Of Freshkills Park’s 2,200 acres, half are now grasslands. The Department of Sanitation (DSNY) created these meadows over the last twenty years as part of the landfill “cap.” Layers of soil, geotextiles, and a plastic geomembrane have sealed off the landfill mounds, and native plants have rooted in the topsoil to help prevent erosion. Park staff planted Indian grass, big blue stem, switchgrass, and little blue stem — but other flowering species have also cropped up over time, including asters, goldenrod, bee balm, and milkweeds.
Plants often create the base for entire ecosystems, and they are key in establishing habitats for wildlife. Many bird species need at least 500 continuous acres of grasslands to support them. As agriculture and urbanization have claimed more land throughout the Northeast, grasslands have disappeared, threatening the survival of many species that rely on the habitat. Freshkills Park, with nearly 1,000 acres of grasslands, represents one of the only viable habitats in the metro New York area for birds like the savannah sparrow and grasshopper sparrow, which is likely to become endangered in New York State. Ongoing research about grasslands ecology informs management strategies at Freshkills Park, overlaying growth timings, dispersion patterns, and species compositions with the presence of grassland birds to determine and encourage appealing characteristics.
Birds raise their young in the safety of the tall summer grasses; grasses reproduce too, sending pollen and seeds into the wind. In the fall, after the nesting season, meadows at Freshkills Park fade from green to brown, and a large industrial mower draws indeterminate shapes in the landscape until the grass blades are just a few centimeters tall. Mowing encourages the growth of beneficial ground covers and discourages the overgrowth of shrubs and trees that could interfere with the landfill cap. This activity is an example of “post-closure care,” a term used by environmental conservation agencies to describe the long-term maintenance of a closed landfill. The vegetation stays short and tawny until late spring, when it wakes up with the arrival of migrating birds. Brome and fescue grasses are among the first to send up green leaves, followed by switchgrass and blue stems. Breeding pairs of sparrows, larks, and blackbirds begin establishing territories and building nests. They weave last season’s leaves into their nests to cushion their eggs as the fresh grasses camouflage and cradle them.
All photos courtesy of the City of New York: NYC Parks, Freshkills Park, and the Department of Sanitation.