Growing these gardens takes the whole community

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Ursula Chanse describes 1988 as a “time of upheaval” in the Bronx.

Between those moving out of the borough and people committed to staying, change was happening at a rapid pace.

“Those residents who stayed wanted to make their neighborhoods better,” Chanse said, “wanted to clean up and take care of these garbage strewn vacant lots, and make them into something positive and beautiful in their neighborhoods.”

The desire to transform those lots into something aesthetically pleasing turned community members’ attention to the New York Botanical Garden. With a simple ask, Bronx Green-Up — a community gardening outreach program through the garden — was born.

Since then, Bronx Green-Up has helped more than 300 community gardens, school gardens, and urban farms throughout the borough, some of which are housed in places like Spuyten Duyvil Preschool and the Kingsbridge Heights Community Center. Each community garden varies in size and are “all really unique depending on the people who take care of them,” said Chanse, who is the Bronx Green-Up and community horticulture director.

While Bronx Green-Up still works on building new gardens across the borough, these days the group is more focused on providing horticultural education with free workshops and different certificate programs for those interested in topics such as growing more vegetables and maintaining healthy soil. They even teamed up with hot sauce company Small Axe Peppers to grow serrano peppers in many of the gardens to create what is now known as Bronx Hot Sauce.

To celebrate three decades of growing success, the garden worked with the Bronx Documentary Center’s Bronx Junior Photo League to send four teen photographers — Mitchell Harris-Dennis, Tony Baizan-Garcia, Tianna Maldonado and Kayla Beltran — to 15 different gardens throughout the summer to photograph what they saw. The end result became “Putting Down Roots: Celebrating 30 Years of Bronx Green-Up,” an exhibition on display at the garden’s Ross Gallery through April 28.

After seeing the photographs in the exhibit, Chanse was excited to share an intimate side of Bronx Green-Up with a wider audience.

“It’s great to experience the gardens through their eyes,” she said, “to see the photographs that they took, and to see the gardens really in the height of growing season.”

When she first entered the exhibit, Chanse laughed a little at the photograph that greeted her. It was of the Neighborhood Advisory Committee Community Garden, located just across the street from the Bronx Documentary Center on Courtlandt Avenue, where the two groups first met.

“I think that speaks to just how these gardens … they’re so much more than the actual boundaries of the gardens and of their space,” she said. “They have so many connections to the community and the organizations around them.”

Chanse has led Bronx Green-Up since 2005, and she believes maintaining a community garden can be more than somewhere to just get fresh fruits and vegetables. It can be a “unique and special place” where people can learn from each other and “engage in nature.”

“There’s just a lot of variety of experiences that people can get from gardens that they might not be able to get in other ways from the built environment around them,” Chanse said.

The biggest takeaway for her over the years has been interacting with the people who bring each garden to life while staying committed to that.

“I’ve always been inspired with the individuals we partner with who dedicate a lot of their time and resources to different projects that take place in these community gardens and farms,” she said.

As Bronx Green-Up looks ahead to the next 30 years, Chanse hopes these community gardens and farms continue to grow and thrive. She also hopes that stopping by the exhibit or simply learning about what Bronx Green-Up gardens have to offer will entice more Bronx residents to get involved.

“Be part of these wonderful spaces that are happening,” she said.

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