Cultivating beauty

Luis Lujan, a member of the Chelsea Garden Club, cares for five plant beds in the neighborhood, but has overseen as many as nine. Photo: Ashad Hajela

I was on a bicycle riding down Ninth Avenue when all of a sudden, at the 27th street intersection, a portion of my path was blanketed with greenery and various flowers in full bloom. It was like briefly being in a greenhouse in the middle of Chelsea. I assumed that it was the city that was responsible for maintaining this resplendence.

But the caretakers are, rather, neighborhood residents, which I found out when I met a woman by the name of Missy Adams, wrenching open a fire hydrant to water the beds, around 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night.

Missy Adams started the Chelsea Garden Club about eight years ago. The size of the group fluctuates between 30 and 50 people. “These people are just passionate about gardening,” she said.

Adams and the Chelsea Garden Club have adopted about as many beds as they have member, all around Chelsea. They maintain each meticulously. Although many people come together from around the neighborhood, Adams does not think of the Chelsea Garden Club a community institution since members only see each other twice a year - for a meeting in March and then during a “bed tour” in the summer.

“It is a very selfless thing we are doing. We buy everything ourselves,” she said. “The only thing we get out of it is seeing the fruits of our labor.”

But no member of the club works as diligently as Luis Lujan.

Lujan manages five beds right now, but has overseen as many as nine. Lujan, a yoga teacher, grew up gardening in Arizona. He came to New York in the 1990s. His apartment is nearly holds a garden in itself. But that was not enough for him. In 2008, Lujan began wrenching open fire hydrants to water plants. City authorities threatened fines and tickets, but Lujan responded by showing off some of his handiwork and eventually got a permit to go about his gardening. He would eventually receive even more recognition, being named “Most Beautiful Tree Bed in Manhattan” in 2012 in a contest organized partly by the city’s Parks Department.

“It started with a single petunia and then it looked lonely so I added another one and the corner looked lonely and the next thing you know, I had five plots,” Lujan said.

He used to do his gardening alongside his dog, a Maltese, before she passed away a year ago. That way, he not only got to know many of the people in the neighborhood but also many of the dogs. The neighbors would buy him coffee, hand him a $20 bill, and give him plants and flowers to nurture. His main goals were therapy for himself, community building and beautifying a neighborhood. “They were ashtrays and dog toilets before,” he said, motioning to the beautiful flowered beds.

The beds in Chelsea are ideal for gardening because they are bigger than other beds around the city. They have also been around longer in Chelsea than anywhere else.

Gardeners have to deal with the perils of a densely populated city. The beds are often vandalized and people, passing by, often pluck flowers integral to the rest of the plant. “It’s my work going to waste,” Lujan said. He puts up signs saying “Don’t Pick Flowers,” one of which had a drawing of a giant flower strangling a human. Lujan spends about $200 on the beds every year. With each act of vandalism or innocent flower picking, that cost increases.

Despite the costs of the upkeep of Chelsea’s bicycle lane beds, Lujan and Adams remain quite fond of the gardens they have created in the midst of the city. “I saw birds eating out of a sunflower in Luis’s garden and it was just heartwarming. It’s a lovely thing to see in the middle of the road,” Adams said.