The yellow finches and sparrows know it well. So does the daring egret that thieves the goldfish. Yet not many human denizens of New Haven know of Ivy Narrows, the 10-year old Echinacea and raspberry haven that Jeannette Thomas’s family and neighbors have built in the heart of Newhallville.
“People think we own this ‘cause we’re always out here,” Thomas said of the long rectangular garden shaded by Hawthorne and purple plum trees at the northeast corner of Dixwell Avenue and Ivy Street.
Thomas, a retired state worker, and her family and neighbors work from 7 to 10 each morning cleaning, planting, weeding, and especially tending to the water lily-filled goldfish pond and birdbath that comprise the centerpiece of the garden.
Ten years ago, during an anti-blight campaign, the city came into possession of the land and knocked down a fire-damaged and subsequently abandoned bar and garage.
Thomas said City Hall community-garden organizer Doreen Larson-Oboyski, with a steady assist from Yale’s Urban Resources Initiative (URI), convinced her to become the newly created lot’s main caretaker.
The result has been auspicious for the city and for Thomas.
On a sunny morning, as the beach-ball size zebra grasses that fringe the pond moved elegantly in the wind, Thomas explained how she became in effect the curator of the Ivy Narrow Bird Sanctuary. She had previously known little of gardens or birds.
“I never opened my blinds,” Thomas said of the view of the pre-garden site when she married her husband Lee in1969 and moved into the adjacent house his parents owned at 205 Ivy.
Thomas’s retirement coincided with a city campaign in 2001 to improve blighted properties, especially at visible gateway locations such as Ivy and Dixwell.
That first year, Thomas said, 28 people volunteered to clear the site, including crews of ex-offenders from Project More. URI provided an intern who suggested a bird sanctuary be the theme for the plants to be put in.
“They advised us with an intern every season,” she said.
In the second year, not five other neighbors pitched in. Thomas and her family and some loyal neighbors plugged along, with success.
Her son Samuel Dixon dug the goldfish pond and stocked it with fish. Word got out among the cardinals, sparrows, and other local birds, and they came to drink and to bathe.
For those first years, the goldfish thrived because word of them hadn’t spread to the shorebird population.
“It is a bird habitat primarily, but bees and butterflies” also thrive, Thomas said.
The Garden Club of New Haven was so impressed with our work, in 2002 they provided [a spigot right in the garden]. Before that I carried water from my house.”
Thomas is particularly proud of several design suggestions she made as the garden was evolving. “My idea was to do the berm.”
Once cleared of the damaged buildings, the land was been absolutely flat. Thomas wanted the garden to have raised places where the eye could wander, and indeed it works.
URI kept providing interns, trees, and plantings. Thomas was proud that over the decade Ivy Narrow Bird Sanctuary has lost only one tree.
The built environment in the garden was also improved. Local trades people and unionists provided tiles, bricks, and manpower to put in a plaza in a corner of the garden.
The Community Foundation of Greater New Haven’s small grant program helped Thomas build a sturdy facsimile of a rustic picket fence.
While the community appreciates the garden, few events have utilized the wild, easily overlooked green space in the midst of an urban setting. Thomas’s daughter Jackie organized a shower there, and there are occasional barbecues. It has the size and variety to be a local destination; perhaps it’s just as well that it’s not.
The garden offers a visual antidote to the long abandoned house adjacent at 647 Dixwell.
The garden is respected by neighbors, although not by a particular egret. The same one keeps returning each year and devouring the goldfish, Thomas said.
Also on the menu for repairs is a solar panel and pump. Thomas said she’d like to increase the variety of fish in the pond, but first the pond needs better aeration. Thomas asked anyone with the knowledge of how to make a pump work with solar energy to call her at 203-787-5456
Although she originally went into the effort to create Ivy Narrow Bird Sanctuary in order to protect her property and also, she said, to make sure a McDonald’s was not built there, the horitucltural decision has been an excellent one.
“I’ve learned a tremendous amount,” she said. “Now my blinds stay open.”