making art with dirt

i’m a stealth gardener.  i’ve always propagated plants wherever i could, whether it meant taking the smallest of succulent leaves that had fallen to the floor at the garden center, or wrenching seedheads off of neighbors’ flowers to scatter in a bed around the house.  i’ve always made gardens where i could.

i was once fortunate enough to have an abandoned lot next to the apartment building i lived in 30 years ago.  from my fourth storey windows i could see it behind a tall wall, choked with ivy, invisible from the street.  first i climbed over into it to reconnoiter.  then i noticed the bricked up door and started picking it apart brick by brick for an entrance i wouldn’t have to scramble over.  i never asked permission, never notified the caretaker of the apartment building – it was my secret place, and it had to be invisible to everyone; it just had to.  i rolled back the ivy and pulled up its roots, declaring a war on ivy that persists to this day.  i clandestinely divided primroses and daffodils along the public paths nearby, and planted the divisions in my secret garden.  and cuttings.  and seeds.  it was beautiful before i moved away, and it’s probably still doing okay 30 years later, because i make my gardens to go untended.

when i lived in an apartment in brooklyn, 30 years ago, there was a 2’x3′ chunk of broken up cement behind an ankle fence right next to the front door.  i broke that up and uncovered the dirt, and stuck a bunch of seeds into it that popped right up and happily clambered all over the place.  and then i turned my attention to an abandoned fenced-in almost park at the end of the block, and before long others were colonizing bits of it, and people were bringing kids and dogs to play, and it was getting to be a neighborhood thing.

when we lived in the suburbs and my kid was just starting school, 25 years ago, they started building a new elementary that she was slated to attend once it was built.  naturally i hung around the building site (looking for interesting rocks), and asked questions, and had a look at the plans, and saw that nothing was being done with the central courtyard.  so i contacted the head of construction, and the soon-to-be principal, and asked if i could do something with it, and they said sure and here’s a 20k budget to go along with it.

courtyard plan

so i designed an almost 300 foot x 25 foot enclosed courtyard that stretched from the library to the cafeteria, and had classrooms opening onto it all down its length.  i used sacred geometry (daring in the south, had anybody asked me about it), xeriscape plants, put in a garden plot so the kids could learn how to grow vegetables, specified fruit trees and shade trees, bat houses, a pond and fountain, teaching areas and seats.

2 courtyard - spring hill south

1 courtyard - spring hill north
school courtyard, first year

it all came to happen, and nobody knows it but me, because when i went back recently to get photographs of the project 20 years later, the trees were thick and tall, the concrete paths were still wandering down the length of the courtyard, but every other feature had changed.  the garden suffered first, because i neglected to specify fresh dirt, and the school was built next to the county dump, so it wasn’t the nicest soil (the janitor told me he grew tomatoes the first year, and they tasted awful).

Screenshot from 2016-06-09 12:28:38
how it looks now, 25 years later, still being used as an outdoor classroom

and i even got a tad of fame, if you don’t mind illegibility and an ex last name.

clipping garden

when i did a year and a half of art residencies in europe and the states 15 years ago, i took dogwood seeds with me, and oxalis corms, picked up things from where i was staying, and planted and cross planted all up and down the east coast.

IMG_3337

i’ve had my own garden around my own home for 12 years now, and i plant whatever will grow there, and then divide that to some other part of the yard and grow more of it.  i capture seeds from flowers on our dogwalking route and prepare small beds for them in my yard.  i take a single iris from healthy patches that need thinning.  i dig up stray magnolia treelets and dogwood seedlings and native ferns.  i transplant some of my vinca to every dirt slope i find.  i still pull up ivy, and poison ivy and i are currently at a standstill, because i refuse to use roundup.

when i went to north iceland on an art residency two years ago, i began to think about gardening in the arctic.  some amazing things grow in the botanic garden in akureyri, including bamboo, which isn’t usually that hardy.  i thought up a nice project to do the next time i go back (next summer) – called the troll garden.  i even talked to the mayor about it, and he said fine to moving a bunch of trees in an abandoned nursery.  we put them down the main drag, far enough away from the snow ploughs to be safe and grow up big and tall.

in our neighborhood is a cul de sac that serves as a place for the kids to run around, and a shady place for the ambulance crews to wait for a call.  we’ve been talking about turning it into a community garden, and then learned that there’s now a city-sponsored program to develop urban agriculture, and called up for a meeting with my local city councilwoman.  and so we met the mayor’s head of urban agriculture, and i’ve got my in with the system.

Screenshot from 2016-05-09 19:06:18

now comes the organization.  i’m used to doing it all myself, but that’s not a thing at my stage of life, so it’s going to take lots of people helping.  luckily this is something the folks in the neighborhood have been talking about for years, so it’ll be easy to start off.

first we’ll put above-ground garden plots – boxes that serve to impede traffic and claim the space.  and then we’ll go thru the hoops necessary to take control of the land, get permission and someone to take all the asphalt up, get permission to thin out the scrub forest, get the city to put up a barrier fence between the area and the interstate onramp.  it’ll take fundraising, ownership, an account with the water company to run a line.  all sorts of stuff.  this will all take years, but this is a great year to start a big project.

and, still to come, next summer i’m going to be back in iceland for three months, hosting the residency program, inviting artists from around the world to come to the troll peninsula and make art about trolls, elves, the hidden folk – unseen beings among us.  my personal project will be to make a 15′ high troll statue out of local volcanic rock, set on a hillside overlooking the town.  around this i will plant a garden of things that grow, and things i hope to see growing there in the future (lupins, birch, spruce, willow – hardy bamboo!)

so stay tuned for the further adventures of a stealth gardener on her rounds of this earth we can only steward and never own.