Defending His Daffodils, an Eight Avenue Gardener Keeps a Busy City at Bay
April 26, 2016
By James Barron
The daffodils were in bloom, which meant the garden had to be watered. Donald Wolfe said he would walk there from his apartment on West 50th Street in Manhattan — 38 steps to the elevator, 54 steps through the lobby, 75 steps down the block to the corner and 37 steps across Eighth Avenue.
First he put the jug with the water on his wheelchair. His oxygen tank was already in place, on the back. Off he went, pushing the wheelchair, a transport device for the garden supplies if not, at the moment, the gardener. He was not shuffling. Not shambling. But not speedwalking, either.
“We’re so dry right now,” said Mr. Wolfe, who is 69 and has emphysema.
He paused halfway down the block, breathing noticeably. In a moment or two, he would suck on a tube that functioned like a siphon to start the water flowing, this man in a windbreaker who said he had only 18 percent of his lung capacity. But he was not there yet.
The garden, in the distance, stood out in a neighborhood aspiring to stylishness. The little flower bed was a patch of land created a couple of years ago when a median was put in to separate bicycles from cars, trucks and buses. “It was just there,” he said. “Whenever I see an empty spot of dirt, I think, what could you grow in it?”
But this is not Park Avenue, with its wide medians and tulips. This is Eighth Avenue, where Mr. Wolfe was once cursed out by a woman who accused him of stealing the flowers. “She was not about to hear me trying to explain, ‘We’re planting them, we’re not stealing them,’” he said. The “we” referred to him and his home health aide, who had accompanied him that day.
This is not Fifth Avenue, with the Conservatory Garden and its imposing iron gate, between 104th and 105th Streets. Mr. Wolfe’s garden is surrounded by a nylon-rope fence that he installed because somebody trampled on the flowers.
And this is not the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, which covers 250 acres and has more than one million flowers. Mr. Wolfe’s garden covers 35 square feet — eight ten-thousandths of an acre — and has perhaps 100 flowers and one tree. All are daffodils, except for a couple of hostas and the tree. All were planted by him, except for the tree, which was planted by the city. All are watered by him, except when he does not have the strength to do it. Some days, he cannot make it to the elevator.
“The plants don’t get watered those days,” he said.
And the stories do not get told on the bad days. But on the good days, there is time to tell stories, to talk about life and memories. Like the night, years ago, when he went to a charity auction and got into a bidding war with Donald J. Trump’s brother Robert over a gingerbread house. Mr. Wolfe said he proposed joining forces and pooling their money.
“He didn’t go for it,” Mr. Wolfe said of Robert Trump.
Or how he hauled peat moss to the garden in a taxi.
Or how he planted the daffodils last fall, not because he has a special love of daffodils but because they were free.
They came from New Yorkers for Parks, a century-old nonprofit that distributes a half-million bulbs to community groups and gardeners like Mr. Wolfe every year. He plans to dig up Park Avenue tulip bulbs in a few weeks — every year, the Fund for Park Avenue, which plants tulips from 54th to 80th Streets, announces a tulip dig after the tulips have bloomed. “They’re gorgeous tulip bulbs,” he said, “but being in a wheelchair on oxygen, it’s not the easiest thing to get over to Park Avenue and dig.”
This is his third spring in the garden. The first year, everything he planted was trampled.
Last year, he tried geraniums. They did not do well. “This only gets a couple of hours of sun,” he said. “I should’ve known. Geraniums require direct sun, full sun, all day long.” He should have known, he explained, because when he was in his 30s, he owned a garden store in Syracuse.
The garden is litter-free, at least by the time he leaves, because he picks up cigarette butts and other debris with a contraption he made, a trowel attached to a long metal arm. It lets him reach from the wheelchair.
Finally he turned the jug upside down and emptied it around the tree. Then he sank into the wheelchair, but not before he reached for the oxygen tank. He turned the valve that increased the flow. He said he was concerned about what people would make of his walks to the garden.
“People are going to say, see, the only thing he’s using the wheelchair for is the water,” Mr. Wolfe said. “Well, the reason for the wheelchair was, I would have to stop and grab onto a building.” He would also have to wait until his breathing settled down, and that brought up another reason for the wheelchair: to carry the oxygen tank. But the main reason was to have a place to sit when he becomes exhausted.
“It’s the hand I was dealt,” he said. “It’s my fault. I smoked for 40 years.”