Urban Gardening
Like many city transplants, I grew up in a strictly non-urban environment. My family kept bees and chickens, and our vegetable garden was the size of an Olympic swimming pool. I spent summer mornings roaming barefoot through the rows of vegetables, nibbling on peas and sun-warmed cherry tomatoes. Long before baby vegetables were the rage among Manhattan chefs, my sister and I ate tiny carrots, just because we couldn’t wait for them to grow.

Before you dig...
Tips for testing your soil

As much as I love the city, I sometimes feel the loss of that Soho loft-sized garden plot – especially when I watch my son turn up his nose at zucchini and carrots or when he asks me where grapes come from. But just as the city supplies almost everything you could ever want, so does it offer ample gardening opportunities for the concrete-weary and the garden-hungry.

.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">More and more, green pockets are rising up out of the cement – in community gardens, window boxes, rooftops, even recycled tires and cracks in the cement. This is a great thing, especially for children, in ways that go beyond the nostalgia of a country-raised parent. A University of Illinois study showed that buildings surrounded by trees and greenery have fewer incidents of crime than buildings with no green. A related study showed decreased symptoms of attention deficit disorder (ADD) among children who play in green spaces as opposed to bare spaces. And neighborhood bonds were seen to be dramatically strengthened in areas where there are communal green spaces.

.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Digging, Planting and Playing

.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">But forget the studies and the statistics. Forget the nostalgia for country days gone by. The fact is, kids love to dig in the dirt. They love to roll in the grass. They love to handle seeds and garden tools and – whether their parents like it or not – worms and potato bugs and caterpillars. Give them a patch of dirt and they will dig. Or, as in the case of La Plaza Cultural, a community garden in the East Village, give them a giant nest and they will climb in and hang out.

.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">For parents who are unswayed, there is this fact: Kids who grow up gardening not only get to indulge in all these knee-staining, fingernail-dirtying, creative activities, they also tend to eat vegetables. There is something so magical and wondrous about planting a seed and watching it grow, it overcomes even the staunchest fear of green vegetables.

.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">The only issue left is: Where to go. As with most things in the city, the options are varied.

.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Community Gardens

For most non-city dwellers, gardening is a solitary activity. It’s you, the earth and the weather. Bragging rights come later when you share your bounty with friends and neighbors. In the city, if you are a member of one of more than 700 community gardens, working the earth is anything but solitary. And that is part of the appeal.

"It’s fantastic," says Virginia Tillyard, a member of La Plaza Cultural. "It’s really been the focus of much of my daughter’s life." Starting when her daughter was about 6 months old, Tillyard and a few other mothers would meet in the garden. In the summertime, they set up a paddling pool for their kids. Then came puppet shows and theatrical events.

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Many blocks away, the Clinton Community Gardens at 48th Street and Eighth Avenue in Manhattan is providing a similar oasis for families and children and neighbors. One of the older community gardens in the city, this garden was transformed, beginning in 1978, from a garbage-strewn, rat-filled vacant lot into a place of pride and beauty for the neighborhood. "We had a lot of community support," says Adam Honigman, a member of the garden. "And one of the first things our community wanted was an open lawn. Now we have a lot of children who take their first steps on an open lawn in midtown Manhattan with no glass." One doesn’t actually have to live in midtown to appreciate the magnitude of this accomplishment.

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Once kids get older, the benefits go beyond bare feet and paddle pools. "It’s a great place for introducing your kids to nature," Honigman says. "We have frogs. We have a beehive."

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Donald Loggins, one of the original gardeners at the city’s oldest community garden, the Liz Christy Garden in the East Village, says, "My impression is that kids love seeing nature. We have fruit trees. We have kids who have never seen a peach on a peach tree. We have grapevines. They’ve never seen that. It opens their eyes."

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">At many community gardens, there are plots just for children. Peter Arnstedt, a member of La Perla Community Garden on the Upper West Side, brings kindergartners and first graders to the garden and lets them plant seeds in a plot laid out just for them. After dividing the children into groups of six, he sets them to various tasks, such as scavenger hunts and planting projects, and watches their discoveries. "They start to look at some of the things they might not notice," he says. "They get to handle worms and they see other bugs that are part of healthy soil. They get to plant seeds." The lessons can be long lasting, but Arnstedt is more concerned with their immediate reactions. "The main thing is it opens their eyes," he says. "The next time they’re walking down the street and they see a pod from a honey locust tree, they’ll make the connection. They’ll say, 'Oh, can I plant that seed?'"

Learning Through Digging

style="tab-stops: .5in 1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">These connections are deemed so worthwhile that even the city is involved, through the Open Space Greening Program, a part of The Council on the Environment of New York City. Through this program, kids in public schools and daycare are hooked up with community gardens. The opportunities for learning through gardening, says Gerhard Lordahl, director of the program’s Plant-a-Lot Project, are tremendous. "One group we work with in midtown buried things in the garden to learn about composting and decay. They buried a metal can and banana peels, and six months later dug them up and looked at what decomposed and what didn’t."

style="tab-stops: .5in 1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Classroom lessons are taught, too. "We’ve made alphabet gardens. Teachers can hold a reading lesson around a tree," he says. One teacher did a lesson on water words. "They had watering cans and they talked about the importance of water, and the kids actively participated in watering the garden. The connection is made," he says. Another group of older kids investigated the ways in which medicinal herbs are used. "The kids built a teepee and erected it in the garden, and they made smudge pots. There’s a whole wealth of interdisciplinary lessons available."

style="tab-stops: .5in 1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Botanical Gardens

style="tab-stops: .5in 1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Another great resource for young would-be urban farmers are the city’s botanical gardens, which offer classes and workshops specifically geared toward children of different ages.

style="tab-stops: .5in 1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">John Tucker, a Brooklyn dad, sent his 4-year-old son, Jack, to the kindergarten class at the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens last summer. "I came to pick him up one afternoon and I saw him standing with another kid. Jack had both his arms up in the air. He was holding a carrot, which he’d just pulled from the soil. This was a carrot from a carrot seed, which he had planted himself, and watered and watched grow. The look on his face was incredible. He was thrilled."

1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Ellen McCarthy, the family garden manager at The New York Botanical Garden has seen this thrill in countless kids. "They get so excited," she says. She also confirms the popular notion that kids who grow their own vegetables often discover an appreciation for the taste of their bounty. "So many parents say, ‘My child never eats vegetables! I can’t believe they like this,’" she says.

1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">More Outdoor Learning

1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">McCarthy describes three separate ways for children to get their hands dirty in the garden. First, children can come in with their classes and teachers and learn about gardening and maybe pot a plant. Second, kids can enroll in classes and have their own garden plot. In the third, a drop-in program lets families come in every afternoon and work with seeds or transplants or compost.

1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">Like the community gardens, the botanic gardens make gardening fun through the use of whimsy. "We have specialty gardens," says McCarthy. "We have a candy garden, with plants named after candy. Like Chocolate Cosmos and Candy Lilies. We have sun and moon gardens and a little truck garden, with trucks planted with flowers."

1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">"The neatest part of my job," she says, "is that we get to bring kids in touch with nature. We get a lot of kids from the Bronx or from big apartment buildings with no backyard. The simplest thing, like picking a pea, they think is the greatest."

1.0in 1.5in 2.0in 2.5in 3.0in 3.5in 4.0in 4.5in 5.0in 5.5in 6.0in 6.5in 7.0in 7.5in 8.0in">And, squeamish city parents, like it or not, she confirms the worst. "Kids love worms. They like to dig for them. We have a big worm bin."

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">So maybe all gardening, and all nature, is not glorious sunflowers and pristine organic salads. But it really is fun. Worms and all. Just ask your kids.

Before You Dig ...

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">Parents everywhere should test their soil before planting a garden, but city gardeners are especially likely to encounter soil that contains heavy metals. To avoid harmful lead exposure to children (who are at the greatest risk), the Cornell University Urban Horticulture Institute suggests these tips:

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• Get a soil test kit. For $22.50, Cornell will send you a kit. Send payment to Cornell Nutrient Analysis Laboratories, 804 Bradfield Hall, Cornell University, Ithaca, NY 14853. Or call 607-255-4540. Make sure to specify that it is a lead test you want. (For $15, they will test the nutrients and pH of your soil.)

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• Since lead tends to reside in the leaves and stems of vegetables, avoid growing lettuce and spinach in soil that could contain lead.

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• Peel root vegetables, such as carrots and beets.

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• Wear gloves and wash hands thoroughly after working in the garden.

T-FAMILY: Verdana; FONT-SIZE: 10pt">• Stick to fruit crops, such as tomatoes, peppers and squash, since lead is not concentrated in the fruit of the plant.

• If your soil contains lead, or if you are near a heavily trafficked area, play it safe: Go with a garden of flowers and shrubs. 




A Tree Is Nice, by Janice May Udry, HarperCollins Juvenile Books, 1988. A whimsical look at the many ways a tree helps us out.

• The Carrot Seed, by Ruth Krauss and Crockett Johnson, HarperTrophy reprint, 1989. A classic, simple story about a little boy who plants a carrot seed, waters it and waits for it grow.

Roots, Shoots, Buckets & Boots: Gardening Together With Children, by Sharon Lovejoy Green, Workman, 1999. A fun and informative book about gardening, with suggestions on how to make a pizza garden or a sunflower house.

Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, HarperTrophy, 1999. A blighted neighborhood is transformed when a little girl plants a few lima beans in a vacant lot. Slowly, the neighborhood is brought together as they watch the plants grow and then turn the littered lot into a garden for the whole community. 

The Ugly Vegetables, by Grace Lin, Charlesbridge Publishing, 1999. A young girl can’t understand why her mother is planting wrinkled leaves and dark vines when all the neighbors are growing beautiful flowers. But when the harvested Chinese vegetables have been transformed into a delicious-smelling soup, neighbors appear at the door with flowers, hungry to share.


Battery Park City Parks Conservancy 212-267-9700, – A private, nonprofit organization that operates 32 acres of open space in Battery Park City. Offers gardening programs for children.

Brooklyn Botanic Garden 718-623-7200, – Classes, workshops, children’s classes and an incredible children’s garden.

The New York Botanical Garden 718-817-8700, – A self-described "advocate for the plant kingdom," the NYBG is also a great resource for humans.

Queens Botanical Garden 718-886-3800, – Educational programs, classes and workshops for all ages.


Green Guerillas – 212-594-2155, – The people to go to when you think the rubble-strewn lot in your neighborhood could be something more or when your grassroots gardening group needs some back-up.

 Open Space Greening Program 212-788-7900, – A division of the Council on the Environment of New York City, this program is the official backer of community gardens both old and new around the city. They have a tool-loaning program for gardens or schools that need a little material assistance.

 Larissa Phillips is the associate editor of New York Family.