Onward and Upward in Riverside Park

For city gardeners, spring’s arrival is marked by rococo displays: cascading branches of yellow forsythia on the 86th Street transverse road; pink-saucer magnolia blossoms on the Broadway islands on the Upper West Side; uptight tulip beds, in coordinated colors, on the Park Avenue mall. For me, a card-carrying Park Tender, spring also brings an e-mail from the Riverside Park Fund announcing the arrival of plants for my adopted patch of land, a rock garden bordering West 76th and 77th streets.

This is my third spring working the garden that nobody wanted. It’s on a steep, 45-degree incline and sports a domineering, nasty-looking honey locust with sharp spines clustered around the trunk, an Osage orange tree that’s fine until fall, when it drops its six-inch round, inedible “oranges” everywhere and, of course, a quite cozy colony of rats.

My first summer with the plot—which I took over after spying a small sign in the park—was dedicated to cleaning up the debris from this long-neglected site. Besides the usual bottles, cans, condoms and chicken bones, I was surprised by the amount of clothing I uncovered—a cache of shirts, pants and shoes. I hacked down the overgrown and scratchy spireas and trimmed the branches of a solitary dogwood to best show it off. And I dealt with the soil, a problem for anyone with gardening aspirations in New York. The Park Fund kindly donated a truckload of topsoil, along with the labor of dozens of N.Y.U. students who fulfilled their community-service requirement by hauling buckets of the stuff and spreading it around.

Then I got to planting. At the bottom of the slope, I put in dozens of donated Heuchera and Tiarella. I divided a gift of lilies of the valley and hosta to line the steps leading down to the park. Behind them, I indulged in a couple of peonies (who can resist?) and a line of mop-headed blue hydrangeas for summer color. Ivy, vinca and ajuga—hardy ground covers—sent out runners to cover the bare spots mid-slope. Day lilies filled in the places where the sun hits all day, while ferns lurked in the shade. And right close to some ratholes—you can get rid of the trash, but New York’s peskiest are another issue—I planted a half-dozen fragrant white flox. It’s a city garden, after all.

I just made my first visit to the garden this year. To my delight, I found the plot nearly trash-free, and began my now-annual ritual of getting my garden in shape, planting more frothy pink Coral Bells, a large viburnum for height, and three Cotoneaster Coral Beauties that will sprawl over the rocks and eventually branch out six feet. It will continue to evolve, as all gardens do, to become my patch of paradise, not to mention a treat for passersby. Maybe even you.

Visit http://www.riversideparkfund.org for activities and volunteer information.

Onward and Upward in Riverside Park