Liz Christy Garden

Bowery and Houston Streets
New York, NY

Submitted by: Donald Loggins

The oldest community garden in NYC has rare plants and a wonderful pond cared for by Laura Braddock, featuring fish and 9 red-eared turtles.

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Why It Works

Founded in 1973, this was the first community garden in New York City. You will find rare plants and a wonderful fish and turtle pond. The pond is cared for by Laura Braddock and has 9 red-eared turtles. There is a grape arbor and many places for visitors to sit and relax.

The year-round hours, weather permitting, are Saturdays, 12:00 - 4:00 PM, except in October, the Garden is open until 5 PM. Additionally, from May through September, it is open Tuesdays from 6:00 PM until dusk...and often whenever someone is gardening.

What Makes Liz Christy Garden a Great Place?

It is located right over a NYC subway line. Two main bus stops are by the gates. Local residents use it all the time. The plants and trees are labeled and we have a free booklet on the garden. The paths are wheelchair accessible. Easy to navigate and unlike city streets, all our paths are curved to allow people to take a more casual tour of the garden. Benches are at the end of cul de sacs, and people are encouraged to explore. A gardener is always on hand to answer questions.

Men and women are about equal as visitors. There is a lot of seating, from single and double chairs to larger benches and picnic tables. Many decide to just sit on the lawn. No vehicles are allowed, just a bike rack inside the gate. We always have a gardener on duty when we are open. It is very safe. There is no litter. The first impression is WOW.

The garden is used by hundreds of people a week during the spring, summer and fall. You hear hundreds of birds singing; the sounds of the city vanish once inside. The Liz Christy Bowery Houston Garden [LCBH] has a pond, a beehive and a wildflower habitat, beautiful wooden furniture, a grape arbor, a grove of weeping birch trees, fruit trees, a dawn redwood, vegetable gardens, berries, herbs and hundreds of varieties of flowering perennials. It is divided into individual areas, designed and tended to by the garden members; general maintenance is shared. The beauties of this natural place can be enjoyed in every season, including winter. People use it to relax, study nature, read, write, do homework, sunbath, picnic, bird watch, turtle watch, talk, date and a few people have even gotten married here. Every square inch is used.

Friends meet here. People feel safe and talk to future friends here. Dates come here. Artists come to paint and draw, photographers visit. People come in groups, as singles and smile a lot. Residents love to bring friends to the garden; it is, after all, a community garden. Children love the turtle pond, and seniors like the seating we have throughout the garden. The garden is a great place for people to stop for a rest and escape the hot NYC sun.

History & Background

The land where the Liz Christy/Bowery Houston Garden now stands has seen many changes in its history. Before European settlement, the area was a forested hunting ground for local Native Americans. During the 17th Century, our site was the corner of Bouwerie and North Street, the southern tip of a large farm owned by Peter Stuyvesant, the last Dutch Governor of New Amsterdam. After New Amsterdam became New York, a succession of buildings stood here; one of them probably a church. By the time Houston Street was widened and the subway station underneath it was built, all that remained here was an empty, treeless lot, filled with garbage and saturated with rubble and broken brick. It was in complete decline in the 1970's when many buildings were abandoned and torn down. This is the daunting, if typical, beginning for many urban community gardens. Before anything could be planted, our founding gardeners had to tackle the huge job of clearing and preparing the soil.

In 1973 a local resident named Liz Christy and a group of gardening activists known as the Green Guerillas were planting window boxes, vacant lots with ‘seed bombs’ and tree pits in the area. They saw the large rubble-strewn lot as a potential garden and in December, they went to the City to find a way to gain official use of the land. Volunteers hauled the garbage and rubble out, spread donated topsoil, installed a fence and began planting.

On April 23, 1974, the City's office of Housing Preservation and Development approved the site for rental as the "Bowery Houston Farm and Garden" for $1 a month. 60 raised beds were planted with vegetables, and trees and herbaceous borders were added. In their second year, this forerunner of today's urban community gardens won its first Mollie Parnis Dress Up Your Neighborhood Award. People from other neighborhoods in all five boroughs saw what could be done and wanted information on how to start similar projects.

Soon the Green Guerillas were running workshops and planting experimental plots to learn how a wide range of plants could be grown in hostile conditions. The garden became a site for many plant giveaways, where plants grown on-site or donated from nurseries, professional horticulturists and local gardeners were given to new gardens all over the City. In 1986 the Garden was dedicated as the Liz Christy’s Bowery-Houston Garden, in memory of its founder. In 1990, after years of uncertainty and a ground swell of support, the local development group, the Cooper Square Committee, pledged to preserve the garden in its entirety in its renovation plans for our neighborhood.

The soil in our garden was built up over many years by adding large amounts of organic material--compost, peat moss, loam, wood ashes, etc. This practice needs to be maintained for the continued productivity of our soil. Because we started with so much mortar (limestone) and brick dust in the soil, our soil is classified as "sweet," having a high pH number. This differs from the native East Coast soil, which is naturally more "acid," having a lower pH number. Our present pH is well within the range tolerated by most vegetables, flowers, trees and shrubs. A small number of fruits, ornamental plants, and especially local native wild flowers prefer or require a lower pH. These plants include members of the Rhododendron family and Holly family. We lower the pH for these plants by mixing an extra amount of organic material with the planting soil and feeding the plants with an "acid" type fertilizer.

In our garden, the layer of topsoil is about one foot deep; in a few spots it is as little as five inches. Under that is a layer 1/2 to 2 inches thick of hard coal cinders. Beneath that is very sandy soil, mixed with large stones, bricks, cobblestones and other rubble fill. Below that is the Houston Street subway station.

Our soil is very well drained. It tends to dry out quickly. Adding organic material and using mulches helps the soil retain moisture. Watering is a necessity during the hot summer months and sometimes during dry periods in spring and fall.

The microclimate in the garden is pleasantly modified by a number of favorable circumstances. Winter is slightly milder because we're located near the ocean, in the middle of a big city, and protected from cold north winds by high brick walls. These walls also act as solar collectors to release warmth at night. Since New York City's usual minimum winter temperature is 0 to 10 degrees, we are classified as USDA Zone 7. But because of our warmer microclimate, we can even over-winter more tender, herbaceous Zone 8 plants. These plants include: dahlias, gladiolus, calla lilies, snapdragons and agapanthus. Even wax begonias and impatiens behave as hardy annuals here. They pop up in spring from seed dropped the year before.

Of course, our garden doesn't escape summer heat waves. The trees and some ocean breezes do lower the temperature a few degrees and make things more bearable. It is the high night-time temperatures, as much as the sizzling days, which determine the types of plants you can grow well during the "dog days." Tomatoes set fruit poorly during bad heat waves, but resume when the weather returns to normal.

Contact Info:

Donald Loggins

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