The Good Earth

New York City’s newest park, Freshkills – site of the former garbage dump – will soon be covered with native plants. The seeds for the wildflowers are being grown at St. Michaels Preserve in Hopewell.

When Olmsted and Vaux carved out a piece of Manhattan, and later Brooklyn, to create refuges of rolling hills, expansive meadows, wooded ravines, ponds and boathouses – the first landscaped parks in the U.S. – no one was thinking about non-native invasive plants like purple loosestrife and multiflora rose.

Today, a 30-year project is underway to convert New York City’s former Fresh Kills garbage dump – the world’s largest landfill, closed in 2001 — into a park for the 21st century, with fields of native plants and grasses. 

At 2,200 acres, Freshkills Park will be almost three times the size of Central Park and the largest park developed in New York City in over 100 years. The park is intended to be a symbol of renewal and a model of restoring balance to the landscape. The design, restoration and programming will emphasize environmental sustainability.

Plans include pathways for mountain biking, horseback riding and walking, as well as waterways for kayaking and canoeing. There will be public art projects and wildlife habitats, including native plant communities that will connect with other parks on Staten Island. The seeds for this bucolic plan begin here in central New Jersey.

 

ROOTED IN THE REGION

 

Saul Steinberg’s iconic 1976 New Yorker cover illustration shows the world ending just past New York City’s Hudson River, but New York has always depended on the rolling green fields and farms of the Garden State for agricultural products.


The groundbreaking experimental bulk native seed program is on six acres at St. Michaels Farm Preserve in Hopewell. The joint project of D&R Greenway Land Trust in Princeton and the Greenbelt Native Plant Center on Staten Island – a division of the New York City Parks department – began in 2011 with the planting of 13 plant species.

 

“This project provides a creative and ecologically sound way to restore natural habitats on degraded sites,” says Linda Mead, D&R Greenway president and CEO. “Together with New York City parks we are creating a new model by using this genetically adapted seed — literally rooted in the region – to establish a new measure for land stewardship.”

 

Through programs at the Johnson Education Center in Princeton, the Greenway promotes the use of native plants that are both beautiful in the landscape and, at the same time, attractive to native birds, bees and butterflies. “People will see them and want to plant them on their own land, and we’ll be able to provide the seed mix,” says Mead.


These plants, including New England aster and Joe Pye Weed, Indian grass and broom sedge, goldenrod and milkweed, evolved for the region alongside native animals and insects, and provide crucial nourishment and shelter for wildlife, both at St. Michaels and Freshkills. The plants will enhance soil tilth, increase rainwater infiltration and support native pollinators.

 

St. Michaels Farm Preserve, site of a former orphanage, was acquired by D&R Greenway from the Diocese of Trenton for $11 million in 2010, with funding from public and private partners, as well as $3.3 million in grassroots support. St. Michaels is agricultural land, and the soil and climate are similar to New York City’s. Seed plugs were started in greenhouses at the GNPC, then shipped to New Jersey where the native species have to be a certain distance from wild stands so the plants don’t interbreed.

 

The goal is to produce seed, not plants. For a project the scale of Freshkills Park, live plants are not economically viable. The bulk seed will be broadcast over a large area, much like grass seed.

 

The first harvest was followed by a labor-intensive seed cleaning process in winter 2012 that will be repeated this year. Mechanized seed-cleaning takes places at a center in Cape May, where large quantities can be processed
in a Rube Goldberg-like device, using vibration, forced air and gravity to segregate materials by weight, sending these different categories of seed out different chutes.

 

JOURNEY HOME

 

Bringing beauty to New York City parks has come full circle. Managing the bulk native seed project for D&R Greenway is William Flemer IV. His great grandfather and namesake founded Princeton Nurseries in 1913. Selling nursery stock to landscapers, Princeton Nurseries was internationally renowned for providing strong cultivars of exceptional beauty, and was one of the largest commercial nurseries in the country, selling to municipalities and even the New York City Parks Department.  The firm closed its Kingston operation in 1995, and closed its Allentown facility in 2009.

 

The allee of elm trees on Washington Road leading into Princeton and the towering London Plane trees lining Mapleton Road in Kingston are just two of many contributions the Flemer family has made to the beauty of our state. In its heyday, Princeton Nurseries encompassed 1,200 acres in Plainsboro, Kingston, West Windsor, Princeton and South Brunswick, employing 300 people and providing the water for Kingston. Here, disease-resistant elm trees were developed to be planted from Boston to Chicago and Washington, D.C., when, after World War I, shade tree commissions set out to beautify our cities and towns.

 

William Flemer III held patents for October Glory Red Maple, Greenspire Linden, and the Shademaster Locust, as well as various machinery including a tree-digging machine. Princeton Nurseries was an innovator in bare-root shipping, a lighter way of transporting trees without heavy root balls during the dormant season.

 

Bill Flemer studied botany and horticulture at the University of Wisconsin and has worked in the nursery business since he was 10.

 

“Growing up in the middle of Princeton Nurseries in Kingston instilled in me a love for that place and that business, as it had done for my father and grandfather,” says Flemer. “Being named William Flemer IV gave me the message that continuing the lifework of the three preceding William Flemers was an honorable undertaking.”

 

His sisters, Heidi and Louise, also went into the nursery business. Today, Heidi and her husband, Richard Hesselein, operate Pleasant Run Nursery in Allentown.

 

ALL IN THE FAMILY

 

Flemer describes the relationship he had with his father as “close and loving,” and from him Bill learned traditional horticultural skills – budding, grafting, pruning, pest control – and how to drive a tractor and handle plant materials. “My father was more a plant person than a people person, and my Uncle John did more of the administrative and personnel stuff. I was mentored by both and learned the horticultural and supervisory side.”

 

Princeton Nurseries closed for several reasons, according to Flemer. Technological advances led to more container production, and field production diminished. Also, demand for trees and shrubs along interstate highways – a huge market – diminished, and municipal budgets for shade trees had shrunk. Development increased property values and pushed agriculture further south. “The organization got top heavy and it was difficult to operate a large organization profitably.”

 

“There was increased competition from competing nurseries with mechanization, and from box stores,” adds Karen Linder, President, Friends of Princeton Nursery Lands, a group formed in 1997 after the Kingston property was sold to Princeton University to preserve and protect the historic agricultural property. “Princeton Nurseries always competed on quality, and it became hard to compete on price and pay the staff what they were worth.”

 

Mapleton Preserve, partly owned by South Brunswick Township and D&R Canal State Park, is 230 acres of passive open space and historic preservation easements, with offices in the former Princeton Nurseries headquarters, renovated in the mid 1900s by Princeton architect Rolf Bauhan. Bird, tree, wildflower and mushroom walks are offered at the Preserve. Historic trees are preserved and an arboretum has been established with cultivars developed by Princeton Nurseries, including Princeton Sentry, a variety of Gingko biloba that was selected to be tall and upright, perfect for city sidewalks, as well as male (the female Gingko has a fetid fruit).

 

At Mapleton Preserve, Linder pointed out non-native invasives that had established themselves – wisteria, Autumn olive, Zelkova. The latter may have been from an experiment gone awry, but back in the day, the Flemers unknowingly planted invasives, as did all nurseries, says Flemer.

 

BACK TO THE LAND

 

Leaving the family business to set out on his own in the 1980s, Flemer worked at several other nurseries, and later volunteered with D&R Greenway, helping to design and build the native plant nursery at the Johnson Education Center in Princeton. His bluegrass band, Riverside, performed at Greenway events, and another band he was in opened for Kate Taylor performing a fundraiser for St. Michaels at Off Broadstreet Theatre in Hopewell. Flemer even wrote a song about St. Michaels for the occasion.

 

“I got to know him through the Princeton Nursery Lands Preservation project, and thought Bill would be a perfect fit for the scale of the native seed project,” says Mead. When Princeton Nurseries closed its Allentown facility in 2009, the John and William Flemer families made a commitment to permanently preserve 1,900 acres – a $28 million transaction and the largest farmland and open space protection transaction in state history. Situated where Monmouth, Mercer and Burlington counties meet, Princeton Nurseries Land is more than five times the size of St. Michaels. D&R Greenway facilitated initial discussions between the state and the Flemer family.

 

“Not only was Bill experienced with native plant nurseries, but he is good at working with people. St. Michaels is a community project and we needed someone to interact with people as well as ride the tractor,” says Mead.

 

On a typical day, Flemer maintains the trails and fields through mowing and clearing unwelcome vegetation. He puts up birdhouses and organizes the repair and demolition of barns and sheds, and is working with an architect on restoration of an historic barn. He facilitates public events at St. Michaels, such as last summer’s dance performance by Passage Theatre Company.

 

The seed raised at St. Michaels in the past growing season is in cold storage on Staten Island, awaiting planting time. “Since this was the initial harvest off the plots, the quantities are quite small and not from every species under cultivation, which is typical the first year,” says Edward Toth, director, GNPC.  “In total there are about 20 pounds of seed from 8 of the 13 species. Some of the quantities are quite small. It is not a meaningful quantity of seed for a project the scale of Freshkills. The harvest just completed this fall and starting to be processed should yield much more significant quantities.”

 

SEEDS OF THE FUTURE

 

The family tradition of growing keeps on growing. Flemer’s daughter, Emma, who plays fiddle in Riverside, is creating a school garden at the Lawrenceville School, raising vegetables and chickens. In spring, she will be growing vegetables on one-and-a-half acres out of the 15 that will eventually be in use. There are three sheep for fertilization and grass control.

 

Born in Kingston, Emma moved to North Carolina with her parents, and stayed with her mother, surrounded by a large vegetable garden, after her parents divorced. After majoring in creative writing at Ithaca College she pursued a career in farming.

 

“I’ve always loved to cook and eat good food, and the best way to do that is to grow it,” she says. “It’s cool that my dad and I are doing similar stuff – when we get together we can discuss irrigation and the benefits of plastic mulch.”

 

Emma started playing violin at 3, and was classically trained by her mother, a music teacher. “My dad always played bluegrass and it became part of my psyche,” she says. “When I was living in North Carolina I was surrounded by a rich tradition of Appalachian fiddle music. Growing up in a musical family, I spent time around other musicians.” Her husband, Jake Morrow, a Latin teacher at the Lawrenceville School, also plays in Riverside.

 

This article originally appeared in Princeton Magazine.

 

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One Response to The Good Earth

  1. njspice says:

    Always something to fascinate on your blog, Ilene!

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