I started working with the Jackson Heights Beautification Group (JHBG) over a decade ago, when my now-teenaged kids were young toddlers. 

Like many immigrant families, my family moved from country to county and then city to city. Because of this, it was difficult to feel like part of a community and so, when I began raising my children in Jackson Heights, I wanted to make sure they felt connected to our incredible community.

As soon as my kids were out of diapers, I started taking them out each Saturday morning to pick up trash from the neighborhood streets. By 2008, I wrote my first grant to help fund cleaning-and-greening efforts in the JH area. After picking up trash along 69thStreet each Saturday morning, I became disheartened that the trash returned every week. My solution was to build a garden for people to enjoy so they would stop dumping trash. The plan worked! I found that when you plant a garden, neighbors take better care of the streets surrounding it. Soon after cleaning-and-greening 69th Street next to the BQE I began my next garden project, located at the Food Bazaar parking lot on Junction and 34th Avenue. Onlookers were often skeptical, claiming that the plants would be trampled upon or stolen, but the opposite was true, the neighbors have enjoyed the flowers and have continued to help care for the garden.

In time, I formed a large and dedicated group of volunteer gardeners who gathered each Saturday morning from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. to work on a project. We work each Saturday from April to Thanksgiving, all through Jackson Heights.

As a group, we tackled school gardens, writing grants and gathering dozens of volunteers to provide much-needed facelifts to the gardens at our local public schools: PS 149, PS 280, PS 69, PS 92, PS 148, IS 145 and IS 230. We continue to maintain those gardens by working with teachers, parents, and students looking to complete community service hours.

Next, we expanded our efforts to Woodside, tackling the unkept area around the Brooklyn Queens Expressway. There were serious issues of sanitation, not just trash but also rats. Working with NYC Department of Health, Transportation, and Sanitation along with CSX railroad and with our team of JHBG volunteers, we worked to reclaim sections of trash-strewn and overgrown areas and transform it into garden space.

Nuala with group of youths cleaning the school yard

After cleaning and greening 22+ green spaces in Jackson Heights, Woodside, Corona, and East Elmhurst, we did not stop. We began working with volunteers to help build over 100 green and white tree surrounds to protect our street trees and allow plantings around the trees. We also work on what is now, after years of cleaning and greening, one of my favorite gardens: Leverich Cemetery. It is now a must-see garden paradise hidden behind Leverich Street. 

If you have noticed all the flowers around our beautiful neighborhood, then you have seen our work firsthand. Each fall, we plant thousands of daffodil and tulip bulbs and each spring, we plant thousands of sunflower seeds. In return, the neighborhood gets to enjoy the early spring blast of colors as well as the sea of golden sunflowers in late August.

After over a dozen years of cleaning and greening the neighborhood, I have built great partnerships with NYC Parks, NYC Sanitation, NYC Transportation and Department of Education, but it is the group of dedicated gardeners who, at the core, make it all work. 

Our efforts were put on hold during the city’s covid-related pause, but once officials give us the all-clear, we will be back again as a group, cleaning and greening our beautiful neighborhood.

Working together, we can get things done.

Nuala working in garden with volunteer, pointing to flowers.