John Bowne High School Agriculture Teacher Jane Zhu (at right) with two of her students, readying the school nursery’s woody plants for overwintering.

Story and Photos by Nancy Wolf, Environmental Education Consultant, Member of New York City (Region 2) ReLeaf 

This fall, John Bowne High School Agriculture Teacher Jane Zhu and her students were busy potting up and tending approximately 1,000 trees and large shrubs of a variety of species, getting them ready to spend the winter under unheated plastic cover in their nursery. At least 100 of the trees and shrubs will be ready to be distributed to other schools, community gardens, and parks next April (2023) as part of the celebration of Arbor Day.

Bowne’s nursery is part of a small farm at the high school, located in the Flushing section of Queens, New York City. The school has a large animal and plant program, under the leadership of Assistant Principal Patrycja Zbrzezny, where students harvest crops, tend to various animals, and learn about trees in the nursery and the apple orchard. Their nursery is perhaps the last “grow-out” nursery among those created by the National Tree Trust in the early 1990s, many of which were established by volunteers across the country.  With a sustained program, the Bowne students and faculty have been able to continue their original project; they have tended and prepared thousands of trees and shrubs for distribution around the city since the beginning. As such, this project is an important part of Arbor Day celebrations and plantings in New York City each spring.

Trees and shrubs for future Arbor Day planting/celebrations in NYC are being skillfully tended at John Bowne High School in Queens.

A limited distribution continued even during the pandemic, but the program came back strongly in 2022, when the New York City Parks Department picked up and delivered 159 trees and shrubs to 46 sites around the 5 boroughs. In addition, 92 trees were picked up and planted in a large park by NYC H2O, a non-profit organization whose program includes working with students to plant trees. The overall program is expected to have significantly further reach in 2023. In addition to trees and shrubs, the school sites received Arbor Day posters and calendars sent by the DEC Urban and Community Forestry staff from their Albany office.

One of the important sponsors of this collaborative effort is the F. A. Bartlett Tree Expert Company, with the personal leadership of Vice President David McMaster. When federal funds disappeared, the company decided to help by supplying free tree seedlings each year, as well as funds for soil and pots. The company has also helped establish the apple orchard; Jane and students made apple butter last fall, but a frost destroyed the bloom this spring. Wait till next year!

The woody plants at Bowne nursery will overwinter in unheated hoop houses so that the plants are protected from mechanical damage but still have their chilling requirement met.

A big addition to the partnership came when Bartlett adopted the famous “Survivor Tree” saved from the World Trade Center grounds after the disaster of 9/11/01. The Callery pear (Pyrus calleryana) was rescued and brought back to health by arborists at the NYC Parks Department nursery in the Bronx; it is now thriving again near the memorial site. Bartlett arranged for seeds from the tree to be propagated and planted in a special section of the Bowne nursery. Trees have since been shipped to many locations around the globe for special commemorative ceremonies.

David McMaster says that 75 grafted trees that will be delivered in December to Bowne. “The tissue that was grafted onto pear root stock was harvested from the Survivor Tree at the memorial in 2021,” he says. “Also, we harvested fruit from the Survivor Tree at the memorial in early fall of 2022. Those fruits are being delivered to Bowne, also in December. The seed stratification process will continue at the school, and the seeds will be extracted in late winter by the students and propagated in the greenhouse.”

Bowne students were welcomed last spring as presenters at the Region 2 ReLeaf workshop at nearby Queens Botanical Garden. Professionals who attended were impressed with their learning and understanding and it is clear that this project is one of great value to all. 🌳