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After 9/11, a small band of gardeners started planting daffodils in public spaces as an act of healing and hope … 20 years on, more than 20 million blooms have stood as a testament to their faith. The very first planting happened in DeWitt Clinton Park, a site selected because families had come to the Family Assistance Center at Pier 94 in Hell’s Kitchen to gather and wait for information about their missing loved ones, writes urban horticulturalist, Shanti Nagel.
I live and breathe all things gardening, but there’s nothing I adore more than bulb planting season. As the plants die back and the cold creeps in, planting bulbs is a little prayer we place in the ground with our faith that spring will come again. We plant these intentions – that the world will be resurrected; that the buds and flowers and warmth will return – into the very earth.
As the great EB White once said, planting bulbs is like “calmly plotting the resurrection.” So, when nearly all the tasks in the garden are completed for the season and we are contemplating the dark, winter months, here is a sacred time for a last act of faith, a promise for the return of spring.
Lynden Miller, of Public Garden Design, understood this, and she understood that in trauma, as our city reeled in 2001 from 9/11, that people needed something to do with their bodies, with their souls. And planting bulbs, this simple, quiet act of peace and resurrection, was a good enough place to start. Hans van Waardenburg, a Dutch bulb supplier, initially gifted a million flowers to the city to honor those who died.
With that she founded, along with New Yorkers For Parks (NY4P) and the NY Parks Department, the Daffodil Project which, over the past 20 years, has planted close to eight million daffodils throughout our city. That’s almost one bulb for every New Yorker — and a single daffodil bulb can produce as many as 20 blossoms in a season. These flowers stand as a loving, living memorial to the victims of 9/11. Brilliantly, the project also inspires people to come together, to get involved with their green spaces, to put their hands in the soil, and talk to their neighbors: all deep acts of healing.
On the 20th anniversary of 9/11, the Daffodil Project plans to double the number of bulbs planted around the city for a total of one million bulbs planted in the five boroughs. The extra plantings will also honor those lost to the pandemic.
Every year over 1,200 civic groups, schools, community gardens, tenant groups, and individuals participate. They gather around the city in October to plant these small assurances for the future in our parks, playgrounds, street plantings, public housing sites … anywhere we as a community can see the flowers and enjoy them as a first sign of spring.
The very first planting happened in DeWitt Clinton Park, a site selected because families had come to Pier 94, along the West Side Highway, to gather and wait for information about their loved ones who were still missing. Just a month after the attacks, on the slopes of our local park, community members came together to plant a living promise for the future.
Gabriella Cappo, the director of the Daffodil Project up until last year, said the plantings often acted as many New Yorkers’ first entry point into active advocacy and involvement in their neighborhoods. “I’ve met plenty of people who have just come to pick up bulbs and are now completely integrated into their communities, helping to create ‘Friends of’ groups for their parks or calling their council member to help solve community issues.”
And she added that the daffodils, no matter the weather, just lift the spirits: “Everyone is just happy and so jazzed.”
However, this small act of devotion, this planting of bulbs, has even deeper meaning. In today’s New York, we are bombarded by climate reports and the stress and despair of our current global shift. Fear and uncertainty weigh heavy on our minds and our hearts. We may be struggling to imagine our future, and working hard to envision the way forward, but we continue this small act in faith.
Let us stop for a moment and place our hands on the earth. Dig deep into the ground (at least 6 inches) and place one daffodil bulb snug into her new earthen home. Cover her back up with cool dirt and encourage her to sleep, to rest through the winter, so that she can be ready in spring to show us the way into the future.
More information and a map of where the flowers will be planted in October (and bloom in the spring) can be found on the Daffodil Project website.
A version of this story originally appeared in W42ST magazine in October 2019. The article has been updated.