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Greenery emerges from dust near Ground Zero

From Beth Nissen

NEW YORK (CNN) -- When the collapse of the World Trade Center towers sent 2 million tons of pulverized concrete and ash into the air, some of it landed on the gardens of the Battery Park City Parks Conservancy -- 30 acres of lawns, plants and trees at the southern tip of Manhattan.

Tens of thousands of plants were encrusted with dust, much of it gypsum and concrete, which chief horticulturist T. Fleisher feared would choke the plants.

"The leaves need oxygen, and of course this caked-on material doesn't allow the oxygen to get to the roots," said Fleisher, who estimates that about two-thirds of the park was covered in the debris.

Conservancy staff members -- from the horticulturists to the secretaries -- went to work, cleaning the garden's 400 species of trees, shrubs and plants.

"We picked out the major debris by hand, and then got the rest up with rakes, and hoses sprinkling it down," he said.

New Yorkers are working to restore the gardens of lower Manhattan and wash away the memory of the attacks. CNN's Beth Nissen reports (November 6)

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When damp, the dust formed a layer, like felt, that could be picked off mulch and topsoil in clumps, and then discarded. Getting the fallout off lawns was harder. Even after the debris was removed, dust coated every blade of grass. Workers tried to clean the grass with water, brooms, even industrial vacuum cleaners.

"We tried vacuum cleaners and it didn't pick it up. So we basically came in with a sod-cutter, cut all the lawn, rolled it up, hauled it off and put down new sod," he said.

Within a month, workers had removed 125 tons of debris and dust-crusted material. But the gardeners had deeper worries about the soil. Park soil started out as landfill excavated from the World Trade Center site, and it was carefully enriched over the years, using only organic fertilizers and compost.

'A real sign of hope'

The conservancy has done baseline tests to see if the dust from the pulverized buildings has upset the soil balance. So far, preliminary results show no elevated levels of harmful heavy metals -- lead, cobalt, arsenic -- and no decrease in beneficial bacteria and fungi that help sustain the park.

Fleisher also did a dirt-cheap test of his own: He looked for earthworms.

"If there was anything really bad in that soil, invertebrates would be the first to be affected by that," he said. "When you see these guys peeking out, looking for air, well that's a real sign of hope."

Hope is growing throughout the park. In garden beds covered in ash just weeks ago, there are signs of new life. Just yards from Ground Zero, which still smolders, bamboo and crab apple trees do their leafy magic by cleaning the air.

Somehow, the gardens still bloom, with salvia and spider flowers, the last of the summer roses and the first of the winter holly. Even fragile plants have held up through the smoke and ash.

"Certainly a garden to me is a metaphor -- of hope, of healing. And health," he said. "The soil and the plants are healthy. Life is going on."


• Battery Park City Parks Conservancy

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