Dennis Riordan will never forget the week in March where he and Menunkatuck Audubon Society pressed pause. The year started on a high note when the chapter received an Audubon in Action grant to establish a native plant nursery in New Haven, Connecticut. The project was set to put 1,200 native plants in the ground in New Haven, give an additional 600 no-cost plants to community members, and equip local high school and middle school students with basic carpentry and native plant nursery skills. Riordan and his chapter planned to start working in mid-March but, like everybody’s 2020 plans, that was thrown out the window.

In the subsequent months Riordan and project partners in the Community Placemaking and Engagement Network (CPEN) realized they had to adapt. Though Menunkatuck Audubon Society had experience growing, planting, and selling native shrubs and plants, CPEN had permission to use a city-owned lot to establish the nursery and a training program for young people. Riordan relied heavily on Doreen Abubakar’s expertise. As the founder of CPEN, a non-profit organization dedicated to repurposing vacant lots into green spaces, Abubakar knew the importance of these types of projects to communities like Newhallville, a densely populated New Haven neighborhood.

“There are 7,000 people within a one mile radius in Newhallville. The neighborhood is densely populated but an untapped community,” says Abubakar. “Establishing New Haven’s first native plant nursery is huge and something that we needed to do. The best kept secret is 'if you grow something, you can sell it.'”

As spring progressed and New Haven's coronavirus infection rates dropped, the two decided to start the development of the nursery. In mid-May, with social distancing and masks in place, Riordan, Abubakar, and two volunteer high-school students prepared a strip of a community garden located in Newhallville.

The whole process, from planting, repotting, and sowing to selling, took four months. At first, the group repotted 120 native perennial plugs from Sharon Audubon Center. In following days and weeks, Riordan purchased an additional 25 bare root shrubs and together with Abubakar and students, sowed four hundred seed starter cells from Cold Stream Nursery in Michigan. 

Volunteers and members of the Menunkatuck Audubon Society after a day of planting at the Urbanscapes Native Plant Nursery in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Courtesy of Menunkatuck Audubon Society

After monitoring the plants in June, July, and early August, the group prepared for their plant sale. Much like the early stages of adapting, Riordan and Abubakar adjusted again and sold plants online and scheduled ‘plant pickups’ at the newly established Urbanscapes Native Plant Nursery.

After the 'pickup plant sale day' the group continued to offer unsold plants and were able to give away about $2,500 worth of plants. Among the new native plant caretakers were several local organizations installing pollinator gardens, fellow Menunkatuck chapter members, and people who saw postings on social media. Menunkatuck used a portion of the earnings to provide a stipend for the students that assisted with the Urbanscapes project. The remaining funds will be used next year to help expand the nursery and provide no-cost plants for homeowners in Newhallville  

What’s in store for the group in the coming months? Menunkatuck Audubon Society and CPEN are currently working with the city of New Haven to continue their operations in the space or to relocate Urbanscapes Native Plant Nursery to a nearby lot just across the street.

Though the final project looked a bit different from Riordan’s grant proposal, his chapter and Abubakar’s organization achieved their goals of training young workers and making the New Haven community more bird-friendly. And in the process of adapting and (safely) working to establish the first native plant nursery in New Haven, the two organizations manifested Abubakar’s words, and the Community Placemaking and Engagement Network mission statement: “When a place looks cared for, it sends a message to the rest of the world that we have this, it’s ours and it makes us proud.”

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