West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Volume 77, Number 5 | July 4 - 10, 2007

Villager photos by Lincoln Anderson

Lynn Vaag tending flower vines on a structure she called a “tutor” in her Soho garden.

‘Pirate,’ a summer smash, is bringing in the green

By Lincoln Anderson

In early May, when Lynn Vaag began planting what she called her “pirate garden” in a forlorn strip of soil on Sullivan St., neighbors were skeptical. Two months later, the Soho plot is blooming with a virtual jungle of flowers and plants. It’s been so successful, Vaag’s now even thinking about building birdhouses in it for a bird sanctuary.

An ant trap that kills with sweetness.

“Now people are starting to believe,” she said a week ago, as she tended and watered the garden. “I think at first people thought I was crazy.”

Once men with nothing better to do during the weekdays used to hang out here drinking Budweisers. But on a recent afternoon, there was a newcomer — a lone, small, white butterfly flitting between the flowers.

Some evenings, another new type of visitor can be found sitting on the garden’s wall — couples sipping cocktails while breathing in the garden’s fragrant aromas.

From seeds planted two months ago have sprung petunias, marigolds, sunflowers, dusty millers and sweet pea. To a fence behind the garden, Vaag has tied strings, up which moonflower and English ivy vines are gradually creeping. If all follows plan, the moonflowers will soon start opening up in the evenings, giving off a heavenly smell.

“You can watch them slowly open,” Vaag said. “It sounds like it’ll be fascinating.”

Behind the fence is a former gas station lot where a new upscale apartment building is planned. Vaag said when she started digging in the dirt, she got “killer headaches” — possibly from toxic chemicals from the gas station — but now feels O.K.

A ball of energy working on the garden, she scattered around some worm shell — resembling dark soil, but actually worms’ shed skin, she explained. At two spots in the garden sat improvised ant traps — plastic containers filled with honey. Vaag is also using cocoa shells, which she gets from Jacques Torres Chocolate on Hudson St.

“It makes a really good mulch,” she said. “It gives your garden a nice, chocolatey smell.”

Water comes from a nearby fire hydrant, which she has become expert at opening with a couple of flicks of a large wrench.

Neighbors’ reception to the garden has mostly been positive, with a few exceptions. For example, some don’t care for the rope fence Vaag created for what she always intended to be a rustic-style garden.

“They want a respectable fence,” Vaag said with a hint of frustration. “They want a white plastic fence.”

More annoying have been the occasional angry attacks by a young, Heineken-swigging skateboarder who lives nearby. According to Vaag, the skateboarder and his crew — whom she calls “pseudo-thugs” — heaved a cinderblock through a wooden trellis she had put up, partially breaking it. They also threw a stone at her once, hitting her, which she reported to police. Apparently they are annoyed they can no longer use Vaag’s garden — which is behind a low concrete retaining wall — for their skateboard tricks.

But they haven’t bothered her lately, Vaag thinks possibly because she mentioned the incident to Richie Gamba, a longtime resident who is built like a football linebacker. The word now may be out on the street to leave the garden — and her — alone, she said.

Indeed, Gamba said Vaag had told him what happened, and he grew visibly agitated at mere mention of it.

“I’d like to kick him in the ass,” Gamba said angrily, swinging his leg through the air as if teeing off an imaginary skateboarder’s behind.

Vaag said she’s amazed that, in general, people have respected the garden so far.

Meanwhile, as she watered the flowers and plants recently, Vaag continued to soak up compliments from passersby.

“Is this your garden?” asked Shana Cohen, an F.I.T. student pausing on her way to her cocktail-waitressing job. “I walk by it every day,” she said, smiling behind stylish, oversized sunglasses. “It really brightens my day.”


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