Can growing a garden rehabilitate? The proof that it can can be found on an infamous island in NYC. Many people look at Rikers’ 413 acres and see failure. Then, there’s Sara Hobel. She sees it as an opportunity to grow. As executive director of The Horticultural Society of New York, Sara spearheads a program that teaches people held at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility how to sow, grow and harvest edibles and ornamentals. Educators and participants together manage crops, several greenhouses and other green things. Sara sees that the real power of the plants is as healers. These living organisms want to connect with humans here on earth. In a sense, Sara is a matchmaker, helping make the introductions. Qualified, she is. This is someone who literally trotted away on horseback from corporate life to become a uniformed-Auxiliary Mounted Urban Park Ranger. While her positions have changed in the ensuing years, her calling has stayed the same: connecting New Yorkers to nature, whether that’s through experiences of canoeing and birding in city parks; or through educating about human nature and human culture via plant cultivation; or through teaching Rikers Island inmates how to grow garlic.
Green Team members water NYC pocket park beds
Janet Mavec: I am a huge fan of with what has happened at Rikers Island! How were you able to make that happen?!
Sara Hobel: With horticultural therapists and other trained instructors. They teach 500 incarcerated individuals seven days per week. Now the the GreenHouse (which was built by the inmates) is a model program at Rikers. The inmates spend more time at the Green House than with any other of the social services programs there.
JM: And they’re learning to garden?
SH: Yes, with five gardens and 160 raised bed! They grow vegetables, herbs, and flowers to use in cooking and to display. In that way, the program is more than just gardening. The students see how the process of planting, growing and harvesting relates to their lives. The program teaches critical thinking, teamwork and collaboration. Besides generating roughly 417 pounds of organic fruit and vegetables a year, it reduces recidivism rates by 40 percent.
JM: And it’s still ongoing for the pandemic. That’s fab! What about you? How are you operating throughout the current new world?
SH: Zoom is my new best friend and keeps me connected to my many colleagues and co-workers. The garden is my refuge. I visit it throughout the day to find peace and focus. I have perfected the 10-minute garden cure for COVID blues.
JM: What’s your favorite season?
SH: I look forward to every season because I love watching nature in a changing landscape.
JM: What’s your top 3 favorite plants and why?
SH: So hard to choose.
I love tomato plants. Maybe Burpee Sun Gold Hybrid the most, which never fails: endless bright, sweet and tart little bursts of happiness. You drop those in boiling water for 10 seconds, then pop them out of their skin and sprinkle with aged balsamic vinegar and fresh basil … sublime!
I’m obsessed with Platycodon grandiflorus (balloon flower). The blue-violet color is singularly exquisite. The blooms feel like a birthday surprise, over and over, dozens of balloons bursting open. They are an endless joy for the bees!
The simple English Daisy, Bellis grandiflorus Speedstar. They are the earliest points of color in my garden, and they cheerfully spread into the less-tended lawn areas. I have even had them bloom in winter when it is mild enough. I am rigid about relocating the errant “pop-ups” to the edges of my perennial gardens, and they make a petite, neat, kaleidoscope of color from mid-March into late July. So easy to deadhead.
Green team making NYC beautiful.JM: What plant gets no love and why should we pay more attention to it?
SH: Little love is paid to the many plants that feed our native wildlife, largely because they are usually less showy in the garden landscape. My favorite exception is native milkweed. I encourage the smaller Butterflyweed, Asclepias tuberosa, with its vibrant orange color to pop up sporadically throughout my perennial garden area. One gets to watch not only the lifecycle of the plant but also of the Monarch butterflies that find the milkweed each year. Each year, the plants are eaten bare by the Monarch caterpillar by the end of season, yet they regrow even bigger the following year.
I maintain a beautiful tall backdrop of common milkweed, Asclepias syriaca on the small “meadow edge” of my yard. The tall nearly branchless plant has pleasant-smelling pink-purple flowers as big as baseballs that bloom from mid to early summer. Then, the huge, pale green seedpods darken, dry, and burst open releasing pure white silken tufts that carry the black seeds off in the wind. I use the pods in fall flower arrangements for extra drama. These plants, along with my huge lavender blue butterfly bushes, attract an array of butterflies, hawk moths, and hummingbirds.
JM: What’s the aesthetic of your garden?
SH: I am a weekend warrior gardener, commuting at the end of the workweek from NYC to my small house in Long Island, so my aesthetic is a balance of my heart’s desire and the sometimes harsh realities of DIY. One-third of my acre is a lightly managed “woodland,” which we leave as a buffer to our neighbors and a quiet sanctuary for our visiting deer. The landscape around the house and yard is a bit ascetic: beach grasses, catmint, Russian sage and one ancient, enormous rhododendron. All of it is deer-proof (although the deer have started now to eat the rhododendron’s lower leaves). My pride and joy are my deer-fenced 26-foot by 52-foot, intensively-planted secret garden. My now-grown daughters and I created it together. We dug a pond and surrounded it with a naturalized pond-edge garden of ferns, hydrangea, butterfly bush, wind-flower, iris, day-lilies, columbine, daffodils and hyacinths, with a few roses in the mix just because we could not resist. We started a perennial bed with an ever-developing, one of each, free-flow style that reflects what we saw and loved at the garden nurseries. Our rule: if it fails, we move on. I would call it “eclectic.” And, I have an edibles area. Usually, I just focus on tomatoes, cucumbers, basil, cilantro and dill. This year, with COVID, I panicked and added more staples, including eggplant, squash, peppers, and lettuce. It’s a veggie jungle. I am currently battling the evil army worms, loopers, and hornworms.
JM: What’s the one (outdoors/garden) tool you can’t live without?
SH: I love my Garrett Wade Cape Cod Weeder.
JM: What’s gardens have you visited recently that you loved? What garden institution has influenced the way you manage yours?
SH: My husband is a literary agent so we frequent the UK for the annual London International Book Fair. I always visit as many gardens as possible, but I love the Chelsea Physic Garden most. Established in the 1700s by the Society of Apothecaries, it still raises 5,000 medicinal plants in the heart of London’s historical Chelsea district on the River Thames.
Education Center at Rikers
JM: When’s the last time you hugged a tree or paid another sign of respect to nature’s green beings?
SH: Tending to plants demonstrates respect for life on earth. While conservation sometimes restricts human contact, most often it is direct plant cultivation that awakens the innate human connection to nature. That’s why I am inspired to lead The Horticultural Society of New York. We cultivate life-long gardeners from every walk of life in our city. Once a gardener always a gardener, I believe.
Green Team member express the essence of The Hort
JM: What’s new or coming up for you in 2020?
SH: The pandemic has increased the need for people to find safe spaces and relief in nature, indoors or outdoors. 2020 will be a year of innovation to provide opportunities for human-plant connections, especially for those suffering most from the economic downturn and increased isolation.
Sara Hobel wearing Bubo the Owl proudly holding her sungold and other tomatoes