The Trees of Gov­er­nors Island: Effec­tive­ly Man­ag­ing an Urban Forest


Vol­un­teers from Black­stone plant­i­ng trees on Gov­er­nors Island; pho­to by Sar­ma Ozols.

Guest post by Mal­colm Gore, Senior Gar­den­er at the Trust for Gov­er­nors Island

Effec­tive­ly man­ag­ing the col­lec­tion of both his­toric and new trees on Gov­er­nors Island is crit­i­cal to cre­at­ing a healthy, func­tion­ing, cli­mate resilient ecosys­tem that will sur­vive — and thrive — for years to come. In July 2021, the Trust for Gov­er­nors Island was award­ed an Urban and Com­mu­ni­ty Forestry Grant by the New York State Depart­ment of Envi­ron­men­tal Con­ser­va­tion (NYS DEC) through the Urban and Com­mu­ni­ty Forestry Grant Pro­gram that will help devel­op, among oth­er ini­tia­tives, a Com­mu­ni­ty For­est Man­age­ment Plan for the Island. 

In the sum­mer of 2020, Trop­i­cal Storm Isa­ias took out sev­er­al large trees on Gov­er­nors Island and dam­aged many more. After cleanup was com­plet­ed, the Hor­ti­cul­ture team at the Trust began to dis­cuss replant­i­ng trees to replace the lost canopy and to add bio­di­ver­si­ty to the island through the intro­duc­tion of new species. Math­ews Niel­son Land­scape Archi­tects were con­tract­ed to cre­ate a canopy plan for the His­toric Dis­trict on the North Island. 

They began by con­duct­ing a sur­vey of exist­ing trees and their con­di­tion and longevi­ty, con­sult­ing his­toric Island plant­i­ngs and maps meet­ing reg­u­lar­ly with the Hor­ti­cul­ture team to dis­cuss which kinds of trees would do well in var­i­ous loca­tions. Gov­er­nors Island is a tru­ly sin­gu­lar envi­ron­ment with­in New York City, and care must be tak­en with respect to the char­ac­ter and land­scape design of the Island’s sep­a­rate areas and their expo­sure to a chang­ing cli­mate, includ­ing ris­ing sea lev­els and more intense storms. 

The NYS DEC-sup­port­ed for­est man­age­ment project will con­tin­ue the work under­tak­en by Math­ews Niel­son by sur­vey­ing all the trees on the Island and cre­at­ing a com­pre­hen­sive for­est man­age­ment plan. This data is cur­rent­ly being col­lect­ed and will sup­port the Trust’s efforts to con­tin­ue adding new genus­es and species of native trees to the Island’s unique urban for­est to safe­guard against a mono­cul­ture — ensur­ing that, in the future, no sin­gle type of tree will be dominant. 

A mono­cul­ture of land­scape trees is dan­ger­ous because, if a new pest or dis­ease arrives, it could poten­tial­ly kill all the trees of a sin­gle species and dras­ti­cal­ly alter the char­ac­ter of a land­scape. For instance, in the mid- to late-20th cen­tu­ry, many Amer­i­can towns lost almost all of their canopy and street trees when Dutch Elm Dis­ease swept through the Unit­ed States and killed most Amer­i­can elms that had been plant­ed in rows across the coun­try. The Trust’s ongo­ing for­est man­age­ment plan will be inte­gral to the health of the trees on the Island and will help inform staff and vis­i­tors alike of best prac­tices to ensure all new­ly plant­ed trees will suc­ceed in their for­ev­er homes on Gov­er­nors Island. 

The Com­mu­ni­ty For­est Man­age­ment Plan in Action
In Fall 2021, a cor­po­rate vol­un­teer group from Black­stone plant­ed 40 of these new trees on the his­toric North Island — a morn­ing of work that was a cul­mi­na­tion of a year’s worth of care­ful prepa­ra­tion by the Hor­ti­cul­ture team and an inte­gral step in cul­ti­vat­ing the Island’s diverse tree canopy. This enthu­si­as­tic group worked togeth­er with the team to remove turf, dig holes, amend the soil and, final­ly, plant each tree with care and inten­tion. Once the trees were plant­ed, pro­tec­tive mulch and sur­round­ing fences were added to pre­vent the roots from dry­ing out and the stems from being damaged.

Vol­un­teers from Black­stone plant­i­ng trees on Gov­er­nors Island; pho­to by Sar­ma Ozols.

The group was espe­cial­ly keen to fol­low best prac­tices of plant­i­ng trees. They were eager to learn and even more eager to dig holes and tear up turf, two hor­ti­cul­tur­al activ­i­ties that many gar­den­ers tend to dread. Plant­i­ng 40 trees in a day may seem easy to those unac­quaint­ed with the com­plex ter­rain of Gov­er­nors Island, but mak­ing sure each tree is placed at the right depth, gets a prop­er allot­ment of mulch and is com­plete­ly straight can be quite dif­fi­cult when many are being plant­ed at once. 

The 40 trees plant­ed that day com­prised 11 dif­fer­ent species, sev­en of which were not pre­vi­ous­ly present in the His­toric Dis­trict at all. These new species make the canopy more resilient, pro­vid­ing dif­fer­ent habi­tats and food types to the myr­i­ad insects and birds that vis­it and live on Gov­er­nors Island, and they will delight vis­i­tors in all sea­sons for years with their state­ly struc­ture and var­i­ous flower types. Five new mag­no­lias — two Cucum­ber mag­no­lias and three Sweet­bays — will be espe­cial­ly vibrant in the upcom­ing spring sea­sons, while our new col­lec­tion of Witch Hazels will pop with col­or in the win­ter when every­thing else is grey and dormant. 

By pair­ing these new trees and col­ors with the his­toric archi­tec­ture of Gov­er­nors Island, the Hor­ti­cul­ture team hopes to cre­ate a beau­ti­ful blend of old and new that can inspire New York­ers to revi­tal­ize their own com­mu­ni­ties with new plant­i­ngs of native trees, shrubs and oth­er plants for years to come.