Judy Robinson Heads A Garden Oasis on the Upper West Side

With tulip season upon us, there’s no better place to witness these glorious flowers than the West Side Community Garden. I had the wonderful opportunity to speak with Judy Robinson, the leader of the non-profit organization that keeps this garden running and hosts events for the whole community to enjoy. She describes what it is like to run an organization while tending garden

| 14 Apr 2023 | 06:45

What is your official position?

My official title is president of the board of directors of the West Side Community Garden.

What do you do in that position?

I do quite a few different things. I run the board of directors meeting once a month and we make decisions about issues that affect the garden as an organization. While the garden itself is a physical location with paths, plants, and flower beds, it is also a non-profit corporation. As such we must raise and handle money and make decisions regarding how the organization functions, while also overseeing what occurs in the garden itself. We make sure to get things done like planting and making repairs, rotating the seasonal plants, and setting rules for visitors. Part of my job is making sure that the garden as an organization handles these issues to keep the garden as a place open and running smoothly.

Favorite part of your job?

That’s a tough question since there’s a lot of things that I like. I really enjoy physically working outdoors in the garden. However, I also really like working with the board members to solve problems and think about what needs to be done for the organization. I’ve always enjoyed the process of working collaboratively with other people to figure out the best way to do whatever we need to do to keep the garden running, and I also love getting my hands dirty in the garden. I honestly can’t pick a favorite part.

Did you always know that you wanted to do some form of work with flowers and gardening?

I’ve always enjoyed growing plants. I grow lots of house plants in my apartment and when I was working, I grew plants inside my office. I didn’t get involved in the garden until after I retired from my job, which was about 10 years ago, but I’ve always really enjoyed growing plants. As such, when I found out that I could have the opportunity to grow plants outdoors in New York City, I was extremely excited and happy about the prospect.

Do you have a favorite type of flower?

That’s a difficult question since there are so many wonderful ones. I don’t really have a favorite type of flower. Maybe if I had to pick, I’d say tulips, but the more truthful answer is no, there are just so many types of flowers that I love so I don’t have a favorite.

What events do you hold, and which do you enjoy the most?

We have a series of events that we do every year which starts in April and goes through November. The first event of the year is the Tulip Festival, which takes place in the period when the tulips and other spring bulbs are in bloom. Before the tulips however, small bulbs like crocuses, snow bells, and scilla start coming up in mid-March. After that, the daffodils, and hyacinths bloom, which are finally followed by the tulips, which are most of what we plant. The tulips usually bloom roughly around the second week of April through the first week of May. The Tulip Festival is our first big event of the year and lots of people come each year as it’s become something of our signature event. Then, starting in late May through early June, we have a series of five live concerts involving multiple different bands and groups. The concerts take place on Sunday evenings at 6 pm. In mid-June, we have our benefit party which is the only event we have throughout the whole year that is ticketed. That event will take place on Thursday, June 15th and serves as our main fundraising event. Then for July 4th, we host a big picnic and potluck. Everyone who attends is asked to bring enough of some side dish, salad, or dessert to feed at least six people. For this picnic, the garden also provides hot dogs and hamburgers. It really is a very enjoyable event. On weekends in July, we have theater performances, at least two of which are Shakespeare, though I don’t know which of his plays we’re going to do this year yet. On the other two weekends we host performances by other types of theater groups. We also usually hold a movie night in early August and in early to mid-September we have an arts-and-crafts festival. This year, it will be held on September 9th and 10th. The last organized event of the year is the bulb planting, which usually takes place on the second weekend of November. During this event, we plant approximately 13,000 tulip bulbs, as well as other bulbs like daffodils, hyacinths, crocuses, etc. This event is also open to the public and garden members alike. We also invite people from the community to come and help. We are extremely proud to hold events that are open to the public and we also are very happy that even if there’s no event taking place, the garden is always there as a space to sit down, eat lunch, drink coffee, and talk with friends. It’s a peaceful, calm place where people can stop and enjoy a bit of nature. Oftentimes, a lot of those people who are in a hurry to get someplace will come in and instead of rushing straight through, will take the time to walk around for a couple of minutes just to look at the flowers.

Is there something that you particularly enjoy about working for a community-based organization?

I’ve lived on the Upper West Side for many years and my family raised me with values of community and people helping each other. So, when I realized there was this beautiful garden in my neighborhood and that it was run by a group of volunteers working together, not for pay but just because they wanted to create and maintain this gorgeous space and make it an open and welcoming place for the community, I was very attracted to that. The garden is absolutely stunning, and I am really happy to know that there is an amazing group of people who work to keep the garden open as a resource for the community. I personally have two major missions, both of which have been big motivators for me in the past and are very dear to my heart. One of these missions is to help make the garden an oasis for the community. We strive to make the garden a place of peaceful, restful beauty that is open to everyone at any time. The second mission is to enjoy the process of working together with a group of people who are focused on jointly creating and maintaining this wonderful space. I personally enjoy the process of working with this group of people just as much as I enjoy the garden itself.

What advice would you give to someone who is looking to become the leader of a non-profit in their community?

Leadership in a voluntary organization depends on relationships with other members and it is effective to the extent that a leader is perceived as hard-working, reliable, collaborative, respectful, and of course, honest. People get a feeling for these qualities through repeated experiences of working together. Once you’ve found an organization whose work you value and are genuinely interested in, volunteer for multiple entry-level tasks and follow through reliably. When you start a task, ask for directions, and follow them. If you disagree with these directions, ask why it’s done the way it is. The answer may help you understand more about the organization. Remember that you should always show respect for the organization’s traditions. You should also attend meetings regularly and voice your opinion in a positive manner, avoiding negative comments about others. As people come to know you as a reliable and cooperative worker, they may ask you to take on more responsibility. This puts you in a position to make suggestions about how you think things could be improved. If people agree with your ideas and feel comfortable working with you, then you have a great chance of becoming a leader of that organization.Learn more about the West Side Community Garden and see the scheduled list of events.

Lea Efran is a NYC high school junior. She plays volleyball, does jiu-jitsu and is a Stone Soup Magazine honoree.