July 22, 2015

A “Fairy Garden” Appears Across From Teresa’s Caffe

Art GardenAnyone strolling through the alleyway between Palmer Square and Witherspoon Street these days will find a tiny garden tucked away in a corner opposite the outdoor dining spot of Teresa’s Caffe.

If you haven’t yet seen it, it’s worth finding — and observing the reaction of town residents who come upon it for the first time. Passers-by are generally enchanted.

Bounded by slim logs of silver birch, the garden is just a few square feet and yet to a child’s imagination it offers a wealth of possibility. Lichen covered rocks and remnants of wood are interspersed with a selection of flowering plants, mosses, and ferns forming a “fairy garden” in a formerly unused spot.

The nurturing hand behind this miniature elfland kingdom is landscape artist Peter Soderman who is known for his playful attitude — he’s been known to describe himself as the “Jackson Pollock of Lawn Care” and the “Court Jester of Synchronicity.”

A graduate of Princeton High School, Mr. Soderman attended Fork Union military school in Virginia. As a child growing up in Princeton, he was the consummate athlete hanging out on the playing fields with his two brothers. He also spent a lot of time in the woods and was a boy scout in Troop 88.

In his 30s and early 40s, Mr. Soderman studied with the famed New Jersey naturalist Tom Browne (“The Tracker”), from whom he learned tracking and survival skills.

He has a love of transforming vacant spaces. Several years ago, he turned an empty lot on Paul Robeson Place, behind the Mediterra restaurant and The Terra Momo Bread Company, into The Herban Garden. That became a launching pad for other such projects including the popular Writers Block, which revitalized another lot on Paul Robeson Place that had been lying empty for over a decade into a venue for arts and artists that is still spoken off with fondness by Princeton residents.

The Herban Garden came about when restauranteur Carlo Momo asked Mr. Soderman to plant some tomatoes for him. A few initial plantings turned into a productive farmers market and ultimately an art venue. It was the first of a series of Mr. Soderman’s socially redemptive projects. Most recently, he was involved with the design team behind the Princeton Parklet outside Small World Cafe on Witherspoon Street.

Asked about upcoming projects, Mr. Soderman declined to share his plans. What he will say is that, at one time, believe it or not, he wanted to be, “a highly spiritual evolved being as an adult” and that he studied to be a minister when he was in his early 20s in Philadelphia.

He claims to have fallen into landscape design by default. If so, he seems to have found his calling. Chances are he has something up his sleeve.