Maggie’s magic garden

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How one woman turned a garbage-filled lot on the UES into a lush space for plants, herbs and fruit trees


  • Maria Magdalena Amurrio in the garden. Photo: Michele Willens

  • Photo: Michele Willens

  • Garden spot. Photo: Michele Willens

Maria Magdalena Amurrio wakes up most days at four a.m., walks next door, pulls out her hoses and hydrants, and starts watering. This takes a few hours, after which she quickly showers and is out by 6:30 to go to her real job — cleaning homes. What she leaves behind is an enchanting and rather awesome neighborhood park. One that carries her name, as well it should.

Maggie, as she’s known, moved to Lexington Avenue (between 100th and 101st) from Bolivia in 1989, and soon after, noticed the burned out, garbage-filled lot alongside her building. She started planting seeds and pulling weeds, even when the city considered forcing her to stop. Maggie’s Magic Garden (now part of the city’s Green Thumb project) is coming up on 24 years of flourishing plants, herbs, vegetables and fruit trees. (Even beehives doing their thing.) This hidden gem represents one woman’s determination to bring some velvety green to a decidedly brown and pockmarked city street. Just try to find anyone in East Harlem who isn’t familiar with, and grateful for, Maggie’s garden.

Why does this warm, if understandably weary, immigrant mother of three do this? “A garden like this, it reminds me of my beloved Bolivia,” she says, “and I believe in taking care of the earth.“

The commitment is full-time and monetarily challenging. At one point, for example, she needed to raise $12,000 for generators. Maggie has her wish list: “We need a greenhouse to keep our seedlings during the spring, and we need ramps to allow access to our visitors in wheelchairs.”

Though most funds have come, she says, “from my own pocket,” this is truly a community endeavor. Neighbors help to do the work, to donate, to enjoy the fresh goodies, to relax with a book, even to hold a meeting. “It has been harvested by volunteers,” says Maggie.

Sure enough, the day I visited, three folks came by. Rafael Mutis has been helping out for the last few months, happy to play even a small role in Maggie’s blooming miracle. “This one will be white, this will be pink,” he says, proudly pointing out lilies of the valley which will arrive next spring. Justin Samuels, who used to live in the neighborhood, stopped by and was hugged by a surprised Maggie. A screenwriter and recent graduate of Columbia, Samuels had volunteered regularly, he said, “because I liked gardening and had always lived in rural areas. I weeded, I laid down mulch, I did everything.”

“This is the pride of the neighborhood!” exclaimed another frequent helper, Julio De La Paz, who came by to pick up some fresh mint for his meal that night.

Right now, there are peaches and figs on the trees, perfectly purple eggplants bursting forth, and tomatoes turning from green to red. The bees are buzzing and Maggie says the locals are eagerly awaiting the sweet result. To call this place lush is no exaggeration, all the more unusual because it is smack in the middle of a mixed bag of eateries and barbershops. The restaurants are supporters of the garden, sending over wine and foods for the special events Maggie occasionally hosts. (Labor Day will be one.)

Kiera Jerez, a cashier across the street, lit up when asked about Maggie’s garden. “It’s amazing,” she says. “I was born and raised here and that block looks completely different. It’s a place for people to sit and for kids to experience nature.”

Then there are the passers-by who stumble upon this unexpected explosion of greenery. People like Margo and Dan Sinclair, who live on 94th and were enroute to a pizza restaurant in the gradually gentrifying area. They were given a tour of the garden by a volunteer and left behind a generous donation.

The experience not only surprised them, but seemingly moved them to wax poetic. “What is a weed?” said Dan, a professional sculptor, after their visit. “It is a plant whose virtues have never been discovered. This applies to Maggie’s vision for an abandoned trash-strewn empty lot.”

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