After Closing Scare, Creative Little Garden Turns Over New Leaf

Steve RoseMelvin Felix Steve Rose in the garden.

On May 26, less than three weeks after the Creative Little Garden was touted as the best community garden in the city by readers of the Daily News, a message appeared on the garden’s Facebook page: “Without new volunteers our garden may close at the end of this summer.”

For the past five years, Steve Rose, a “semi-retired” 62-year-old resident of the block, has opened the garden’s green gates every morning at 11 a.m and watered its azaleas, hydrangeas and ferns. He closes the park at sundown — to prevent vagrants or late-night partiers from entering — and when it’s used for events: 14 weddings were held at the Creative Little Garden last year, and a “Saturday Night Live” skit was filmed there. But earlier this summer, Mr. Rose decided he would no longer be involved with the garden, citing personal reasons he did not want to discuss on the record.

Most East Village gardens are run in a communal fashion, meaning the loss of one member wouldn’t bring on a closing scare. But Mr. Rose runs the garden if not with an iron fist, then with a very green thumb. “The good thing about our garden is that it’s run by one guy,” he said. “That’s why it looks the way it does. It’s not a whole bunch of people complaining and compromising — which is most gardens, where it gets political. I sort of became the dictator and did everything when no one else did and it just worked out easily that way.”

Mr. Rose did get assistance from Ron Curtis, a friend who built the garden’s 66 birdhouses and has been involved with it since it opened in 1978. But Mr. Curtis wasn’t an ideal replacement, since he travels constantly. (This summer, he’s in Nova Scotia.)

The gardenMelvin Felix Creative Little Garden

On a recent Saturday afternoon, after about a month of uncertainty, Alexander Barton, an East Village resident, agreed to replace Mr. Rose after reading a flyer announcing the garden would close without additional volunteers. “I’d been looking for an opportunity to do more direct gardening,” said Mr. Barton, who is a member of two other gardens in the neighborhood but does not maintain plots in them.

Unlike his predecessor, Mr. Barton, 28, said he works and doesn’t have “a ton of extra time,” so he won’t be able to dedicate as many hours as Mr. Rose does to the garden. That means it could return to a more communal mode of operation.

Magali Regis, a board member at the New York City Community Garden Coalition who has also been a member at the Creative Little Garden for the past 15 years, said that under David Crane, the director who preceded Mr. Rose, the neighborhood was more engaged in the garden’s activities. “In the last couple of years, I would say Steve and Ron have taken it upon themselves to do everything because they have the time. They’re both retired,” Mrs. Regis said. “So they haven’t really been involving the community as much.”

Under its new director, that’s likely to change. Mr. Barton said he’d be able to take over bureaucratic and landscaping tasks, such as filing paperwork and determining which plants need to be removed or replaced, but he’ll only be able to water plants once a week, where Mr. Rose was watering them daily. He said it would be up to the garden’s members to maintain it the rest of the time.

CLG-membershipMelvin Felix Membership Agreement indicating
the garden might close.

At a two-day membership drive last month, 71 people signed up as new members for a $20 fee; some are scheduled to open and close the garden, and others will water plants.

According to Karen Tighe, the president of the 6BC Botanical Garden an avenue away, running a community garden is the same as running a small nonprofit. “It is very time consuming,” said Ms. Tighe, who administers the garden but does not cultivate it. “What I do and what several other people do in our garden could be full-time jobs.”

She said that out of the 6BC garden’s almost 100 members, only seven are involved in non-gardening activities. “The problem is that everyone wants to sit and read in the garden or have a party, and maybe they’ll plant something,” Ms. Tighe said, “but no one wants to deal with the actual logistics of running the garden.”

Mr. Rose agreed with the sentiment. “People don’t think about those things,” he said. “They think they’re going to come to the garden, plant a petunia and leave. I hate to say it but gardening is not about gardening.”