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Back to News In The News – February 8, 2018

In The News

A Garden Atop Five Piers

Monarchs visit the seaside goldenrod (Solidago sempervirens).


Most gardeners get to enhance an existing piece of land, whether it’s their window box, yard or farm. Rebecca McMackin, however, gardens atop piers in New York City’s East River. McMackin is the Director of Horticulture for Brooklyn Bridge Park, a landscape built entirely from scratch atop five piers in New York City’s East River. The park was designed, by the renowned landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, not only to be organic, but to provide ecological habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.


This commitment to natural processes benefits the plants, insects, and animals that now call the park’s piers home, as well as the people who visit the park, which opened to the public in 2010.


“You don’t have to choose between providing a wonderful, beautiful park for people and providing a robust habitat for wildlife,” said McMackin, who describes herself as an “ecologically obsessed” horticulturist. “If we can do it, anybody can do it.” Over 6,000 visitors come to the park every day to relax, play, and enjoy the view of the Manhattan skyline.


The park has seven types of habitats, from highly structured ornamental entrances to the park to more naturalistic areas. “There’s wetlands, there’s meadows, woodland-edge ecosystems,” McMackin said. “We have turf which, when managed properly, can be an important ecosystem as well.”


Managing these diverse habitats in the middle of the most densely populated city in the United States is an ongoing experiment, and challenge. McMackin and her crew of horticulturists find creative ways to manage the property—and incorporate ecological gardening practices as frequently as they can.


“The park is experimental by nature, so we have to be experimental in how we manage, for example, a 35 foot tall steep slope. There are times when we do a very good job at figuring it out, and times when it takes much longer.”


The reward for gardening ecologically is evident in the number of species that use the park. “We are watching the biodiversity of the park grow,” McMackin said. “I think a real success has been the experiment of the park itself. We’ve been able to look at our bee and ant diversity, and even our aquatic organisms off the coast of the park—it’s robust.”


The gardens at Brooklyn Bridge Park show that you don’t have to sacrifice beauty — beds of Sommersonne smooth ox-eye (Heliopsis helianthoides ‘Sommersonne’) greet visitors to the park in late summer.

Gardens for humans and wildlife

Gardening ecologically means gardening with the bigger picture of the environment in mind and making sure the garden works for humans as well as the wildlife and microorganisms that rely on it.


“There are some really simple practices that home gardeners can enact that will make their gardens a more robust habitat,” McMackin said.


For example, cutting plants back in springtime rather than the fall can give birds a boost by providing a food source when the months are lean, and can offer shelter to stem-nesting bumblebees as they hibernate.


“Wherever possible, we cut back in the spring, not the fall,” McMackin said. “When it comes to cutting things back we take into considering those stem-nesting native bees. We try to wait until there’s been a few days where temperatures have gotten above 50 degrees and we’re hopeful that bees have left the stems. If we have to cut back before that, we cut the stems back in six inch sections and leave as much duff as possible on the ground.”


Another ecological gardening practice McMackin suggests for home gardeners is to rake fall leaves back into garden beds instead of removing them from the landscape: “Plants use their quote-unquote discarded leaves in order to build soil with the appropriate compounds and nutrient levels their roots want to live in.”

Rebecca McMackin, Director of Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park, describes herself as an ecologically obsessed horticulturist and garden designer.

Bringing lessons to the home garden


Managing the park’s 13 acres of planted area means that particular plants have to be resilient, beautiful, and supportive of wildlife.


“As gardeners, we like to fuss,” McMackin said. “We like to feel needed, at least I know I do. But one of the things we do here is try to cultivate self-sufficient plant communities and systems—we’re trying to get these systems off the ground so we can step away.”


McMackin stresses proper plant selection as a critical step in ecological horticulture. A native plant that is adapted to the conditions of the site can support pollinators while requiring little material input from gardeners.


Resources for selecting plants that will thrive include Mt. Cuba Center’s Trial Garden reports, where expert horticulturists grow, observe, and evaluate native plants for their garden use. (Available online at and learning from professional horticulturist

s, like McMackin herself, at lectures and classes.


McMackin will speak about Brooklyn Bridge Park’s ecological horticulture in a lecture at Mt. Cuba Center on Saturday, February 17, part of Mt. Cuba’s Winter Lecture Series.


If you go

What: Building Nature From Scratch, a lecture from Rebecca McMackin, Director of Horticulture at Brooklyn Bridge Park

Where: Mt. Cuba Center’s Main House (3120 Barley Mill Road, Hockessin, DE, 19707)

When: Saturday, February 17, 11 AM to 12 PM (Snow date: Saturday, February 24)

Cost: $20 (parking is free) Register here.


This article was originally published in the News Journal on January 27, 2018. You can also read it on their site, here: