New York — With a college degree in horticulture from Hampshire College in hand, Tess Huxley's dream was to become a farmer. As it has turned out, her on-the-land experience has been confined to neighborhood-sponsored public gardens in the five boroughs of New York City. As executive director for the past four years of a volunteer group called the Green Guerillas Inc., Miss Huxley is one of the leaders of a citywide ``greening movement'' that has been transforming dingy vacant lots into urban vegetable plots, grassy vest-pocket parks, playgrounds, flower beds, and picnic areas.
The Green Guerillas Inc., Miss Huxley explains, is an action-oriented greening organization, working to make New York a more livable city.
``We view forgotten or abandoned land [usually city-owned] as an important community resource,'' she says. ``The 200 members of the Green Guerillas constitute a cadre of dedicated people who are willing to give their time and share their technical expertise to help any public space become a green oasis. They go to meetings and run slide shows of other successful community gardens in order to give both encouragement and a vocabulary to beginning groups. Later, they give the continuing assistance that might be requested.''
Miss Huxley says her nonprofit organization assisted 114 groups last year with over 8,000 volunteer hours and tens of thousands of dollars worth of plants.
From the group's headquarters at 417 Lafayette Street, she and volunteers compile fact sheets to help solve specific gardening problems and put out a seasonal newsletter devoted to the ``greening and cleaning of our environment.'' Volunteers are trained here in such matters as garden design and development, street tree identification and care, and neighborhood park improvement and maintenance. And free instruction is given on topics such as pruning, plant propagation, insect and disease identification, and cold-frame gardening. A 24-hour-a-day telephone hotline is also maintained.
This spring, Miss Huxley is overseeing 10 workshops as well as major training sessions for 47 new members. She is also helping to compile, for the first time, a training manual that can be used for teaching, learning, and ready reference for answering the most commonly asked questions. ``We are also now having to fight for community gardens that are being threatened by new real estate development,'' she says.
Another vital contribution is the recyling of green plants from such donors as estate owners who are thinning their plants and say ``Come on out and dig,'' to nurseries, commercial landscape gardeners, office buildings that change plant displays, and folks who are dismantling their roof gardens.
These donations, says the director, range from large trees in elaborate planters to the bulbs that beautify Park Avenue each spring. ``On April 13,'' she says, ``we will be doing a huge giveaway from the Bowery Houston Garden, where the plant materials are collected and held, to groups working in community greening projects.''
Recently the Green Guerillas became one of the recipients of $100,000 worth of wildflower seeds donated by the Oregon-based Norm Thompson mail-order firm, a gift that will help their long-term project of seeding vacant lots.
``The Green Guerillas were unique when they began in 1973,'' she explains, ``and for many years we got calls and letters from all over the country, asking for advice on how to form similar local organizations. We shared what we could and helped dozens of offshoots get sprouted, from the Boston Urban Gardeners in Massachusetts to the San Francisco League of Urban Gardeners in California. Our bylaws, worked out when we incorporated in 1976, are used as models by many groups.''
Today, the American Community Gardening Association, with over 100 members in the United States and Canada, links most of these groups and holds annual conventions so that community gardening professionals can share their know-how.
The Green Guerillas Inc. is funded by foundations, corporations, and grants from the New York State Council for the Arts. The budget this coming year will rise to $82,000 because of increasing costs.
Miss Huxley coordinates the work of the volunteers, teaches, conducts meetings and workshops, and is invited to speak on urban gardening to such national groups as the National Trust for Historic Preservation. She is also on the board of the Neighborhood Open Space Coalition and the Street Tree Consortium.
Many members of the organization (and they include musicians, teachers, television producers, dancers, art dealers, secretaries) became interested because they got tired of looking at the garbage piling up in a vacant lot across the street. Then they discovered that getting neighbors together to join in building and maintaining a garden is doing something special which can beautify the neighborhood, protect the site, cut down litter, and give people an outdoor refuge.
``We are often the catalyst without which many groups wouldn't make it over the first hump,'' Miss Huxley says. ``We don't do their work for them. But we tell them how to do it the right way, give them materials, and the last bit of encouragement we can muster.
``In a bleak, deteriorating neighborhood, or a highly built-up one,'' she adds, ``a garden can be a symbol of hope and life.''