“Guerrilla” Gardener Has A Plan

Allan Appel PhotoWith hyacinth bean, clematis, and other climbing vines, Christopher Schaefer has created the most beautifully trellised “Do Not Obstruct Driveway” sign in all New Haven. He’s also using his gardening enthusiasm and talent quietly to help transform his City Point neighborhood.

“My gripe is with New Haven drivers who don’t observe traffic signs and police don’t enforce them. So why not turn these eyesores into something beautiful?” he reasoned.

Schaefer moved into his tidy 1871 house on Second Street near Greenwich 25 years ago when many of the nearby buildings not only were without gardens, but lacked windows. Many buildings were derelict and boarded up.

When his daughter was born 21 years ago, he put in his first garden in the back of the house so she would have a beautiful place to play. When a son was born three years later, he put in a “knot garden” in the front of the house.

The idea here is that surrounding a centerpiece of a dwarf maple crisscrossing hedges of dwarf boxwood gives the illusion that they are tying a knot.

There is a lot of “dwarf” in Schaefer’s careful planning of his various gardens.

In the case of the knot garden, a neighbor told him that wealthy people in England have knot gardens. So given the small size of his lot, he made a “dwarf” version of it.

“I get to pretend I’m wealthy,” he said.

Visiting his garden in the latter half of August is comparable to visiting the site of an ancient civilization long past its glory.

A fine flower-bordered vegetable garden sported peppers the size of a green sneaker.

Around it, he beckyard formed a rectangular sanctuary composed of discrete garden spaces or “rooms.”

On both the long sides, Schaefer has put in wall gardens of espaliered holly trees with Queen Elizabeth roses and perennials at the base.

He tries to train the holly to obey him to form pleasing patterns arising from a single trunk. The gardening calms Schaefer, who is now retired. It also is good therapy for the Tourettes Syndrome that he deals with.

If the espaliered holly doesn’t obey, sometimes that makes him nervous, he said.

Growing The Neighborhood

He held a Virginia creeper (pictured), which brings us to how these gardens, built for his children, are now a growing presence and even force beyond in the neighborhood.

“I’m going to root this and use it to cover a neighborhood eyesore, which will be unnamed,” he said.

He put this effort into the context of a larger movement for “guerrilla gardening,” begun in England. Schaeffer said the idea is to secretly plant flowers to improve neglected parts of the neighborhood.

Not secret at all is the second annual garden party Schaefer held this year in June. More than 30 people came, double the first year’s attendance, to enjoy his gardens and house.

The attendees were not necessarily gardeners. The formal, printed invitations said, “You are invited and bring your neighbor.” They were sent to everyone who lives from Second Street down the sea.

“People who’d lived here for decades met for the first time,” he said.

He plans to continue doing that every year.

Also as part of the campaign, Schaefer helped bring Urban Resources Initiative into his corner of City Point. This year, Schaefer and neighbors planted cherry, ginkgo and other trees along Second Street, Fourth Street , and Hallock.

And so why all these public efforts after years of building a more private sanctuary garden for his family alone?

“I spent all this time renovating a house [and putting in gardens] and yet I didn’t feel I lived in a neighborhood. Plus I was concerned with the future and security.”

He conceded that City Point “is still an urban neighborhood where people are still hiding behind their doors” with high transience and high number of renters. Those factors are not conducive to growing gardens.

“When people know each other, it’s safer. I’m not at angry city meetings. Instead this is my quiet way of improving the neighborhood,” he said.

A Family Affair

Schaefer built the front and back gardens for his kids. He dedicated another space to his wife’s wishes: a sunken garden, tucked away in a shaded area adjacent to the garage.

He said he ignored or at least overcame cautions he had read about creating water gardens—namely that plants wouldn’t grow in the shade he had available to them.

He tried it anyway, and again was successful.

There beneath petunias and surrounded by dwarf bamboo, Schaefer created a quiet place for meditation, built all out of masonry.

There are two religious paintings, one on each side of a cross above a pool that contains the bamboo plants.

So having built gardens for each member of his family, what did he make for himself?

Schaefer always wanted goldfish. So circulating pool in the sunken garden has a dozen of the creatures.

Schaefer displayed a talent not only for growing plants but for training fish, or at least being able to draw them toward one of the bamboos so they could pose for a picture.

Schaefer said his kids asked him when they were young to plant an oak tree near the sunken garden and build a tree house in it for them.

But there are limits to what even a talented gardener can do in his work to utilize and even transform nature.

“‘Kids,’ I said, ‘it’s not going to be ready in time.’”

Schaefer said that he has always liked symmetry.

That was especially evident not only in the sunken garden but in this Dutchman’s Pipe. The perennial vine lushly graces the front of the garage in the shape of a perfect green tee. It is topped by a period horse shoe Schaefer found when he restored his house.

With space running out on his land, the next project for Schaefer – and he is always looking for the next one – is growing plants in pots. Another one of those dwarfs, for instance: a nifty dwarf butterfly plant that of course was doing well, despite the gardener’s protestations.

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Previous Gardeners Of The Week:

Maria Meneses
Katie MacRae



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posted by: Cedarhillresident on August 19, 2010  2:23pm

Love it as much as the last one! Thanks NHI I hope you do this next year to…I will be working on mine all winter!!

Lets not forget that fantastic garden that is on Willow street! I drive by that one and it makes me smile every time!

posted by: ms.mary on August 19, 2010  4:05pm

What a beautiful display.!!! nice work

posted by: Kevin G. Ewing on August 19, 2010  6:07pm

Very nice story. He has the right idea about how to build community. The screaming city meetings are okay and at times necessary but real community is made just by neighbors getting to know neighbors. Lets spend as much time focusing on the things that are RIGHT in our neighborhood and enhance them and the things that are WRONG will slowly start to dissipate. If we can start creating a sense of ‘place’ and ‘home’ in our communities we slow the trend of renter transience. Make sure to include them in your efforts.

posted by: Leslie Blatteau on August 20, 2010  9:51am

chris is the living definition of a good neighbor.  he has brought people out of their homes, together, to make our streets beautiful and safe.  he leaves cynicism for the lazy.  he is ideas in action.  im glad to have chris as a neighbor in the hill.

posted by: John on August 21, 2010  5:11pm

Nice to see! Would like to see more folks in New Haven have the same care for their neighborhoods.

posted by: pat on August 23, 2010  4:07pm

Articles about hidden living treasures like Christopher Schaefer reveal the the real wealth in New Haven - the people.