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Central Park's best-kept secret opens to the public

Blanchard is the Hallett Zone Gardener for the Central Park Conservancy. Every day, she works to restore, maintain and protect a 4-acre nature preserve that had been left untouched for decades.

As New Yorkers filed into office buildings for work on Monday morning, Central Park gardener Shanna Blanchard settled into her workspace surrounded by birds, wildflowers and ferns.

Blanchard is the Hallett Zone gardener for the Central Park Conservancy. Every day, she works to restore, maintain and protect a 4-acre nature preserve that had been left untouched for decades.

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Hallett Nature Sanctuary, nestled in the southeast corner of the park and wrapped by the Pond, is a place that most people don't know exists.The Central Park Conservancy began offering guided tours of the area last fall, but now the public can explore the sanctuary freely during scheduled open hours.

Protected by a black chain link fence, the sanctuary was closed to the public in 1934 as part of an experiment: What would happen if a woodland area in the middle of a large city were left unmaintained?

Over time, invasive species such as Wisteria and Japanese knotweed began to spread and dominate the preserve.

“When we first came in here, it was completely overgrown,” said Neil Calvanese, vice president of operations for the conservancy. “You could hardly walk in spots. There was debris. There was garbage.”

In 2001, the conservancy began planning and managing a transformation.

“We had these lovely four acres in Manhattan closed to the public, so he said, ‘Let’s start controlling these plants. Let’s be proactive in removing the trees that don’t belong in here,’” Calvanese said.

With years of work by the conversancy’s gardeners, New Yorkers now have a place where they can escape the city and be immersed in nature within minutes.

“It’s very transportive. You have the traffic, 59th Street and Fifth Avenue, with a very different sound,” Blanchard said. “In here, what you hear is birds and water.”

Visitors on Tuesday will be able to see flowers such as the Jeffersonia diphylla or Uvularia grandiflora that have just sprouted thanks to the recent warm weather. They may also catch a wave of birds fly in.

By next month, the ferns and grasses will be higher and the trees will leaf out, Blanchard said.

And within a couple years, Calvanese envisions something totally different.

“I see great displays of trilliums, ferns and big banks of plantings all throughout here, with a few accent points for wildflowers,” Calvanese said.

“That’s what the hope is. So that it’s like you’re walking in a woodland, that it’s not contrived, but it’s like something you’d see 150 miles north of here.”

The conservancy is working to revive more parts of the sanctuary, with plans to bring in an irrigation pipe that will help the diverse palette of flowers to thrive.

The key is to keep the area protected.

“We are protected with the fence,” Blanchard said. “We don’t have 40 million people coming through here every year. A lot of these flowers have a short window of getting all their energy for the year, so if you have someone trampling on them, or someone’s dog going through, they’re not going to do that well.”

Open hours will be 1-3 p.m. on April 15, then every Tuesday during May. The schedule for June through August will be available on the Central Park Conservancy’s website.

“It’s going to be a real treat for the public,” Calvanese said. “We’re a block from 59th Street looking at wildflowers and ferns. Somehow, I think that’s a great thing.”

 
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