In the fall of 2015 New York City celebrated the planting of its millionth tree as part of the MillionTreesNYC initiative, which increased the urban forest by 20%. This is great for the quality of our public spaces, but with the city budget stretched thin maintenance of the trees has sometimes been lacking. This has inspired many New Yorkers to care for street trees and tree pits in their neighborhoods, using their own time, money, and resources.
To help celebrate this milestone, at our annual Daffodil Breakfast New Yorkers for Parks is honoring New Yorkers who use the daffodils they receive through the Daffodil Project as a way to care for their street trees and tree pits. This year’s Manhattan honoree is the Chelsea Garden Club, who turned the once-neglected and trash-strewn tree pits along 8th and 9th Avenues into urban oases.
“I vividly remember the first time I came into contact with the Daffodil Project,” recalls Missy Adams, founder of the club. “I was leaving the Union Square Greenmarket, and two people at a small table asked if I wanted free daffodil bulbs. They explained what the project was all about, and I thought it would be great for the tree pits in front of my apartment building. I figured that they would just give me a few, but they filled my backpack to the top. From then on the Daffodil Project was burned into my brain, what a really fantastic thing it is.”
The tree pits in front of her apartment building were the first places Missy began caring for. “They had standing water, some of the trees were rotting, they were full of litter, and dogs were using them on a regular basis,” she remembers. “Getting the tree pits to a place where I could maintain them well was an uphill battle.”
When protected bicycle lanes were installed on Ninth Avenue in 2007, the Department of Transportation also installed pedestrian islands with larger tree pits. DOT planted trees and bushes, but little was done in the way of maintenance. Missy noticed someone further up Ninth Avenue maintaining their tree pits, and she originally thought (as many of us do) it was the Parks Department. But it turned out that all the work was being done by a local volunteer like herself, and it inspired her to do the same.
Missy didn’t intend to start an official club, but asked if people wanted to work together when the city began ripping up the plants she and other folks were caring for, and replacing them with other plants. She tried to explain to the workers pulling out the beds that she and other volunteers were caring for them, but they said that they had a contract from the city and he had to get done. “It seemed so ridiculous for the city to spend money on it, when we were doing it for free.”
Missy met with a representative of State Senator Tom Duane’s office who found all of the agencies responsible and set up a meeting with them and the community board, with the goal of giving Missy and the other folks in the neighborhood permission to garden in the pits. Missy felt that they would be more effective at the meeting if everyone joined together, so about 10 people formed the Chelsea Garden Club. “We all knew that it was good for everyone,” Missy explained. “We would save the city money while providing a valuable service.”
The Club had a rough start because of the high cost of plants and the difficulty in maintaining tree pits, and they were looking for anything they could get for free. The club signed up to get free bulbs from NY4P, and in their second year they planted 1,500 bulbs up and down 8th and 9th Avenue. Because the daffodils naturalize, and most of the pits are adopted, they haven’t had to put many more in since.
“The daffodils are always the first flower to bloom every year, and are the harbinger of spring for our neighborhood. They’re just so bright and beautiful. I find them heroic in their ability to come back year after year. Any plant that can survive the city really is.”
“The plants remind people that something is happening on the streets, and people are maintaining it,” Missy explains, reflecting on how the sense of stewardship and pride extends throughout the neighborhood. They’ve even installed a few Chelsea Garden Club and Daffodil Project signs in the pits. “Strangers come up to us all the time and thank us for their work and say how much they appreciate it. A lot of people don’t realize that the work isn’t being done by the city.”
“It’s really important to get the word out. People need to know that these daffodils are coming from New Yorkers for Parks, and that these gardens and green spaces wouldn’t exist without this community effort.”
When asked if she has any advice for other folks interested in maintain their tree pits, Missy says to “just start planting.” “First make sure no one else is working that spot. But if it’s empty and neglected, put some daffodils in there. It’s not complicated. Word of mouth helps a lot if you want to start a group. We get local press coverage through Chelsea Now, and they really help spread the word. Track down people from other tree pits and invite them to join. Be aware of your neighborhood, and whatever you do, don’t get put off by the challenges.”
“Every year that it continues is awesome. I’m always surprised that it keeps growing,” she says when asked what she’s most proud of. “It’s such a lovely group of people. This may sound schmaltzy, but I find it to be a very selfless act. At its core it’s a very generous thing that each person is doing. There are a lot of challenges, but also a lot of payoff. It started off as a random, almost accidental thing. We’ve crept along step by step, feeling our way through. It’s a big achievement, and I don’t think any other neighborhood in Manhattan has done quite so much.”
“There is no grand plan or ambition; we simply want to plant something lovely to look at that might also shelter and feed a few birds, butterflies, and bees.”
When asked if she has any parting words to share, Missy says the Daffodil Project bulbs have been very “garden-affirming,” and gave the club an easy way to start. “It’s been so great for us and the community. The Club and NY4P are kindred spirits like that. We just want to make our public spaces better, and aren’t looking for much in return. It’s something that the world needs more of.”