“To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” This horticulturist’s adage is especially applicable to the imagination and determination that created 172-year-old Van Vorst Park from the ground up.
With more than 65 different species of trees, 275 types of perennials, and thousands of tulip, daffodil and iris bulbs, the Jersey City park is blossoming in a big way these days. In March, it was awarded level 1 arboretum status—a coveted accreditation granted only to educationally focused parks with numerous and diverse flora.
“Here, you’ll find unusual plantings like a rare Franklin tree, a pair of 100-foot-tall dawn redwoods and a valuable copper beech tree,” says master gardener Marc Wesson, president of the nonprofit Friends of Van Vorst Park.
Stroll through the 1.8-acre parcel, deeded by Cornelius Van Vorst in 1835, and you’ll experience a family-friendly venue surrounded by ornate brick and brownstone row houses. The area was expertly landscaped by florist and horticulturist Peter Henderson in 1851 when it became a formal Victorian city park, which led the way for unprecedented local growth. However, the park’s history hasn’t been a bed of roses. In 1906, after a tornado ripped out most of the plantings, the area languished for 80 years.
“When we first moved here in 1987, my kids couldn’t play in the park because it was drug-infested, full of mud and hypodermic needles,” says Wesson, who lives right across the street and has helped maintain the park for the last 23 years. “For a few years, some of us from the neighborhood tried to bring the park back, but people kept stealing the plants,” he says.
Things began to change in 1993, when community leader Clifford Waldeman established Friends of Van Vorst Park and then, in 2005, founded the Jersey City Parks Coalition. Working with local park advocates, Waldeman got traction that helped secure a $1.6 million Green Acres Fund grant. That seed money resulted in a fountain, gazebo, playground, sprinklers, new walkways and 19 empty gardens. A dog run, sprayground and pet-free lawns were added in recent years.
“After the park’s renovation in 1999, the Friends of Van Vorst Park planted and now maintain all the gardens, contributing our own time and money,” says Wesson. “We also host weddings, summer movie nights and a Halloween event. Our farmers market is open every Saturday year-round, with 100 percent of collected fees going back into the park.”
Notably, only a small group of green-thumbs comprise the Friends of Van Vorst Park. These grassroots volunteers plant, trim and prune—and also rake a whopping 400 bags of leaves each fall. While some trees have been donated by local residents and organizations, about 75 percent were funded and planted exclusively by the Friends of Van Vorst Park. Wesson himself spends 1,000 hours each year contributing labor and handling the park’s paperwork.
“We’re always looking for volunteer garden enthusiasts, from Jersey City or elsewhere, to help maintain the gardens or suggest ways we can improve our verdant oasis within this urban setting,” says Wesson. “I’m happy to say that Van Vorst Park has changed this neighborhood for the better.”
He adds, “People actually move here because of our park.”
IF YOU GO: Van Vorst Park is located at 281 Montgomery Street in Jersey City. The farmers market takes place year-round on Saturdays, 8 am–2 pm. In June, the rose garden is in full bloom. To volunteer or for information, visit fvvp.org or follow @vanvorstparkJC on Instagram.
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