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The Secret Garden

Francisco Di Blasi, board president

Tracy Towers, Manhattan

 

When Francisco Di Blasi was five years old growing up in Buenos Aires, his father took him out in the backyard and showed him how to plant tomatoes – orderly and in rows. Although that was many lifetimes ago, Di Blasi remembers it clearly as he tends plants and trees in another “backyard” – the garden on the roof of the 50-year-old Tracy Towers co-op at 245 East 24th Street. It has been his pet project for the past five years.

The roof garden itself goes back twenty years to when the board of the 162-unit property took the nondescript space and divided it into two large areas. The design had a stark institutional look that some felt was appropriate for a corporate garden, recalls Di Blasi, a resident for twenty-nine years, on the board for eight, and president for the last two.

Then, five years ago, the landscapers who tended the garden raised their maintenance fees to $10,000 annually. Di Blasi was incensed, telling the board, “Hell no. I can do it as a volunteer for half the price – and expand the planting.”

To the board, Di Blasi, an international management consultant, seemed an unlikely choice to play gardener. But he disagreed. “I learned gardening before I learned the word management,” he said to the directors. “My parents’ love for plants and landscaping was deep and sincere.” He also proposed using an expanded rooftop garden as an educational tool for the children in the building. “These urban kids can see tomatoes and basil grow upstairs,” he said to the board.

Through the efforts of Di Blasi and others, the cold, corporate garden was transformed into a warm and beautiful public space, divided into two large areas for parties, which residents could reserve and for which they would accept liability. The space was further transformed, Di Blasi recalls, when one of his neighbors came to him and said, “I want to use the roof for a private dinner with my wife, but if people are already having a party, I cannot.” So Di Blasi came up with the idea of creating nooks encircled by plants. These smaller private spaces include a picnic table seating six, three round tables seating three, and one small table seating two, all with magnificent views of the city.

The co-op spends around $6,000 annually on the garden, including the equipment, awnings, tables, and refreshments bought for every planting event. “When you buy the plants,” he says, “you have to buy the planter and the soil. The most work is to water them. You don’t want to do that after nine o’clock in the morning because the drops of water on the leaves are like magnifying glasses for the sunlight and burn the leaves. The staff had been [watering them] before, but since I took over, I have been doing it. If you have a sprinkler system, which we hope to get soon, then you set it up automatically.”

Developing the roof into a much-used amenity may have started as a way to reduce costs, but it ended up increasing curb appeal for potential buyers and also building a greater sense of community involvement among the residents. Di Blasi admits he is pleased to see the building’s children play at gardening while their parents supervise, “showing them how to garden,” he notes. “For kids who grow up in an urban environment, that’s a fantastic idea.”

Building such a garden is about community in its most basic form, he observes. “The whole thing is you have to have a group of people that is willing to work on it every week. I think there are enough of them here to carry on after I’ve left,” he says confidently. “You know, it was really inspiring to see this guy who goes to the gym every day and has a very active social life come here on the weekend, lifting planters and moving things about. He’s involved.”

Indeed, on a day in May, while Di Blasi sat talking with a visitor, a woman came up to work in a garden located in a secluded area of the roof. She is a shareholder and said she often brings her young daughter to work there. “She loves it. She’s very good at making a mess, like most four?year?olds, but she’s always very interested in watching seeds [turn] into flowers, plants, and fruits.”

“That’s how I developed a love for it,” Di Blasi said to her with enthusiasm. “I remember how my dad taught me to plant tomatoes. I was five years old. Those things don’t go away.”

The woman agreed. “When you grow up with that, you try to pass it onto your kids, too, even if you’re in the city.”

Di Blasi believes in the restorative power of gardening. “It’s cheaper than going to a shrink,” he says with a laugh. “I work one hour here, and the problems of the day seem unimportant.”

Di Blasi came to the United States in 1969 with dreams of becoming a pilot or an astronaut (“Space really is the final frontier,” says the self-proclaimed Star Trek trekkie), but his parents were aghast, wanting him to do something more down-to-earth. He switched to political studies at the University of Connecticut and ended up working for Planned Parenthood International, which kept him in the air as he flew from one country to another. Currently writing two books on global politics, he has also worked as a career consultant, and was the director of the global faculty for the American Management Association.

Even with those impressive credentials, however, the title he is most honored to have is a simple one. “I’m the gardener.” He pauses. “Or you can call me gardener-in-chief.”

 

Tips from an Urban Gardener

• Creating and maintaining a garden can be cheaper ($6,000 versus $10,000 annually) if you utilize someone in your property who has the time – and a green thumb.

• Having a roof garden can create a sense of community in the property as everyone works together for the common good. It is also a great opportunity to teach city kids a little bit about “country” living, watching their efforts blossom into beautiful
(and sometimes edible) plants.

• Don’t discount the restorative power of gardening. As you “work the earth,” all your troubles may seem far away.

 

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