“In here, if they don’t have people caring for them every day, three hundred sixty-five days a year, they’ll die,” Todd Forrest said. He was referring not to I.C.U. patients but to the delicate cuttings and plants in the Nolen Greenhouses at the New York Botanical Garden, where he has been the head of horticulture since 2004. “As we triage and allocate resources, the time has to go to the plants that need the most care,” he said, and headed for the tropics.
Inside one of the glass buildings, a skeleton staff was misting orchids and tropical specimens. “The first priority is always watering,” Forrest said through a bandanna that he had tied around his face, bank-robber style. Normally, watering occurs in the conservatory in a mad rush between 8 A.M. and 10 A.M., before the garden opens to the public. But since March 15th, when the Botanical Garden closed to visitors (this has been the longest closure in its hundred-and-thirty-year history), a third of the staff members have worked in shifts—socially distant from one another, but intimate with every plant. An automated sprinkler system would never do. “The plants all have slightly different needs,” Forrest said. He had worried, at first, whether his team would be deemed “essential” enough to continue working through the pandemic. But, even before Governor Andrew Cuomo added horticultural maintenance to New York’s list of indispensable jobs, many Botanical Garden employees already met the criteria for essential workers. “Because we are curating an irreplaceable museum,” Forrest said, “in our case, of plants.”
The garden stretches across two hundred and fifty acres, and Forrest uses a golf cart to make his rounds. He whizzed past the Stone Mill, a structure from 1840 that normally would be rented out for spring weddings, and a stand of white birches that looked almost Scandinavian against the steel-gray sky. When he got to the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory, a horticulturist named Jennifer Henry waved at him as she misted plants. Henry, who wore rubber boots and a surgical mask, said that her husband and kids don’t worry about her coming in to work. “But my mom and dad, in Ottawa, that’s another story. They see me as being in the epicenter.” She had been enjoying the chance to commune with the plants privately. “It feels like our own little palace right now,” she said. At this time of year, the garden can get up to ten thousand visitors a day.
Back in his cart, Forrest zoomed onward, to Daffodil Hill, which was first planted in the nineteen-twenties. “Relatively few of the original bulbs remain,” he said. “There’s always something that upsets the plans of even the most knowledgeable and dedicated gardener—there’s always some drought or some deluge or some insect.” Just as he was climbing off his cart, the sun came out from behind the clouds, and the sky was transformed from spooky gray to jubilant blue. It was like the moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when the film switches to Technicolor: the rolling landscape was animated by brilliant hues—the reddish haze of crab-apple trees in the distance, green grass paths snaking up the hillside. In every direction, daffodils glowed in the light.
Since 2015, the staff has been planting a hundred thousand daffodil bulbs every fall. “We want to reach a million,” Forrest said. “We create these pathways so people won’t walk on the daffodils— and then they walk on them anyway.” He shook his head. “Those of us who work in public gardens, we always have a love-hate relationship with the public. They pick flowers and they climb trees, and we get exasperated. But what has really struck home for me since the pandemic started is how we exist only for the public. I love plants more than people, but you realize that the life of the garden is as much about the visitors who come to it as the plants we grow.”
Forrest was a philosophy major at Wesleyan before he did graduate work in horticulture. “This notion that we’re ‘essential’ is based on what we provide for people,” he said. “Those of us who are able to work right now are grateful that we have jobs, and that we’re well enough to do them, especially in such a special and beautiful place. The payback on that is, Let’s do everything we can to make sure that the garden does what it needs to do whenever people are able to return to it. We want the garden to be an escape, and not a reminder of what was lost.” ♦
A Guide to the Coronavirus
- Twenty-four hours at the epicenter of the pandemic: nearly fifty New Yorker writers and photographers fanned out to document life in New York City on April 15th.
- Seattle leaders let scientists take the lead in responding to the coronavirus. New York leaders did not.
- Can survivors help cure the disease and rescue the economy?
- What the coronavirus has revealed about American medicine.
- Can we trace the spread of COVID-19 and protect privacy at the same time?
- The coronavirus is likely to spread for more than a year before a vaccine is widely available.
- How to practice social distancing, from responding to a sick housemate to the pros and cons of ordering food.
- The long crusade of Dr. Anthony Fauci, the infectious-disease expert pinned between Donald Trump and the American people.
- What to read, watch, cook, and listen to under quarantine.