Urban gardens blossom
From ginger to hibiscus: What’s growing in Hudson County
by Vanessa Cruz, Adriana Rambay Fernandez, Stephen LaMarca, Gennarose Pope, and E. Assata Wright
Reporter staff writers
Jul 29, 2012 | 1704 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
GINGER IN JULY – West New York business owner Jin Liang grows his restaurant’s namesake Asian root on premises.
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Amid the twists of steel and brick that characterize cities, Hudson County still has urban oases – whether an outcropping of vegetation in a local park, or a secret garden cultivated in a resident’s back yard.

From restaurateurs growing their own ginger to hibiscus plants in a back yard to turtles in the marshes, we’ve found a few special places where Hudson County looks like the countryside.

Growing ginger for his customers

Take a stroll down the patron-packed Bergenline Avenue in West New York and you are inundated by shops, banks, restaurants, and concrete. Gardens or yards are the last things on your mind.

Unless you know Jin Liang.

Liang owns Ginger Grill just north of the corner of Bergenline Avenue and 50th Street. Most of his patrons are unaware that (literally) behind the scenes, in what used to be a concrete and dirt space filled with trash and beer bottles, lies a veritable Asian garden of Eden.

Ginger, taro, bitter melon, and scallion flowers line the carefully cultivated rows of green. The secret, he says, is to add the leftover water from the pounds of rice he cooks for his restaurant to feed the many thriving plants that, for now, feed his family and staff. That is, barring the ginger, which he uses to make his homemade teriyaki sauce while most establishments buy theirs pre-made.

Liang started his garden when he opened his restaurant over two years ago. He wasn't able to keep the garden up as much as he may have wanted last year because business was so busy, he said. But he hopes to change that one day soon. He also hopes to eventually open his garden to regular patrons, both physically and gastronomically.

“This area is changing. People's tastes are changing,” Liang said. “There’s a younger crowd who knows sushi, and knows quality food. We hope one day we will be able to use this garden to feed our customers.”

Beyond the marsh

Situated in the Meadowlands with the Hackensack River along the west and south and the Mill Creek Marsh in the north, Secaucus has its share of lush wetlands teeming with wildlife. On humid, summer afternoons visitors to Mill Creek Point Park will hear a symphony of sounds from the warbles and trills of the marsh wren to the constant chirps of the crickets among the tall common reed grass. The tall reeds of green grass, often referred to as phragmites australis, can be seen swaying in the wind with each gentle breeze and can grow up to 15 feet high. Turtles live in the spartina alterniflora or smooth cordgrass, which grows up to five feet tall and was once commonly used to thatch roofs.

In the nearby meadows, plants attract bees and butterflies like the bushy coreopsis with yellow flowers, the purple salvia and the hibiscus with large, pink or white blooms.

But beyond the marsh and the meadows, yellow black-eyed susan flowers line the edges of lawns throughout neighborhoods.

Residents like Frank DeGilio find the perfect environment in Secaucus to grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers.

“Blooms like you wouldn’t believe – beautifully,” said DeGilio about his bougainvillea plants. A resident since 1961, DeGilio has two greenhouses, five composters, and several rain water collectors. He grows marigold, hibiscus, daffodils, gladiolas, and lilies among other flowers. He also grows vegetables like tomatoes, cucumbers, snow peas, peppers, Swiss chard, lettuce, and eggplant.

“I love the cucumbers. They are so crunchy,” said DeGilio. He grows herbs like Greek oregano, sage, and parsley and loves throwing together a fresh garden salad of tomato, Italian basil, and onions with cannellini beans. With an abundance of fresh vegetables, and more than enough to share with his wife Elaine, DeGilio often gives some away to neighbors.

“It is like my own little farmer’s market.”

DeGilio grows most of his garden from seeds. Each year he takes an inventory of what types of seeds he has left and orders accordingly. He begins in January by growing geraniums, which are his pride and joy. A propagation chart on the door of the refrigerator in the garage indicated a lettuce that got started in the first week of February sprouted 10 days later. The chart helps DeGilio keep track of what he sows.

“You have to have patience to see them grow,” he said.

Squirrels stealing his strawberries

Hoboken Garden Club member Tim Daly’s “secret” garden was recently put on display as part of the Hoboken Historical Museum’s Garden Tour.

Daly, who lives at Seventh and Bloomfield streets, has been curating his own garden for seven years.

“When we moved here seven years ago, my backyard was basically a blank slate,” said Daly, an artist. “[Now], I have 18 tomato plants, 30 heads of garlic that work really well, and I’m currently looking at a giant zucchini plant with beautiful big yellow flowers.”

In addition, Daly said his garden also has strawberries, blackberries, basil, cucumbers, French melon, a large grapevine, and various flowers, including jasmine, lily, and moonflower.

Daly said he got his start roughly 11 years ago at the Hoboken Community Garden at Third and Jackson streets. After moving to his current location, he and his wife, Sheilah, began gardening every right away.

Daly said that he and his wife often use the fruits and vegetables from his garden to cook their meals.

“We eat tomatoes every day,” said Daly, adding “[and] every other day or so we’ll have some zucchini. [My wife will] slice it and fry it using the garlic that I grow weekly.”

Daly and his wife also use basil to make sauces, pastes, and more.

“My wife is going to make pesto [sauce] tonight,” said Daly.

Daly said he takes pleasure in enjoying nature within his own backyard. In fact, the majority of his plants – with the exception of the grapevine – are sown from the seeds of his own plants.

“I really enjoy propagating [plants] from existing plants,” said Daly. “When you buy them, they drop dead three days later.”

The garden attracts bees, birds, squirrels, and even hawks.

“This place is very busy in the morning with birds and squirrels,” said Daly. “The [squirrels] did take quite a few strawberries, which is fine by me. There’s plenty left over.”

Daly said that the bees in his garden have given him one of the best years yet.

“They may be the reason I’m having a great summer,” said Daly. “All the tomatoes are big, the strawberries are nice and fat, and it’s because the bees are out here busy from first light until dark.”

He added, “I love it that we’re out in nature right here in Hoboken.”

Jersey City, awash with flowers

Few people, including the most generous residents, would describe Jersey City as an “oasis.” But the discerning and observant will insist that scattered among the potholed streets and trash, Jersey City boasts several refuges from urban life, including a number of beautiful community parks and gardens.

Last year, thanks to an award-winning effort by hundreds of local volunteers, 18,000 tulips and daffodils came into bloom throughout the city. This all-volunteer effort, known as the Big Dig, sought to beautify the city’s “gateways,” in addition to other open spaces. In all, these flowers were planted in 76 locations throughout Jersey City.

“I was thinking to myself, ‘Wow, what a great event it is to beautify an area that otherwise is just a lawn,’ ” said Charlene Burke, a Jersey City Parks Coalition member who thought up the idea of the Big Dig. “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we had an event that really got people inspired about stepping up and caring for their local green space, be it a park, or a library, or a school, just an open area?’ I thought, ‘If the city works with us, we can do a citywide event that beautifies all of Jersey City come spring of 2012’.”

The “fruits” of these labors were evident beginning in April and May, when these flowers came into bloom.

But if flowers scattered about the city aren’t your thing, the city is also home to several parks that offer open green space for those who simply want to sit under a cool shade tree on a 90-degree summer day.

Liberty State Park is, of course, a gem. The park – which the state does describe as an “oasis” – includes a two-mile walkway that leads from the old Central Railway of New Jersey site to an educational environmental center known as the park’s Interpretive Center.

Burke encourages residents not forget the city’s other offerings.

“A lot of people forget about Lincoln Park over on West Side Ave. But that is really a lovely, lovely place,” she said. “There’s a section of the park that is part of recovered wetlands from the Hackensack River, which most people don’t even realize.”

The park is also part of the East Coast Greenway, a project that seeks to create a contiguous biking and foot path from Maine to Florida.

The park will soon undergo a $3.9 million renovation project to restore its 100-year-old fountain.

In addition to Lincoln Park, Van Vorst Park and the recently renovated Hamilton Park, both located downtown, also offer open green spaces where families occasionally hold picnics and kids can be found testing out their training wheels.

Sunflowers and a peach tree

North Bergen homeowners have managed their gardens with tender loving care. Residents have grown all types of flowers, and one 70th Street back yard even harbors a peach tree.

Near 78th Street and Hudson Avenue, roses cascade across the gate of a resident’s entrance, and sunflowers arise from their slumber. They add a pop of color while serving as a good reminder that summer brings new life. Sunflowers are heat and drought tolerant, according to The Old Farmer’s Almanac, which makes it easier to care for them. The Almanac also says that sunflowers are “relatively insect-free” so plant lovers with a bug phobia can fear no more.

Gifted young gardeners

Dirt was flung in every direction as around 60 Weehawkenites from fourth to seventh grade raked, aerated, de-potted, and planted a plethora of perennials like hostas and pachysandras alongside the stairs of Town Hall on Park Avenue recently.

The children were part of the Academically Talented summer school program, and had spent three weeks learning the essentials of growing a great garden, the program’s coordinator Linda Shertel explained.

“This year's summer program's theme is 'Helping Hands Across Weehawken,'” she said. “We've run four workshops with an ecological educational base. We had our trial run at the high school last week and now we're ready for Town Hall.”

The previous week the students gave their green thumbs a go with the high school's outdoor pots. Tuesday morning they were armed with shovels and fertilizer, all set to make their town a prettier, well-planted place.

Director of Public Safety Jeff Welz emerged from Town Hall to witness the children planting.

“What a great idea,” he said. “We needed something exactly like this. They're doing a great job.”

Soon-to-be seventh grader Ruchi Amin sat elbow-deep in dirt as she deftly worked the soil tilled by the rakes and shovels of her peers, giant smile on her face.

“The kids love it,” Shertel said. “They're a hard-working bunch.”

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