Making Good: How to Garden Like a Diplomat

What the rooftop garden at the United Nations Headquarters in NYC can teach you about gardening.

A rooftop garden at the massive UN Headquarters complex in New York City is bringing together UN workers from different countries to produce food and plants, grow friendships and promote sustainability.

City Skyline over the UN Food Gardens

City Skyline over the UN Food Gardens

The UN now has a rooftop garden among its headquarters in New York City. The garden supplies were provided by Gardener's Supply Co.

Photo by: Gardener's Supply Co.

Gardener's Supply Co.

The UN Food Gardens is the first-ever food garden on international territory. UN workers volunteer to tend to the garden, which faces the banks of New York City’s East River, and to participate in garden activities.

The UN Garden Club worked with Brooklyn Grange, a rooftop farming and green roofing business that operates the world’s largest rooftop soil farms, the NYC Parks GreenThumb program and architect William Gates. Together, they transformed unused land at the 18-acre UN Headquarters into an international community gardening effort. It debuted in 2015.

Urban Rooftop Garden with Raised Beds

Urban Rooftop Garden with Raised Beds

The UN garden in New York features raised garden beds filled with vegetables planted by UN staff. The garden also has a dogwood tree, composter and mason bees.

Photo by: Gardener's Supply Co.

Gardener's Supply Co.

"For me it's an extremely important way to show the world how we can take even the smallest patch of earth and show good stewardship of the land and demonstrate sustainability and environmental responsibility and promote biodiversity for the betterment of all," Gates says.

The UN Food Gardens, which is cultivated and maintained by volunteers who work for the UN and members of the community, also may inspire you to create or expand a personal or community garden in your own part of the world.

Gardening can be a place for cross-cultural learning and new relationships

More than 50 members of the international UN staff participate in its unique community workplace garden. Gardening can be a solitary activity, but also a way to socialize. For example, the UN Garden Club hosts after-work events, such as “happy planting hour” in the garden.

Raised Garden Boxes in the UN Food Gardens with Dogwood Trees

Raised Garden Boxes in the UN Food Gardens with Dogwood Trees

The raised garden boxes in the UN garden in New York City are filled with plants such as okra, kale and basil. They were planted by UN staff members, many of whom had never gardened before.

Photo by: Gardener's Supply Co.

Gardener's Supply Co.

Some of the food grown in the garden is used in UN cafeterias, cafes and dining rooms, while visitors sometimes take seedlings home with them. Having the garden also provides a visible way to educate visitors from around the world about gardening and sustainability.

“We feel passionate about connecting policy makers and international representatives through the simple act of growing food. For 10,000 years, people grew most of their own food. In the past 50 years or so, we have lost that connection to the very thing that supports us,” Arif Khan, founder of the UN Food Gardens, said when it opened in 2015. “The UN is a unique place and we hope that the gardens serve to connect a wide variety of people through the most basic of activities. No politics here.”

The UN garden effort receives no funding from the UN or any UN agency, but works with people in the community and companies, such as Gardener’s Supply Co., which provide resources and materials.

Rooftop Garden Bed with Purple Basil

Rooftop Garden Bed with Purple Basil

The United Nations' first international garden project includes plants like kale, okra, tomatoes and purple basil. The plants were provided by Gardener's Supply Co.

Photo by: Gardener's Supply Co.

Gardener's Supply Co.

“Gardener’s Supply has always said that gardening is good for the spirit.  It builds community. It makes the world a better place,” says Claudia Marshall, spokeswoman for Gardener’s Supply Co., which is based in Burlington, Vermont. “The UN came calling and we said, ‘This is fantastic. We’ve got to do this.’”

Don’t be afraid of rooftop and urban gardening

The UN garden seeks to set an example for urban land stewardship in the heart of Manhattan. Before the garden was created, no plants, fruits or nuts were grown on land occupied by the UN in New York. 

“We realized that there’s so much lawn and so much concrete and so much unused space that could be used so much more sustainably and productively,” Catherine Zanev, coordinator for UN Food Gardens Initiatives, said in a press release.

Rooftop Garden Bed with Purple Basil

Rooftop Garden Bed with Purple Basil

The United Nations' first international garden project includes plants like kale, okra, tomatoes and purple basil. The plants were provided by Gardener's Supply Co.

Photo by: Gardener's Supply Co.

Gardener's Supply Co.

Khan, a UN staff member, came up with the idea for the garden. Seedlings such as kale, okra, quinoa, peppers, tomatoes, purple basil, purple cauliflower, marigolds and nasturtiums have been transplanted into 10 raised beds designed by Gates. He was inspired by the functionality and look of the garden beds along The High Line in New York City. He used weathered steel, which is durable and would protect the soil from contamination, he says.

The UN garden also has two wildflower beds for pollinators (butterflies, bees and hummingbirds), along with a dogwood tree and composting products, including a large tumbler, donated by Gardener’s Supply Company. The UN catering facilities provide food waste that will be recycled into compost for the garden beds. 

“Urban and rooftop gardening is not very difficult at all. You need a little bit of information and a little bit of supplies and boom, you’re growing food,” Marshall says.

The company, which donates 8 percent of its profits to causes such as sustainability and fighting hunger, also provided mason bee houses.

“They’ve got mason bees there, which are great pollinators,” Marshall says.

It’s a great way to take a break from work

Raised Garden Bed with Leafy Plants

Raised Garden Bed with Leafy Plants

The new international community garden on the rooftop of the UN in New York City contains plants like okra, purple cauliflower, peppers and quinoa. Over 50 people have been involved in the making of the garden.

Photo by: Gardener's Supply Co.

Gardener's Supply Co.

The UN staffers who participate in the garden take a break from their workday to get their hands dirty and see results when plants bloom and produce food.

“They can smell the flowers and smell the soil and see the earthworms and just be a little bit connected to nature…at least as much as is possible in Manhattan,” says Zanev.

Raised Garden Beds Filled with Vegetables and Wildflowers

Raised Garden Beds Filled with Vegetables and Wildflowers

Seedlings grown by UN staff members have been transplanted into 10 raised beds in the UN Food Gardens in New York City.

Photo by: Gardener's Supply Co.

Gardener's Supply Co.

UN workers also are using Gardener’s Supply Co.’s GrowEase seed-starting success kits, which come with soil and plant markers, for windowsill gardening, too. Some of the seedlings were transplanted to the raised garden beds outside.

“Many of them had never planted a seed or grown anything.  And they’re from all over the world. We had a Filipino lady who had never gardened -- another lady from Indonesia; they all were so excited to start a little garden on their windowsill,” Zanev says.

The UN has hosted special events, including the Nelson Mandela International Day in July 2015, in the garden.

There's more to come: The garden is the first step in a larger network of gardens planned around the UN Headquarters campus, Gates says. 

"(It is) a place where people all over the world can come and grow food together and use that as a central human activity," Gates says.

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