The Trees of Governors Island: Effectively Managing an Urban Forest
Dec 16, 2021 9:21 pm
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.
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.