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Native Plant Seeds for New York City Parks Get Their Start in New Jersey

NJ - New York has always depended on the rolling green fields and farms of the Garden State for agricultural products. Beyond the oil refineries that seem ubiquitous to anyone looking down over Newark Airport, D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton is incubating seeds for native wildflowers that will soon proliferate in New York City Parks.
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Native Plant Seeds for New York City Parks Get Their Start in New Jersey

In Saul Steinberg’s iconic illustration for a 1976 New Yorker cover, the world ends just past New York City’s Hudson River, compressing the entire continent into a thin strip just before the Pacific Ocean.

But New York has always depended on the rolling green fields and farms of the Garden State for agricultural products. Beyond the oil refineries that seem ubiquitous to anyone looking down over Newark Airport, D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton is incubating seeds for native wildflowers that will soon proliferate in New York City Parks.

The Greenbelt Native Plant Center of Staten Island selected the Princeton-based land trust as the perfect fit for this one-of-a-kind project to expand its native seed operation in the region.

“D&R Greenway is known for finding innovative solutions in preservation, and this project provides a creative and ecologically sound way to restore natural habitats on degraded sites,” says Linda Mead, D&R Greenway president and CEO. “Together with New York City parks we are creating a new model by using this genetically adapted seed -- literally rooted in the region – to establish a new measure for land stewardship.”

Greenbelt Native Plant Center provided the bulk seed project with 13 native species as founder plants to seed the operation, including New England aster and Joe Pye Weed, Indian grass and broom sedge, goldenrod and milkweed.

These plants have evolved for the region alongside native animals and insects, and will provide crucial nourishment and shelter for wildlife. The seeds will be harvested and used by New York City to restore Fresh Kills Park and other sites. At the same time, the bulk seed production fields will enhance soil tilth, increase rainwater infiltration and support native pollinators.

Edward Toth hatched the idea for the Greenbelt Native Plant Center in the early 90s, when he was land manager at Brooklyn’s Prospect Park and had no place to go for the plants he needed. In the first three years he established half a million plants for Olmsted and Vaux’s Brooklyn jewel and became GNPC director.

Jared Rosenbaum, Associate Director of Stewardship at Princeton’s D&R Greenway, who had been working on establishing a native plant nursery at D&R Greenway’s headquarters, contacted Toth for guidance. Toth knew he needed partners with significant acreage. D&R Greenway, accredited by the Land Trust Accreditation Commission, has preserved more than 15,000 acres in central New Jersey, including the 395-acre St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell where the bulk seed program began in spring 2011.

The St. Michaels Farm Preserve, site of a former orphanage, was acquired by D&R Greenway from the Diocese of Trenton for $11 million in 2010, with funding from public and private partners, as well as $3.3 million in grassroots support.

“D&R Greenway is the ideal partner for us,” says Toth. “It’s close enough to Staten Island – we can get there in an hour – and it’s a good organization with meat on the bone, with a strong organization structure and the ability to gather funds and public support. The project is a bit of a leap of faith and we’re hoping for payoff, so we wanted a strong partner.”

St. Michaels is agricultural land, and the soil and climate are similar to New York City’s. Seed plugs are started in greenhouses at the GNPC, then shipped to New Jersey where the 13 native species have to be a certain distance from wild stands so the plants don’t interbreed.

The plants are perennial, and the seeds from 2011’s plants were harvested and cleaned, for planting at Fresh Kills Park.

Staten Island’s Fresh Kills Land Fill, begun in 1948 as a three-year temporary solution to waste disposal, grew to 2,200 acres by the end of the 20th century – almost three times the size of Central Park. The largest garbage dump in the world, 200 feet above sea level (that’s 200 feet of trash!), closed in 2001, and the city embarked on an ambitious plan to create Freshkills Park, the largest park developed in New York City in over 100 years.

It is promised as a park for the 21st century, emphasizing environmental sustainability with a renewed public concern for our human impact on the earth. It will take 30 years to fully open, but a small part will open this year, and the park team is already offering public kayak tours, with the ultimate goal of horseback riding, mountain biking, nature trails and large-scale public art.

The park will support diverse habitat for wildlife, as well as natural settings for recreation. Through ecological innovation, new native plant communities will be established on the site.

“The seed has to have certain genetic properties,” says Toth. If it is planted in the same ecological zone as wild plants and interbreeds, it will lose its genetic identity. But “no matter how hard you work, you get weeds. Our standards for bulk seeds require no weed seed in the mix.”

The goal here is to produce seed, not plants. For small restoration projects live plants can be transplanted, but in a project the scale of Fresh Kills Park, live plants are economically out of question. The bulk seed will be broadcast over a large area.

“The problem,” says Toth, “is there’s not a source of seeds for native species that can meet our need. That need is on the order of about a thousand pounds of seed. This is the first effort in the Northeast U.S. trying to address this problem. We are breaking ground with this project, and I hope it becomes commonplace.”

The Natural Resources Conservation Service, which has funded the project, agrees with Toth. “We are making the promise to teach others with the hope of starting an industry that doesn’t exist. We will get something we need, and the growers who provide it will demonstrate a need and take a risk on growing,” says Toth, who studied botany, entomology and taxonomy as an undergraduate and earned a master’s degree in public administration.

GNPC is located on 13 acres next to Freshkills Park. “It’s our reason for existing,” says Toth. The 13 species of wildflowers and grasses were selected for meadow conditions – bright full sun without tree cover. “Think garbage mound,” he says.

The initial mix will be suited for all water conditions – wet, dry and mixed. Although it’s nice to envision a beautiful wildflower meadow, Toth says that left to their own devices, meadows have a high composition of grasses.

“The plantings are artificial; they are very concentrated. They will attract bees, butterflies and some Eastern bird species that are becoming rarer – the meadows will become their nesting sites.”

Over time, Toth hopes for more diversity of plants. The operation at D&R Greenway is all about agriculture – keeping it well fertilized, watered and weeded. To accomplish this, D&R Greenway has installed water tanks and an irrigation system and is seeking further funding to enable a well and barn complex to support a long-term operation beyond the pilot years.  

At Fresh Kills Park, the site will be prepared to minimize weeds. Weeds will need to be controlled until the native plant seeds are established, healthy and vigorous, with occasional controlled burns, although care will have to be taken so as not to burn the methane released from garbage mounds.

An integral part of the project will be education for growers to expand the use of this technology in the future.  Annual field days will be held for growers to see the process and results while they are happening, and a Manual for Bulk Native Seed Production will provide a step-by-step guide. Failures and setbacks in the process will be documented, and they will be analyzed as a learning tool.

The bulk native seed project with D&R Greenway is a pilot project, and it is hoped that the initial mix on six acres will yield enough over three years to seed 25 acres in parks. Over three years, 75 acres of parkland can be seeded.

The first harvest was followed by a labor-intensive seed cleaning process in winter 2012. Mechanized seed-cleaning takes places at a center in Cape May, where large quantities can be processed

Toth compares the seed cleaning equipment to a Rube Goldberg device. “It uses vibration, forced air and gravity to segregate materials by weight, sending these different categories of seed out different chutes. You have to send the seed through several times. It’s part science and part art.”

“We’re separating the wheat from the chaff,” says Toth.

Photo caption: New England Astor in bloom

Photo credit: D&R Greenway Land Trust, Princeton, NJ

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