April 14, 2022 The Urban Farm at The Battery Manhattan, NYC, NY
Warrie Price, Founder and President, The Battery Conservancy
Sean Kiely, Park Manager
Adam Walker, Program Coordinator for Farm and Playscape
Colby Feller, Gardener
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Finding an Emerald Oasis in the City
With mild trepidation, I boarded the New Jersey Transit train from Newark to Penn Station and then found my way on Subway 1 to South Ferry Station - the southern tip of Manhattan right next to the Ellis Island Ferry terminal. My heart lightened as I discovered an inviting green space in full spring bloom. The tulips and daffodils were so delightful! The morning was still fresh with dozens of visitors from all over the world finding their way to the Statue of Liberty ferry loading platform.
My hope was to find a gardener who could tell me their story and point me to the park director. With a digging fork in hand working to dislodge a tough perennial root I approached Colby Feller, a seasonal gardener with The Conservancy. He graciously learned my purpose and offered information about the park and his experience.
Boasting 25 acres of green space, The Battery is one of the largest parks in Manhattan. In the new children’s “Playscape”, the staff care for 10,000 perennials and 115 trees. The tall umbrella-like arms of the trees will soon fill in with leaf cover to make this a shaded retreat to the over seven million visitors who traverse the park on their way to the ferry platform. In the north center of the park is a half-acre farm that provides both education and food to the Manhattan and five New York Borough communities. The gardeners maintain 4.5 acres of perennial gardens that are free and open to the public.
History of The Battery Conservancy
The Battery is also one of the oldest parks in the city. All the parks of New York City fell into despair during the budget crisis and lack of funding in the 1980's. Warrie Price founded the Battery Conservancy in 1994 to rebuild historic Battery Park. The park was revitalized starting from the sea wall and proceeded throughout the park. Now, after 20 years of revitalization, it has become the largest perennial park in America which is completely open to the public every day of the year. Each step of the way, Warrie and an army of volunteers were able to rebuild it. In 2000, Zelda, a wild turkey, came to make this park her home. Zelda's loyalty to The Battery over 16 years served as the inspiration for the design of the original Urban Farm. The Metropolitan Museum of Art had a display on its roof top called “Big Bambu”. When it was being dismantled, Warrie worked with the artists and had them bring the bamboo to The Battery. They installed it in the shape of a wild turkey.
Discovering and Fulfilling it’s Community Mission
It wasn’t until the COVID pandemic that the park caretakers truly understood the value it was providing to the community. With the drastic drop in tourism during 2020 and 2021, the park staff noticed the locals, our neighbors, who came to the park for a reprieve from the office buildings and city. Many young families and older residents came to play each day. Later, The Conservancy added a modern play space for the young people who loved to come here.
Creation of a farm with Food
Colby Feller, a gardener digging at the perennial roots, shared the basics about the park. He found his way to the farm and gardens following his heart. As a young boy, he was fascinated. When his corporate America job was declared excess in 2008 with the recession, he seized the chance to learn landscaping and start his own business. When asked what he particularly enjoys about his work here at The Battery, he commented, “I have quite a different clientele - the few that own land in New York City. I enjoy creating living, natural beauty for them, yet when I come here, I feel connected with the community. I love when total strangers come up to me and ask me about a plant name - or simply say ‘Thank you! For the work you are doing.’ I’m in the public arena and everyone gets to enjoy my work. I feel like I am appreciated and helping to lift lives.”
Colby then introduced me to Sean Kiely, Park Manager, who now is in his twelfth year at The Battery. On a park bench nearby, Sean proceeded to share with me more about the urban farm. In 2011, seven local high school students approached The Conservancy with a wish. They had purchased a few packets of vegetable seeds and wanted to have a few square feet to plant them. Warrie, the director, was thrilled with the idea. Coming from Texas, she thought big. Eventually, these youth were granted access to half an acre in the spot of ground with the most sun exposure.
The interest in the farm grew rapidly. The Conservancy tried to give as many youth a chance to be interns there over the next five seasons. But, because the project to connect the bikeway from east and west Manhattan needed to cut through the park, the farm had to be moved south a few hundred feet. Warrie also fought hard to prevent the City from placing the last stop of the subway in the middle of the park. With persistence, she won with her reasoning to keep transportation with transportation and ended up preserving the park space.
Continuing its Educational Mission
The farm was an instant hit. Three local elementary school first grade teachers were the first to commit to a weekly visit to the farm weather permitting. They wanted to use the farm for their classroom. During the winter months of December through March, five paid apprentices took the farming program to the classrooms as the kids were taught the basics of soil, seed, food, and cultivation. They love to tour the farm for an hour and see what is changing from week to week. Now, the farm tours have been opened up to most elementary school grades. Last year, the farm provided education to over 7000 students coming from all five boroughs throughout the city. The food is donated to several organizations. Sean commented, “Adam Walker, the Program Coordinator is working on ways to engage high school students. Within a day or two of posting the farm visit schedule to the schools, the whole season is booked. It’s one of the student’s most popular field trips.”
Sean explained, “Now that COVID is largely behind us, the farm is transitioning back to their full educational mission. Next year we anticipate being able to farm the full half acre.” When asked, why convert a park into a farm, Sean answered, “For us, it is about giving back to the community. We want to do things that involve the community. It’s obvious that there’s a lot of interest in learning where our food comes from and having a growing experience.”
Modeling an Environmental Mission
The Battery has taken the lead on a lot of things, not the least of which is the environment. Sean proudly announced, “Since 2019, we have been 100% chemical and pesticide free. We realized, ‘let’s do a soil test and see what we need!’ The soil organic matter was way above the standard. We’ve gone two years without fertilizing and the lawns look excellent. We’ve saved all that cost, and it’s safe for our visitors. In fact, we’ve set the standard for all New York City parks.”
The farm and gardens preserve habitat for pollinators over the winter. “Under the guidance of Piet Oudolf, the Dutch horticultural designer of The Battery and a proponent of Naturalist Landscaping, we leave it wild.” Sean explained. He further added, “He believes that gardens should be enjoyed and provide interest in all seasons. We leave everything in its natural state until spring when we chop up any remaining perennials from the previous year and leave them in the garden beds as natural fertilizer.” Even during the COVID years of minimal garden maintenance, we noticed that the gardens exhibited a natural beauty of intercropped, naturally grown vegetables.
The Forest Farm - Healing Inside and Out
As a gift during America’s bicentennial, the city of Jerusalem sent twelve cypress trees to the park. A stone in the “Forest Farm” otherwise known as ”The Labyrinth” commemorates the gift. Sean explained that this is a sacred space, especially after 9/11 in 2001. Different religious groups or societies will gather here on different days of the week to ponder in the relative peace of this circular garden. It has been planted with all perennial medicinal and edible trees, shrubs and vegetation. Tucked in the corner are six stacks of beehives managed by the Bee Conservancy which are harvested two times during the season. Pollinator hotels are fastened to the surrounding trees. These plantings, all of them native to New York, are arranged to help people heal and find pace and connection.
Managing the Gardens
The garden is divided into five zones with gardeners and volunteers assigned to each one. Six full-time gardeners care for the 25 acres for 40 hours a week and are paid benefits. One of those gardeners manages seasonal changes. “We have an extensive volunteer program. Volunteers sign up for 2.5 hour shifts, often in the morning most days during the week. We have over 40 volunteers that help out on a weekly basis.” Sean said. He further commented, “There is quite a waiting list to become one of the volunteers who work with the gardeners.”
Supporting The Battery’s farming work is part of a network of New York area urban farms. Some belong to Grow NYC - a collective designed to help with a food distribution, education, and resources. GrowNYC also manages a farm on Governors Island. There’s a collective effort now to establish more pollinator plants and to use permaculture practices where possible. They also make sourcing seedlings easier. Sean sighed, “That makes our jobs a lot easier because we don’t have our own greenhouse!”
Feeding the Community
All the food harvested is donated to local nonprofit organizations. The Battery donates produce to Coalition for the Homeless, which serves daily meals in multiple locations across the city to anyone in need of food. Sean commented, “we want to feed the local neighbors who don’t have access to healthy, locally grown food.”
Sustaining this work
Warrie Price, the Executive Director, has been able to run The Conservancy solely on donations and corporate sponsorships. The Battery doesn’t receive any money from the city, county, state or federal government to care for this expansive green space. Instead, they host a few seasonal events and gather donors to communicate the value of the park and the impact of the urban farm program on the community. That alone is a great sign of ownership for this amazing natural asset of the city. From the popular response of the locals of New York City, The Battery’s Urban Farm will continue to offer its unique growing experience and peaceful natural habitat to thousands of students, interns, volunteers and the millions of visitors who come each year to the farm. Indeed, it is the "Emerald of Manhattan"!
Author: Farmer Karl