Transforming the Tree Pits of Chelsea

No longer the neighborhood’s mystery gardener, Chris Toto has created flowering oases

| 30 Aug 2020 | 12:58

One sunny August afternoon, I found myself trekking home up Eighth Avenue for no real reason other than a change of scenery - and when I got to 18th Street, what a change there was. The notoriously seedy and trash-ridden median on the south side of the intersection had been transformed in to a glorious mini-garden, complete with sturdy chrysanthemum bushes and vibrant, playful lantanas. But beyond that was the real stunner: the tree pit on the north side had towering sunflowers, probably eight feet tall, a rainbow of impatiens, spiking canna lilies and happy, sunny rudbeckia. Kneeling at the base of this botanical bounty was one T-shirt clad gentleman, rooting and plucking and digging.

This turned out to be Chris Toto, a 25-year Chelsea native who lives nearby on 20th Street. On his way home one day in March, he noticed a man tending to the pits, pulling out some trash and weeds, and he pitched in to help. Turns out that the other man, Brian, had a dog that was soon to be having a medical procedure, and needed a break. The island had a city gas line going through the center and each time there was a leak, the garden was dug up and the dirt tossed back into the pit. Trees planted by the city were unable to grow because of the gas line and Brian was trying to make do with what was left.

That’s when Toto swooped in, and suffice it to say that he brought his A game. A private equity CFO by trade, he was struck by the potential in the patch of dirt - before his foray into business, he had considered landscape architecture design as a career path. Toto’s contribution started with just pulling out the weeds, watering and keeping the pits free of trash, but he soon realized he could do much better. He pondered over what was needed to make the pit stand out and settled on creating various levels of flower beds.

He first put in a few flimsy barriers, but people kept pulling them out. So he decided to go all in: he began forming a rock ledge around the perimeter of the pit and added nutrient-rich soil to replace some of the lousy, hard clay dirt that had been compacted into the space. Three additional rock ledges were added to the island from rocks Toto gathered from his brother’s backyard in New Jersey. The south pit has a tree growing it, so more shade-friendly varietals have gone in there, but the crowning glory is the north pit, right in front of Seamore’s restaurant.

Chelsea Garden Club Award

It’s become so beautiful that people actually request to be seated on the Eighth Avenue side instead of along 18th Street, to get a better view of its finery. Seamore’s even enlisted him to spruce up the pit on the 18th Street corner as well, and helps keep them both watered. Toto spends up to three or four hours a day working the soil, pulling the weeds and watering the pits between 18th and 20th streets.

Much to Toto’s surprise, his hard work paid off. He won Chelsea Garden Club’s Best Tree Pit of 2020 award, awarded before they even knew who was the mystery gardener behind it. He has since become a member, and assists other members whenever possible, and water the pits on hot days. Toto said this summer he has met many members of the community, and it has been a personal rewarding experience for him in the middle of the pandemic. Funding the pits’ upkeep is solely his own responsibility, though, as it is with other pits adopted by Club members. He estimates he has invested around $700 into the 18th Street island, but considers it money well spent. Toto’s partner of 22 years maintains an island on the north corner of 20th & Eighth and Toto assists with the upkeep of this one as well.

Consequently, he has seen an Unbroken Windows effect of sorts, where people chip in watering and weeding, or removing errant trash, of which there has also been a discernible decrease since he began their beautification process. Much like Seamore’s, other local businesses throw some water on the on the shrubs if they look wilty or supply Toto with a cool drink when he does (although he does have access to the fire hydrant for a reliable water supply).

The Department of Sanitation even took notice, and one of the agents contributed some extra rocks to reinforce the barriers Toto has been creating, not only raising the very shallow beds and improving the soil quality, but adding a very attractive feature to his plan. And Toto is not finished here: he is hoping to start part time studies for landscape design at The New York School of Design this fall.

Hopefully, this will not detract too much from Toto’s ability to maintain the beautiful oasis he has created, but with his inspiration, the neighborhood can take it upon themselves to contribute to its maintenance. Perhaps you’ll see a few more more mystery gardeners cultivating abandoned pits into loveliness throughout Chelsea.