Looking for surprises? You probably won’t think to look at the southeast corner of 66th and Lexington on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The historic landmark Church St. Vincent Ferrer has anchored that intersection for nearly a hundred years, looking every bit an icon of predictability. But look again. Less than a block away you’ll find not just one, but six gardens, the gift of a gardener who is as much a surprise as the “Naked Lady” inherited from his Kansas grandmother that he identifies as one of the greatest surprises of the gardens. And that’s just the beginning! So why be surprised that the gardens in their quiet times recently appeared gift-wrapped for Christmas.
The Mary Garden Gift-Wrapped for Christmas
“Surprise” is definitely the right word to describe the evolution of book and magazine publishing executive, Lyle Steele, from enthusiastic volunteer in 1998 to 2009 when he was “liberated” to become a full time gardener.
What he calls the “Mary Garden” at the corner of 65th and Lexington takes its name from the statue of Our Lady of New York, made from the same mold as the namesake figure of Saint Patrick’s Cathedral’s Lady Chapel. It came to our “village” as a gift, to thank the Dominican Friars for their work as itinerant preachers to New Yorkers of the 19th century. Lyle is quick to point out that “she was here first.” He also notes that some variations of the present garden have existed since the 1860s when the Dominicans were invited to put down roots in our “village.”
Our Lady of New York in the Mary Garden
Technically, he explains, the garden that wraps around the 65th Street corner is a Jardin de Curé or Jardin de Prêtre, French titles for the “Cottage or Mixed Garden” that combines vegetables and herbs with a variety of non-edible plantings. It honors the fact that the village priest was too busy to spend much time on menu planning and so arranged to have produce within easy reach of the kitchen door along with a variety of less practical flowers and shrubs.
Asked how he would describe his role, Lyle says he sees himself as someone presiding over a community. To the further question “what sort of a community?” he first uses the image of “a classroom of antsy schoolchildren.” Then as a quick amendment, he says with a twinkle, “I’m presiding over the horticultural equivalents of mass murderers and sex maniacs.” He clarifies to the started interviewer that a big part of his task is to protect members of his diverse community from their fellow plants’ drive to seize the most earth, air and nutrition and indulge their relentless drive to reproduce.
Spiral Spruce in the Jardin de Curé
A tall spiral Spruce that arrived, like an abandoned foundling in a basket at the garden gate some seven years ago, now stands tall and proud to demonstrate his success. The variety of this “Mixed Garden” is not one of its surprises, but instead demonstrates that variety is the key to its health and vibrancy. It turns out that large stands of identical plants signal to aggressors that they have found a “free all you can eat buffet.”
The creator of a decidedly “new day” for the intriguing “trademark” corner garden is carefully nurturing an adolescent apple tree and using all his skill to grow it a healthy partner (in spite of New York’s apple trees’ current challenges.) That effort is a sort of homage to the two apple trees that have been its hallmarks since the first resident Friars chose them as signatures of their new garden in the late 19th century. The garden continued on a modest scale through the late 20th century when Friars like Father “Fred” Hoesli, added Elizabethan roses around them. That successor to the first Friar-gardeners (perhaps prophetically) lived and this past Spring died, in the tulip capital of Holland, Michigan.
Jardin de Curé in Summer
Lyle honors and values the apparently ageless Our Lady of New York for setting a spiritual tone for her namesake garden. He’s currently nurturing a growing “family” of gardens that stretches to include he “green garden” and the “serenity garden” on Lexington Avenue near the entrances to the lower church; the Magnolia Garden at the 66th Street corner; and the long, narrow gardens, with their Japanese Peony centerpieces, that border the 66th Street side of the Dominican Sisters’ residence.
The best definition of Lyle’s gardens would be Robert Frost’s title, “The Gift Outright.” Surprising, seasonal landmarks testify to the persistence of hope and the triumph of beauty.
Flowers in the Mary Garden in Summer
They also testify to his own family’s longstanding love affair with gardening. “My father knew everything about nature. He could walk into the woods and come out with dinner.” I’m betting that looking on from afar, that father sees a son who walked into urban history at the corner of 66th and Lexington one day near the start of a new millennium and came out with six gardens worthy of a landmark, and beautiful even when gift wrapped for winter. And I bet that proud father is not one bit surprised.
Annette Cunningham’s Street Seens appears on Sunday.