Nursery workers are giving some TLC to seedlings, continuing their journey towards being planted on parkland around the five boroughs. But you likely won't see the plants at your local playground or ballfield.

"The majority of our material goes into natural areas and restoration work," said Nate McVay, the acting nursery manager of the Greenbelt Native Plant Center.

It's the mission of the center on Staten Island. Located on a former family farm in the Travis section of the borough, the land was sold to the parks department in the 1990s, transforming it into a nursery devoted to growing grasses, plants, and shrubs native to the New York area. They produce half a million plants every year.

McWay showed me the operation, including a seed bank inside a low humidity walk in cooler. Two staff members scoured the area within a 100-mile radius of the city, looking for seeds for native species that could be grown and used for restoration and management of parkland. They collect seeds from up to 500 different species each year.

"We clean the seed, process the seed, store it, and as needed we put it into production," McVay said.

Another walk in cooler gets the seeds ready for growing by mimicking the colder weather of the northeast.  

"In order to grow, they need a dormancy period," McVay said. "The dormancy period in nature is winter."

Greenhouses provide heat and light needed for propagation and production. The center was the brainchild of parks department botanists and educators on Staten Island, concerned by the impact of development on the borough's natural areas. It is now the oldest and largest municipally-run native plant nursery in the country.

"A lot of people are amazed at either how much we do, or that anything goes on behind our fences," McVay said.

The native plant center also has fields. They grow plants here, collect the seeds, and can use them for future projects like the transformation of the old Fresh Kills landfill into a park.


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