Horticulture in Harlem: Nutrition, Education and Therapy

Back view of Riverbank State Park's greenhouse and community garden. Photograph by The Horticulture Society


Angela Tulloch, who lives on 142nd Street and Riverside Drive, has been a part of the Harlem community for over 40 years, and a dedicated member of Riverbank State Park’s community garden for 30 years.

Tulloch, a foster parent, gardener, and woman in her 60s, wanted to find a hands-on experience for the children who live with her. She also wanted to better her health by learning how to grow and cook foods that lower her high blood pressure and manage her diabetes. She found both at Riverbank State Park.

There is a community garden in the park that boasts a silver and glass greenhouse. Educators who work there teach what goes into the planning and care of gardens. There is a kitchen garden with in-season herbs and vegetables, and a pollinator garden that contains native flowers, grasses, trees, and local species.

The Park partnered with The Horticulture Society of New York in 2017, and “The Hort,” as it’s called, works closely with the Park to serve Harlem’s community members by teaching about the benefits of horticulture, harvesting seedlings to grow food, and cooking with the foods a community member has grown at the greenhouse.

Every Tuesday, The Hort has an event called “Cooking with Community.” Tulloch has been coming to “Cooking with Community” for over six months now, and it has changed her outlook on healthier food choices and how to cook foods that community members harvest.

“It changed how I look at food because it’s vegetarian. This event changed my relationship with food, and I became more aware of my food choices because The Hort has a nutritionist who teaches about high blood pressure, diabetes, and what foods to eat to maintain these things, which I have,” said Tulloch.

Riverbank State Park, located at 138th Street and Riverside Drive, was opened to the public in 1993. The park’s design came with a greenhouse structure, but it was a small glass box that didn’t have any functionality as a greenhouse.  For many years, the park just used it to park lawnmowers.

“In 2016 and 2017, we put together a plan to build a real functioning greenhouse and make a fully functioning horticultural gardening education program for park patrons, for school children, for seniors, for families, and for everybody in the community,” said Leslie Wright, the regional manager at Riverbank State Park. The greenhouse was completed in 2017, and the Park then entered into a public/private partnership with the Horticultural Society of New York to run public programming for gardening and horticulture.

The park’s community garden was established earlier, in the early nineties, with 58 plots of different sizes. It is now in the middle of a renovation to maximize the space and create 65 plots of the same size for community gardeners, to be ready by June. The Park staff meets regularly with the gardeners to ensure they have what they need, from sheds to hoses, and gardening equipment.

“Riverbank is also putting in a formal teaching garden for public programs that the Hort will lead,” Wright announced.

“The greenhouse and teaching garden, the Hort, runs all the public programming, she continued. “They host school groups, they have open hours for the general public to drop in, and they host all sorts of classes and programs. Community garden members are 100% welcome to participate in all Hort programs.”

The Hort offers the community gardeners the opportunity to start seedlings in the greenhouse. Recently, it attended Riverbank’s monthly community gardener meeting and ran a survey asking what seeds everybody would like.

“There’s limited space in the greenhouse, and we have 65 different gardeners, so by popular demand, four different kinds of seeds were chosen amongst the gardeners,” Wright said, “Tomatoes, basil, lettuce, and fennel were the lucky winners.”

Supportive Housing Services, Therapy, and Food

Sara Hobel, executive director at 120-year-old Horticulture Society of New York, helps lead the Hort’s therapeutic programs.

“We’ve expanded our therapeutic programs, which still take place at Rikers, but now also take place in supportive housing and affordable housing and places where people have limited access and are really without the ability to cultivate nature,” she said.

“We inherited the belief that this is something that everybody should have access to and it’s essential for mental health, as well as physical health. We are probably the pioneers in horticultural therapy, outside of hospital settings,” added Hobel.

Horticulture therapy was originally created to help people who had surgeries or were recovering from a major illness. The Hort has expanded its use into rehabilitation and education at Riverbank State Park.

The Hort began its involvement with supportive housing in 2005 with The Bridge, a mental health, substance use, and veteran housing program for community members in Harlem. The Hort staff have consulted with the staff at The Bridge and are training people on how to start their own urban farms and how to grow their own veggies and herbs.

The Bridge has not joined the Hort at Riverbank State Park. Still, the partnership with them has given The Hort credible rapport for outreach by doing presentations at the ACL conference, the Supportive Housing Network of New York conference, Lantern Community Services, innovative services to help New Yorkers who are formerly homeless or have recently aged out of foster care recreate their lives, and communalized CAMBA. This Brooklyn-based nonprofit organization provides social services to New Yorkers in need.

They start vegetable and herb seedlings in the greenhouse, and those are the ones used at these residences. “They are able to see their vegetables grow from seed to plant and then cook with them. We’ve recently been doing workshops over Zoom for different places like Lantern Community Services to get the staff involved at each of the buildings,” said Natalie Brickajlik, Program Development Manager at The Hort.

Gerry Sherman, a vice president of MANHTN, a Mid Atlantic Horticultural Therapy Network for the tri-state area, is a clinical therapist who works at hospitals, nursing facilities, schools, and rehabilitation centers. Aa a horticultural therapist, she creates programming to help individuals build cognition and to learn to follow single-step or multi-step instructions.

“The psycho-social and the emotional aspect is the power of seeing something grow. Seeing something positively respond to the energy you’ve put into it can make people really proud of themselves and it can make you feel like you’ve had a positive effect in some way, so horticulture is kind of a safer way to work on that,” she said.

Harlem resident Eddly Antoine started attending the Hort’s “Cooking with Community” program cooking and gardening program at Riverbank State Park this spring. It’s just eight blocks from her home.

“You can participate, it’s hands-on, even if you don’t know the food, you learn about it. You mingle with others and talk about other foods you’ve eaten. It exposes you to certain foods that you’ve never tried and you get to eat with a group of people who are pitching in on the process,” said Antoine.

“It helped me understand the different foods I can harvest that can help reduce my high blood pressure and I get to learn all about sustainable food choices that I have grown at their greenhouse,” she added.