The Great Gardener of Theodore Roosevelt Park

Ada Ubinas, the gardener at Theodore Roosevelt Park, smiles her broad smile when she tells a visitor that she’s “a people person”. Anyone who has spent time in the park knows that she is, most definitely, “a plant person” as well. 

Ubinas, an employee of the New York City Department of Parks, holds the civil service rank of G-2 Gardener, a barebones title that doesn’t reflect her absolute and complete passion for horticulture and the park that she cares for. For the past two years, Ubinas has been looking after the grounds and gardens that surround the American Museum of Natural History, an open space that, according to the Parks Department, gets hundreds of thousands of visitors a year. In a recent 90 minute conversation, it was obvious just how much she loves both her work and her workplace. Her previous garden gigs, before Theodore Roosevelt, were at City Hall, Gracie Mansion and Fort Tryon Park. 

Starting the day
Ubinas is up at 4:30 every morning, goes to the gym and then heads to Randall’s Island to pick up her truck at 6:00 for the drive to the Upper West Side. She’s usually outside working, but sometimes she needs to be inside, doing the required paperwork. Her mini-office is located in the back of the parking garage and is decorated with lots and lots of photos of her gardens in full summer bloom and group pictures of the kids she works with who are part of GreenLife sponsored by the Rudin Foundation, a job-training partnership between the Park and a nearby high school, Urban Assembly for Green Careers

Born in the Bronx, Ubinas moved to East 28th Street and came uptown to go to Brandeis High School. It is a happy coincidence that the kids she works with in the GreenLife program go to a school housed in the Brandeis building. “Isn’t it funny how I came back?” (GreenLife and the kids who are in it deserve their own post, so that will come in the next issue of the newsletter.) 

Winning an award
When Ubinas first decided that she’d like to work for the Parks Department, she signed up for as many “hort” classes as she could. She researched and she studied and when a civil service job as gardener opened up, she took the exam which she described as “very difficult, very comprehensive.” Just a few months ago, she received the Department’s Garden of the Month citation at a ceremony in the Arsenal, the NYC Park’s headquarters. 

When asked to comment on the reason that Ubinas was chosen for the award, Liam Kavanagh, First Deputy Commissioner of NYC Parks said, “Gardens serve New Yorkers of all backgrounds – they educate, soothe, inspire and re-energize us. And they wouldn’t exist without the passion and dedication of gardeners like Ada Ubinas. We were pleased to honor Ada’s work in Theodore Roosevelt Park as one of our Gardens of the Month for 2018. The work she does to beautify and better the park and its gardens keeps our environment healthy and brings people together.”

Planning for a new season 
When we interviewed Ubinas, she was in the midst of putting in her orders for the coming season. It is her responsibility to order the plants and trees and in many cases, she gets to decide what will go where. She has to stick to a budget and likes to deal with a nursery in Long Island because “they’re flexible and patient. I order the plants, the tools, all of it, right before planting season in April or May. ”

Explaining a vision
Ubinas has a very specific vision for what she wants her park to look like. She is most interested in “color, texture and form”. She wants it all to be “interesting in every season. Even in winter I want people to have something pleasing to look at.” She explains that that can be “stems, or the color of foliage on a bush. I want visitors to see nicely mulched edges, to know that  what they’re looking at is well taken care of.

“I want to create welcoming gardens, I want to draw you in.” After all, she said with a smile, “I don’t want them to go to Central Park! I like symmetry and try to keep visitor’s eyes focused on the plantings...I don’t like garden walls. I want clear sight lines, I want the lawns to be manicured and I like a balance of lawns and trees. Gardens should be for everyone.” 

Choosing favorites
Her favorite public gardens? “Battery Park and the High Line. Piet Oudolf, the designer of High Line is a huge favorite of mine; another is the Brazilian Roberto Burle Marx. He’s an artist with plants. I love Fort Tryon Park, too. It’s a dream park. I like the way they hit the four seasons there.... What I would love to see here in the park would be a native plant garden. I’d plant butterfly weed, osage, witch hazel, blue stripe, asters.”

Meeting challenges
One of her greatest joys is bringing ailing plants and trees back to life. “If a plant or tree isn’t doing well, I like to figure out what the problem is and come up with a solution. When I got here I had to deal with a major water problem down by the dog run and I worked it out. I like the challenge.”

Ubinas works in the park every day for nine months of the year--in the winter she joins some of her fellow gardeners to do street tree pruning all over the city. That’s when she gets to see her friends and although she enjoys that part of her job, she’s glad to be back in the park now, tending to her trees, plants and grass and planning for what the spring and summer will bring. 

Here’s what Peter Wright, Co-President of  Friends of Theodore Roosevelt Park, says about Ubinas and the work she does: “When our partners in the Parks Department assigned Ada Ubinas as the Roosevelt Park gardener, they gave us three gifts-in-one! Ada has deep horticultural knowledge; she's not afraid to get her hands dirty, digging, planting, pruning and weeding. And, thirdly, she's a superb teacher and mentor to the 10 paid high school interns in our GreenLife job-readiness program, who contributed 4000 hours of Park maintenance labor last year.”

Ada's tips for exploring the park this spring
With spring having just arrived, we asked Ubinas what signs of the new season visitors should be looking for right now in the Park. Her answer is a list of five of her springtime “greatest hits”: the blooming of the magnolia trees at 81st Street and Columbus Avenue; the “pinkefying” of  the crepe myrtles down by the dog run; the appearance of the blue, white and pink hydrangeas all around the park at the end of April; the start of azalea season; and the return of the subtly colored hellebores, one of the surest signs that spring has finally arrived on the Upper West Side. And while you're at the park, check on the progress of the three prunus sargentii trees more commonly known as sargent cherry trees-- that Ubinas planted two weeks ago on West 77th Street.

Roosevelt Park