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Ralph Gardner Jr: Making Her Town's Garden Grow

Sigrid Gray at Mills Park in Kinderhook, NY
Ralph Gardner Jr.
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Sigrid Gray at Mills Park in Kinderhook, NY

One of the benefits of living somewhere beautiful, especially somewhere beautiful within reasonable commuting distance of New York City, is that it attracts lots of talented people. They come initially to visit friends or they’re drawn by the landscape and the tranquility. They keep returning and many of them eventually stay. Often they do so anonymously. Privacy is part of the allure of the Hudson Valley. But sometimes they can be persuaded to lend their skills to their adopted communities.

That was the case when Renee Shur, a Kinderhook, NY resident and activist, enlisted the talents of Sigrid Gray. Sigrid is a horticulturist whose painterly sensibility can be seen at play in some of New York City’s most ambitious recent landscape projects. They include the High Line, the elevated linear park on the west side of Manhattan, and Battery Park at the lower tip of the island, where Sigrid served as director of horticulture. The Battery Conservancy starting in the 1990’s brought that park back from the brink. Today it boasts of some of America’s largest, most lyrical perennial gardens, alongside meadows and other amenities.

Renee Shur’s hope was that Sigrid, who moved to Kinderhook in 2013, help transform a small, overlooked park on the edge of town into a butterfly garden. Five years, one pandemic and numerous town board presentations later Sigrid’s vision is finally blossoming. Literally. Mills Park is this spring a colorful parade of allium – for those who know as little about plants as I do they look like purple pom-poms – poppies, bee balm, asters, bachelor buttons and waving grass.  

The grass happened to be there, in a more manicured form.  “It was a mowed lawn,” Sigrid told me when we visited the park together last week. “People didn’t know it was a park.”

Count me among them. But a few weeks ago I’d noticed something subtly different and lovely about the space, having no idea that a prominent landscape designer was behind it. And the improvement coincides with a larger, better known one: the opening of the Empire State Rail Trail, which happens to cross Mills Park. That’s why I happened to notice. It’s my chosen point of embarkation to ride the trial.

One of the effects of the rail trail, I humbly predict, is that it will spark creativity along its route. Just a mile up the road, in Valatie, someone’s posted pages of a children’s book, like lawn signs, at intervals in the style of those sequential Burma Shave ads along the nation’s highways in the mid-20th century. I assume it’s for the benefit of children, and strolling children at that. One travels too fast on a bicycle to take advantage of literature along the way.

Sigrid Gray learned new things designing, or rather redesigning Mills Park, more of it related to human nature and small town politics than horticulture. At first there was resistance to the project, or should I say concerns. The town board was worried about ticks attracted by high grass, and concerned about cost. “They kept trying to kill the project and we kept coming back,” Sigrid said. “We got better and better at our presentation. I think, finally, we wore them out.”

Sigrid and the park’s supporters raised $5,000 from a GoFundMe site to underwrite the thousands of bulbs they planted. Most of the maintenance, besides mowing a portion of the 13,000 square foot space, which fell to the village’s Department of Public Works, is done by her and two other volunteer village residents; Dana Spot and Michael Allen, who dropped by with his corgis Voltan and Fricka while we were talking.

The irony of the park is that during its previous incarnation children – the town was concerned about them venturing down a ravine on its perimeter but hoping the improvements would attract them and create a safety buffer – never visited. “In five years I never saw a child there,” Sigrid said. A passionate camper, she’d traveled around the United States and noticed that it wasn’t a problem unique to Kinderhook. And it wasn’t because, according to conventional wisdom, kids these days are impossible to extricate from their computers. It’s because municipal parks are often just plain boring. There’s nothing to excite children. Mowed grass alone doesn’t do it.

Towns, Sigrid also observed, typically have separate sports parks with a baseball diamond, and perhaps a tennis court and playground, as Kinderhook does. Those places were hopping. So the question was how to draw children to Mills Park. Pretty flowers certainly help. So do grasses, once they’re allowed to grow. As well as the bicycle path. The meadow Sigrid created in Battery Park had what she describes as a “fierce following.” Waving grass has a primal effect on people that probably dates back to the dawn of Homo sapiens on the African savannah.

Another important feature of the new park – besides benches and picnic tables – is that 72” paths were carved through the grass, the width of the village’s lawn tractor. “When you put a child in front of a path they take it,” Sigrid explained.

And to placate the tick-phobic, Sigrid seeded the paths with tick repellant plants, among them thyme, garlic and mint. But she isn’t calling it an insect-hostile space. There’s no romance in that. Besides, she’s learned her lesson navigating village politics. “Instead of calling it a tick-repellant path we’re going to call it a fragrant path,” she said with a playful smile.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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