09/05/2014

From Exotic Garden to Eco-Haven

7:25 minutes

Duke Farms has transformed expanses of mown lawn to meadow habitats, teeming with biodiversity. Photo courtesy of Duke Farms
Duke Farms has transformed expanses of mown lawn to meadow habitats, teeming with biodiversity. Photo courtesy of Duke Farms

In 1893, tobacco millionaire James Buchanan Duke began work on an estate in central New Jersey. Duke wanted things just so. Hundreds of workers built hills where there used to be flat land. He made lakes. He imported thousands of trees. He planted exotic plants from around the world.

“Visually you would have seen a very pretty manicured park. Lots of lawns,” says Thom Almendinger, head ecologist at Duke Farms. “Greenery isn’t necessarily all good. Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s beneficial for wildlife.”

J.B. Duke created a garden that was the envy of his fellow millionaires. Now, Almendinger’s changing it. There’s a park and environmental training ground managed by the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation on the old estate. Almendinger’s trying to make the place more natural, more sustainable—a place where wildlife can live.

“The forest patches were degraded, but you wouldn’t have noticed it because they were full of exotic shrubs from other counties that were not beneficial to wildlife,” Almendinger says.

We hop into an electric golf cart and head to a spot they call “The Old Foundation,” a place where J.B. Duke started to build a four-story French chateau—then stopped. Trees are growing through the bottom of the three-story-deep foundation. Almendinger says that vultures nest inside. He points from the topmost plaza down to the great lawn. Think Downton Abbey or Versailles—but with meadows at the bottom.

“These whole elaborate terraced lawns out in front of the 15-acre great lawn, and these balustrades and fountains and stairways,” says Almendinger. “That 15-acre meadow, that used to be a pure lawn. It was like one of the Frisbee lawns in Central Park.”

After J.B. Duke’s death, the property went to his daughter, Doris. People called her the richest girl in the world. She lived on the estate until her death in 1993. A staff of over 200 helped run the grounds. Doris Duke maintained the gardens, including greenhouses filled with tropical orchids and other exotic plants. But after she died, her will didn’t focus on orchids or greenhouses. It said that the property should be used “to protect endangered species of all kinds…and for agricultural and horticultural purposes, including research.”

Almendinger says that when the decision to try to make the park more sustainable was made, the estate didn’t really fit with the spirit of the will. It looked nice, but had hundreds of hungry deer, disturbed soil, and exotic, invasive species.

Today, Nora Wagner is the head of public programs at Duke Farms. She says that the decision to shift the focus of the property to sustainability and environmental education was a relatively simple one.

“The thought was ‘How do we use this property best, for the preservation of flora and fauna and communicate that to the largest number of people possible in a way that doesn’t harm our land,’” Wagner says.

Today the staff are working to control the deer. They’ve yanked out exotic species. The greenhouses grow native plants. There are still orchids here, but they’re mostly ones that naturally grow in the eastern U.S. And the main greenhouse, called the Orchid Range, is the first LEED-platinum certified conservatory in the country.

“It’s funny: It’s a conservatory, so a contrived environment, but it’s actually as green as you can get,” says Wagner.

Passive solar heating, soil heaters, water efficient misters, and rain cisterns all give the place an environmental boost. And more people are visiting now than when it was just an orchid showplace. There’s even a Twitter feed just to give status updates on the parking lots.

“Now our visitation since May 2012 is almost a million,” says Wagner. “We’re reaching more people and making more of an impact. So I think it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Almendinger pays attention to every detail of the park’s natural processes: plants, soil, waste—everything that comes into or out of the park ecosystem. Today, it’s the algae.

“Our lakes are very shallow. They get very warm, and there’s a lot of nutrients in them so they call them ‘productive’—a nice way of saying ‘hard to manage,’” Almendinger laughs.

But they need to be managed—too much algae would choke all the oxygen from the lake. Other places use chemicals to control algae, but Almendinger works to minimize chemicals used on the property. So to help control the algae, they use naturally occurring bacteria combined with harvesting, pulling up the algae with a big machine.

A crew is out on the lake with an amphibious vehicle. It looks like an army tank got mixed up with a paddleboat, and then stuck a rake on its front end. It slowly plows through the water lifting out goopy strands of algae. Once the algae dries a bit, it’s composted and used as fertilizer elsewhere on the grounds. Maybe in the greenhouses, or in the community garden plots. Almendinger says the lakes are all growing closer to being a natural habitat—they host otters, mink, and other species.

How do they know if their efforts are working? Part of what Almendinger’s looking for are plants and animals you might find elsewhere; everyday species that weren’t here before because the land was so unnatural.

“Now as you drive around there’s things like rufous-sided towhees, common yellowthroats, brown thrashers,” says Almendinger. “It’s taken almost a decade, having rabbits on the property. There was no cover before. Now we see rabbits, chipmunks, normal species in eastern forests. There are a lot of unique changes that are happening. It took a while. There was a lag period where I wasn’t sure that what we were doing was working. Within the last two or three years, it’s become over abundantly evident that it’s progressively getting better. When I look at old pictures, that’s when I get that ‘a ha!’ moment. Not like the anticipation and waiting; it’s already happened. It’s maintaining what’s happened and moving it forward that’s our next goal.”

Other goals for the future include improving the Raritan river floodplain right outside the central park area. They also want to do more work on agro-ecology, putting the “farms” back in Duke Farms. But Almendinger says that as with all restoration projects, some of the results might not be seen until his children or grandchildren.

“One of the things I hope people take away is just an appreciation,” he says. “Unless you appreciate something, you’re not going to want to protect it. People reconnecting and valuing nature. Even on a base level, doesn’t have to be ‘rip out all your exotic plants.’ Understating those qualities that make life wonderful.”

Segment Guests

Thom Almendinger

Thom Almendinger is director of natural resources and agroecology at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

Nora Wagner

Nora Wagner is director of strategic planning and programs at Duke Farms in Hillsborough, New Jersey.

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About Charles Bergquist

As Science Friday’s director, Charles Bergquist channels the chaos of a live production studio into something sounding like a radio program. Favorite topics include planetary sciences, chemistry, materials, and shiny things with blinking lights.