Gardens for the City | November 14, 2023

Helping Revive New York City’s Largest Community Garden

Bissel Gardens gardeners attend one of the garden renovation days in September 2023.

The Viking Global Foundation has worked with New York Restoration Project for seven consecutive years, partnering with NYRP to undertake ambitious greening projects that will have long-term community impact. This year’s collaboration was no exception, with over 180 “Vikings” joining NYRP in The Bronx to revitalize New York City’s largest community garden.

Bissel Gardens spans over 2.5 acres atop a former dumping ground, surrounding the MTA 239th Street Yard and Maintenance Shop in the Wakefield section of the North Bronx. In the mid 1990s, a group of community activists successfully negotiated with the MTA for permission to clean up and transform the area. Thanks to the group’s vision and dedication, over time the area became a sprawling and flourishing green space.

A community garden as large as large as Bissel Gardens requires a lot of hard work, however. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, the garden tragically lost a few of its members to the virus and saw a general decrease in involvement. Charles Vasser, a Bissel gardener who had been involved with the space for a decade, reached out to New York Restoration Project’s Gardens for the City (GFTC) program in hopes that our team could help.

NYRP’s Gardens for the City program works with community partners in some of the city’s most underserved neighborhoods to build or renovate gardens and other functional green spaces. NYRP provides the skill, time, materials, labor, and a year of horticultural and agricultural consultation for these projects, all at no cost to the partner.

When NYRP’s Director of Garden Horticulture and Citywide Greening Projects Jason Sheets saw the size and scope of potential project at Bissel, he immediately thought of NYRP’s longtime partner, the Viking Global Foundation. For almost a decade, NYRP has partnered with Viking to take on large-scale greening projects that would otherwise not be feasible. Together with Viking, NYRP has completed some of the largest garden renovations in the organization’s history, including at an urban farm serving refugees in the South Bronx and a half-acre community center garden in East Harlem.

“We are proud of our longstanding partnership with New York Restoration Project,” says Molly Brethauer, Executive Director of the Viking Global Foundation. “Their expertise and experience have established them as a best-in-class organization. Our collaboration allows us to significantly scale our Foundation’s impact, contributing to the transformation of community gardens across the city like Bissel Gardens.”

Bissel Gardens has several different sections. They include a “Children’s Garden” that hosts environmental and educational programs for young gardeners; a “Veteran’s Garden” where local veterans can gather and grow food; and a “Food for Others” area managed by Steven Ritz of the Bronx Green Machine where volunteer gardeners grow vegetables to be harvested and donated to local soup kitchens and shelters. The gardeners also operate a market throughout the growing season where neighborhood residents can buy fresh, local produce. As one of the only large green spaces in Wakefield, Bissel Gardens is an essential neighborhood hub.

When he originally applied, Charles asked NYRP to help renovate a small portion of the garden. It was a surprise then when, thanks to the support of the Viking Global Foundation, NYRP proposed renovating more than half of the garden. “I was very familiar with NYRP gardens and had always been impressed in how they raise the bar consistently for all community gardens in New York,” reflects Charles. “I was overjoyed when we were selected.”

Throughout September 2023, with the support of the Viking Global Foundation and the help of a stellar crew of over 180 Viking volunteers, NYRP’s team embarked on our largest Gardens for the City project to date.

NYRP staff and Viking volunteers began by removing 15 cubic yards of organic waste and eight cubic yards of trash from the property before planting 125 perennials and 34 shrubs throughout the space. The team then assembled and installed 56 new metal garden beds and seven raised wooden beds in the garden’s various planting areas and filled them with 70 cubic yards of clean soil. The project also included construction of four shade structures, 15 benches, and six trellises, and painting of nine existing picnic tables and four sheds. To finish the project, staff and volunteers laid down three cubic yards of compost and two cubic yards of mulch throughout the garden before spreading 16 cubic yards of stone dust and 35 cubic yards of woodchips to define pathways.

“A project of this scale takes a lot of hands, and there’s no way we would have been able to see it through without the help of the Viking volunteers,” Jason notes. “Their work was absolutely essential to this project.”

When the project ended, not only were the gardeners elated, but so were community members from the surrounding neighborhood, many of whom stopped by the garden during the build wondering how to get involved in the space.

“NYRP turned Bissel Gardens into something spectacular,” remarks Charles. “The team deserves a 10+ in all categories.”

“The work that was done at Bissel Gardens is beautiful,” says Maria Frias-Fitzsimmons, a Wakefield community member. “NYRP was here for a few weeks and was able to do what no one could. Bissel Gardens finally looks like a little piece of paradise. We are all very excited and can’t wait for spring to become official members and start planting in the brand-new boxes.”

The gardeners are thrilled about how the renovation has already begun to attract new prospective members and are planning a robust agenda for the next growing season. They have reached out to local veteran associations and schools to expand the garden’s existing veteran and children’s programs and are excited to see how the garden will continue to grow after being revitalized through NYRP’s GFTC program. NYRP’s Urban Agriculture team will also assist Bissel gardeners by consulting once a month over the next year while providing seeds, plants, supplies, skill shares, and technical consultations.

“The redesigned Children’s Garden will allow our young gardeners to feel more welcome in the space that is specifically intended for them,” says Bissel Gardens member Donata Dawson.

“The Bissel Gardens renovation was a milestone for the Gardens for the City program,” reflects Jason. “Bissel is the largest community garden in the city and needed some major infrastructure improvements, and NYRP delivered. I think our efforts combined with Viking’s support and volunteers and the wants and needs of the garden group coalesced in a really nice way in this project. I’m enormously proud of what we all were able to accomplish.”

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