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Cleaning Up Virginia Point

Udalls Cove Preservation Committee president's series of columns on the formation of northeast Queens.

In my previous two columns, I described – the most northerly part of the Udalls Cove nature preserve – and the commercial boatyards that had operated there until 1960. 

Since then, the area had become something of a wilderness so densely overgrown that it was almost impossible for visitors to get through and actually enjoy the park. 

In particular, an impenetrable thicket of invasive weeds and shrubs  - primarily mugwort and thorn bushes - occupied a parcel of land immediately north of the northern terminus of Little Neck Parkway. This parcel was the gateway, or access point, to the beautiful salt marsh that lies at the head of Udalls Cove and constitutes the majority of the acreage of the cove’s park. 

In 2009, the preservation committee undertook an ambitious project to restore that parcel. We wanted to do so in a way that would attract visitors to enjoy the fine views from the point or even to venture further out into the salt marsh itself. The committee hired a contractor to clear away the invasive vegetation that dominated the 5,500-square-foot parcel, and then cover it with woodchips and replant a wide variety of native trees, shrubs and flowers. 

The planting plan was designed by long-time Douglaston resident and preservation committee board member Tom Gaines, a gifted landscape architect who had worked on a number of the grand estates of Long Island’s fabled “Gold Coast.”

Tom’s plan included 14 different species including, redstem dogwood, shadblow, American holly, bayberry, red cedar, iris and black-eyed Susan, most of which bloom prettily at various times throughout the spring and summer.

Red oak, sweet gum and American elm trees have also been planted. Tragically, Tom died in late 2010. Udalls Cove Preservation Committee is proud that the Virginia Point restoration area is part of his legacy.

The contractor’s work was carried out in December 2009. As with all of the committee’s restoration work, the project was performed in accordance with environmental permits from the state and city.  For the first time in years, the wide vistas of the Udalls Cove salt marsh could be enjoyed by visitors. Several large rocks set at the northwest corner of the restoration area provide a comfortable vantage from which to observe the herons, egrets, ducks, geese, swans, kingfishers and osprey that abound in the marsh. 

The committee’s $17,000 investment in this replanting project and its other restoration work in the Virginia Point section of the park were severely threatened by the two natural events during the ensuing summer.

On June 24, 2010, an intense storm, variously described as a micro-burst or a tornado, swept across the Douglaston peninsula, continued through Virginia Point and then went on into Great Neck, Port Washington, and across the Sound to Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The storm brought down dozens of large trees in Douglaston and knocked over more than 50 trees of varying size - up to three feet in diameter - in Virginia Point. The trail system that the preservation committee had begun to establish through this area, described in my previous column, was completely blocked at both ends by downed trees. 

The second part of Mother Nature’s one-two punch came in the form of a drought lasting nearly three months, which badly stressed all our new plantings.

Starting in August 2010, volunteers watered the plantings once or twice per week by filling buckets in a nearby stream and carrying them back by hand to pour onto each tree and shrub. Thanks to this rescue effort, all but a few of the plantings survived.

Fortunately for the plants (if not necessarily for the residents), the summer of 2011 was as wet as the previous summer had been dry, so the shrubs and trees that had barely grown a few inches in 2010 are now as much as two feet taller.

In fact, the biggest challenge this year has been to keep under some degree of control the ever-encroaching weeds, particularly mugwort, so that the plantings can become fully established. 

Many hours were spent yanking out weeds and a fresh layer of woodchip mulch was spread over the site to help suppress weed growth, while continuing to improve the poor soil conditions that are the legacy of the old boatyard operations.

Stop back on Nov. 14 to read more about the Virginia Point trail system.

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