Categorized | Parks & Open Space

Green Cathedrals: The Spiritual Side of Horticulture

Posted on 12 December 2009 by Arturo Conde

Ms. Sipos stands in front of the Jefferson Market Library

Ms. Sipos stands in front of the Jefferson Market Library

Equipped with a pair of garden scissors and gloves, Susan Sipos does not leave anything to chance. She organizes the volunteers at the Jefferson Market Garden with grace and precision, cueing them masterfully to rake leaves, trim branches and plant bulbs so that a careful arrangement of colors, scents and textures will delight visitors.

Ms. Sipos has worked as a gardener, horticulturist and designer for the Jefferson Market Garden, located on Greenwich Avenue between Sixth Avenue and West 10th Street, for a decade. Her job, as she explains it, is to help visitors build a personal relationship with the plants and trees in the garden. “Plants help you communicate with life,” she said, and she draws upon this vital connection to awaken people’s senses. “A good garden should be a sensory experience,” she insisted. “You should walk through a space and have something happen to you.”

Her assortment of annuals, perennials and seasonal flower plants elicit a variety of responses from visitors, often inspiring them to relate what they see, smell or touch with their own stories about gardening. These “plant stories” as she describes them, can depict the genuine power of the garden, and the emotions that plants can arouse in people. One such story, she recalled, occurred after the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001. Saint Vincent’s Hospital, located at 170 West 12th Street, had become a trauma center for many victims from the World Trade Center, and as a result, the garden was kept open for extended hours. Ms. Sipos remembered how the garden transformed many of the people that came from the hospital: “You would see them enter the garden crying, totally destroyed, blank… they would sit on a bench and you would watch it [those emotions] slowly disappear. The garden had a healing effect on the people who visited because it was a sanctuary.”

That experience showed Ms. Sipos how gardens and parks could be like cathedrals, guiding visitors on an internal journey.She set out to build a narrative that would capture the stages of this journey through different sections of the garden. “In a cathedral people go to different Stations of the Cross or a saint to worship and pray,” she explained. “There is something about the space that draws them along a journey, and when I was designing the garden I wanted to create different sections that would capture the visitor’s attention and keep them moving along.”

The Jefferson Market Garden is divided into six major parts. Visitors follow a narrow brick path that circles the garden. The ellipse takes them on a journey that runs counterclockwise from the main gate, through clusters of evergreens, daffodils, ferns and roses, past a small greenhouse and shed, and along the border of a pond that is filled with koi, shubumkin goldfish, water lilies and papyrus. Ms. Sipos wanted to build on the visitors’ level of anticipation. “In my mind each section evokes a different experience,” she said. And when you walk through the space there are many unexpected surprises along the way.”

The idea that gardening could lead to self-discovery influenced Ms. Sipos’ career as a horticulturist and designer. “Gardening is a process of understanding,” she said. “And by studying plants in all their stages of health and development, you could also learn something valuable about yourself.”

This drive for understanding initially motivated Ms. Sipos to get a Masters in Arts Administration from New York University, which ultimately led to a career in graphic design. But her desire to make a vital connection with nature eventually inspired her to get her certification in horticulture from the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. “Gardening was the only consistent passion that I had throughout my life,” she reflected. And shifting careers was a matter of reorganizing all the components of her life so that they could fit into her love for gardening.

Similarly, Ms. Sipos is constantly reconfiguring the garden so that all the components fit together within a unifying theme. When she looks at the garden she has to assess it as a whole, and this integrated perspective allows her to resolve many of the environmental challenges that affect the space.

Urban gardens are faced with a set of problems that range from pest and insect control, to maintaining the quality and stability of the soil. Acid rain in particular plays an important part in the amount of metals that come into the soil, as well as the exhaust from cars, buses and diesel trucks. That is why she makes a conscious effort to amend the soil with compost and natural materials that are often recycled from the garden. The compost, for instance, is made in part from leaf and plant cuttings that are trimmed throughout the year. “Anything that we use in the garden can be recycled,” she explained. “Because it brings back nutrients to the soil.”

Ms. Sipos also focuses on individual components of the garden to address larger problems that affect it as a whole. In addition to using a horticultural insecticidal soap against pests, which is a basic mixture of Dawn detergent and baking powder, she uses beneficial insects from the garden (like ladybugs, ants and praying mantids) to devour harmful thrips, leafhoppers, aphids and slugs. When following a natural process, she explained, you have to be very aware of what goes on in the garden. That is why certain plants like roses help her monitor the overall health of the space. They are great indicators for mildew and a host of viral infections, and are often used in Long Island vineyards as early indicators for problems that could affect the grape harvest.

Perhaps the biggest lesson that Ms. Sipos has taught her volunteers is showing them how nature responds to their work. Karen Hewitt, one of the community volunteers, said that you could see plants growing and shifting throughout the season. “Trimming shapes the direction in which they grow, and in a way it helps you establish a dialogue with them…”

For Ms. Sipos, like Ms. Hewitt, the garden captures the essence of life. That is why her design is aimed at highlighting the powerful movements of each cycle. “You try to create something much larger than what it seems,” and it is that experience that people have when they walk beneath the stately canopy of the star magnolias and the yellowwoods. The enclosure of their intense autumn leaves gives the visitor a soaring feeling, similar to what they experience in a cathedral, a temple, or any house of worship.

Leave a Reply