It's not the oldest community garden in the U.S. It may not be the largest, either. But it is one of the oldest, and one of the largest. And it's just a short trip over the Marine Parkway Bridge to the island of green that is the domain of the Floyd Bennett Gardens Association.
Home to more than 500 members of all ages, races and cultural backgrounds with a singular passion for growing things, FBGA offers 200- square-foot plots for local gardeners for about $50 per year. There is a community garden near the Rockaway Little League fields at Fort Tilden offering similar plots on the peninsula for a comparable rate, but that space is a mere rectangular plot enclosed by a plain wooden fence, and cannot boast of the sheer splendor and natural beauty that has been created at FBGA over its 35 years of existence. Wild sour cherry trees bearing fruit suitable for jams and pies grace an enormous orchardlike picnic space used by the club for special events. At least ten willow trees were planted by the organization years ago, so that each mature tree is now providing a magical canopy of shade. Just outside the adorable children's garden, tended by the members' own children inside a white picket fence, a picnic table is positioned below the willow's canopy, available for tea parties and card games — without a reservation! And it seems that everywhere you look, mature, profusely blooming butterfly bushes attract pollinating insects in droves.
First established by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Service in the early 1970s, the garden is located along an historic runway at Floyd Bennett Field at the foot of Flatbush Avenue. For the first 20 years or so, Cornell plowed the entire area at the end of each growing season and continuously reassigned the plots, so gardeners did not invest time, effort and money into amendments of the soil they rented each year. Then, in the late 1990s, the Floyd Bennett Garden Association was incorporated and entered into a memorandum of understanding with Gateway National Recreation Area for a renewable five-year term. About 30 original members organized the association and established continuity with yearly renewal of individual plot assignments. The garden really began to grow! The membership more than doubled by 2006, the year Aviator Sports entered Floyd Bennett Field. Visitors to Aviator discovered FBGA, and the membership (and waiting list) ballooned to its present size. There are 150 applicants on the waiting list, and about 50 plots become available each season.
The current leaders of the group include President Adriann Musson, a special education teacher at Edward R. Murrow High School, and Bob Halligan, vice president and chair of the education committee. Both were founding members, and have been involved for decades. Alan Douglas, who served as president for eight years, established a strong relationship with Gateway officials during his tenure, along with the group's first president, lawyer Leo Gruber. The club's leaders run a lean balance sheet, with no salaried positions, and even the president has to pay dues and contribute a minimum of 12 hours of volunteer service to the club each year.
Volunteers provide all of the club's interesting workshops and programs free of charge to the community. I first learned of the FBGA a decade ago when I attended their lettuce-growing workshop. Some of their offerings this past summer included "Lasagna Gardening," "Indoor Composting With Worms," "Container Gardening," and my personal favorite, "Eat the Weeds," for which each participant collected, prepared and dined on a wild salad. A festive and educational Halloween party for children is held every October during the harvest season. Members toil all summer to grow enough pumpkins so that each child will be able to pick her or his own jack-o-lantern from the field.
It seems that FBGA has always managed to surmount obstacles to success and potential financial challenges with creative and ecologically conscious solutions. The perennial problem of animal visitors who help themselves to the "goods" in the members' plots was reduced when a wildlife garden containing the favorite plants of rabbits, raccoons, possums, moles, mice and birds was planted as a sort of decoy. The cost to create the wildlife garden was minimal, since 90 percent of the plantings were cuttings and transplants from members' gardens. The burgeoning need for soil enrichment on the group's land has always been satisfied with a robust composting program. Lately, that program has been supplemented by a relationship with a group of Black rodeo performers, which contributes its horse manure for composting. And just this month, the FBGA arranged a deal with the visiting Cole Brothers Circus to feed willow tree clippings harvested at the garden to its elephants, in exchange for accepting their manure at the garden, as well.
A recent effort by FBGA involves donation of fresh produce from the garden to food pantry programs. In another charitable endeavor, a club member suffering with multiple sclerosis, who won a prize from a pharmaceutical company, contributed the funds and materials to build the "Champions of Courage" garden for individuals with special needs. It features five-foot-wide pathways to accommodate wheelchairs and raised planters for easy access. Students from the Edward R. Murrow High School Occupational Education program enjoyed working in the Champions of Courage garden until recent city budget cuts ended the program.
The club's tasks for the future include control of invasive species of plants, and preventing theft and some vandalism. Most plots have fences with locks, but thieves have occasionally dug up and carted off some bushes from the club's common areas. FBGA has an interesting website with many photo albums at www.fbga.net, and does not shun publicity, but the leaders realize that curious visitors to the club property can sometimes be bothersome. If you decide to visit, they ask that you "look, but please don't take."