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Lush 'Rain Forest' Garden Blooms in the Bronx

By Eddie Small | September 18, 2014 8:39am
 Patterson Houses resident Marta Diaz started the Rain Forest Garden about 20 years ago.
Rain Forest Garden
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MOTT HAVEN — Walking around this rain forest, visitors will notice tropical foliage like elephant plants and avocados.

But they're not in the tropics — they're at the "Rain Forest Garden" in the Patterson Houses in the South Bronx.

In the lush greenspace, which is open to the public, there is an abundance of tropical plants, statues and even a pond.

"It is quite extraordinary," said Lee Trotman, garden and greening program manager at NYCHA.

Only one other NYCHA garden he knows of has a pond. "It's been an award-winning garden, or program, for many years," Trotman added.

Marta Diaz, a longtime resident of the Patterson Houses, started the garden about 20 years ago as a way to contribute to the community under NYCHA's garden program, according to her son-in-law Jorge Rivera, a building super.

"She just wanted to get involved in the neighborhood and give something back," he said.

Over a period of about 10 years, she used plants from her native Puerto Rico to build the greenspace from scratch in an empty field.

"That used to be a field with nothing on it," said her son Benny Diaz. "There was nothing there at all."

She picked up her green thumb in Puerto Rico where she used to grow tomatoes and coffee, her son said.

Before Diaz died about five years ago, she asked her son, a doorman, and his two brothers-in-law, Rivera and Juan Lozada, to continue taking care of the garden. Though none of them live in Patterson Houses, they have honored her request ever since.

The garden is filled with tributes to its founder. It's called "Rain Forest" to honor her homeland of Puerto Rico, her name is on the garden's sign and there's a photograph of Diaz by the pond that was built in her memory.

"It's something that they take great pride in because it was something that she really enjoyed," said Trotman. "I think it's definitely a way to memorialize her."

Many of the garden's plants, like peppermint, cilantro and avocado, come from Puerto Rico. A number of the garden's oak and pine trees remain from when Marta first planted them.

"This is hard to believe, but even with the snow and everything, they come back every year. It's amazing," her son said.

One of Rivera's favorite features of the garden are what he called "elephant plants," which resemble elephant ears. Trotman said he likes how the garden's unique use of tropical plants helps it really resemble a rainforest.

"It's almost like a bit of an oasis right there because there's traffic running by, and then there's this huge garden right there, which I think is really amazing," he said.

Benny Diaz said his favorite plants were the ones his mother started with — white, yellow, pink and orange roses. He said working on the garden had been challenging this year because of health issues in the family, though they are planning a major cleanup next week.

He described his mom as a passionate advocate for her neighborhood who was always willing to share what she had.

"My mother believed in the neighborhood where she lived," he said. "Everything my mother touched is beauty. It becomes beauty."