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Ask the Expert: Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Rashid Poulson on Spring Gardening Chores

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Ask the Expert: Brooklyn Bridge Park’s Rashid Poulson on Spring Gardening Chores

April 17, 2024

This is part of a series with Perfect Earth Project, a nonprofit dedicated to toxic-free, nature-based gardening, on how you can be more sustainable in your landscapes at home. 

Rashid Poulson probably wouldn’t be where he is today if he hadn’t gotten bored at work. The horticultural director of the Brooklyn Bridge Park (BBP), one of the city’s most exciting new parks and our newest Pathways to PRFCT Partner, had zero interest in gardening when he was studying engineering in college. But when the hours dragged during his job as a cashier at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s former gift shop, he found himself reaching for the gardening books to pass the time, and “caught the bug.” His mother, a BBG gardener, suggested he apply to New York City’s Million Trees horticultural training program. A few weeks later, while working near the West Side Highway tackling invasive porcelain berry vines and trying to avoid poison ivy, he had an epiphany. “I remember how refreshing the air was, the exposure to the sun, and the interesting cast of intercity youths who were brought together to tackle these daunting plants draped over canopies of oaks and many other mature trees,” he recalls. “In that moment, everything I was doing felt right and purposeful. I was contributing to the world I live in.” He had found his calling.

Poulson is the director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park. “With changing hardiness zones, it’s a challenge to navigate the layers of new information, and then turn that information into appropriate action. For example, do you water a struggling tree during drought? Or do you accept it as the larger reality of climate change in that say 30 years from now, this tree might not be able to survive in this particular range or microclimate of New York City?&#8\2\2\1; Photograph by Alexa Hoyer.
Above: Poulson is the director of horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park. “With changing hardiness zones, it’s a challenge to navigate the layers of new information, and then turn that information into appropriate action. For example, do you water a struggling tree during drought? Or do you accept it as the larger reality of climate change in that say 30 years from now, this tree might not be able to survive in this particular range or microclimate of New York City?” Photograph by Alexa Hoyer.

After completing the program, Poulson became an intern at the High Line for a summer before joining the team at BBP in 2012. He’s been there ever since, rising through the ranks—from seasonal gardener to director of horticulture in 2022. Designed by Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, BBP encompasses 85 acres on the Brooklyn waterfront and features freshwater wetlands, flower meadows, woodlands, and salt marshes—all maintained organically and sustainably. Poulson shares how the gardeners tackle weeds, the native plants that make his heart sing, and more.

Photography by Rashid Poulson, unless noted.

What’s the horticulture team at Brooklyn Bridge Park up to right now?

Poulson at work.
Above: Poulson at work.

We just kicked off irrigation in the park, which is big for us because after nearly a decade, managing turf is back under the horticulture department. We will be experimenting with incorporating clovers into a few of our small lawns to see where we can reduce our inputs into over 11 acres of turf areas throughout the park. We aim to expand on this as much as possible with larger lawns. 

We are eager to dive into the spring planting season. There are some new Carex plantings (Carex radiata and Carex greyi) adjacent to lawns that I am certain will be successful. These plantings grow under trees like Metasequoias (dawn redwoods) and Taxodiums (bald cypresses) that provide ample shade along lawns, where full sun turf grasses are unable to establish. This will likely serve as a model for us to add a variety of native plants that could straddle the lawns in areas that are typically mulched pits and will function with lower maintenance inputs and will have fewer resources applied. And of course, they will heighten the aesthetics of the area. 

What are some of the tasks/practices that you are doing now in the garden? 

The name of the game this time of the year is staying on top of the weeds ahead of summer. We’re trying a new method this year: a radial approach [to weeding]. Imagine a 10-foot x 10-foot area, where you’ll find things like Gallium, nettle, and then a bunch of mugwort forming in the middle. The instinct might be to run straight for the mugwort and pull it, especially considering how aggressive it is. But you really want to start at the perimeter, the furthermost perimeter of your weed populations and subtly work your way in. This way we can boost our thoroughness and effectiveness, as well as have as delicate a footprint as possible. When you are utilizing those radial approaches, you allow the eye to prioritize a little bit better. Once you’re done, you’ve also essentially closed off that situation and prevented the spread of these hot pockets of weeds that we have throughout the park.

And when do you do perennial cutbacks at the garden? 

The native flower meadow at pier 6 explodes with blooms and pollinators from spring through fall. It’s planted with milkweed, Joe Pye weed, swamp rose mallow, false sunflowers, among other native beauties.
Above: The native flower meadow at pier 6 explodes with blooms and pollinators from spring through fall. It’s planted with milkweed, Joe Pye weed, swamp rose mallow, false sunflowers, among other native beauties.

We are also a few weeks out from our second wave of cutback, which will focus on Panicum grasses. I think the paradigm shift of moving out of fall cutbacks into spring is important. We left these stands in place from the previous year to provide sparrows and other native birds shelter, seed, and nesting potential in select areas throughout the park. 

By doing this we’re providing a resource for wildlife, but we’re also challenging the common garden aesthetic by having these stands of species like Panicum hang out over winter until May or late May even at that. We also leave Hibiscus moscheutos (swamp rose mallow) up until around June, and will also leave older stems that still have stem nesting bee potential year-round and let the new growth just flush right through. There’s beauty in those faded stems.

When we do cutback, we’ll leave the debris on the ground to return it to the soil. But for areas where we have a dense volume of debris, we’ll try to reutilize it as a duff layer in areas to both suppress weeds and give back to the landscape.

How do you communicate your naturalistic-approach to land care to park goers? 

I’m a strong believer in doing whatever we can to address “plant blindness” and encourage people to visually accept plants in all stages of their life cycle. We certainly don’t want parkland to look abandoned, but we walk a fine line between a wild or natural look and an ultra-maintained garden bed. I always emphasize the power of a clean edge line from walkway to garden bed. It’s such a simple but effective way of showing that what we’re doing is intentional. These details go a long way in building acceptance and appreciation of our park’s aesthetics and a plant’s natural behavior. 

What are some of the native plants you love growing there and why are they important? 

‘Emerald Blue’ moss phlox grows throughout the park, including on the steep sound berms. “While we’re still trialing it—it has been my silver bullet of sorts. We buy tons of them and have them growing all over the garden. It’s been especially great for the berms, where we have heavy erosion conditions,&#8\2\2\1; says Poulson.
Above: ‘Emerald Blue’ moss phlox grows throughout the park, including on the steep sound berms. “While we’re still trialing it—it has been my silver bullet of sorts. We buy tons of them and have them growing all over the garden. It’s been especially great for the berms, where we have heavy erosion conditions,” says Poulson.

My shining light right now is Phlox subulata ‘Emerald Blue’ (‘Emerald Blue’ moss phlox). We order tons every year to plant in different areas, like our riparian structures that make up the waterfront’s edge and various stone crevices. They’ll bloom from December all the way into late April, May, sometimes, depending on how much heat we’re getting. So far, they have done a great job on the very large sound berms, spreading and providing full coverage, preventing weeds from being able to push through them since they create these dense mats.

I also think all the Carex species in the park have been stellar. They’ve been key players in the successional plantings of the park, providing great coverage and weed suppression. They look good year-round without cutting them back. The new growth just pushes through quite successfully. Plus, leaving them standing all year provides these skirts and thickets of biome hubs for wildlife to incorporate themselves into.

We hear a lot about “right plant, right place,” what’s your version of that concept?

The park has become a refuge for wildlife, like this Black-Crowned Night Heron, spotted in the wetlands on Pier \1. Redwing blackbirds come to the salt marsh. Song Sparrows nest in the crowns of Hibiscus (swamp rose mallow) stands year after year. Several years ago all of New York City was abuzz when a rare Painted Bunting spent time in the park’s flower fields.
Above: The park has become a refuge for wildlife, like this Black-Crowned Night Heron, spotted in the wetlands on Pier 1. Redwing blackbirds come to the salt marsh. Song Sparrows nest in the crowns of Hibiscus (swamp rose mallow) stands year after year. Several years ago all of New York City was abuzz when a rare Painted Bunting spent time in the park’s flower fields.

The credit in my version goes to the 70+ gardeners I have been lucky to work alongside over the last 12 years, especially at BBP, where change in the landscape is driven by the gardening staff. What I’ve learned most from my time here is that landscape design work can go beyond “right plant, right place” to “right purpose, right plant, right place.”

When we rethink or design a landscape, we should be giving greater consideration to the existing and/or struggling local wildlife populations that rely on the food sources and shelter offered by native plants and specialized host plants. Let’s reverse-engineer the processes so that landscape design, which is traditionally shaped by what is appealing to visitors, owners, or designers, starts by looking back to those historical stories to understand the native plant populations that have been phased out by human practices or the establishment of cityscapes. I often think of a future, like in most post-apocalyptic cinematic pieces (minus the ensuing chaos that leads to a lack of modern human disturbance), [where] trees burst through a skyscraper, vines dominate infrastructure, and herbaceous plants crowd city hellstrips. How do we get there in the urban environment? I think projects like BBP and many others are paving that way for us and that reimagination of the city of New York. And as we rethink design, I hope the phrase evolves to “right purpose, right plant, right place.”

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