By Natalia Rodriguez Castañeda,
Social, Environmental and Health Anthropologist,
PhD Candidate in the NovelEco ERC Team, Trinity College Dublin.
Celebrating cultural heritage through contact with nature in allotment gardens, a reflection from therapeutic landscape workshops in gardens in the Bronx, New York
Unlike novel ecosystems or wild spaces in cities that are characterised by the lack of anthropogenic activity and the growth of spontaneous vegetation, allotment gardens are mainly spaces shaped, designed and planted by people. In these urban natural and semi-natural spaces, contact with nature is mediated by the art of seeding and growing plants, taking care of them, and learning about their ecological and cultural value. Moreover, as is the case in community gardens such as Marble Hill and Dap Garden in the Bronx, New York, these spaces invite to embody, exchange and celebrate cultural heritage and identity through gardening.
In June 2023, the research group NovelEco had the opportunity to conduct two Therapeutic landscape workshops in community gardens located in the Bronx, New York. The first workshop was conducted in the edible or foodgarden, named Marble Hill, located in Northwest Bronx (picture. 1). The second workshop was carried out in the flowers and herbs DAP garden, located in the complex building of Dyckman houses on 204th Street and Nagle Avenue (picture 2). In both spaces, we worked with Hispanic, Caribbean and African-American communities. The two workshops were conducted in collaboration with the organisation Outer Seed Shadow and the artist Juanli Carrion from the New School in New York.
Edible therapeutic garden!
The first workshop in Marble Hill Garden was inspired to understand the value of this community garden to exchange knowledge, stories and flavours around edible plants, herbs, vegetables and fruits. Through the plants’ different aromas, colours and textures, we created a space to celebrate cultural heritage by connecting plants with ingredients, senses and tastes that remind us of local food from the Caribbean, Latin America and North America.
This workshop explored the food potential of this garden to cook together with the participants: tortillas (Picture 3). We used the tortillas, a thin round bread made of corn – masa de maíz – popular in México and Central America and with its history in the cuisine of this region from pre-colonial times, as a kind of canvas, ready to be painted or filled with different ingredients, senses, colours, textures, and aromas to eat and enjoy together.
First, we asked our participants to gather plants, herbs, fruits, vegetables, roots and leaves growing in the garden to make their tortillas. Then, we asked them to make their tortillas, considering and reflecting on how the ingredients were linked to traditional recipes, stories, and personal tastes. Some of the participants chose spicy ingredients, coming from Mexico and Thailand; others mixed fruits and vegetables, combining sweet and salty. People were also inspired and guided by colours, smells and textures when choosing the ingredients – plants.
While we enjoyed the tortillas, we thought about how this exercise was an opportunity to embody the landscape through our senses, bringing our emotions, memories and knowledge about plants to the table. We discussed how Marble Hill Garden is a space to share with more people, bringing knowledge, fascination and curiosity for plants into the city.
Finally, this workshop gave us insights into the value and importance of community gardens in a big and dense city like New York. In this opportunity, Marble Hill represents an opportunity to enhance health equality, accessibility, nature connectedness, and social cohesion, creating a space for food literacy and celebrating cultural heritage and local knowledge.
Thanks, gardeners from Marble Hill, for participating in this workshop! It was a tasty and lovely time with you!
Aesthetic and plant healing landscape: The curative value of flowers and herbs in a therapeutic garden
The second workshop was conducted in the “Dignity And Pride” (DAP) garden, where gardeners grow flowers and herbs, making this space aesthetically beautiful, colourful and with the smell of flowers and culinary herbs such as basil (orégano) or thyme (tomillo). The plants growing in this garden are selected based on their aesthetic, ornamental and healing properties.
When we conducted the therapeutic landscape workshop, we asked the participants to walk around the garden and choose interesting or pretty plants. When they finished their walk, we asked them to sit together to paint and exchange their knowledge about the selected plants and their reason for including them in the Therapeutic herbarium (Picture 4 & 5). Through paintings and conversations, we got insights into how the relationship with plants was intertwined with stories, experiences, perceptions and aesthetic values attributed to the different plant species. For example, flowers, mainly roses, were primarily chosen because of their vivid colours and pleasant smell. Herbs such as basil and thyme were attributed to medicinal properties and traditional uses to heal and calm headaches and stomachaches. In the DAP Garden, the therapeutic landscape was associated with ornamental and aesthetic characteristics and medicinal properties attributed to plants to heal the physical body. In this space, the therapeutic features involve visual and appearance aspects, local knowledge, healing properties and socio-cultural values, which create a therapeutic landscape atmosphere inviting people to come and spend time with plants, insects, birds and other gardeners.
Finally, as a reflection, when we conducted the workshop in the Marble Hill and DAP gardens, we heard one participant ask the other: What are you growing there? After our workshops, the answer to this question is that they are growing various plants that embody, celebrate and envision the community and their cultural identity, heritage and traditional knowledge.
Thanks, gardeners from DAP Garden, for participating in this workshop! It was a pleasant and lovely time with you!