Volume 74, Number 55 | May 25 - 31 , 2005

Focus on Union Square

Villager photo by Josh Argyle

Ann Mullen by the flagpole in Union Sq. Park

Gardener finds her second career is growing on her

By Ellen Keohane

While many people pay off their debts or go on a vacation with their tax refund checks, gardener Ann Mullen spent hers on $1,000 worth of Japanese flowering cherry trees for Union Sq. Park, where she works.

“I couldn’t think of anything better to do with it,” said Mullen.

Unless it’s pouring rain, from mid-March through November you’ll find Mullen in Union Sq. Park five days a week from 7 a.m. until 3:30 p.m., and sometimes later. She started working as a gardener at the park last July.

“This is my dream job,” she said. “I never had a job before where I could hardly wait to get to work in the morning.”

A mother of three and grandmother of three, Mullen, 69, moved from Pennsylvania to New York seven years ago after retiring from Fischer Scientific Corporation, a chemical and lab supply manufacturer and distributor, where she was a manager in the customer support department. She had previously worked in New York City for Fischer, and always wanted to live here.

In addition to her office job, Mullen had been an avid gardener for more than 30 years. So when she moved into a West Village apartment without a yard, she immediately started volunteering at various city parks and street tree projects. Last summer, when Union Sq. Park’s gardener resigned to go back to graduate school, the Parks Department offered Mullen the job.

“I jumped at it,” she said.

On Friday afternoon, Mullen arranged white and pink vincas, red, pink and purple petunias and soft white dusty millers in a flowerbed next to the bronze George Washington statue facing 14th St. She wore a green Parks Department sweatshirt and jeans with dirt stains on the knees. As the light rain became heavier, Mullen put on her bright yellow raincoat and pulled the hood over her head.

“A rainy day is the best day for planting,” Mullen explained. “The plants don’t dry out.”

“I’ve never seen the park look this beautiful,” said Karen Shaw, executive director of the Union Square Partnership. “There’s been a noticeable difference and change because of Ann.” Shaw has been receiving e-mails from local residents praising the colorful changes taking place in the park.

Jonathan White, 49, also noticed the change. White has been selling cheese and bread at the Union Sq. farmers’ market every Friday for the past two years. “The grass is looking lovely,” he said to Mullen as he walked through the park with his dog Babka.

Over the past two years, the Union Square Partnership raised more than $45,000 in funding to improve the park, said Joe Tango, director of operations at the Partnership. Last fall, Mullen used some of that money to purchase and plant more than 30,000 tulip and daffodil bulbs, as well as 95 new cherry laurel evergreen shrubs. Of course, Mullen didn’t accomplish all of this alone. Her assistant Deborah Hulse and dozens of volunteers helped. Now that the tulips and daffodils have faded, Mullen plans to replace them with day lilies, she said.

Working in a city park has its share of challenges. In the afternoon, a lot of people lounge on the park’s lawns, so they can only water and mow early in the morning, Mullen said. Occasionally, there’s some vandalism and people don’t clean up after their dogs. But that’s expected in a city, she said.

One of Mullen’s greatest challenges is making the park more user-friendly and welcoming, she said. After all, the prettier the park is, the more people it will attract, she said. The triangle on the traffic island on the east side of the park, for example, used to be a haven for drug and alcohol abusers, Mullen said. People were afraid to walk by it at night. To combat the problem Mullen and Hulse thinned out the dense holly bushes bordering the triangle. They also planted flowers and small trees to make the space more inviting.

So far this year, they haven’t found any syringes in the triangle and more people are using the space, Mullen said. Indeed, despite the rain, six or so teenagers hung out in the triangle that afternoon. One practiced a back flip on the small oval lawn while his friends looked on.

“Ann is one of a kind,” Hulse said. Mullen comes in on her days off and stays late to finish projects, she said. “I don’t think the park would look like this — it just wouldn’t happen without Ann.”

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