By Sabina Mollot
Following one of the more brutal winters New Yorkers have seen in recent memory, spring has finally sprung and in Stuyvesant Town and Peter Cooper Village, this, as always, means there’s a major landscaping project in the works.
Those who’ve strolled around the complex over the past week may have noticed trees blossoming and some colorful new flowerbeds, as well as some contrasting lawn areas that still appear to be bare dirt or partially bare.
However, they won’t be that way for long, according to Chuck Hartsell, the property’s director of horticulture and landscape.
While on a brisk walk through the grounds of Peter Cooper as well as Stuy Town, Hartsell explained that at this point every garden area has been tended to and planted with flowers or grass. It’s just that certain types of plantings take longer than others to spring up, and there are some areas that will still need to be revisited.
The planting was all part of a renovation that began shortly after CWCapital took over the property in 2010. At that time the grounds were overplanted and the Oval, which had drainage issues and swells and dips, was in a condition that could be described as fair to poor.
Since then, close to 1,000 trees have been removed with most being donated to local nonprofits devoted to greening the city while around 100 of the trees that were in poor condition were mulched.
But these days the Oval is doing much better, far better in fact than expected.
“We thought we’d have to empty it and start from scratch,” said Hartsell of the Oval, while walking by its south end, which will be used again for greenmarkets starting this Sunday. The east end of the Oval meanwhile has seen some activity this past year in terms of having some older shade trees chopped down. Not surprisingly, this thinning out of the landscape was met with some community outrage, with residents blasting the move as arborcide.
But, insisted Hartsell, removing every other tree in that section was necessary.
“They were growing into each other,” said Hartsell, who’s worked in ST/PCV for the past two years. He’s had the title of horticulture and landscape director since the week of Hurricane Sandy, which also made significant restoration work of the property’s gardens and courtyards required.
As for the Oval trees, Hartsell called the decision to chop them “very painful,” but said it was done only after consulting with experts. “We had three arborists come in and give opinions.” Ultimately, they figured the trees would have eventually all killed each other if a few of trees, all yellowwoods, weren’t sacrificed. “It was either make the move or in 10-15 years, they all come down.”
Additionally, some shrubs were recently removed for better visibility of the Oval fountain. Better visibility was actually one of the goals of the ongoing landscape renovation, partially due to safety concerns.
Previously, Hartsell observed, everything “was planted so densely, you couldn’t see.”
Overgrown trees is always a concern though, and to prevent incidents of residents getting clobbered by low-hanging or heavy tree branches, one staffer has the task of walking through the whole complex on a bi-weekly basis to check where pruning may be needed.
“We’re always looking up,” said Hartsell.”
Another goal of the renovation is to create a more sustainable environment.
After Sandy, more plantings were brought in that could handle damage from salt, either salt used to melt snow in the winter or from flooded river water.
“Not that they could survive being submerged for hours on end, but they can handle a little damage,” said Hartsell.
To prevent waste of plants, the grounds crew has begun planting more annuals, which get more mileage than perennials. Also in abundance on site are shrubs (currently 13 or 14 varieties), cherry trees in Peter Cooper in more than one variety (with light and dark pink blossoms) and all around, oaks in four different varieties.
Being acorn producers, the oaks, which make up 30 percent of the trees in ST/PCV, are what feed the squirrel population. That is, when the squirrels aren’t being fed nuts by residents. Despite efforts by some to be discreet, the evidence of this is often uncovered by the gardeners.
“One of the most common weeds we pull is the peanut plant,” noted Hartsell.
While squirrels can do some damage to trees, Hartsell said it doesn’t tend to be too noticeable as they make their nests in tree parts that are already decaying. A bigger challenge is presented by dogs when owners allow them to do their business in the gardens. But for the most part, he said, owners have been respectful and the temporary fencing around lawns to prevent wear and tear by pedestrians of both the human and canine variety should be moved inward soon, closer to buildings.
“We’re in the process of moving the fences right now,” said Hartsell. Meanwhile during the course of the interview, one fence around a courtyard in Peter Cooper was spotted with a section that had been completely pried open — and not by a gardener.
As for the gardeners who maintain the 80-acre property, the crew now consists of six full-time staffers and 10 seasonal contractors. This is up from just the six full-timers last year.
Though it doesn’t sound like much for such a large workspace, Hartsell said it’s been enough.
On May 10, the grounds crew will work with Apple Seeds, the company that runs Oval Kids, to present a gardening workshop open to all children in the community.
Also in May, the Oval lawn will be open for use of sunbathers and others, ideally by the first week of the month.