“It made me feel very connected to the Earth from childhood…my memories of being so happy in that place brought me back to that work when I became older and had my own family.”
A longtime New York City resident, Wambui is an urban gardening expert and enthusiast. Her job as a landscape designer in the largest city in the U.S. includes traveling to the nurseries on Long Island to buy plants, getting them transported into the city, and hiring a crew to carry them to the tops of buildings for rooftop garden installations. These rooftop gardens can grow anything a regular garden can — even trees! Many of the NYC gardens Wambui designs are filled with tomatoes, basil, and other herbs as she often creates urban gardens for families, and she keeps the kids’ palates in mind when planting.
“A lot of people in New York live in apartments, and they still want to feel like they have access to green. A lot of the times when it's a family with kids, they want to be able to grow their own vegetables and herbs. I ask them what they like to eat, and a lot of the time what they want to eat is pizza.”
Getting Kids Involved
Wambui is passionate about involving kids in the design process and exposing them to nature in its wild form. She notes that in urban settings, children usually only enjoy the outdoors in public parks that are designed by adults and impose restrictions, such as “stay off the grass!” She believes that untamed spaces allow kids to explore their natural curiosity and wonder.
“When you garden with children, they're able to get their hands in the soil and dig and feel like they are part of that landscape. So that's a good thing when kids can actually go in and get their fingers in the dirt, have shovels, water plants, and be there from start to finish from the seed to the plant.”
For parents, teachers, or anyone who lives in an urban setting without access to a rooftop or open spaces, gardening is still possible. She suggests taking advantage of windows and growing herbs, using a mushroom kit if sunlight is limited, or installing a ready-made green wall.
“You shouldn’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work. Figuring out what didn’t work in itself is a great process because you get to discover new things about the earth, soil, sunlight, humidity…you get to learn as you try.”
For those that are just getting started with gardening, Wambui’s advice is straightforward: follow the instructions on seed packets or plant guides. She also points to your local library, hardware store, and YouTube videos as resource hubs for finding information about plants or troubleshooting. Over time, becoming more familiar and comfortable with plants allows you to channel your natural intuition and grow your green thumb.
Life Lessons from the Garden
“I can go into a garden with a problem and by the time I leave, it has gone away. There is something very healing about nature. Gardening has made me appreciate time. It’s not instant pleasure. You have to be able to give yourself time to let your garden mature; to give your plants time to grow. It teaches you patience and humility. It also teaches you gratitude when you see your plants come into fruition. Gardening has made me a better person and I am thankful for it.”
While Wambui has learned many life lessons from plants, she also is conscious about teaching about a diversity of growing traditions and what different cultures have brought to the U.S. in terms of seeds, plants, cultivation techniques, ways to harvest, and how they look at landscapes.
If you are gardening with kids of diverse backgrounds, she suggests:
- Planting crops that students are familiar with so they feel a sense of ownership.
- Working with parents to get seeds or cuttings of traditional varieties.
- Teaching about the ethnobotany (geographic and cultural origins) of crops (quinoa is from the highlands of South America, for example).
- Learning about other cultures’ uses of plants that may be conventionally undervalued (for example, edible “weeds”).
- Incorporating cooking so they can identify with the garden through their own cultural expressions.
The beauty of gardening is that it can be accessible to everyone, not just to those who have open space or the luxury of time. She emphasizes that it really is just as simple as just doing it.
“You can only free yourself if you take charge of your own life, desires, and ambitions. There is no right way to do it, just do it. If everyone gardens, it can become a multiplicity of practice, rather than a single story.”
Garden for a Healthy Planet
Although gardening has countless health benefits in itself, it also benefits the health of our planet. Did you know that by 2050, New York City could be uninhabitable? (See resource section for source.) In the scope of global climate change and lessening our carbon footprints, urban gardening could be the key to integrating nature into our modern lifestyles. However, Wambui calls out the differences between the Western reality and other parts of the world, as well as the importance of the individual as part of the collective.
“This is not so much a worldwide problem — it’s a developed world problem. The developed world is very much responsible for the pollution and overconsumption that has caused this rife in the global climate crisis. That responsibility should be taught to children in the developed world — how to use less, how to manage what they have, how to know what resources are really necessary as opposed to just what they want.”
Wambui stresses the importance of educating youth to be better stewards of our planet and gives a few tips for living a more regenerative lifestyle in the spirit of giving back to the Earth:
- Leave undeveloped land to its own devices or remediate it to encourage diverse ecosystems.
- Plant fruit trees and set up a produce exchange with your neighbors that are growing vegetables (or vice versa).
- Get rid of your front lawn and plant perennial native plants and bushes in order to bring back what was lost, reduce water use, and create wildlife habitats.
- Build a pond, which provides water for birds and other wildlife and helps bring balance to an ecosystem.
- Buy local honey and support local beekeepers to ensure there will be pollinators for your plants.
- Encourage kids to explore, and invite them to describe what they see, think, and feel.
Check out 10 KidsGardening urban gardening resources and activities:
- Grow Your Own Salad Indoors
- Container Gardening for Kids
- Indoor Greening
- Build a Terrarium
- Exploring Hydroponics
- Growing Basic: Hydroponics
- Getting Ready to Grow Under Lights
- Webinar: Gardening Under Lights with Kids
- GrowLab: Classroom Activities for Indoor Gardens and Grow Lights
- GrowLab: A Complete Guide to Gardening in the Classroom
About Wambui Ippolito
Horticulturist and Landscape designer Wambui Ippolito is the 2021 Best in Show award winner at the Philadelphia Flower Show, the largest show of its kind in North America.
Born in Kenya, Wambui was influenced by her mother’s garden in Nairobi, her grandmother’s farm in the countryside, and the natural landscape.
Wambui is a graduate of the New York Botanical Garden's School of Horticulture. In 2021, Veranda Magazine named her one of “11 Revolutionary Female Landscape Designers and Architects You Should Know."
She lives in New York City, where she designs, installs, and spends time in urban gardens, public spaces, and large estates.