When founding director Nathaniel Lord Britton and landscape architect John Brinley developed the General Plan for The New York Botanical Garden in the 1890s, they envisioned a picturesque landscape similar to that of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in London. Britton and Brinley’s design included a glasshouse, a library, display gardens, and encyclopedic collections of trees and shrubs, all set within expansive lawns. Although certain aspects of the Garden have changed since Britton’s time, these key attributes remain in place today.
To keep the Garden’s historic lawns healthy while reducing the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, NYBG horticulturists have implemented a new approach to turf care, which starts with establishing healthy soils. To promote soil health, horticulturists alleviate soil compaction with an air spade or tine aerator and make regular applications of compost tea combined with fish emulsion, kelp, and other organic products. This organic cocktail does an excellent job feeding the soil organisms that help make essential nutrients available to turf grasses.
Once the soil is healthy, we overseed with the best turf varieties for our climate. For decades, our seed mixes were dominated by Kentucky bluegrass and perennial ryegrasses. Modern best practices incorporate tall fescues, which are slower growing, disease resistant, and drought tolerant. Combined with improved bluegrass and perennial ryegrass varieties, tall fescues create lawns that green up early in spring and remain green in all but the most severe droughts.
The final steps to creating healthy turf are cutting high and leaving the clippings on the lawn. Cutting to a height of 3.5–4” helps the turf grass shade out weeds and prevents the removal of too much leaf blade at any one time. Leaving the clippings on the lawn returns nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil, reducing the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers, which are expensive and can lead to water pollution if not properly applied. Weeds are managed as needed where they appear rather than through large-scale applications of herbicides to all the turf.
To many Americans, a lush lawn is a symbol of prosperity, regardless of its impact on the environment. At NYBG we are making every effort to remain true to the historic design of our landscape while reducing the impact of our horticultural activities on the health of New York’s air and water. With sustainable practices in place, we know that our lawns are far more in keeping with our institutional commitment to the larger environment.