Stewards for the Next 100 Years


Maintaining the New York Botanical Garden

Plant Life at the New York Botanical Garden

Total Living Plant Records -45354
Total Living Accessions -23,349
Total Living Taxa -15,538
Families Represented -256
Genera Represented -2,121
Species Represented -8,249
Cultivated Forms -7,289
Total Living Plant Individuals -481,457

Established in 1891, The New York Botanical Garden (NYBG) is a 250-acre oasis in the heart of the Bronx in New York City. Kurt Morrell, associate vice president for landscape operations, works to make sure that the plant life thrives.

Morrell, who graduated from the School of Professional Horticulture at NYBG, interned at the garden in 1985 and started full time in April 1987. His staff consists of 17 grounds people and three arborists. Morrell says it’s challenging to maintain the gardens with that number. “I was hoping I was going to get a couple more staff this year, and it kind of got nixed. It’s not even budget issues; it’s convincing the powers that be that you do need more staff,” he explains.

“We’re working on management plans to analyze the staffing,” Morrell, who regularly puts in 12-hour days, says, adding that he’s grateful for the assistant that was brought onto the staff this past spring. “Getting an assistant was nice; it helps supervision be more efficient.”

Kurt Morrell, associate vice president for landscape operations, has been working at the New York Botanical Garden for 25 years.

The “two caped crusaders,” as Morrell calls two of his staff, maintain the Azalea Garden, which covers roughly 10 acres. Installed in the spring of 2010, it includes a collection of 3,000 azaleas and rhododendrons. He says the herbaceous plants were added into the design to keep it interesting year-round.

With The School of Professional Horticulture on-site, Morrell has access to students and unpaid interns who help with garden maintenance. “We have a good volunteer base,” he says.

Lessons learned

When Morrell moved to management, he realized it didn’t pay to have crew members just focus on one task.

“There’s definitely people that are better at one thing than somebody else. When I worked in the union I was kind of the turf person, and there was certain equipment that only I drove. When I became manager, all of a sudden I didn’t have anybody that could do what I did, so I will never get caught like that again,” he says.

Three crewmembers have degrees in turf management, two from the University of Rhode Island and one from Rutgers. Morrell says, ” I think it’s nice, since their interest is turf, to keep them on turf, but then they’ll be the first ones to come and say ‘Can I do something different?’”

Morrell rotates tasks such as mowing, blowing and edging, and sometimes crewmembers might find themselves digging up a tree and replanting it in a new location.

“We’ll think nothing of moving a 12-foot ball. It’s interesting to do that, and it’s a good learning experience for them,” he says.

His crew is also responsible for equipment maintenance. “I’ve always felt that if you drive something you should be able to maintain it. You’ll respect your equipment more. That’s the kind of the philosophy I’ve instilled in my crew,” he says.

Lawns up next

“We’re just constantly redoing sidewalks and collections, and the next phase is to start redoing some of the lawns,” Morrell says. “I want to get rid of all my old bent (bentgrass) and start going to tall fescue. I use a lot of fine fescue, a lot of maintenance-free.”

There are about 80 acres of lawn onsite. Donor perception is important, so the transition is a slow process. “They [donors] like everything to be green all the time, so there’s never a good time to kill everything,” he explains.

Water lilies, a favorite subject of Claude Monet, are featured in the Conservatory Courtyard Pools at the NYBG. Some of the painter’s works were on-site for a special exhibition.

“We’re trying to be more sustainable. We used to do a lot of spraying for weeds. We’ve gotten rid of a lot of our sprays,” Morrell says. “This year crabgrass and nutsedge just killed me, so we are doing a little more spraying this year.”

He says he used to put out 5 to 6 pounds of nitrogen a year on the main lawn area just four or five years ago, and now they use about a pound and a half a year.


A decision that has helped to reduce maintenance also improved tree health.

“People say to me, ‘I never see you string trimming.’ We don’t,” Morrell says. When he moved up to management 11 years ago, one of the first things he did was remove the turf from beneath the trees and cover those areas with mulch.

“That has cut back on the mowing. My guys save 30 to 40 percent of their time because they circle around and they’re done. Granted the weeding is a pain; we’ve got to go through those areas maybe three or four times a year and clean them out. It’s not terrible, don’t get me wrong. If I had to send somebody over there once a week to string trim, and having to go in and out under the trees with a hand mower – not fun,” he explains. “It cuts down my fuel, cuts down my mowing time, less on compaction, less on my labor. I get calls all the time: ‘How do you guys do all those nice beautiful rings?’ They look nice, they kind of pop. We feel the mulch and the turf is kind of the framework for the trees, and they’re the picture.”

A crew member mows around trees in the Ross Conifer Arboretum, which features pines, spruces and mountain firs.

Water works

A new $3 million irrigation system was recently installed at the NYBG. The system features a Hunter VSX controller and utilizes Hunter Surveyor software. Rotary heads are Rain Bird and pop-up heads are from Toro.

Morrell says, “The irrigation system was designed to assist in irrigating our collections and our turf, but during construction and design we didn’t want any negative effect on our collections.”

The project was extensive, with 530 electronic zone valves, 14.5 miles of water mains, 32 miles of lateral piping, 4,300 sprinkler heads and 5 miles of drip irrigation. A total of 139.4 acres are irrigated either by having access to hose bibs or by automatic sprinklers.

“Our pump system can deliver 1,600 gallons per minute at 90 PSI,” Morrell notes. “We are able to irrigate approximately 25 zones at one time anywhere in the garden.”

In-house supply

“We’re self-contained, so I don’t buy any mulch. I try not to buy in any topsoil unless it’s for a big project, like the native garden,” Morrell notes. “The majority of the stuff we do in-house.”

The New York Botanical Garden’s composting flow chart illustrates how the raw material comes in and how the finished products are ultimately distributed.

The NYBG’s green recycling area includes a Diamond Z Model DZ 1136B tub grinder, which allows the grounds pros to make mulch, topsoil and compost. Morrell says, “We produce probably 1,500 yards of compost a year, another 1,500 to 2,000 yards of mulch that gets spread out on the grounds and maybe 700 yards of topsoil.”

“We are stewards of the Bronx River, the only freshwater river in the city,” Morrell states. As such, they are always aware of the effect their operations have on the river. One way they keep pollutants from entering the river is with the help of a Carbtrol system. Used when washing down maintenance equipment, the system uses a series of processes and charcoal filters to remove dirt and pollutants from the water so it can be reused. Morrell notes that they’ve been using the same water to wash equipment since April 2011.

“It’s a really neat system, and I personally think golf courses or any municipality … that’s what they should be doing,” Morrell says.

“It was a $50,000 option. I saw it about 10 years ago when we were initially starting to design this, and I came back and put it on the table, then it got taken off the table because it was too expensive,” he said. Then, engineers designed a huge sand filtration system to put underneath the nursery to filter all of the water before it goes into the Bronx River. The cost was “ridiculous,” so Morrell presented the Carbtrol system again and got it.

To handle stormwater, 20 filters, each about half the size of a 55-gallon drum, that Morrell refers to as “Brita filters” were installed under a large, level, grassy area not far from the operations area. The stormwater runs through this filter plant before it goes into the river. He notes that an identical system will be installed as part of the composting project.

Earth friendly measures

Crewmembers also use of natural gas vehicles on-site, also reducing his team’s impact on the environment. Given the option, Morrell says he would use mowers that run on natural gas.

Within all areas of the NYBG, sustainability is evident. For example, the café uses recyclable dishes and cutlery.

It’s not just about creating sustainability on-site, with research and work off-site, the NYBG finds ways to spread that worldwide. The NYBG is currently hosting the Northeast EarthKind rose trials. Started in the spring of 2010, the program was set up to identify rose cultivars that can survive with little inputs. Morrell explains that they install 3 inches of mulch on the plants, and they are only allowed to irrigate them the first year. “It’s all compost based,” he says. “We all agree compost in the soil has huge benefits.”

NYBG botanists travel to rainforests in the Amazon and Brazil, taking samples and educating the people there about forest management. Rather than clear-cutting, they can cut the species that will give them a profit while still maintaining the ecosystem.

The mindset at the NYBG is long term.

Morrell said, “That’s how we look at it – we’re the stewards for the next 100 years.”

Brooke Rockwell is an editor at Moose River Media. She can be reached at [email protected].