There’s something charming about finding a vibrant patch of nature tucked away in the midst of a Brooklyn neighborhood. The Narrows Botanical Gardens, situated along the ocean-bordering Shore Road in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, offers a welcome change of scenery with its 4.5 acres of lush greenery, flowers and wildlife.
The first seeds were planted in 1995, transforming a formerly unsightly stretch of weeds into a picturesque getaway. Jimmy Johnson (left), a landscaper and life-long resident of Bay Ridge, began the effort and still maintains the gardens daily. He came up with the idea as a personal project soon after starting his own business.
“I was just reinventing myself, exploding with ideas, and coming up with different gardens,” he said.
Soon enough, the community learned of his efforts and “a group of people decided to rescue the park and start cleaning it up,” Johnson recalled. Today, the gardens are a 100 percent volunteer effort. Saturdays are “volunteer days,” during which community members come out to the gardens and put their green thumbs to work.
The gardens are based on diverse themes and ideas, Johnson shared. From the beginning, he intended to treat people’s senses with aromatic plant selections. “Fragrance was really important,” Johnson said. “We have a 450 foot pathway with fragrant flowers and shrubs.”
Cultural influences were also a factor for Johnson in designing the gardens. “We have a Zen Garden because of the Japanese love of nature, and the relationship of nature with spirituality,” he said. The Zen Garden provides a perfect location for visitors to come and meditate.
“We have educational plaques mixing knowledge and education with nature,” Johnson said. “Poetry is [often] inspired by nature.” The plaques allow the gardens to serve not only as a locale for a leisurely stroll, but also as a learning opportunity for the visitors.
Johnson is currently working on developing the Native Plant Garden, a gated section near the north entrance of the park that contains local flora, a waterfall, a stream, and a pond where wildlife such as fish, toads and bullfrogs thrive.
Johnson had a clear goal in creating the native plant garden. “I wanted it to be similar to the way Brooklyn looked 200 to 300 years ago,” he said. At this garden, viewers can use their imagination to experience Brooklyn in its pre-urbanized fashion—adorned in foliage and brimming with wildlife.
Over the years, the Botanical Gardens have grown into a gathering place for the community. This past spring, they hosted a high tea in the rose gardens open to the public, featuring a light menu prepared by Daisy Martinez of the Food Network. The Family Store, a local venue for Mediterranean cuisine, donated cheesecake desserts and a local spa provided the tea.
The gardens also offer several outdoor films and concerts throughout the year. Another popular event is their annual Halloween dog costume contest, at which Brooklynites dress up their dogs for a little friendly canine competition.
The Narrows Botanical Gardens are easily overlooked by most, and even taken for granted by Bay Ridge residents. But they are surely worth the visit—whether to breathe in the aroma of lilacs, observe the bee house or the turtle sanctuary, learn a couple gardening tips, or simply spend quality time with neighbors and local residents.
For more information, go to www.narrowsbg.org