As her 80-year-old fingers tug up mugwort weeds and sow seeds at the Herbal Garden of East New York, head gardener Johanna Willins feels both “wonderful and worried.”
Willins is one of 57 New York City public gardeners featured in “The Warmest Years on Record,” an oral history project by Brooklyn artist Rachel Garber Cole that captures people's anxieties about the planet's future. It includes audio installations that opened at 13 community gardens across Brooklyn on June 4th during Open Garden Day. The project is funded by the Brooklyn Arts Council with the support of New York City Parks Department and runs through December 15th.
“It’s wonderful just watching everything come back alive after the winter time is over,” said Willins, as she rubbed mint and hyssop leaves between her fingers and smelled them. “But I see it [climate change]. I see it. I see it. After a long winter, what should have been up, was not up. And when it came up, it [collard greens] just looked funny, as if it didn’t get enough water, or it got a burn on it.”
On the front gate of each of the 13 gardens, colorful signs display a single question chosen from a series of 13 questions about climate change that Cole has been asking gardeners since the project started in 2018. To hear the answer, visitors scan a QR code on the poster, and listen to a demo of answers that range from seven to 20 minutes, depending on the question.
The project’s inspiration came from Cole’s own anxieties about climate change that she said hit a crescendo just before she began the interviews. Like many of the community gardeners, Cole said she is concerned about future food shortages, life-threatening floods and sharing a planet with a population that seems idle as she does everything she can in her own life to lessen her environmental impacts on the planet.
Listening to the city’s public gardeners talk about climate change makes perfect sense in this regard to Carlos Martinez, who greenlit the project as director of NYC Parks Green Thumbs.
Green Thumbs supports over 550 community gardens citywide. At the half-dozen public gardens that Gothamist toured, all the gardeners echoed the same concerns over shifting growing seasons, and the effects that they were beginning to see in their crop yields.
The climate influence can also be seen in gardens, where insects that once died in the winter chill now live year-round, weakening the health of trees and crops.
“There is so much knowledge in our own communities,” Martinez said. “There is so much passion also around building these community spaces and the idea of building community through public space.”
These gardens are vital to the communities they serve. Research shows they shield neighborhoods from heat waves and flooding. And community gardeners are among the most connected New Yorkers to climate change because most are digging in the ground every day — witnessing the incremental shifts unfolding in their gardens.
Hearing their fears and anxiety, while sitting in a garden, brings awareness, urgency and intimacy to the discussion on climate change for Martinez.
“The gardens play a critical role in food insecurity, which has been exacerbated by climate change,” Martinez said. “And most important, gardens build strong community ties. By bringing people together, we're able to create some type of action against climate change.”
In the last 10 years, the planet has experienced the hottest recorded years. The art installation’s title comes from how alarmed Cole was that she could feel the planet getting warmer, and she said she felt that very few people acknowledged that fact, or would even engage in conversation about it.
“I really deeply fear the collapse of civilization – the worst-case scenario – and also the powerlessness of being confronted with climate chaos, instability and discontinuity,” said Cole, who will give birth to her first child at the end of this month.
Herbal Garden of East New York and the memories of seasons
Willins’ earliest memories involve gardening with her grandmother in their Bedford-Stuyvesant backyard, where they grew collard greens and okra. When she retired nearly 30 years ago, she said she decided to spend the rest of her life gardening.
Riding around the neighborhood on a bicycle, she said she noticed a lot of vacant lots strewn with garbage. The community garden she helped launch settled into what is now a quarter-acre corner lot on Schenk and Glenmore Avenues in Brooklyn.
It took her about five years to clean up the lot, cutting down all the overgrown weeds and grass. The perimeter chain link fence is now covered with deep red flowers. Vegetables grow from elevated garden beds, and mint sprouts from industrial plastic barrels.
But her collard greens don’t grow as easily as they did in her grandmother’s day. This year, they came up too soon, as did other leafy vegetables, but died before they were ready for harvest.
Stunted and yellowed like autumn leaves, the plants died because of the sudden heat that emerged this spring, Willins said. She has to dig up the whole bed and start over again, which is a physical undertaking for an 80-year-old with bad knees.
Willins is not alone in bemoaning the changes in weather and growing seasons she has witnessed over her lifetime. Coles’ installation at the garden echoes the voices of other gardeners who yearn for snow and want to feel again the distinct transitions from winter to spring and from summer to fall.
Ashford Learning Garden and planting disrupted
These gardens are not merely ornamental hobbies. The sites are part of the city’s network of publicly accessible greenspaces.
In Brownsville, the Ashford Learning Garden occupies a narrow lot just over 2,000 square feet, lodged between two multifamily houses. Local resident Rini Akhter said this is one of the few opportunities to be really connected to nature in the city. Akter immigrated from Bangladesh 10 years ago and missed being around plants.
“When I am in this garden, I feel like I am back home [in Bangladesh],” said Akhter, a store cashier and the mother of a 5-year-old.
In her two years at the garden, she has grown varieties of leafy vegetables and squashes that are common in Bangladesh, but hard to find in the United States. She cooks the food she grows like many of the city’s volunteer gardeners.
But she said she has noticed that the rising temperatures have altered the annual rituals of reaping and sowing. With warm seasons starting early and lasting well into the fall, growers said they have to shift when they plant, which can be tricky because extreme weather can make calculating the right time difficult.
“In September, it used to feel breezy cold, but now at the end of September it still feels hot,” Akhter said.
With its mostly human-made environment, New York City is not spared the worst effects of the heat. By 2050, the number of days over 90 degrees Fahrenheit could triple to nearly 60 days per year, and this heat is often worse in poorer neighborhoods. And by 2080, a Columbia University study predicts that more than 3,000 residents each summer could die from heat-related causes, more than five times annual averages at the start of the millennium.
Cold snaps are disrupting urban garden life, too.
Neyda Maymi, who is the head gardener at Ashford Learning Garden, said that they have to plant earlier and earlier. But this year, as she was getting ready to scatter seeds, a long cold spell hit in the spring, and she had to wait it out.
“Before, we had a season, but now, there are times that things bolt before the leaf even matures,” said Maymi, who relies on her garden for fruits and vegetables. “That’s a problem because you want leaves to be big enough to be able to feed the family.”
Maymi’s bok choy was one of the plants that sprouted suddenly, and because they were too small, they weren’t viable for food. This growing season, she said she will be meticulously observing the changes in the growing cycle — and making adjustments for next year in the hopes of bigger vegetables.
“Here in the garden, the heat swings are extremely wide nowadays; that seems to be happening a little more frequently,” said Traci Nottingham, a gardener at Prospect Heights Community Farm for 25 years. “But too much heat will kill the blooms off your bell peppers, or any plant for that matter. They can’t take the heat, and they will actually abort.”
Prospect Heights Community Farm laments poison in the soil
On a quarter-acre lot walled off on each side by brick apartment buildings, Prospect Heights Community Farm is a haven for insects and birds, an important part of food production that is heavily affected by climate change.
The garden has two recycled wooden houses for leaf cutter bees who are solitary insects and important pollinators. Despite lacking a hive, these bees still need a place to live. Another common sight at most gardens is milk thistle and milkweed that’s planted to feed monarch butterflies and their larvae.
Every garden has substantial sections of plants exclusively to attract a wide variety of pollinators – from birds to bats to beetles.
“They [pollinators] love the flowers, and we're so lucky to get monarchs who come through because they have such a long way to go,” said Sofia Van Leeuwen, board member of the Prospect Heights Community Farm.
The garden is watered through a simple rainwater collection system from an adjacent roof that is stored in tanks in the garden. And like most community gardens, composting is a major activity that expanded during the pandemic when the municipal Department of Sanitation suspended curbside composting.
Despite the challenges posed by a changing environment, urban gardeners have had to face one large dilemma – they cannot grow food directly from the ground. Because these once vacant lots are contaminated with pollution, such as lead and illegal dumping, growers must build raised wooden beds on top of the ground and fill it with outside soil that has been tested.
The revelation that the earth they work in is already poisoned is sobering to Van Leeuwen. The audio installation onsite is full of lamentations over past choices such as single-use plastic bags intermingled with the small commitments to do better.
Community Gardens, the natural salons for climate change
Cole’s previous work also confronts existential questions about living on a rapidly changing planet. In a video installation she created five years ago, “Questions For a Dinosaur,” she asked a triceratops about extinction. During the mock exchange, the cretaceous-period lizard was mute to each of her 104 questions such as ‘What does it feel like to go extinct? Does it hurt?’
“I had been feeling this sense of dread and precarity around climate change. Even though at that time, we were talking about global warming as something that was going to happen in 100 years,” Cole said. “This is the one thing I felt like it was a threat to the continuity of my future.”
Ultimately, Cole said she wants people to have conversations about climate change that are emotionally driven rather than political or nihilistic.
Her work is framed as an oral history project recording the experiences of living in the early years of global warming, but really it’s a jumping off point to get people started talking in a way that matches how universal and personal the crisis is.
We're living in the old reality...
“We're living in the old reality, which we kind of think we're still living in continuity, stability and forward progression,” Cole said.
Climate change is not all gloom and doom for Cole. In the process of creating “The Warmest Years on Record,” she insists her feeling about the impending doom has turned into something a little more hopeful.
“We're looking at a totally new reinvention of what it means to be a person living in New York City in the next 20 years,” Cole said. “Our whole sense of identity is going to be shaken up as we move even forward into accelerated climate change.”