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BY TERESE LOEB KREUZER | The sun smiled on guests assembled in historic Battery Park on Sept. 18 for the Battery Conservancy’s End of Summer party.
Zelda, the park’s famous wild turkey, in residence since 2003, was there to greet the guests.
“She always knows when there’s a party,” said the Conservancy’s president, Warrie Price.
Many people worried about Zelda during Superstorm Sandy last year, but she came through unscathed. The park was less fortunate.
“We lost 50 percent of the plants along the water in the Gardens of Remembrance,” said Sean Kiely, manager of landscapes, “and 30 percent of the plants in the Bosque” — a four-acre woodland garden in the heart of the park.
Salt water poured into the park. Because of its topography, in some places, it remained two feet deep there for hours instead of flowing out again, as it did elsewhere.
“Some of the plants literally drowned,” said Kiely. Other plants proved to be salt intolerant despite the conservancy’s irrigating the soil repeatedly to flush the salt to a level beneath the plant roots. All of the park’s plants in the mint family (Lamiaceae) died, as did most of its asters.
But by the day of the party, few people would have noticed what had happened. The conservancy had replaced 7,000 plants, interspersing them with the plants that had survived.
“Everyone was so amazed at how beautiful the gardens are and how strong they’ve come back,” said Price.
Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’ (Panicum virgatum), a prairie grass with roots that grow as deep as the plant is tall, was among the plants that did well, confirming its reputation as a protection against flooding and drought. Japanese forest grass, palm sedge and many other grasses survived the storm.
One person at the gathering would definitely have noticed the subtle changes in the plantings. Piet Oudolf, the renowned Dutch landscape designer, who created the horticultural plan for Battery Park and who designed the Gardens of Remembrance and the Bosque, was the guest of honor. He lives in the Netherlands, but visits New York City five or six times a year and usually stops by the Battery to see how things are going and to make suggestions.
“For now it looks good,” he said of the park. “Generally, what I’ve seen today, it looks really good.”
Price met Oudolf in the summer of 2002. In August, she visited his nursery in Hummelo, a village in the eastern part of The Netherlands, and in September, Oudolf came to New York. They decided to proceed, and agreed that his first garden in the Battery would utilize the perennials and naturalistic plantings for which he was known.
“We got private money and on May 8, 2003, we planted the Gardens of Remembrance,” Price recalled. “Piet participated in the planting – telling us what to do, planting it himself. He just doesn’t sit back and watch. He does it all.”
Though Oudolf had previously designed the Lurie Garden for Millennium Park in Chicago, it wasn’t finished until 2004. The Battery’s Gardens of Remembrance were his first completed gardens in the United States. In choosing plants for the Battery, he drew on his experience in the Midwest, with its expansive prairies and its bone-chilling winters, not unlike the punishing winds and snow of a New York harbor winter.
“Gardening for me is about atmosphere,” he said at the luncheon. “It’s about how people feel.” He went on to say, “It’s not only spring and summer. It’s also autumn and winter. Seasonality is important.”
Oudolf works with plants like a painter, creating swaths of intersecting colors and like a sculptor, introduces plants into his designs for their structural qualities, apparent especially in winter.
He said that he wanted the Gardens of Remembrance to be “optimistic, looking toward the future.”
In creating the Bosque, which he designed in 2005, he remarked that, “Nature transforms plants and we feel ourselves changing as well. My objective is to tap into this deeper emotional response to beauty.”
He used 181 species of plants in the Bosque.
When he visits the Battery, he notes what parts of his design need to be modified — cut back, perhaps, because the plants have grown too tall and are no longer in proportion. “The gardens always need a good eye to look at what is wrong and right – mainly aesthetically,” he said. “The plants will perform because I have experience in the Midwest and New York now that I more or less know what will grow. So it’s rarely that a plant doesn’t work but sometimes you think it could have done something different here.”
Carousel & Bike Path
Oudolf’s next projects in Battery Park will be to plant a garden around the carousel at the southern end of the park and to plant shrubs, trees, grasses and perennials along the bikeway that runs along the park’s periphery.
The carousel was supposed to open this fall, but its opening has been delayed. Price hopes that it can open in April or May.
“Hopefully we won’t find any other underground wires that we didn’t know were there,” she said, explaining the delay. “Nobody realized how complicated the life underneath the park is. Every time we dig a hole, you don’t know if it’s Bridges and Tunnels or City D.O.T., or Con Ed or Sanitation – I mean, there’s a whole city underneath this ground cover. So it takes us twice as long to do anything here.”
About the bikeway, she said that she hoped that by Thanksgiving, a tiny section in front of Castle Clinton will be open. Eventually it is supposed to connect to the East and Hudson River bike paths.
As she contemplates the future, Price has to consider the possibility of future storm surges.
“I think we will continue to look at the plants that are salt tolerant – look at the ones that did survive and use those as our base,” she said. She also plans to establish a reserve fund to replace plants that don’t survive.
But her plans don’t include a high floodwall. “We do not want a 10-foot wall so that when you come to the Battery you can’t see the water because then you’re basically taking away the reason the park exists at all,” she said. “From the very beginning, it was so that people could promenade at the water’s edge.”
Her most immediate plans are for a Harvest Festival on Oct. 19 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. There will be music, games and an opportunity to buy produce harvested from the Battery’s urban farm.
There will also be an opportunity to stroll through the park and observe it in autumn splendor as the colors of summer give way to gold, purple and scarlet, just as Oudolf intended.