This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on October 20, 2023.
Photo: A detail of a planting in the Bosque garden, designed by Piet Oudolf. Oudolf created a horticultural master plan for The Battery in 2004. Rich with texture, color, and fragrance, the gardens are filled with perennial and native plants designed to be enjoyed year round.
For two decades, The Battery has been a model for public parks and sustainable horticulture in New York City and beyond, proving that what we work toward at Perfect Earth Project is possible—and beautiful: You can plant drop-dead gorgeous landscapes for biodiversity. You can care for these perennial gardens, which are designed by a world-renowned designer, without any toxic chemicals—and do it for decades. You can create and plant a playground to handle floods from ever-frequent storms. You can nurture old-growth trees. You can grow an organic farm right in the middle of downtown Manhattan and use it to teach and feed people. You can do all of this while welcoming millions of people 365 days of the year—for free.
The powerhouse behind The Battery is Warrie Price, the founder of the nonprofit Battery Conservancy, which “designs, builds, maintains, and activates” the park. It doesn’t surprise me at all when autocorrect changes “Warrie” to “warrior.” She’s been a beloved and fierce advocate for conservation and sustainable horticulture for decades. “I think we have done an extraordinary project that began so small, but then really took off because how can you not want to keep making things beautiful?” she says. “At The Battery Conservancy, we like to say we’re ‘devoted to wow.’”
Price shares her thoughts about The Battery.
How did The Battery Conservancy begin? How did this park come to be the beloved place it is today?
I was asked by Betsy Barlow Rogers to create a nonprofit for The Battery. The park had a master plan created by landscape architect Philip Winslow, who sadly died before the project could begin. But Betsy said make sure you’re in accord with it, because if you can't visualize, if you can't be excited to implement it, then it’s going nowhere. The master plan is the skeleton of the park, the guidelines. But there was no horticulture, no horticulturist on the team at the time, no playground, no bikeway, no urban farm. Still, it provided the guidelines, and we review it every time we make a change in the park. After reviewing and embracing the master plan, I created The Battery Conservancy. We started with the promenade. We hired Piet Oudolf, who was not well known here at the time. He created a master horticultural plan. I think his genius is bringing the natural world into this romantic environment. In 2003, Piet first designed the Garden of Remembrance after 9/11 to honor those we lost, those who made it home safe that day, and those who would come later. It was created by private funding and a whole lot of volunteer hands. We’ve been able to enjoy them for 20 years, but they’re now about to go through reconstruction with the changes to the park. [Oudolf’s other contributions include the Bosque gardens, woodland plantings, and the bikeway.]
I think from the beginning, I wanted to make the park its own destination, not just a passageway. It was important to me personally because of its rich heritage.
What do you need for a successful garden?
When you’re planning a garden, whatever type it is, you need two things to ensure its success: authenticity and a program for how you’re going to use it. First, you have to be authentic to the landscape. Take the time to understand the history of the land, its topography, geography, and soil. Then, the second thing you need is a program, visualize how you’re going to use the space. If you don't have a program, if you haven't visualized how you want to be there, enjoy it and be a part of it, you're going to have a failed garden.
Why are public parks and gardens important to city life?
Beauty never stops healing the soul, and gardens are beautiful: green gardens, multi-color gardens—all plant life. Also, public parks and gardens in cities are unexpected, so they're cherished. They get people to stop because there is always something of interest happening, especially in a perennial garden. When you come to The Battery every week, you'll see the gardens change and evolve.
Our goal at The Battery is to enhance life mentally and physically. When you physically walk through the gardens, you interchange with nature. Mentally there’s a quiet sense of what beauty does to get your mind concentrating on something. That's an additive to good health and a good feeling versus dealing with the stress and the problems that surround you in a very urban setting.
Why was it important to be toxic-free from the start?
I learned a lot about conservation from Mrs. Johnson. [Price was college roommates with Lynda Johnson Robb, daughter of President and Lady Bird Johnson (or Mrs. Johnson as she called her), and lived at the White House for a time. She helped Lady Bird Johnson found the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center in Austin, TX, where she is also a founding director.] When we started the Battery Conservancy, I always thought, no pesticides, no herbicides. We’re small. We can afford to pull our weeds ourselves. We can think of other ways instead of chemicals. For example, we’ll use integrated pest management like beneficial nematodes instead of toxic sprays. Nature has remedies if you’re knowledgeable. We worked with Rutgers to pick the best turf blend for the lawn we do have. We love our nitrogen producing clover in the lawn. The parks department found our perennial gardens to be much more economical than cutting hedges and mowing lawns all the time. We have a slogan: plant our parks. We want to set a standard for both public park design and maintenance. The gardens here are the essence of what the park is.
Thanks to the efforts of Warrie Price and The Battery Conservancy, cracked and barren blacktop was transformed into a perennial haven planted for biodiversity and beauty—and always taken care of without toxic chemicals.
What are you doing for biodiversity?
We’ve been working with Audubon NYC and now have more birds in the park than ever before. We leave seed heads during the winter and have planted different types of ornamental grasses and habitat. We’re a destination for migratory birds. They're so beautiful, and they bring such life. We're also a Monarch Waystation [A habitat designated by Monarchs International that supports migration and reproduction of Monarch butterflies]. We’ve planted milkweed. They also feed on Agastache and other flowers as they make their way south. We’re feeding them along the way.
We have also decided to support our native bees as much as possible. We will no longer be hosting European honeybee hives in the park because we know our native bees need uninterrupted space for themselves. Bees are great communicators of life. They give hope when you see their populations increasing.
We want everyone to “leave the leaves'' instead of throwing them away. They fertilize the lawn and become habitat for insects during the winter. And then of course, we’re toxic-free. We cultivate everything—our urban farm, forest farm, all the gardens, lawn maintenance—without chemicals and always have. We can all be conservationists.
What are the challenges of having a public park during climate change?
The evolution of The Battery is always about change. We have to adapt to the garden’s needs—and those needs change. I would say every 20 years the needs must be re-evaluated and adapted. We certainly see this now.
For a thousand years, there has been the relationship of landscape to water. As I mentioned earlier, we’re about to go through some changes. The promenade is being totally rebuilt. It will be elevated six feet to handle rising sea waters from climate change. There will still be the Gardens of Remembrance, they’ll just be different. They will be more like embankment gardens because everything will be raised up high and you'll walk up to the promenade versus down to it the way you do now. We hope the project will be completed by 2026.
We recently completed a playscape, which was designed after Hurricane Sandy, to flood and recover. Instead of ignoring this flood prone area, we reimagined it for play. We want to be a model for waterfront flood prone areas all over the world. Come talk to us about creating bioswales and reserve tanks under climbing structures and climbing mounds. Ask us about designing with salt-tolerant plants that like wet soil. A couple of weeks ago when we had a deluge of rain from a storm, the playscape didn’t flood. We don’t want municipalities to leave these areas dormant. We've learned a lot. We're now able to share that knowledge with others.
For so long this park was all about water gazing, to paraphrase Melville, and now it's a landscape about learning. It's a landscape to impart so much knowledge through our gardens, through our biodiversity, through our birds, through our bees. They’re all telling great stories. I think about the evolution of how we are today, how our “learning landscape” has evolved through our programing. This transformation, these 30 years of designing and rebuilding, we now have this transformed landscape of 25 acres, and gardens and horticulture—no pesticides, no herbicides have been a huge part. We continually say no to things that were very much part of traditional park management.
Do you have a favorite time in the garden?
I love the beginning of the morning. The light is so magnificent because it reflects off the waters. But then the sunsets are fabulous, especially now. I also adore being by the fountain in the middle of a warm day. I watch all the children playing surrounded by plants—the coolness of the shade and the refreshing water sprays. I’m happiest when I see the way people interact with the garden—especially the children. I think, you know, it worked. The people make the programs come alive. We’re free to the public and open 365 days of the year, 24 hours of the day. And the impact is so much bigger than just us. It's so much bigger than downtown. It's so much bigger than any other park. Gardens are beautiful. You can never underestimate the power of beauty on mental and physical health.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
The densely planted gardens are magical in fall.
Photos: Courtesy of The Battery Conservancy
Radicle Thinking by Edwina von Gal
I’ve been thinking about what our landscapes say about us. Just the same as clothing, homes, or cars, landscapes tell the world a lot about their owners. They also tell the stories of the billions of lives—visible and invisible—that are living (or not) in our yards and how we are treating these plants, animals, and fungi that were there before we took over, and still need a home.
Garden owners and gardeners manipulate properties, creating gardens that showcase to the world just how smart, successful, tasteful, plant savvy, carefree, or eco-conscious they are, or want to look like they are. The more carefully clipped, sterilized, and controlled a property, the more resources (time and money) were obviously needed to get it there. Control sends a clear message of wealth and power. More control means fewer surprises; minimal changes from season to season and year to year—frozen in time, predictable, and rather lacking in life.
But nature wants it otherwise. It wants to grow and fill a place with life. It will never stop trying, and it is powerful. Keeping a place from aging naturally requires ever more control—more machines, more sprays, more mulch, more money. More impressive? The landscape industry hopes you think so. It has become a huge machine fueled by all the services a tightly controlled landscape needs to keep it looking just so. And yes, you know where I am going with this thought: the cost to the environment is harsh. Nary a branch out of line, never a nibbled leaf; no place for non-human lives to live—and not great for humans either, considering the constant onslaught of noise and poison.
There are alternatives and they are starting to send some new messages. How to read them? Even the “drive-by” eye can easily tell what priorities the property owner has in mind. Take a ride around and judge for yourself. Here are some of my thoughts:
Wall to Wall Carpet of Lawn = Power Play: lord and master of all. Nothing much but grass.
Trees and Shrubs Shaped with Military Precision = Control issues: everything bound up in shapewear.
Privet, Boxwood, Mophead Hydranges, Crepe Myrtles = Fashion Victim: two decades late to the party.
Yellow Warning Tags = Blind Optimism: “Huh, pesticides are bad for me?”
Huge Hedges = Insecurity: “I don’t want to engage with the community, but I want them to think I’m someone special.”
Monocultures—Huge Swaths of One Kind of Plant = Short on ideas: High Impact with minimal creativity.
Diverse, Unclipped Plantings = Setting the stage: challenging the norm-complexity is not the same as messy
Native Ground Covers = Spreading the love: finding new solutions like using large swaths of lawn alternatives.
UnMowing = Conscious Uncoupling: letting go of the norm, welcoming wildlife.
Major Meadow = Eco Chic: on trend, changing the garden aesthetic.
Gardens need a new look, a new kind of care that is caring and welcoming to all life…. Can you see it coming? Could it be time for a bit of self assessment? Landscape as therapy—the best kind.
The Book of Wilding: A Practical Guide to Rewilding Big and Small
, by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell
“In this age of eco-anxiety, when we can so easily feel utterly powerless and overwhelmed by the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, experiencing rewilding seems to restore a sense of agency and ambition.” —Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell
This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on September 21, 2023.
Photo: Autumn meadow of asters and goldenrod provides habitat for insects and wildlife, as well as a buffet for insect-eating birds and later for seed eaters, like finches, when the flowers turn to seeds.
After weeks of hot, muggy weather, the temperatures in the Northeast have cooled and we’re beginning to see the signs of fall—apple picking, here we come! Years ago, conventional wisdom at this time of year had us all putting “the garden to bed.” We’d clip, throw away, tidy nature up so the garden looked like a living room before a party—everything just so. But we now know better. So much of what we thought was trash is actually treasure—for flora and fauna. In our latest dispatch from Perfect Earth Project, founder Edwina von Gal shares her wisdom on what we can do now to make our gardens thrive for all living things.
Don’t cut back perennials and grasses
Leave them during the winter where they’ll provide seeds for birds, shelter for insects and other animals, and look sculptural during the winter. Goldfinches, cardinals, grosbeaks and other songbirds like to dine on the seeds of sunflowers, asters, echinacea and other native flowers, so don’t deadhead these blooms once the flowers have faded. Wait until spring to make your cuts when cavity-nesting insects, like native yellow-faced, leaf-cutter, and carpenter bees, as well as some moths and wasps, are looking for hollow stems to start their broods. You’ll know the time is right when you start seeing these insects buzzing about. Xerces Society recommends snipping stems in a variety of heights—from eight to 24 inches above ground—to entice different types of insects. And leave the clippings on the ground where they will decompose and nourish the soil. The new growth will cover it all up.
The one thing you do want to cut back, though, is invasive plants. Hack them to the ground before and cover with layers of cardboard to smother them.
Also be careful not to let any pesky weeds go to seed. “You don’t want to leave them for the birds,” says von Gal. She removes any from her property and places them in a vinegar bath, before rinsing them and eventually adding them to her compost pile.
[Photos by Melissa Ozawa]
Milkweed pods opened to expose their downy seeds amidst a sea of goldenrod. In addition to eating goldenrod seeds, birds like Goldfinches will use milkweed floss to line their nests.
Clean up the Vegetable Garden
It’s good practice to clean up your vegetable garden. Remove spent plants, especially tomatoes, peppers, and other nightshades, which can harbor disease. “But don’t leave the soil bare,” says von Gal. “Plant a cover crop.” She likes field peas or pea shoots, which are also delicious to eat. “They do die back with frost, but they’ll form a mat which insulates the soil over the winter,” she says. “It’s like a nice warm blanket.” You can also cover beds with straw or dried leaves.
Plant native bulbs and your favorite spring ephemerals
While you’re digging in your tulips and narcissus, add some native bulbs to your garden, such as Camassia (there are species native to different regions of the U.S.) and Brodiaea or Triteleia (a western spring-blooming bulb).
Camassia are native to the U.S. and are frequented by native bees and other pollinators.
Fall is also an excellent time to plant spring ephemerals. You’ll be happy you did when those first native bleeding hearts, bloodroot, and trillium pop up in early spring after a long winter. Planting now helps the roots get established, giving them a head start for spring. Von Gal also recommends adding a plant stake when you place new herbaceous plants, especially if starting with tiny plugs. Winter is long and it’s easy to forget what went where. A stake helps keep track of them in the spring, so they don’t accidentally get weeded out.
Leave the Leaves and Other Biomass
Gas-powered leaf blowers are noisy and spew incredible amounts of pollution into the air (According to the California Air Resources Board, a commercial gas-powered blower for one hour produces the same amount of emissions as driving a sedan 11,000 miles.), and did I mention that they’re noisy? They’re also unnecessary.
Dried leaves are valuable in the garden. Don’t send them to the landfill.
Leave the leaves! You’ve probably heard the phrase before recently, and with good reason. Fallen leaves are vital for a healthy landscape. They provide necessary habitat for insects. Moths and butterflies, for example, overwinter in leaf litter beneath trees and in garden beds. Leaves also decompose, providing free food for your soil biome. If you need to move them from pathways, don’t bag them up and send them to the landfill, rake them into your garden beds or compost them.
Months and butterflies, like the ethereal Luna Moth which weaves leaves into its cocoon, overwinter in leaf litter beneath trees.
Gather any branches that have fallen and start building a habitat pile. (Read more about how to make one in last month’s Perfect Earth post.)
Overseed your lawn
At Perfect Earth, we recommend reducing your lawn as much as possible: Expand your perennial beds, turn turf into meadow, grow more native shrubs and blooms for a habitat garden. The less lawn you grow, the better for the living world around you. But for the remaining lawn you do have, it’s wise to seed it every fall. “It’s always good to bring in a new generation,” says Von Gal. “Or else your lawn ages out.” To overseed, von Gal mows the existing lawn much shorter than normally advised, about 1 to 1.5 inches tall (instead of 3.5 or higher), then she uses a sharp iron rake to scratch the surface. “In heavily trafficked areas where the soil is compacted, stick a fork in the ground and wiggle it around,” she says. “Overseed and you’re done. Your lawn will reestablish a good cover for the winter.”
Clean and store your garden tools
Before storing them for the winter, clean and dry all your garden tools. Swipe a thin layer of oil, like camellia oil, over them for extra protection and to help prevent rust. “I also don’t leave any water wands or pump sprayers in the garden shed, says von Gal. Instead, she drains and stores them in a basement or garage. “They seem to last longer if they don’t freeze,” she says.
“All gardens are a form of autobiography,” writes Robert Dash, the late creator of the magical Madoo, a garden in Sagaponack, NY, (Notes from Madoo, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000). The painter and poet wove an intricate story of art, exploration, and a reverence for the natural world when he created the two-acre garden more than 50 years ago. It features paths designed for “loitering”; structures painted in a panoply of colors: a lavender gazebo, sunny yellow arch, and robin’s egg blue bench; and a plant palette that spans the globe, including many native varieties. “Whenever possible, suitable native plant material is used—,” writes Dash, “plants that are garden-worthy and have decent manners, that is.”
For the past 14 years, Madoo Conservancy director Alejandro Saralegui has been the garden’s passionate steward. Dash was explicit that he didn’t want to “fix this garden in amber,” as he put it. “It must remain relevant.” Saralegui has been honoring his wishes, keeping alive Dash’s spirit of artistry and experimentation. “The garden is heavily planted and that sometimes calls for change,” Saralegui says. “It’s a remarkable legacy; we want to preserve and enhance it.”
Yet, one thing remains constant at Madoo: A deep commitment to organic gardening. “Madoo uses no sprays,” Dash wrote decades ago. It still doesn’t. In addition to being chemical-free, Saralegui follows an organic approach to care. “We allow plants to grow naturally, aside from the topiary, rake leaves into garden beds where they’ll decompose over time, and embrace native plants,” he says. He especially loves the garden’s mature, native trees, such as the fruiting pawpaw, or as Saralegui jokingly calls it, “the new cool Brooklyn kid tree,” or the stately Franklinia (“my pride and joy”), a rare bloomer that’s extinct in the wild but still grows in cultivation thanks to William Bartram, who saved its seeds hundreds of years ago. There is also an array of native grasses, Joe-pye weed, goldenrod, and spring-blooming Camassia, to name just a few native stalwarts that flourish in the landscape. Saralegui makes sure to leave the seed heads through the winter for wildlife. He also re-uses as much material as possible. The garden recently saved the original brick, for example, when they redesigned the rill, using it to line both sides of the new water feature. “We hope people go home, look at their gardens, and be inspired by what they’ve seen at Madoo,” says Saralegui. “And then bring a little magic to their own gardens.”
“Organic formality” is how Saralegui describes the look at Madoo. “Strong bones keep the garden from looking like a hippy hangout,” he says. “The painted hardscape also brightens the all green landscape.” But as Robert Dash used to remind people, ‘green is a color, too.” Photos by Alejandro Saralegui.
This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on August 24, 2023.
Photo: Edwina von Gal doesn’t throw away anything from her garden. Clippings go into compost and any branches that fall or break from storms get turned into habitat piles that are embedded throughout her property on Eastern Long Island. She and her team love the process of knitting branches together to build this nest. “It’s meditative,” she says.
With all the recent storms and severe weather happening, it feels like we’re besieged with debris from trees and shrubs. Instead hauling it to the landfill, where it will just add to methane pollution, make something beautiful and beneficial out of it. In fact, keeping garden debris, or biomass (organic matter like branches, stems, and leaves), on your property is one of the principles of nature-based gardening we introduced in last month’s column with Perfect Earth Project. Brush piles offer protection to birds, like wrens, thrushes, and warblers, and other wildlife, like amphibians, reptiles, and small mammals. Leaf litter becomes homes for insects. And when biomass decomposes, it feeds your soil—for free!
There are artful ways to display biomass in your garden. Take a cue from Edwina von Gal, founder of Perfect Earth Project, who constructs striking sculptures out of debris gathered from her yard on Eastern Long Island. She’s woven branches through tree trunks, built walls out of logs, and knitted sticks together to create large nests. “Tailor the style of your habitat pile to the style of your garden,” she says. If your garden is tightly managed, create something more deliberate, recommends von Gal. On the other hand, if you have a meadow or loosely planted beds, like von Gal has in her garden, you can be freer in your construction.
At Chanticleer garden in Wayne, PA, assistant horticulturist Chris Fehlhaber constructs a habitat pile each year after the meadow is cut back in early spring. (He waits as long as possible to cut back the meadow with a scythe to allow for overwintering insects to emerge.) To craft the stack, Fehlhaber drives a wood stake in the ground and builds around it so that it’s sturdy and strong. “I start by creating a level base and then work around the pole in either a clockwise or counter-clockwise rotation to ensure there is plenty of overlap for strength, stability, and balance,” he says. He continues the process until all the material is used. “Then, I gather woody debris from the previous year and ‘top’ the stack with it, arranging the branches on top to create a well-balanced dome, which helps weigh the top down and sit it neatly around the pole.”
“Songbirds, insects, toads, and snakes have all been observed utilizing the stacks for shelter,” says Fehlhaber. He’s spied goldfinches using them to feed on seedheads in the meadow during fall and winter and to hide from predators, like red-tailed hawks. “The coarse nature of the stacks means there are many niches for birds and wildlife,” he says.
Channel your inner Andy Goldsworthy or Maren Hassinger (see her inspiring exhibit at LongHouse Reserve, made from branches gathered on the property), and create art from nature. “Think of every fallen branch you find or invasive shrub you cut down, as a new opportunity,” says von Gal. “Be creative and have fun.”
[Photos by Melissa Ozawa]
Stack logs from fallen or diseased trees you removed to create walls or screens in your garden. They also provide habitat for native bees, chipmunks, and snakes. “Yes, you really do need snakes,” says von Gal. “They eat voles and other small critters, like white-footed mice, a primary vector of Lyme disease.” Here, a border of cutleaf coneflower (Rudbeckia laciniata) thrives behind the wall.
Instead of discarding the branches of non-native California privet (Ligustrum ovalifolium) she removed, von Gal wove them into the trunks of native Eastern red cedar trees (Juniperus virginiana).
This beautiful nest of pinecones, needles, and branches will breakdown over time, feeding the soil.
Several years ago when I was at Chanticleer, the dreamy garden in Wayne, PA, I fell for this simple habitat pile tucked away in the meadow. Chris Fehlhaber builds each stack around a center post. As the stack settles, gaps form around the post. “Bumblebees use this gap to gain access to the interior of the stack, which is likely relatively well-sheltered and dry, to make their nests,” he says.
Photo: Chris Fehlhaber
At Chanticleer, this habitat pile sits among spring-bloomers. “Today, the stacks are part of what I call a carbon positive approach to maintenance as no fossil fuels are used, ever, only gardener power,” says Chris Fehlhaber, who makes the stacks every spring.
Photo by Chris Fehlhaber
In winter, Chanticleer’s graphic habitat stacks become snow-covered sculpture