The Greenbelt Native Plant Center (GNPC), a facility of the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation, is a 13–acre greenhouse, nursery, and seed bank complex located on Staten Island, NY.
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The Early Days of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center
In the early 1980s, a trio of visionary Staten Islanders came together to create what would eventually become the Greenbelt Native Plant Center. Parks Department employees Richard Lynch and Nancy Slowik—naturalists, botanists, educators—were working at High Rock Park for then-Greenbelt Administrator Tom Paulo when, out of a growing concern for the rapidly diminishing natural areas of Staten Island, they collaborated on a proposal to create the area's first native plant nursery. They brought their ideas to Tom (now Staten Island Borough Commissioner of Parks), who enthusiastically gave his okay to create a program that would begin to address the preservation of Staten Island's native flora.
The Greenbelt, however, had very few financial resources, making it necessary for Tom, Richard, and Nancy to be quite innovative in their work. Tom gave their creativity free reign, allowing Richard to use his considerable botanical knowledge, and Nancy to use her skills at identifying and propagating natives. They had very little technical information available at the time to guide them forward. They would have to figure that out too as they went forward.
Their first idea was to locate and rescue native plants in danger of being bulldozed as commercial development heated up on Staten Island. But they soon came to understand that rescue alone couldn't provide enough plants to meet the growing demand for natives throughout the City. Facilities for propagation and nursery cultivation would also be needed.
At first, Richard and Nancy utilized one of the small empty buildings at High Rock for propagation, and the rescued specimens were healed-in under a good canopy of deciduous trees nearby. Unfortunately, the site was tiny and ill equipped for anything but the simplest propagation tasks.
Richard, ever resourceful, located an abandoned local nursery at the corner of Richmond and Travis avenues which had been purchased by the City to create a buffer for the adjacent William T. Davis Wildlife Refuge. Tom gave the go–ahead for the pair to move the fledgling nursery to this site, which consisted of a dilapidated greenhouse, a small abandoned building, and 2 acres of a 16-foot-tall impenetrable thicket of Japanese Knotweed.
Over the next five years, the determined pair painstakingly repaired and rebuilt the facilities and restored the site, all while rescuing and propagating Staten Island's rediscovered native plants.
In an effort to control the Knotweed, Nancy and Richard brought two large-horned goats to the site, as well as a fearless pet hound that was employed to scare off any hungry muskrats looking for an expensive meal. These novel approaches to land reclamation and plant security generated a great deal of positive press. This, in turn, helped foster an appreciation of the incredible natural resources that still existed on Staten Island, and an awareness that they were not only in need of protection, but could form the basis of significant citywide plant conservation efforts.
Again, there were precious few resources available to the new nursery—almost every task, from repairing roofs to building greenhouse shelves; to creating planting beds; to researching, locating, collecting, cleaning, and treating seeds; to bringing in and mixing soils; to watering, watering, watering (by tapping a nearby hydrant!)—fell to the determined pair and, after a few years, their one assistant. When asked now about their teamwork at the time, Richard could only repeat, "Nancy was awesome!"
By the mid-1980s, interest in native plants took off across the five boroughs, but very little local information was available for any new converts. The Native Plant Center was just about the only resource in the region for native plants and for information about them—how to grow them, how to plant them, how to care for them. The two botanists became well known and sought after. Suddenly, Richard and Nancy were being asked to assist in parkland and natural area restoration projects throughout the City.
Working with the New York City Department of Transportation (DOT), Tom, Richard, and Nancy helped to amend the plan for the reconfiguration of Rockland Avenue in the Greenbelt. By working with the City's design team, the Native Plant Center assisted in saving nearly 500 large forest trees that were slated for removal, and planted hundreds of native plants along the finished roadway. Other projects included advising project managers and landscape architects at Fresh Kills Landfill to adopt a 'native-species-only' approach in their work, as well as undertaking studies that would lead to a greater understanding of using native plants on the final cover sites of Fresh Kills.
By the late 1980s, it was clear that the existing facility was too small for its current 450 different plant species and its planned propagation projects. In 1988, they were first contacted by Prospect Park to explore the possibility of growing hundreds of thousand of natives for the planned multiphase restoration of the park's Ravine district. In-house, the Natural Resources Group's Salt Marsh Restoration Team was asking for tens of thousands of Spartina grasses for upcoming projects. The Travis Avenue site could not be enlarged—the adjacent wildlife refuge was invaluable as a designated state-protected wetland. Again, the three were already envisioning the next step, just as the 13–acre Mohlenhoff family farm was put up for sale.
In 1992, unexpected funding for the purchase of the Mohlenhoff farm came from the New York City Department of Sanitation (DOS). DOS was in negotiation with the State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to create a new consent order for Fresh Kills. Parks, Sanitation, and Staten Island civic leaders used this opportunity to propose the acquisition of the Mohlenhoff Farm as part of the consent agreement. DPR benefited by securing the edge of the wildlife refuge and would have a site for the expansion of the NPC; DOS benefited by making it impossible for new homes to be built in such close proximity to the active landfill. The property was purchased with the condition that it be used only as a nursery or public parkland. It was hoped that this undeveloped land would eventually play a role in the safe transformation of the Fresh Kills landfill.
The purchase of the Mohlenhoff farm allowed for the start of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center at its current location.
Richard and Nancy, however, did not follow along. Richard went on to found the Sweetbay Magnolia Bio-Reserve Conservancy, and Nancy, with very mixed feelings, accepted a position as Naturalist Director of the Greenbrook Sanctuary located in the Palisades of New York and New Jersey—a unique opportunity not to be missed. Both Richard and Nancy are native Staten Islanders and continue to stay connected with the GNPC. Nancy, on a recent visit after years away, was astonished by the Center's size and scope. She couldn't have been more pleased with the progress made and was proud to have had a hand in its inception. And Richard waxes eloquent about the nursery's current work, saying that, as much as he did dream, he certainly never dreamed the nursery would become the resource it is today.
Early support for the newly relocated facility came from the Prospect Park Alliance's Ravine project. Then, from 1998 to 2004, the Greenbelt Conservancy stepped in at a crucial moment and took the lead role and responsibility for day-to-day operations until City funding could be secured to fully operate the Nursery. Today, the GNPC is operated under the Central Forestry Division of the Department of Parks & Recreation. The Greenbelt Conservancy still plays a significant role by administering grants to the GNPC for its special projects.
In the end, and over the years, it has been the dedication, vision, and accumulative hard work of many individuals, some stepping to the plate at critical moments, that has allowed the GNPC to flourish. It is an inspirational story, not just because of its success, but because so many have sustained the effort over so long a time to arrive where we are today. We at the GNPC are grateful and very fortunate to have had so many good friends along the way. Thanks to you all!