Wild Man Builds Roots in Harlem

July 1, 2009 at 2:03 pm 3 comments

Joe Gonzalez tends the herbs in the backgard of his backyard of his Harlem apartment.

Joe Gonzalez tends the herbs in the backyard of his Harlem apartment.

Joe Gonzalez is the “wild man” on the block but not for reasons one might think.  The resident of Central Harlem grows what to budding local gardeners border on exotic: peas and carrots. 

Gonzalez’s neighbors are sticking to garden basics like tomatoes and maybe a few herbs.  After all, they’re just beginners in the world of urban backyard gardening.  

Gonzalez, vice president of the block association covering 118th Street between Lenox Avenue and Adam Clayton Powell Avenue — a brownstone-lined block voted the most active by Community Board 10 last year — may well have helped his neighbors discover their inner gardeners.  When he moved into the basement of his landlord’s brownstone almost five years ago, he quickly got to work on transforming the derelict backyard into a garden.  He earmarked a sliver of the 200-square-foot yard for herbs, growing lavender, peppermint, oregano, cilantro, rosemary, spearmint and basil. 

The herbs thrived.  Bushes of mint and lavender grew so large Gonzalez didn’t know what to do with them.  That’s when the “idea sprouted.” He’d give his excess herbs away.  Gonzalez posted a message on Google, on a group page created for people on the block, and almost immediately he had takers.   

Since then, Gonzalez has looked for ways to share his bounty.  He drops off spare spearmint at a café on the block — “for their sweet teas,” he says — and shares his excess herbs at the block association’s monthly meetings. 

Now his neighbors are thinking about growing and sharing their own food too.  Though no one has yet brought any garden-grown produce to the meetings, neighbors tell Gonzalez they’re working on it.  They even planned a neighborhood potluck dinner where everyone will bring dishes made with as many ingredients as possible from their own gardens.  The big potluck is scheduled for Sept. 19. 

The idea of swapping and sharing food is picking up in many parts of the country, as reported in this article in the New York Times. The article cites Web sites such as veggietrader.com and neighborhoodfruit.com that are providing forums for people to post garden-grown fruits and vegetables they’d like to swap, donate or sell.

Gonzalez’s garden bounty is too modest to post on such sites. The garden is limited by the size of the yard.  Still, he manages to grow tomatoes, carrots, peas, cucumbers and peppers – all on a narrow strip lining one side of the garden.  The center is a square patch of grass, hand-weeded and mowed with old-style hand mower. 

“This to me is my country house,” said Gonzalez, noting that Times Square is only a 15-minute subway ride away. 

The country environment took time to build.  When he moved in, the backyard was overgrown jungle strewn with debris and surrounded by dilapidated brownstones with chain-link fences.

Gonzalez reclaimed the yard, using scrap lumber, bricks and other materials from the crumbling townhouses to build a deck, shelves for garden tools, planter boxes, and a garden bench.  

Everything he’s done — from building a garden to giving away excess food — stems from his heightened “consciousness about waste,” he says.  Why, he thought, let those 100-year-old floorboards go to waste?  What about all those herbs? 

It’s that kind of thinking that makes Gonzalez the undisputed “wild man” on one of Manhattan’s most active city blocks.

Gonzalez’s consulting business, darkgreenjoe.com, provides homeowners and commercial property owners with eco-friendly construction solutions. He specializes in the renovation of brownstones.  For more about his business, go to www.darkgreenjoe.com.

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Entry filed under: City Farmers, Community Gardens, Food Scraps, Urban Agriculture. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , .

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