Tompkins‘roots man’ is hanging nup his spade

Volume 78 – Number 41 / March 18 -24, 2009

West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Tompkins‘roots man’ is hanging up his spade

By Bonnie Rosenstock 

Right around the time the spring bulbs bloom, Michael S. Lytle will be hanging up his tools and putting his job to bed. After five years as Tompkins Square Park’s head gardener and landscaper and a total of 20 years logged in the Parks Department, Lytle has decided that April 30, his 64th birthday, would be an ideal time to retire.

He has had meniscus operations on both knees, two hernia operations, carpal tunnel on both hands, mostly from shoveling, arthritis in his thumbs and a torn meniscus in his shoulder.

“I can’t jump over fences anymore,” Lytle admitted. “It’s a very physical job, and when you are determined to get things done, your body takes its toll.”

When Lytle (pronounced “Lye-tell”) came to the park’s 10.5 acres in 2004, he found it overgrown, and all the lawns were dustbowls, he recounted. Wherever there was shade, there was no grass. Fortuitously, that first spring the Junior League, a nonprofit women’s charitable organization, came five weekends with $50,000 and 50 volunteers, “all type-A personalities, and they worked real hard,” said Lytle.

They renovated and planted along all 17 park entrances and put in 10,000 bulbs on 10th St. A test of the soil showed that there was no nitrogen left from years of the trees consuming it, so they put 4 inches of compost on all beds, especially around the historic American elm trees. Composting has been an ongoing task in order to keep moisture in the soil and the temperature even. Christmas tree mulch is an especially welcome recycled asset, and wafts a sweet pine smell throughout the park.

“I have put in about 30 cubic yards at a time, at least 10 times,” Lytle calculated. “That’s a lot of compost.”

Tompkins Square Park arguably has one of the best stands of American elm trees left in the world. Because of the incurable Dutch elm disease that decimated these venerable old shade trees in the 1930s and still remains a threat, it is rare to find such a fine collection.

During the Civil War, the New York National Guard used the park, which opened in 1850, as a parade ground for drilling. According to Lytle, at that time, they cut down all the trees — three giant sycamores survived the destruction — so the elms date from after that period.

“You can’t find a tree like this anymore,” declared Lytle. “The bark is so gnarly. It goes up in a vase shape and splits open like a fan.” He believes the biggest American elm in the city is in the park at Ninth St. by Avenue B. (The famous Hanging Tree in Washington Square Park is an English elm.)

Lytle lives in Tribeca with his poet/writer wife, but at work he enjoys living with his tools. His cluttered, earthy private office is in the tool shed, a big metal boxlike container in the middle of the park opposite the flagpole at E. Ninth St. The two nearby Parks Department offices beyond the gates are the domains of, on one side, park supervisor Harry Greenberg, his boss, and, on the other side, Amy Taylor, the associate park service worker, as well as three park workers and two vehicle drivers.

Lytle credits Adrian Benepe, “the wonderful parks commissioner,” as he calls him, and Benepe’s assistant, Liam

Kavanagh, for bringing the city parks back to life.

“They are really into the greening of the parks. Being a gardener is now a hoity-toity job, which it didn’t use to be,” he said.

However, Lytle acknowledged that he couldn’t do his job without the park’s mainstays, its volunteers. A group from New York Cares comes one Saturday a month “solid,” he said, and two neighborhood volunteers are there every Wednesday.

“I love the volunteers,” he said. “They are all so hard-working.”

In addition, during the six to eight of the warmest months, people on public assistance and those sentenced to community service, like turnstile jumpers, put in hours here.

Corporations and individuals also donate funds to the park. The East Village Parks Conservancy, long involved in the community gardens, has created an endowment, with all proceeds going to the park, through their hexagonal paving stone project: People can purchase a paver inscribed with a personal message, which is then placed at the base of Temperance Fountain. So far, more than 100 people have bought stones.

Lytle represents that dying breed of city gardener who worked his way up through the Parks Department ranks. He started out cleaning the park, not with a gardening degree, which is now the norm. But he comes from a long line of gardeners and homesteaders in Virginia and North Carolina, and was a farmer briefly in West Liberty, Iowa, tending cattle, pigs and sheep and organic vegetable, herb and berry gardens.

“I found that I had a green thumb,” he said. “Even in college in Iowa [where he earned a master’s degree in music theory and composition], I had a vegetable garden.”

So how does his garden grow so well? Lytle explained that he has planted everything one can think of, improvising.

“I am not a good designer. I don’t sit and plan it out,” he admitted.

“I know I have a bed to plant, I have this money, I look at what’s at the nursery — the main nursery is in Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx; I look at the texture of the leaves, like a blue-green color or this with silver. When I get them to the park, I just start placing and planting. I don’t want to brag, but I am very pleased with the results.”

A few years ago, he experimented with mixing tulips and 25 kinds of daffodils together with some lilies in the middle. The first to come up in the spring are the daffodils. When they are wilting, the tulips come up. When the tulips begin to die away, up come the lilies. The result is fields ablaze in rich colors throughout the spring and summer.

His favorite part of the park, the middle entrance on Seventh St. between Avenues A and B, sports a lot of tropical plants from the first thaw until before the first October frost sets in. Included in this area are agaves and other dessert plants, a giant red banana tree, which is around four years old, a tropical ginger plant and a palm tree. They are housed in the Parks Department’s greenhouse in Staten Island during the winter.

Because New York City is getting warmer, he can now plant more tropical plants that normally grow in Virginia and Georgia. Planting zones are determined at intervals of 10-degree-Fahrenheit differences in the average annual minimum temperature.

“We used to be on the border of Zone 6 for planting, now raised to Zone 7 by the National Horticultural Society over the last 10 years,” he noted.

In the same bed is a thriving 6-foot-tall sequoia, a member of the giant redwood tree family, of which he is very proud. However, one tropical plant that he can’t keep for very long is the elephant ear because an Asian nationality eats the bulbous root like potatoes; they jump the fence and pull it right out of the ground. He also had a yucca with a big flowering stalk which lasted three days before someone cut it down.

“In the city we don’t have bugs to speak of, no deer eating plants nor many natural disasters other than harsh winds which can take down a tree,” Lytle reflected. “All the problems stem from the two-legged kind.

“People prune a plant with their knives. They steal plants for their homes. They break off branches to put over their fireplace mantles. I sometimes find a plant half-pulled out. Some people are just plain mean and want to damage something. In one lawn, which is devoid of grass, I have a ‘Keep Out’ sign so I can reseed it, but the kids don’t care. I don’t want to complain, but it’s sometimes frustrating,” he said.

Another problem is rats, which breed in the park.

“People don’t realize that when they feed the pigeons, they are also feeding the rats,” Lytle explained. “Rats only need one ounce of food a day to survive.”

The park also claims wonderful old flowering crab apple trees and two recently planted cherry trees, whose purple flowers bloom a little later than other flowering cherry trees. Agricultural plants are not allowed in the park, and in general, there aren’t intense flowering plants there either. 

“I feel that flowers are a bonus, but you really want to plant for colors and textures of the leaves because they are there all the time,” he explained.

One such tree is the tricolored beech, whose spring leaves are bright pink. The cast and crew of “RENT,” the Broadway musical, planted it in memory of its creator, Jonathan Larsen. 

The renovated dog run is also a memorial, the Lindsay Ashe Garden. In fall 2008, Lytle stocked the run’s winding periphery with mature plants with generous donations from Ashe’s friends and family. 

“Every week the park is different. It’s an art of living things. Everything comes and goes,” he said philosophically.

In retirement, Lytle plans to concentrate more on his music, which he never really left, and do more photography. He has an extraordinary collection of photographs of the park. He composes and plays electronic music, what he calls “classical new music,” which has jazz elements. His main instrument is the single-reed bass clarinet. Yes, Lytle is a wood man.