A new generation of urban settlers is moving back into city centers, back into the sometimes distressed properties and devastated industrial landscapes that hold so much promise for the future. Pedestrian lifestyle! High-density living, with neighbors and shops and schools nearby!
It all sounds great in theory, but sometimes the actual scene on the ground can be disgusting…rusting metal, oil-soaked dirt, rank weed growth, trash.
As one of those urban pioneers myself (but a grandmother already, one of the older set) I want to give you first-time city center wannabes some encouragement. Don't worry how bad the land looks now; it can be fixed by plants alone, in many cases over just a few growing seasons. The healing power of plants can remediate years of soil and water pollution and create unexpected islands of beauty.
The trick is just to plant one plant. Just get one thing into the ground (suggestions below), and then next one and the one after that will be easier.
Over the last few years I have been discovering some great urban success stories. Once you see how quickly results come, you too can branch out on your own urban "wasteland-to-wonderland" projects.
In many cases a new garden can act as an economic engine, not just a pretty place to sit. The beginnings of any urban garden are cause for celebration, the more so when courageous investors use new green space as the foundation for additional people-scaled development.
Elevated train tracks once carried tons of meat, vegetables, and industrial goods into Manhattan's lower West Side, near the Hudson River. Finally abandoned in the late 20th century, the last decaying tracks were about to be demolished in the late 1990s when several local residents created a fruitful partnership between a new nonprofit group and New York City's parks department. Together they salvaged the tracks, had them structurally upgraded, then added walkways, comfortable benches, performance spaces, and, incidentally, some outrageous fresh-air vistas of the skyline…all situated 20 feet or more above the street.
Their idea was to make a park, and today the High Line, which opened its first section only in 2009, attracts awestruck visitors from around the world. Just a few years after it opened, this broad footpath meanders through a lush wilderness floating above the noise, the visual distractions, and the idling engines along 10th Avenue. On the High Line, there's little to obstruct views of the Empire State Building, the Hudson River, and even some gauzy new architecture by Frank Gehry.
Plants were key. The High Line's designers and supporters have put in 100,000 plants along the almost mile-and-a-half-long trail. All along the way new buildings are springing up, and new art installations on the sides of old buildings, and there's the music of a dozen languages along this must-see destination.
I just visited the High Line again this winter, and even with snow cover the vegetation looked spectacular. Nothing fancy or exotic, but hardy grasses, ferns, holly trees, and other mid-size perennials made for an interesting array of textures and colors. None of these plants requires much care, or water, or depth of soil. Check out the High Line in person if you possibly can, and get inspired.
Here in my hometown of Asheville, a quiet fiber artist has spent some two decades transforming a severely degraded industrial dumping ground along busy train tracks into a stately and serene garden.
The creator is Pattiy Torno, owner of CURVE Studios and Garden, who bought some old industrial buildings in Asheville's now busy River Arts District in 1989, in order to have an isolated place to work and play music at high volume.
As I wrote in Carolina Gardener magazine recently, "She bought the land from a family who fixed cars in one building, painted trucks and buses in another, and detailed cars in the third building...literally, the dirt was greasy." Pattiy had a further challenge in 2003, when a former land partner left, taking with him lots of scrap metal but also all the topsoil he had created.
So Pattiy brought in a few loads of mulch, began planting anything that might live, and laced the entire half-acre property with pathways and handsome retaining walls made of reclaimed stone, brick, and steel. She has added a medley of found and donated plants, until the whole composition is one of color, structure, artistic expression, and quiet shade. You hardly notice the loaded freight trains rumbling by, and today the CURVE gardens have become a garden tour destination and an anchor of a booming artists' community.
I belong to a garden club, the Asheville E-Z Gardeners. We formed three years ago to have fun, make friends, and learn new things about gardening. We also like to do community garden projects, and our first one was a doozy.
We got to transform a parking lot into a garden, and without ripping up any asphalt.
The Open Hearts Art Center, an arts-based community center for people with special needs, had a fenced-in parking area that was almost covered with dirt that had washed down from a hillside. The E-Z Gardeners, working with a host of other volunteers, managed to scoop up all the dirt; meanwhile a skilled carpenter built several box frames to lay on the parking area.
Once the boxes were done we filled them with that rich silt and planted with flowers and vegtables. Presto! Instant garden, with a nice paved sitting area built in.
At my own 5-year-old house, I have watched how quickly the bare clay soil surrounding it was transformed just by adding plants. Today that space holds a colorful, fruitful garden.
Among plants that can help remediate difficult soil are day lilies and sunflower (tough root systems), willows (any kind, they suck water out of wet soil), foxgloves (countering heavy metals), grasses, and tough vines like kiwi and rose.
Nan K. Chase writes about gardening from her home in Asheville, N.C. She is the author of "Eat Your Yard!" - Edible trees, shrubs, vines, herbs and flowers for your landscape and lectures about edible landscaping.