New York Botanical Garden Debuts Its Sustainable Native Plant Garden

By Patrick Wall on May 6, 2013 10:10am 

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 The new 3.5-acre garden contains hundreds of plant species native to the Northeast.
Native Plant Garden at the New York Botanical Garden
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FORDHAM — Just as the so-called locavore movement tries to fuse food quality with sustainability, native plant gardens promise attractive landscapes that are also healthy and functional.

Now, the city’s horticultural crown jewel, the New York Botanical Garden, will try to demonstrate the practical and aesthetic advantages of the native-plant movement with its new Native Plant Garden, which it calls its most contemporary garden design ever.

“Gardens should be as beneficent as they are beautiful,” said Todd Forest, the Garden’s vice president for horticulture and living collections.

The Native Plant Garden, the product of several years of planning and a $15 million gift by the Leon Levy Foundation, packs more than 450 plant species native to the Northeast into its 3.5 acres.

Native trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers fill the woodland, wetland and two meadows that surround a crescent-shaped pool where water cascades over stone slabs.

The goal of the garden was to create an ecosystem that is both stunning and sustainable, explained lead designer Sheila Brady, a landscape architect who also worked on the National World War II and Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorials in Washington, D.C.

Visually, she drew inspiration for the shape of the pool from a minimalist sculpture she admired, while she envisioned the woodland as an “outdoor cathedral,” she said during a talk before the Garden’s official opening Friday.

“We wanted to show people that you can use native plants in a display, structured way,” said Brady, who is the principal of Oehme, van Sweden & Associates, a landscape architecture firm known for its naturalistic planting style and green practices.

The Native Plant Garden is eco-friendly in a variety of ways.

The pathways, benches and pavilions are constructed of recycled or otherwise green materials. The pool pumps recycled storm water, which is filtered by aquatic plants.

Perhaps more importantly, the native plants have already adapted over many years to the region’s climate and wildlife, making them hardy and low-maintenance, as well as a source of food and shelter for the area’s animals and insects.

For example, hundreds of large-flowered trilliums fill the Native Garden’s woodland, Jody Payne, the garden’s director, explained in an essay.

Ants in the forest collect and eat an oil-rich part of the trilliums’ seeds. Then they discard the remainder of the seeds, which enables the plants to grow in new spots, Payne wrote.

Other plants sustain a variety of moths, butterflies, bees and other insects, which in turn feed a host of birds.

Not only do native plant gardens help local flour and fauna flourish, but also they keep out invasive species, Douglas Tallamy, an ecologist at the University of Delaware, explained during Friday’s forum.

And the biodiversity that native plants foster, Tallamy added, ensures a vibrant, lasting landscape.

“We have to look beyond just their appearance and think about their role in our native ecosystems,” Tallamy said. “Think what we could do if we actually made conservation a goal of our gardens.”

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