Since Phyllis Waisman was a young girl growing up in Manhattan, she always wanted a tree in front of her building. For decades, Waisman hoped for a tree. In 2008, when the city was building bike lines in Chelsea, her dream came true. They placed tree pits in the meridians, and as soon as Waisman saw these, she started gardening. She had never been a gardener before — she spent her working days in the advertising industry. Regardless, Waisman loyally tended to her long-awaited tree pit.
One day, while Waisman was gardening on her corner of 23rd and 9th, she caught the attention of a bike rider called Luis Lujan. The two exchanged contact information— it turned out that Lujan has also been gardening around Chelsea, and he was already connecting with other gardeners he saw around the neighborhood, like Missy Adams.
“So we started emailing each other,” Waisman remembers of the Chelsea Garden Club’s beginnings. “And that’s basically how the group formed.”
Having grown significantly in members since its formation, the Chelsea Garden Club seems to straddle the line between official and unofficial. On one hand, the group is not part of the New York City Parks department and few of the Chelsea gardeners are official city tree stewards (Waisman, however, is). That said, the Garden Club has received official approval, recognition, and even awards since its start. In 2012, the group was given a Proclamation by former City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and former Senator Tom Duane for its community accomplishments; in 2016, it received the Hudson Guild’s Dorothy Epstein Community Service Award.
Internally, it’s a very organized affair. Though Waisman and Adams prefer not to be called the “presidents” of the society, they are certainly administrators. The two of them keep a list of members and which tree pits they garden— some only have one, but some have multiple (like Lujan, who currently cares for four pits). There are also rules, but Waisman admits that not everyone adheres to them. Technically, gardeners are not supposed to plant shrubs or rose bushes, nor are they supposed to grow edible food. These guidelines are distributed every year, during the Chelsea Garden Club’s annual meeting.
According to Waisman, not much changed during the pandemic — the meetings that were normally held in Adams’ apartment simply moved outside to Chelsea Piers (never on Zoom). But for one member, Chris Toto, COVID became his way into the Garden Club.
“My spouse, Pete Wilkins, has been of member of it for ... eight years I guess. I was always busy with work and I never really had an interest,” says Toto. When the pandemic hit, gardening became an outdoor outlet for Toto and a way to decompress from his job as an accountant.
Personal Style and Flair
Toto first took to a northwest island on 18th and Eighth Avenue, but now he and Wilkins oversee “maybe six or seven unofficially, but like four that are really ours,” he says.
Toto is a prime example of how the gardeners bring personal style and flair to their pits. Even District 3 Councilman Erik Bottcher has praised Toto’s roadside greenery. In a Facebook livestream taken and posted in April 2021, Bottcher recalled first meeting Toto at the annual Chelsea Garden Club meeting. Unknowingly, the Council Member told Toto his favorite flowerbeds were “on Eighth Avenue, with the rock formations.” Toto was delighted to claim that work as his own.
Since the Chelsea Garden Club isn’t funded by the city, the financial duties of beautifying the streets fall on the members. This includes the cost of soil, plants, and rocks or similar decor. However it also includes the costs of repairing the gardens if they’re harmed, which is an unavoidable — albeit deeply upsetting — problem for the Chelsea gardeners.
“If you garden in a public place, it’s going to happen,” Waisman explains. Once, she even found someone’s pet bird buried in her tree bed. “I’ve kind of accepted it at this point. But I know it’s hard on some of the gardeners.”
As an original Chelsea Garden Club member, Lujan is well-acquainted with the dismay of waking up to a vandalized tree pit. He has to remind himself that garden mistreatment isn’t personal, but rather a fact of neighborhood maintenance. It’s not easy though, especially because Lujan invests much of his mental wellness into his gardening.
“I just really need to connect to people and feel included in the community,” says Lujan, who worked as a yoga teacher before the pandemic triggered past emotional difficulties. The gardening community has provided a major support network. “People stop and say hello, and give you their gratitude for making the community a better place.”
Beyond the Garden Club members who have become close friends, Lujan has also formed strong relationships with his other neighbors. He’s met pets, made friends, and watched local children grow up. Some residents offer Lujan money for his good works; a few years ago, some school crossing guards even bought him high quality hoses that he still uses.
The civic-minded individuals that make up the Chelsea Garden Club help each other with the same care that they put towards the neighborhood. If someone is out of town or sick, they can rest assured that a fellow member will step in to water their tree pits, and maybe even help out further with pet-sitting or the like.
The club does host occasional tours like the recent one on June 16. They walk between select islands to showcase the horticultural talents of the members. But there’s no need to wait for a guide to see the neighborhood’s green beauty. Strolling through Chelsea, you’re sure to pass by at least one or two of the Garden Club’s flourishing patches. Time it right, and you might even see some members watering and tending to their assigned pits, a daily ritual for these diligent community gardeners.