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The New York Times

With Silver Bells And, Yes, Cilantro


May 18, 2003
Copyright © 2003
The New York Times. All rights reserved. 

ON a recent sunny day, Lucy Rivera stood with her friend and fellow gardener Janet Colon at the entrance to the Buena Vista Community Garden in Yonkers. From their vantage point by the chain-link fence, the two women surveyed rows of neat 4-by-8-foot raised beds set against the backdrop of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades.

''Sometimes we sit on blankets in the back of the garden,'' Ms. Rivera said, ''and it reminds us of the countryside in Puerto Rico.''

The tristate area is home to tens of thousands of people from Puerto Rico, Mexico and other parts of Central and South America. The gardens they make, whether public, private or part of larger community efforts, frequently combine vibrant colors, textures, shapes and tastes in ways that remind them of home.

The Buena Vista Community Garden is a case in point. Inaugurated in 1995, it is in an older neighborhood that is largely Hispanic.

Ms. Rivera, who lives down the street from the garden, is also the community gardens coordinator for the nonprofit Greyston Foundation, which underwrote the cost of establishing the garden in conjunction with Groundwork Yonkers, another community improvement group.

The gardeners, who are assigned one and occasionally two raised beds each, are mostly from Mexico and Puerto Rico. The cucumbers, tomatoes, eggplant and zucchini that they grow would be familiar to most backyard gardeners, but many of the beds also feature abundant plantings of cilantro, an herb common in Hispanic cooking.

Ms. Rivera said that Buena Vista's Puerto Rican gardeners also grow oregano for cooking and at least four kinds of mint, which is often brewed into tea and used as a cure for digestive upsets. The Mexican gardeners frequently harvest tomatillos, a staple of their cuisine, from their plots.

The Buena Vista garden provides the gardeners with fresh produce, but it also brings the neighborhood together. ''People who come to the garden get to know their neighbors,'' Ms. Rivera said. ''I call it a community center without walls.''

Just up the hill from Buena Vista, the Everybody Tree Garden takes its name from a large mural painted on the concrete walls of a building behind the vacant lot. The painting features a tree with many branches full of fanciful figures, including a large ''sun man'' at the top. Fanciful representations of children and butterflies dance underneath.

Though professional artists designed the overall work and painted some of the more complex figures, local children and elderly residents completed the bulk of the mural. During the growing season it serves as a backdrop for a garden of brilliant annuals and perennials, including drought-tolerant species like yucca, zinnias and salvia that are native to Spanish-speaking countries. When the mural was finished last year, young and old garden volunteers dipped their hands in paint and left handprints on the large rocks that dominate the southwest corner of the property.

''When I am in this garden,'' Ms. Rivera said, ''I am happy inside.''

In Bridgeport, Conn., high school students help bring gardens to children as part of the Butterflies Are Teachers project, which involves a dozen members of the Horticultural Club at Harding High School.

At least twice a month the older students visit each of five Bridgeport elementary schools to help teach younger children lessons in science and math that arise from the planning of butterfly gardens and the raising of butterflies. By the end of June the teenagers will also have helped to construct a butterfly garden at each school. The elementary students will release the butterflies that they raised in their classrooms, and with luck some of those butterflies will stay to inhabit the vibrant garden created by the Horticulture Club.

The activity comes naturally to Zoraida Torres, 17, a senior at Harding High who remembers her grandparents' farm in Puerto Rico, where she was born.

''Horticulture,'' she said, ''is in my blood.''

Horticulture is also part of the lifeblood of the central Puerto Rican town of Aibonito, famous for a flower festival held each year inlate June or early July. The New Jersey city of Camden will share Aibonito's floral tradition starting on June 28, when a permanent exhibition called the Plaza de Aibonito will open in a greenhouse at the Camden Children's Garden. Filled with orchids, birds of paradise, bromeliads and other tropical plants, the exhibit celebrates the heritage of the surrounding community, which is at least one-third Hispanic.

Sponsored by the Camden City Garden Club, the exhibit was first displayed in March at the Philadelphia Flower Show. The plaza was constructed of rustic paving stones with a central fountain. A backdrop, painted to resemble three pastel-tinted buildings characteristic of a small Puerto Rican town, was framed by palms, ornamental bananas and flowers. These features have been reconstructed in Camden.

Michael Devlin, executive director of the Children's Garden, said the local community had been involved in the project since its inception. Volunteers helped with the construction along with garden employees. Eventually the plaza will also be used as a performance space for local children's dance and music groups.

A delegation from Aibonito, led by the mayor of the town, will visit the Children's Garden for the dedication festivities. The opening of the exhibit not only coincides with Aibonito's Festival de las Flores, but also is a high point of Camden's monthlong San Juan Bautista celebration.

Mr. Devlin expects the Plaza de Aibonito to become both a horticultural showplace and a symbol of goodwill.

''It's a connection between the people of Puerto Rico and the community here,'' he said.

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