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My Garden Story: A Secret Rooftop Oasis on Manhattan’s Upper West Side

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My Garden Story: A Secret Rooftop Oasis on Manhattan’s Upper West Side

November 9, 2020

The first time I visited the Lotus Garden, a rooftop green space on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I had my four-year-old in tow. We had walked past the garden’s iron gate on West 97th hundreds of times, but we’d never climbed the stairs to take a peek. As soon as we reached the landing at the top of the steps, my daughter looked around wide-eyed at the trees and flowers and winding paths and said one word: “magical.” She’d just learned the superlative from a favorite book, and had taken to using it to describe everything from subway cars to macaroni and cheese. This time, however, she was spot on. Nothing on the street below suggested the beauty of this 7,000-square-foot oasis, hidden atop a busy parking garage, just steps from the traffic and chaos of Broadway.

That was more than 20 years ago. Soon thereafter I joined the 25 or so gardeners who maintained the garden and started tending my own plot.

Photography by Monica Michael Willis for Gardenista.

The garden has \28 individual plots, each planted with trees, shrubs, perennials, and some annuals, plus fruit trees (cherry, apple, quince), an herb parterre, fish ponds, compost bins, and a wooden garden shed.
Above: The garden has 28 individual plots, each planted with trees, shrubs, perennials, and some annuals, plus fruit trees (cherry, apple, quince), an herb parterre, fish ponds, compost bins, and a wooden garden shed.

At the time, I couldn’t tell an astilbe from a columbine and knew next to nothing about gardening in general. More seasoned veterans took me under their wings, showing me how to prune roses, divide hostas, even plant bulbs, something I’d never done growing up in South Florida.

Hardy coleus, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and Japanese anemones grow alongside a mulched path.
Above: Hardy coleus, black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta), and Japanese anemones grow alongside a mulched path.
 The garden&#8\2\17;s plant shed was rebuilt in \20\14, thanks to a grant from Citizens Committee for New York City, a nonprofit that funds projects to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods in the five boroughs.
Above: The garden’s plant shed was rebuilt in 2014, thanks to a grant from Citizens Committee for New York City, a nonprofit that funds projects to improve the quality of life in neighborhoods in the five boroughs.

Unlike many community green spaces in Manhattan, the garden’s not owned by the city. It was born out a rare public-private partnership between local activists and developer William Zeckendorf, Jr., who agreed to build the rooftop space as part of his plans to develop the Columbia, one of the first 35-story condominiums above 96th Street.

Common house finches lays claim to one of the garden’s half dozen sitting areas. We also see doves, blue jays, cardinals, and the occasional pigeon.
Above: Common house finches lays claim to one of the garden’s half dozen sitting areas. We also see doves, blue jays, cardinals, and the occasional pigeon.
When she was little, my youngest daughter built dozens of tiny twig houses for the fairies she believed resided in the garden. This winged sprite, a gift to her on her sixth birthday, still nestles among the hostas and prolific sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) in my plot.
Above: When she was little, my youngest daughter built dozens of tiny twig houses for the fairies she believed resided in the garden. This winged sprite, a gift to her on her sixth birthday, still nestles among the hostas and prolific sensitive ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) in my plot.
A late-spring view from the garden’s southeast corner, looking north.
Above: A late-spring view from the garden’s southeast corner, looking north.

An astute businessman, Zeckendorf envisioned the green space as an amenity for future tenants, but understood that the garden could generate goodwill in a neighborhood leery of developers and losing its green space. In addition to giving the garden $25K for start-up costs and a $50K endowment, the developer made sure the roof of the condo’s parking garage had a state-of-the-art drainage system and, more important, could support the weight of two-and-half feet of soil and another six inches of gravel.

Planted in \1983, this dwarf peach tree was supposed to only grow to about five feet tall. Today, it&#8\2\17;s roughly \1\2 feet high by \20 feet wide (and bears several bushels of peaches each August).
Above: Planted in 1983, this dwarf peach tree was supposed to only grow to about five feet tall. Today, it’s roughly 12 feet high by 20 feet wide (and bears several bushels of peaches each August).

The garden was the brainchild of architect Mark Greenberg and horticulturist Carrie Maher, neighborhood residents who spearheaded the negotiations with Zeckendorf in the early 80s. Three decades later, the couple’s thoughtful layout and early plant selections still give the garden an airy, expansive feel that belies its actual footprint.

 Gardeners are free to plant whatever they like best. Here, a plot holder combined pale-pink Japanese anemone, sedum, waxy orange begonias, and purple Plecanthrus ‘Mona Lavender’, and filled in the foreground with Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ and Japanese forest grass (s macra ‘Aureola’). The garden also places a group order of several dozen annuals, including nicotiana, coleus, and Euphorbia ‘Breathless White,’ each spring from the Long Island Nursery Beds & Borders to ensure there&#8\2\17;s at least some continuity among the beds.
Above: Gardeners are free to plant whatever they like best. Here, a plot holder combined pale-pink Japanese anemone, sedum, waxy orange begonias, and purple Plecanthrus ‘Mona Lavender’, and filled in the foreground with Coreopsis verticillata ‘Moonbeam’ and Japanese forest grass (s macra ‘Aureola’). The garden also places a group order of several dozen annuals, including nicotiana, coleus, and Euphorbia ‘Breathless White,’ each spring from the Long Island Nursery Beds & Borders to ensure there’s at least some continuity among the beds.
Set against a backdrop of English ivy, a plot in the garden’s shady southwest corner features astilbe, hydrangeas, hostas, European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), and a mix of Heucheras, or coral bells.
Above: Set against a backdrop of English ivy, a plot in the garden’s shady southwest corner features astilbe, hydrangeas, hostas, European wild ginger (Asarum europaeum), and a mix of Heucheras, or coral bells.

There are curvy paths, multiple seating areas, and a nice mix of trees—dogwood, tulip magnolia, holly, mountain ash—which offer more and more shade and privacy as the season progresses. The couple selected a leafy dwarf peach tree (it was on sale at local plant store) to anchor the center of the garden, and planted ‘Sweet Autumn’ clematis and Concord grapes to soften the iron railings at the space’s northern edge.

While our two ponds have been stocked with water lilies, goldfish, and koi since the beginning, the garden’s namesake lotus flowers were introduced just three years ago. You can see the pink bloom just starting to open to the right of the koi.
Above: While our two ponds have been stocked with water lilies, goldfish, and koi since the beginning, the garden’s namesake lotus flowers were introduced just three years ago. You can see the pink bloom just starting to open to the right of the koi.
White Dawn climbing roses flourish in a sunny spot near the front of the garden, often flowering from the middle of May to first frost if spent buds are removed to encourage re-blooming.
Above: White Dawn climbing roses flourish in a sunny spot near the front of the garden, often flowering from the middle of May to first frost if spent buds are removed to encourage re-blooming.

Today, more than 30 years later, a handful of the original gardeners still maintain plots. Although much has stayed the same, the Lotus Garden recently received nonprofit 501c3 status and has expanded its community outreach, hosting school groups, storytelling events, occasional art shows, and an annual Halloween party.

We still operate on a shoestring budget, though, financing everything from hoses and mulch to spring bulbs and yearly arborist visits with money raised from gardener dues, donations, and the keys we lease to anyone who wants to access the community green space from April to November. (Keys cost $20 a year/$10 for seniors.)

Plot holders are responsible for cutting up plant debris from their gardens before adding it to the compost. After that, a single person manages the bins to ensure clippings stay moist and aerated.
Above: Plot holders are responsible for cutting up plant debris from their gardens before adding it to the compost. After that, a single person manages the bins to ensure clippings stay moist and aerated.
 A cement staircase leads to the Lotus Garden, which is open to the public every Sunday from April to November, from \1 to 4 p.m. Many neighborhood residents, however, lease keys, coming and going as they please during daylight hours.
Above:  A cement staircase leads to the Lotus Garden, which is open to the public every Sunday from April to November, from 1 to 4 p.m. Many neighborhood residents, however, lease keys, coming and going as they please during daylight hours.
Although there are hundreds of community key holders, it’s not uncommon to have the place to yourself. English ivy traces the western wall. A red twig magnolia (Cornus sericea L.) and an oak leaf hydrangea can be seen at left; the dwarf peach (far right) stretches toward the sun.
Above: Although there are hundreds of community key holders, it’s not uncommon to have the place to yourself. English ivy traces the western wall. A red twig magnolia (Cornus sericea L.) and an oak leaf hydrangea can be seen at left; the dwarf peach (far right) stretches toward the sun.

For many of us, the garden has been a constant source of calm in a frenetic, sometimes overwhelming place. It’s a safe haven, where we can stop and smell the roses (literally and figuratively) and lean into the cadence of the seasons. And for some, it’s where we raised our kids, showing them that digging in the dirt’s good for the body as well as the soul—and that a real sense of community is possible even in one of the largest cities in the world. Despite years of familiarity with this small rooftop garden, its incongruous beauty still move me. Some people might call that magical.

For more rooftop gardens, see:

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