Tiny Gardens: The Terrific Stoops, Roofs and Bitty Front Lawns of Brooklyn

by Jessica Machado

Last August, Jill Harrison bought a house on a very manicured block of Crown Heights. She hasn’t had to leave her property to meet the neighbors. The time she spends on her front lawn, installing native plants, herbs and sedum, brings neighborhood kids wanting “to pick something” and nods of approval from old-timers headed to the nearby Baptist church or West Indian restaurant. Most impressive to passers-by: her stoop, where, in more than 17 pots and containers, she’s growing wild strawberries, Portuguese peppers, a blueberry bush, lemon verbena and cucumbers — basically, she said, “things we can eat or put in our drinks.”

“It’s an easy conversation starter,” she said of her garden. “You don’t have to make up something to talk about. And under what circumstances do you normally just go up to somebody on the street and start talking to them?”

A neighborhood away in Prospect Heights, Chris Phillips and his partner Rich Powell have also learned how a thatch of green and several bushels of lavender can get people to do the unthinkable — instigate a conversation with strangers, and even more surprisingly, relinquish what little private time they have. Back in 2008, the pair decided to turn a space on their co-op’s roof into a “higgly piggly English garden” with rose bushes, potted herbs and random trees from plant sales. Soon after, other residents began wandering up, bringing bottles of wine and pulling up a chair for an after-work chat.

“Now it’s like the kitchen table where everyone congregates,” said Powell. “Instead of having to invite everyone into your home where it’s a mess, up here, it’s top quality.”

While most Brooklynites aren’t blessed with roof access and front yards, or the ability to afford a down payment on a home, some gardeners make do with what they’ve got — and that includes itty-bitty pieces of real estate with heavy foot traffic. Sandwiched between a postal store and a condemned bodega, Meret Lenzlinger has cultivated a forest of exotic grasses, roses, pansies and Mediterranean herbs right outside of her apartment’s front door on bustling Washington Avenue. “In my neighborhood everyone is walking, getting from one place to another. I wouldn’t know who’s around here as much without my garden.” As she said this, an older woman and younger gentleman waved hello and a bicyclist slowed down to ask how she’s doing on this fine, sunny day.

“To be honest, I think some people feel I’m more approachable because there is this little fence between me and them,” she said of the three-foot-high, wrought-iron boundary that stands between she and I — a reasonable border for a low-risk, casual (i.e. “I promise I’m not going to bother you or ask anything of you”) conversation.

Over in South Slope, Michiko Okochi, who also has an eye-catching street garden, though hers is next to the expressway, validates these sentiments. At first approach, Okochi was hesitant to speak to someone with an objective (“Hi, I’m writing a story”) and took a step back (“Sorry, my English isn’t so good”), but then brightened up when she learned that the topic is gardens. “Oh, I’ve been keeping up with my garden for 25 years,” she said, pointing out the purple flowering vines entwined around her window bars and the oregano and thyme sprouting up from ceramic pots. “I’ll never stop because my neighbors would get upset. If you want sometime, I’ll show you my backyard.”

Within a two-mile radius from Okochi’s brownstone, there are at least nine community gardens — ones where schoolchildren plant vegetables for classes, others that offer free afternoon yoga. Throughout Brooklyn, there are more than 200 community gardens total. That’s about 40 percent of all gardens in the city.

For some, it represents a yearning for a sense of the borough’s close-knit, working-class, non-condo enclaves of yore; for transplants, it could be a natural, though reluctant, seeking out of the suburbia from which many of them first fled. Or it could be as simple as people are happy to be outside. It’s summer, for chrissakes!

Walk into one of these community gardens and what you tend to find isn’t necessarily a party, but people sitting alone, or reading a book. or sticking their hands in the earth. These are people enjoying all that is alive and flourishing yet silent and still.

“Stepping outside for a minute or two keeps me calm,” said Majo Tinoco of the plants that line the terrace of her studio apartment. “I need to have that interaction with my little leaves and flowers, pulling off dead ones, checking what’s blooming.”

With her garden situated on the backside of her building, Tinoco doesn’t tend to her morning glories every day in hopes of meeting her neighbors, she said. But then again, she did invite me up to see after talking to me for only ten minutes at the local community garden.

“This is much more of a neighborhood than any other place I’ve ever lived. People are involved in that neighborhood energy,” Tinoco, who moved here from Colombia years ago, said about Brooklyn, and in particular, the South Slope. “I mean, I have friends who call and ask to borrow sugar.”

Jessica Machado lives in Brooklyn and has been exaggerating trends under the guise of journalism for far too long.