensed community garden, provides material and technical support to all of our community gardens. Material support is things like solid for those raised beds, lumber, wood chips and mulch.
We require that new soil enriched with compost be brought into the community gardens and that food be grown in raised beds. So there’s a separation between the existing urban fill soil and what our gardeners are growing in. And what’s great about GreenThumb is we provide this as a free resource for all of our gardens. That’s part of our mission — it’s like a reciprocal relationship. We rely heavily on the community gardens to maintain and steward these spaces. We allow a lot of independence and autonomy for the community gardens to create their own membership from the community. And when they do that, we support them with materials and provide them with resources to make improvements.
Epicenter: Are there any neighborhoods where the gardens are a more important source of locally consumed food?
Mendes: It’s happening citywide. During the height of the pandemic, a lot of our community gardens stepped it up. These community gardens became food-distribution points. They might have collaborated with local pantries or were distributing food that was grown in their gardens. They became community hubs, in response to all of the issues associated with the pandemic, like food insecurity.
And during that time, GreenThumb surveyed community gardens that were producing a lot of food and was able to help. One of the things we learned was that they needed soil. We identified those gardens; and despite lots of obstacles that the pandemic presented, we were able to get soil deliveries.
Epicenter: Does GreenThumb take practices from rural areas where gardening and farming may be more prevalent and implement them in NYC community gardens?
Mendes: A lot of our community garden leaders and elders have farming backgrounds and they have adapted that into their community gardens. Every spring, we do a plant supply distribution, and that’s a combination of native plants and other plants that attract pollinators. We’ve given out about 100,000 plants since 2020 each year. We also work closely with a farm in Upstate New York, in Orange County, called Rise and Root. A former Bronx community gardener, Karen Washington, is one of the owners and founders of that farm. Many of our gardeners have that type of background. They’re looking to farms and other stats as well, trying to apply those practices where they can.
Epicenter: What does being a community garden member mean, and what are the requirements for membership?
Mendes: Typically, a member is someone who may have their own plot in the garden or is providing some type of volunteer care for the space. The definition of a member depends on the garden, but generally, it’s someone that has a plot – not always, though. I’ll use my mother as an example. She’s been a longtime member of the community garden down the block from where I grew up and she just wanted a sitting space, so she never had a plot. She would go to all the meetings just so she could have a green space to go walk and sit in.
The requirements are established by each individual community garden through their bylaws. Now, we do have guidance on what those requirements may or may not be. One in particular is that all of our community gardens have to have a zero-dollar membership option. So if a community member doesn’t have the financial means to pay a membership fee, there has to be some type of way they can contribute to the garden without paying money.
Epicenter: If somebody wants to get involved, what are the immediate steps they can take?
Mendes: All of our gardens are on our website. We have the contacts of their community engagement coordinator and the contacts of the gardeners. So really just give them a call, and it’s a pretty straightforward process. It’s different based on the garden, but it’s majorly straightforward.