“Ask Mary” is an advice column for community groups and individuals to ask community outreach questions and have them answered by an expert! Mary began her Parks & Recreation career as a City Park Worker in Central Park in 1985, joined Partnerships for Parks as an Outreach Coordinator in 1995 and is now Senior Director of Outreach.
A commonly asked question is how park groups and volunteers can get involved with Spring gardening in their neighborhood parks. Here are some tips that Mary has to help groups begin the planting season:
Spring is here, which means it’s time to start gardening in the parks! If this is your first time gardening in your park, contact your Partnerships for Parks Outreach Coordinator to get started. Call Partnerships for Parks at 212-360-1310 to find the Outreach Coordinator for your area.
Your Outreach Coordinator can help you connect to your NYC Parks Gardener and your Parks Manager for permission, tips and advice about gardening and future projects. If your gardening project is approved by the Parks Department, your Outreach Coordinator can help you get tools and plants for your project as well as information on fundraising, group development and many other resources.
Once you have connected with your Outreach Coordinator and Parks Manager, you can help to prepare your park for the Spring by doing some basic gardening work. If you have a dedicated park group, you can even create a plan for the garden. What types of flowers will you plant? Will you plant shrubs? Which areas of the park get the most sunlight? When the plan is together, it’s finally time to get dirty! Here are some tips to help you grow a healthy and beautiful garden that will attract residents and wildlife alike:
1. Pull back winter mulch and remove leaves and yard debris in early Spring. If you took part in this year’s MulchFest and spread a layer of winter mulch to protect your plants from heaving, you’ll want to remove it once plants begin to grow and the danger of extreme winter temperatures has passed. While leaves and other natural debris from last year can serve as a protective mulch that can help some plants survive the harsh winter weather, it can also inhibit new plant growth. However, it is a good idea to keep mulch or some type of covering handy through April to protect your plants in the case of an unseasonably late arctic blast. Also, last year’s yard debris and partially decomposed leaves have a wealth of nutrients for the soil and can be composted or shredded to use in soil.
2. Weed the garden early! Weeding might not be the most glamorous task, but it is critically important for the health of your garden. Make sure to consult your Park Manager before weeding to ensure that you are pulling the correct plants. Start early so you can spread out the task over time and avoid tiring yourself out. With the first signs of new growth in the spring comes a wide variety of weeds. As soon as the soil is defrosted — usually a few weeks before the last frost — begin cultivating the surface soil in areas prone to weed growth to make it harder for them to take root, and then mulch over those areas to stop them from breaking the surface. Weeds are only going to get bigger, stronger and harder to eradicate over time, so be sure to pull hard-to-kill plants like dandelions, dock weed and even poison ivy (wearing protective gloves, of course) early on to save time and expensive herbicides in the future. Try using rock salt on paths to keep weeds from popping up in cracks and along the sides. Throw down some mulch after weeding to keep weeds from sprouting again.
3. Get the soil ready. Preparing soil for a spring garden should be done as early as possible, once the ground has thawed. First, till the garden area around 8 to 12 inches beneath the surface and remove any rocks or debris. Then add organic matter like compost, shredded decomposing leaves, egg shells and fertilizer. Avoid tilling when the soil is too wet because the extra water will hinder plant growth.
4. Tend to your perennials. Perennials are plants that continue living for multiple years, including most trees and shrubs, and they benefit greatly from maintenance around this time of year. Talk to your Outreach Coordinator about getting approval from your Parks Manager to help with tree pruning. It is helpful to do some research to find out how to appropriately prune the trees and shrubs in your park before you help your Park Gardener or Manager with the difficult task. Trees NY offers a Citizen Pruner course that you can sign up for at this link: http://www.treesny.org/citizenpruner. This is an important step to maintaining the beauty of your park into the future!
5. Strategize the placement of your plants. Certain plants need more light than others, so it is important to consider where you are planting certain shrubs or flowers. Keep your shorter plants on the south side of your garden and tall plants toward the north. This will prevent taller plants from casting unwanted shadows over smaller plants. Also, how you place your plants will affect the aesthetics of the garden. Think about planting in odd numbers to make your garden look more balanced and natural, giving off the illusion that plants are bigger and healthier. Talk to your Outreach Coordinator about receiving plants from the Parks Department, or funds to purchase plants for your park.
6. Create an environment to attract wildlife. Birds, bees, and other wildlife are not only a joy to watch, but are also important for the health and propagation of many plants. There are just a few steps to attract wildlife to your park. First, plant flowers that attract birds and bees. Try native wildflowers, berries and fruiting shrubs. Second, provide water in a bird bath or a fountain. Fountains are preferred because the moving water stops mosquitoes from laying their eggs. Then create spaces where birds can take shelter, such as bird houses or sturdy evergreen trees. Providing shelter encourages birds to build nests and raise families during the spring months!
Check the NYC Parks Event Calendar on May 1 to see if your neighborhood park is hosting an It’s My Park Day Event to beautify the space. Remember to keep in touch with other park volunteer groups to swap plants, share ideas/advice, and help each other on projects! It is also essential to keep communicating with Parks staff about maintenance, plans and ideas. None of the above gardening steps should be taken before discussing with your Park Manager. Below is a link to a PDF with a list of organizations that support gardens throughout the city, as well as a list of helpful books on gardening. Have fun greening NYC!
Have your questions answered by posting them on the Partnerships for Parks Facebook page!