Updates from the Understory | July 2018

Dear Design Wild Friends & Loved Ones,

It is definitely summer in the city. Have you noticed? Its been hot and humid for the last month. Ugh...I can feel temperatures AND tempers rising. Have you noticed folks fighting over crazy small things? On these hot steamy days, I’ve witnessed so many people get into arguments; over a parking space or their place in line. Even my own internal dialog veers towards the grumpy - "get out of my way" and "you're walking too slow."  But in the midst of all these small hot moments, I keep wanting to cry, "with SO many things wrong with our world, lets be kind to each other!!" or as our favorite song of the summer says ‘be careful with me!
Kindness is a practice towards others AND towards ourselves and first resides in our own thoughts. (It is not to be confused with those calling for civility. See Maxine Waters for that). We need to save our indignation, not for the lady blocking the sidewalk with her groceries, but for the people kidnapping our children on the border and stealing our healthcare and our democracy. We need energy and spirit to build up the alternative and when we practice kindness with ourselves, our loved ones and with perfect strangers on the subway, we build that capacity; we feed each other and grow stronger.

And this wouldn’t be Design Wild if we didn’t remind you that we have allies in this work: Our plant relatives, our tree elders, they are always ready to give kindness, whether you’re in need of shade, a breath of air, or a moment of beauty - our plants are always ready to help.

So the next time you’re hot and grumpy, go tell an oak tree about it, smell a rose and get ready for the revolution!

See you in the garden,



Bringing Gardens to the Stage

This spring Design Wild had an amazing time partnering with The Actor's Fund and Breaking Ground, two groups that bring affordable housing and great services to performing artists across New York City. We designed a rooftop garden for the Dorthy Ross Friedman Building on 10th Ave with a focus on space for residents to relax, eat, commune and enjoy the spectacular views. During our installation day, a brave group of residents and staff joined us to plant this space in the rain!  We know that a shared investment and working side by side always brings stewardship and love to a previously underutilized space. Visit our website to see more images and some great video of our intrepid volunteers.


A Lush Heaven in Hell's Kitchen

Our latest public space project has brought life and flower-filtered air to the very, very busy streets of Hell's Kitchen. This June found us planting thousands of plants in a block of 36th Street called The Canoe. Design Wild brought our plant magic and teamed up with the Hudson Yards Hell's Kitchen Alliance to transform this space from one of the busiest, hot, concrete blocks dominated by traffic, into a flowery heaven. If you work or live in the area, grab a moment away from the chaos of the streets and visit the flowering roses, catmints, and milkweeds in the little parklet just west of that intersection. You may still see traffic but you could also spot a butterfly or two! To see more images and our plants in action, visit our website.


Growing Shade

We've been busy this spring and summer waking up our gardens and watching them come to life. This East Village backyard is one of our favorite shade gardens where we love to experiment with interesting plant choices, textures, and colors in beds, between stones and on top of walls. The early rains this spring propelled this garden into full lushness and it's been popping ever since.


In these current times, there is an even greater need to stay AWAKE, INSPIRED and JOYFUL. We are paying special attention to people, places, and work that lift our spirits and we wanted to share some of them with you. Here are just a few of many:

"Anti-black racism, deconstructing patriarchy through a feminist lens, and looking at the intersectionalities that create food deserts"... BAM!! Need we say more? Well, we will anyway: Tanya Fields (also known as Momma Tanya) is the founder of a food justice organization that has created an urban farm BLK Project and established a mobile food market. She is a fierce lover and supporter of low-income/working class Black moms and is an unapologetic radical Black feminist. She's ALSO working on Mama Tanya's Kitchen where she shares how to have "caviar taste on a SNAP budget" always asking "You hungry? Real food. Real talk. Real life." Yes! We def hungry for more.


One rainy, misty afternoon this summer we took a field trip to Old Westbury Gardens for some inspiration and time with some tree elders. If you ever have an extra hour or so in Long Island, a stop here is well worth it.  Shout out to the staff there doing a tremendous job. See more photos on our wild log.


This Spring at the Just Food Conference we got better acquainted with Woke Foods, a "women-owned cooperative that taps into the healing traditions of Dominican food to create recipes, host cooking classes, offer meal planning and cater events." These badass ladies are doing innovative healing work using food to model what we want our future to look like - bridging culture, plants, food, and the new economy. Check out Woke Foods!


We can't stop gushing over our newest book crush, The Overstory by Richard Powers, which gracefully blends tree science, spirit, complex human and plant characters, and exquisite writing all into one epic novel. We are still turning the pages, but couldn't help share our excitement to anyone who hasn't had the pleasure yet of picking it up. 

Streets That Breathe

Just in time for the summer's heat, Design Wild brought our plant magic and teamed up with the Hudson Yards Hell's Kitchen Alliance to transform this space from one of the busiest, hot, concrete blocks dominated by traffic, into a flowery heaven. Nestled at the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel on 37th Street and 9th Avenue, a surprising parklet oasis emerges that is lovingly referred to as the Canoe. Typically, this humble little public space is scattered with local businesspeople on lunch breaks, nearby residents enjoying the shade of a tree, or a lucky tourist who happened upon a spot to rest their feet. As of this month, Design Wild infused the space with our favorite summer flowers, textures, patterns, and greenery. Complimenting the new plantings, are a swath of blooming tree beds that run along 9th Ave protecting the busy bike lane, bringing visual coordination to the entire area. 

Design Wild has been dedicated to bringing life to Hell's Kitchen public spaces for the last ten years, and we feel so grateful to have a hand in this constantly evolving process. We are strong believers in the positive mental and spiritual impact of these wild spaces in a city as chaotic and overwhelming as New York. 

Some of our favorite new flower friends are this funky yucca plant sending up its flowering stalk, these everblooming knock-out roses, and the forever mysterious purple smokebush. 


And while we can't ease the traffic that is always raging in this neighborhood, we can soften the streets with plants to make it even just a bit more enjoyable and lower stress for people as they walk through. 


Planting Community in Midtown

This Spring, Design Wild designed and carried out an energizing community planting day with two amazing partners, The Actors Fund and Breaking Ground. The Actors Fund develops and manages affordable housing for performing artists across the city, and Breaking Ground develops affordable housing and provides supportive services for people experiencing homelessness. They share a site in Hell's Kitchen, The Dorothy Ross Friedman Residence, which provides supportive housing to special low-income groups including seniors, working professionals, and people living with HIV/AIDS.

In May, we were joined by tenants, building a staff, and programming staff and together we brought some awesome wild to their rooftop. Even in the rain, this #dreamteam took charge and created beautiful spaces, sharing stories, and bringing spirit to their work. 

This work was all performed in honor of the untouchable Bette Midler, her work in Hello Dolly on Broadway and the show's generous donation to the Actors Fund.  Bette, in case you don't know, has been an incredible supporter and champion for gardens in our city and is the founder of the New York Restoration Project that has been doing wonderful work since the 90's with a mission that 'Nature is a fundamental right of every New Yorker'. That's something we feel strongly about too!

These are the projects that remind us why we care so deeply about bringing together people and plants!





Before we began, the space had a few sparse containers and was begging for some more greenery.


With the help of many hands, we were able to transform the space into a much friendlier welcoming place to eat, commune and enjoy the views. 


And in the midst of it all, we were lucky enough to hear from some community members about what their experience was like...

 After our hard work and the sun came out!

After our hard work and the sun came out!

Old Westbury Gardens - Eye Candy

Last month on a beautiful misty day, as the Design Wild team traveled back from one of our nursery visits, we stopped at the Old Westbury Gardens on Long Island for an inspiration visit.

The Old Westbury Gardens is a dazzling 200-acre estate listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is open to the public to wander through its diverse areas – formal gardens, peaceful nooks for reflection, woodland paths, ponds, swaths of planted cherry, dogwood and other flowering trees, and the historic house still furnished with English antiques. What a wonder of preservation and plant appreciation. Here is some eye-candy from our visit that we wanted to share…




Ephemeral | adjective; lasting a very short time; short-lived; transitory; fleeting; the ephemeral joys of childhood.


It is my first spring with Design Wild, and the first time I have so intimately witnessed the transformation of plants through the thawing of winter. And in some ways, it mirrors our own transformation, the human one; when the longer days bring warm weather; a boundless energy propels us to connect, to linger outside in the lengthening hours, to re-inhabit our public spaces.

At Design Wild, we wake our residential gardens one by one; immersed in the warming soil, budding shrubs, the petals of the early bloomers that mimic the bright flowers drawn by the five year olds that I teach. And there is no elation like the day the first tree pops – the magnolia opens fairy petals, the forsythia bush catches its yellow flame and flirts with the tightly studded magenta redbud. I pause each morning, dazzled by the weeping cherry outside my front door as she snaps off her blooms one by one at first, and then all at once in a gaudy symphony. Each showy flower, from the daffodils to the delicate dogwoods - illuminate the persistent grey monochrome canvas that held on for so many long, unbearable days. I grant myself permission to fawn over these flowers like everyone else.


But it is in the long meticulous hours of cleaning up a garden in which I feel most connected with this season; it is here that spring speaks in a grounded hum; darker, more honest. Spring has no illusions about her own ephemerality. Her power is not in the fleeting blooms that we frantically try to prolong. It emanates instead from the gentle stench of decomposing magnolia petals that I sweep from a stone patio, their colors muddied by the recent rain.


Spring is rooted in the troll knuckle of a baby fiddlehead - dark and furled, tightly wound. And before the fiddlehead uncurls her prehistoric arms, we cut last year’s shriveling fronds from around her center to usher along new growth – fine, I think, we’ll leave you to shine in your knobby, mucky glory, mocking our obsession with such transient beauty.

Spring is studded by the wild grasses and liriope we trim into adolescent haircuts, spikey and awkward. Those unwieldy strands like teenage boys; we trust they will emerge eventually, but it’s hard to imagine that uneven tuft of chaos growing into anything with grace.


Spring is in the rat-like claws of the emerging peonies. They march in maroon armies across front walkways and gardens. Spindly and unrecognizable as the blooms they’ll become in a few weeks.

And it’s in the pokey branches of the Vitex Chaste Tree, the slow starter, bare-branched even when everything else has stepped into life. We know we must wait, pruning away the yellowing, the broken, the crossed twigs, trusting that our tree will join the crowd when ready.


Gardening in early spring is raw and intimate, demanding patience and discernment. But here in the crook of spring’s elbow is where I feel I’ve truly communed with these plants, a committed relationship where I persist through the weird, the stubborn, the bare, the bristly.

Eventually, the intoxicating flowers come and go, and then we all settle into the consistent lush greens of the chorus.


It’s not unlike how we love other humans, our children, our partners, our friends, our family. We know that such love is never like the easy stories we consume in romantic movies. Instead, we love like the gardener cares for the rose bush, a love that requires them at times to cut it back to an unsightly and thorny base, trusting the process that allows a living thing to grow healthy and strong from there.

Love takes investing in the parts of the other’s life that go unnoticed by the outside eye, feeding the worms in the soil, stewarding growth. And it’s a love that recognizes a plant by the naturally selected shape of their leaves, the patterns of their stems, the hue of their veins, when no flowers are present to distract.

It strikes me that it’s also how warriors persist in social movements. The outrages, the galvanizing media flashes, the inexplicable acts of injustice bloom in angry spring. But it’s the activists who persist before and after these moments, in the structural mess, the tedious fights, the long hours of organizing, of failures and losses, and of subtle successes, they are the true garden keepers.


So under this bursting redbud where I sit today to write this, I’ll let myself breathe in her scent and delight in the pink petal rain, but it’s the sea of weedy goldenrod I look forward to tending tomorrow.