A garden at Ground Zero: what I learned growing an oasis in the shadow of 9/11

The garden designed by Paul Greenberg on his terrace in New York. Show caption The garden designed by Paul Greenberg on his terrace in New York. Photograph: Katherine Marks
Gardens

Soon after 9/11, I moved into an old building by Ground Zero. First step? Plant an unlikely patch of green

Paul Greenberg

Sat 28 Aug 2021 11.00 BST

If you listen, I mean really listen, you will hear your garden speaking to you. Mine, which sits on a 10th-floor Manhattan terrace, a stone’s throw from where the World Trade Center stood, first spoke to me on a crisp September morning 20 years ago. I had jury duty that day and decided to walk the two miles south from my home in Greenwich Village down to the courthouse in the financial district.

But when I turned south on to 6th Avenue, I looked up to see see an orange hole flaming at the centre of the tower ahead of me. A woman nearby fell to the pavement, screaming something about a plane. It didn’t seem like a good day to go downtown; yet something compelled me to continue south. When I arrived at a gas station on Canal Street, a boom sounded and a puff of smoke issued from just behind the tower. “What was that?” I asked a taxi driver, filling his tank nearby. “Well, see those two buildings are connected with pipes,” he said with the unquestionable authority endemic to New York cabbies. “When you get a fire in one it spreads and you get a fire in the other.” Makes sense, I thought, and pushed southwards.

Paul Greenberg adjusts reflectors that bring extra light into the garden. Greenberg adjusts reflectors that bring extra light into the garden. Photograph: Katherine Marks

At a certain point, people in suits started jogging and then sprinting in the opposite direction. Whirling spirals of office paper trailed them. Still, I continued south. Somewhere around Walker Street a policeman stopped me. “Buddy, where the hell do you think you’re going?” he said.

“To the courthouse,” I said producing my summons. “I have jury duty.”

“You know what?” the cop said, holding up his hand. “Jury dismissed.” The rest of the day, as they say, is history. I went home and watched the towers fall in real time.

A year later, my friend Esther found an open-plan, 1,200 sq ft loft, in a building dating back to 1927, that had stood in the shadow of the now vanished towers. Government grants designed to incentivise the recolonisation of the district made it cheaper than the up-and-coming hipster enclaves of Brooklyn. It had a basketball court-size terrace, shared with two other apartments. A little later we started dating. Then I moved in.

Shortly after that, I started a garden.

The basketball court-size terrace, shared with two other apartments and overlooked by One Liberty Plaza. Photograph: Katherine Marks

Why a garden in this most paved-over, unnatural of places? Why try to grow anything in a neighbourhood where the might of capitalism shuts out the very sun with its broad, glassy shoulders, and raised real estate values so high that no one would dare waste a scrap of ground on a little bit of green? As a New Yorker, I tend to avoid West Coast-style spiritualism, but I have come to believe that it was something the garden was telling me about the world, and that big flaming hole punched in the building next door, that made me start planting. The planes that crashed into the twin towers did not fall out of the clear blue sky. The US had been pursuing a geopolitical strategy built around propping up oil. That ever-expanding infrastructure seemed part of a wasteful gambit in which I didn’t want to participate. So, when I took up residence at Ground Zero, it seemed natural to try to bring something into the world that would stand in opposition to all that.

OK, a garden then. Something that didn’t waste, but made use of waste. Something that said, “Stop expanding, and make do with what you’ve got.” But the early indications that anything could bloom on my terrace weren’t good. In high summer, the sun graces us with three hours of light before disappearing behind a black, Mordor-like building at One Liberty Plaza. A spindly bamboo plant wilted in one corner, while Esther’s ex-lover’s photography lamp lay on a windowsill blasting cruel light at another failing bamboo. Our neighbour hung baskets of pansies, giving a lovely summer burst of life. But they didn’t last, withering and browning after the sun passed its solstice high. That first summer, all I could do was watch things die.

But it was in watching things die that I got my first lesson in how to make things live. When I took a good look at the aftermath of my first growing season, I realised the flowers that did best were perched on the highest reaches of the trellises. The extra bit of light a few feet of elevation granted meant the difference between failing and prospering. It was then that I alerted our Russian building engineer, Simon, that I was looking for good garbage. Simon, who in the Soviet tradition had an almost visceral hatred of throwing anything away, duly complied. Soon he was leaving boards, ruined filing cabinets and all sorts of bric-a-brac that helped the garden go up.

Greenberg with raspberry canes (foreground) and Concord grapes (overhead), one of two varieties of vine in the garden. Photograph: Katherine Marks

To match my rising territory, I found species of vegetables that went similarly vertical. A climbing salad green called Malabar spinach turned out to have the heat tolerance and the acrophilia to work in the blistering Manhattan heights. By summer number two, the higher parts of my trellises were spinning with vines, and the salad season (thanks to the Malabar and other heat-tolerant vegetables such as chard and collard greens) extended from cool spring to the most infernal part of summer.

Frontenac grapes – every few years, the vines produce enough for a bottle of wine. Photograph: Katherine Marks

When I stood on my rising risers, the garden started to tell me something else – that reflected light was nearly as good as direct light. All around me, as the replacement towers for the World Trade Center started to rise, light bounced from window to window – “sunny bunnies”, as Simon called them in Russian. What if I got the sunny bunnies to work in concert with my cause? There were plenty of old screen doors and sheets of plywood lying about. What if I made them into solar panels? It turned out to be pretty easy to do. Sheets of heavy-duty aluminium foil were spread across the door frames and crimped around the edges. Later, I switched to more durable and efficient Mylar sheeting. In due course, the tomato plants I bought from the nursery were duped. They actually flowered, tricked by the sunny bunnies into producing a few sour tomatoes that hardly ever ripened.

Nearly half a decade later, the garden’s voice grew still louder. It told me that, rather than randomly buying a single variety of tomato from a nursery, I should grow 10 varieties from seed and choose the ones that prospered for my seed stock. I converted a photography sink into a nursery and set up an array of lights. The electricity bills soared. I swapped the bulbs for LEDs. The bills subsided. And now that I’m switching my electricity supply to a renewable energy provider, I hope to drive the carbon footprint to nil. All my energy-efficient, in-the-closet Mendelian tomato experiment has worked out fantastically. Two varieties – ‘Egg Yolk’ and ‘Black Cherry’ – excelled. I’ve worked with their progeny ever since.

‘An ecosystem has started to form around my garden. Even snails have made an appearance.’ Photograph: Katherine Marks

This same methodology has worked with other selections. Out of eight raspberry plants, one lived (sadly, I don’t remember which) and was transplantable to what is now a hedge that shields the plants from the harsh wind that blows in off the East River. Four varieties of grape went in, in the early 2010s. Only two plants – a Frontenac and a Concord – made it through the year. These two vines are the mothers of innumerable cuttings distributed around the terrace. Every few years, the vines produce enough grapes for a bottle of wine which I call Château Nul.

I created a composting system. Two large trash cans sit at the far corner of the terrace, away from where anyone can smell them. Beneath, two aluminium trays sit and gather the “compost tea” that percolates through all those organics. This elixir stopped the yellowing of my crops – and finally, I had a full growing season on my hands.

Tuscan kale on the terrace. Photograph: Katherine Marks

As we reach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the build-out at Ground Zero is nearly complete, with five shimmering towers that I thank grudgingly for the reflected morning light. For Esther and me, and our teenage son, this was a particular blessing during the past year. The added light and warmth made the occasional outdoor, socially distanced meal with friends a welcome reprieve from the isolation of a pandemic that would claim thousands of New York lives, including that of our beloved Russian engineer, Simon.

Now, as we try to regain a foothold on life, I notice how an ecosystem has started to form around my garden. Bumblebees gather and pollinate my crops, and swallows and sparrows have taken up residence to feed on the caterpillars that try to munch my tomatoes. I’ve even seen a woodcock. There are a few too many pigeons, but I’ve got my eye on an abandoned turret next door which I think could make an ideal nesting location for a falcon. I’m sure such a bird wouldn’t mind the easy pigeon breakfast I could provide. Even snails have made an appearance this year. When I asked the ecologist Carl Safina how they could have possibly made it to the 10th floor, he replied, without missing a beat: “Very slowly.”

And that, in short, is how you make a garden at Ground Zero. Very slowly, feeling your way toward nature as it feels its way toward you. Even in a place where the living world has been paved and knocked over again and again, nature will find a way. You just have to listen for it.

• Paul Greenberg’s most recent book is The Climate Diet, published by Penguin Press.

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