Native Plants for Bronx Natives
As Community Horticulturist for Bronx Green-Up, the community garden outreach program of The New York Botanical Garden, Sara Katz works alongside resident stewards of the borough’s community and school gardens and urban farms. She is also a hobbyist beekeeper at Taqwa Community Farm.
A message one frigid morning in early spring, left in a fine British accent: “Hello, this is Jane Selberg from PS 105. I’m calling because our school received a grant to build a garden. We would really appreciate any advice or resources you might be willing to contribute. We’d like to use the garden to teach the children about pollinators and wildlife, and plant native plants to attract butterflies and things.”
I smiled when I heard that one on the Bronx Green-Up line. Days before, we were offered 2,000 native plants for an upcoming public workshop we do annually with Butterfly Project NYC. The plants themselves were particularly noteworthy: castaways from construction of the new Native Plant Garden, which opened on May 4th at NYBG.
In a bright schoolyard near Pelham Parkway, in the Northern Bronx, the concrete has a colorful maze painted on it, a mural on the ground. This is where I came to meet Jane Selberg and, well, most of her immediate family: two blond daughters and their husbands, all yanking out weeds in a long brown stretch of garden-to-be, about a hundred feet long and four feet wide.
It was hot on that concrete, and only April. But native plants can hack it. Asters and goldenrods, wild geranium (Geranium maculatum) and switchgrass (Panicum virgatum). These plants are ecologically suited to grow in our meadows and prairies, have naturalized on highway roadsides, and will now tough it out with kids at recess.
When I deliver plants to the community on behalf of the Garden, I feel a bit like Santa Claus, though it’s more of a Christmas-in-July kind of thing. Children and adults alike are wide-eyed when they see flowers blooming from the back of our white pick-up. Yet instead of playing quietly with new toys or screens (let’s be real here) nestled around a fleeting fir in the living room, this gift requires sweat and toil and yields beauty for the whole neighborhood.
The immediate results at PS 105 were promising: a little girl and her sister filled undersized watering cans, parading up and down the bed to nourish the new plants. Teachers dug right in, removing clumps of weedy grass, adding compost to spent soil, and digging holes for the plant material. The custodian even made an appearance, a god-send for school gardens that need watering when school’s out for summer.
I’d surely recommend a stroll through the new Native Plant Garden at NYBG. I spent a recent lunch break there during the spits and downpours of a spring storm, amongst an understory of ferns and foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia). I can also tell you with confidence that there is another little gem worth checking out on the corner of Cruger Avenue and Maran Place. Come autumn, you may spot tall yellow and blue blooms covered in bees, a backdrop of Virginia Creeper turning red on the chain link fence, and perhaps a child admiring her work.