A Garden Grows in a Superfund Site

Floating landscaping is bobbing along Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal.

(Photo: Courtesy GrowOnUs)

Sep 26, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

Brooklyn’s Gowanus Canal, a nearly two-mile stretch of stagnant water, has been known to emit a foul aroma in summer detectable from blocks away. But on a late September evening, the famously polluted site can be a surprisingly enchanting place. A three-quarter moon is mirrored in its oil-streaked surface, a sailboat is moored near shore, overturned canoes lie ready on the banks, and a garden alive with purple coneflower, wild indigo, and bulrush floats at the 7th Street Basin. To get there, you just might have to pass two feral cats, a man in a heated argument about his parole, a discarded pack of Newports, and innumerable 30-gallon trash bags, contents unknown, knotted and discarded at the shoreline.

Since 2011, the Gowanus Canal Conservancy has worked with volunteers to create floating gardens in the waterway. It’s not only an experiment to see what could bloom in the opaque waters, explained program manager Natasia Sidarta, but a way to advocate for greener spaces within the canal and along its banks. But the garden that debuted last week is the most ambitious project yet.

Inside metal culvert pipes atop a pontoon-like assemblage of 55-gallon plastic drums and hundreds of recycled plastic bottles, more than 30 different plants, including seaside goldenrod, smooth cordgrass, and sumac, are thriving. Some of the plants, such as swamp rose mallow, interact directly with the canal water and serve to improve its quality through phytoremediation or desalination; others are watered from collected rainwater and water distilled with solar-powered equipment housed beneath small domes on the raft. Below the canal’s waters, the underbelly of the island creates a substrate environment for mussels, which are voracious cleaners of filthy water. While it’s currently dominated by native plant species, some hope it could be used to grow herbs and other food crops someday.

This new grassy, wild habitat—catnip for pollinators—is the work of New York landscape and design firm Balmori Associates, made possible with $20,000 grant from the Cornelia & Michael Bessie Foundation.

(Photo: Courtesy GrowOnUs)

“The office has been working on floating islands for almost 10 years,” Balmori’s Noemie LaFaurie-Debany said. “The thing that attracted us in the Gowanus was that it was all the most extreme conditions. Not only is it extremely polluted, but it’s also brackish, which makes certain plants not compatible with this condition. So we thought this was almost like the worst-case scenario.”

The situation is dire enough to have earned Gowanus a place on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of Superfund sites back in 2010, targeting it for a long-term cleanup plan. The agency has its work cut out for it. It has taken more than a century of residential and commercial sewage runoff, waste disposal, and industrial pollution from gas plants, paper mills, tanneries, and chemical plants to make the Gowanus what it is today.

Just how gross is it? Fecal matter, usually measured in parts per million, is measured in parts per hundred in the Gowanus. When Whole Foods announced plans to open a store on 3rd Street near the canal in 2006, construction was delayed when leaky oil tanks were found buried beneath the 2.1-acre site, contaminating the soil with carcinogens. Cleanup was so extensive, the store didn’t open its doors until December 2013. The $500 million cleanup of the canal itself requires dredging the toxic sludge at the canal’s bottom and sealing off what remains. It’s expected to be completed by 2022.

(Photo: Courtesy GrowOnUs)

“As we speak, there are barges in the canal that EPA is using to start pilot dredging in some of the turning basins in the canal,” Sidarta said.

In the meantime, groups like the Gowanus Canal Conservancy and the Gowanus Dredgers Canoe Club have been working to revitalize the watershed. The past year has seen the arrival of blue crabs, cormorants, and herons. Mussels have been seen growing on the bulkhead near Whole Foods, behind which the floating garden made its initial debut.

“One hour after putting it in the canal, there were two butterflies playing around it,” said Diana Balmori. “So it’s a beginning of a relationship with other living things. It can be birds and insects, and there’s a box for [native solitary bees].”

While no food is currently growing on the raft, The New York Botanical Garden suggested herbs could be grown on the island—“low-maintenance crops that can give a financial return given their price per volume,” Balmori said in a press release. “In a few years NYC restaurants may be serving meals and drinks infused with herbs grown on one of these islands.”

That might be a little ambitious, according to Sidarta. “Honestly, I wouldn’t recommend growing edibles in the canal and then consuming them before there has been testing on it, especially with the high content of sewage and maybe toxic materials,” she said. “It’s definitely maybe possible in, like, 20 years, when the canal has finished its Superfund cleanup.”

The conservancy’s core mission with the floating gardens is simpler, but already successful. “It’s a way to reintroduce native ecology to areas like the Gowanus that don’t really have much vibrant ecology,” said Sidarta, “before we start going out and farming on the Gowanus.”