It's prime gardening season. While we strive to create perfect yards and geranium beds that would make even the Jones’ jealous, some of our favorite trees and plants may be wreaking havoc on the local habitat.
Understanding the symbiotic relationship between plant, animal, and insects
Petroleum based fertilizers and pesticides can contaminate runoff, becoming harmful to local rivers and creeks. Lawnmower and gas-powered machines can contribute to air pollution. But it goes beyond that.
To understand why native landscaping is a practice to be adopted, we must first begin to look past our own front yard, if we are to see it for what it really is. Even if an exotic plant can thrive in our local environment, it does not necessarily mean that native animals or insectshave adapted to benefit from it. People often forget the symbiotic relationship between plants, animals, and bugs, as Pete Muroski points out.
Owner of Native Landscapes,located in Pawling, Muroski encourages his clients (and the public) to become more educated about native plants and their relationship with local wildlife. “It goes beyond being green,” he says. “People need to understand the science behind how [native landscaping] works.”
To illustrate what he means, Muroski gives the example of the monarch butterfly, which cocoons on native Northeast milkweed.
“If you plant tropical milkweed, the monarchs don’t know the difference,” he explains. “They’ll cocoon on this, but won’t get the nutritional value they need to go through their whole metamorphous, and they’ll just shrivel up and die.”
Monarchs, although a large species, are in danger of extinction because of the destruction of native milkweed. Read more about it here.
Another plant that Muroski cites is the Cornus racemosa, commonly referred to as gray dogwood. It's a wild shrub found in fields and meadows along the east coast. In the fall, the shrub grows a small berry, which is loaded with protein that is beneficial to migrating birds.
“If it wasn’t for the gray twig dogwood, many of our migrating birds wouldn’t be able to make it across the Chesapeake Bay.”
Clover, which people mow in the attempt to create golf course like lawns, also serves a important function to the local wildlife, according to Muroski. Clover contains pollen, which bees use to make honey. Clover roots are nitrogen fixers, taking nitrogen through from the air, filtering it through the plant and back into the soil.This process helps plants to flourish. No clovers, means no bees and no healthy soil for the plants.
Invasive Plants and Why They’re Problematic
It isn’t enough to keep native plants in the soil. Invasive plants also have a heavy impact on homeland plants and wildlife. When Europeans migrated to the United States, they brought their native plants with them. Although beautiful, many of these plants now threaten native species. One problematic plant is the Norway Maple. Norway Maples, have "no ecological significance in the landscape," says Muroski. They also crowd out native maples.
Muroski sites Barberry as problematic. Brought over from Japan, the plant was once used as a natural fence, thanks to its offensive taste to goats and sheep. Today, the plant is overgrown and can be found in woodland areas. Ticks thrive in these plants, because of the thick thorns that prevent birds from going in and eating them. Clearly, this has not helped the lyme disease problem.
It’s not impossible to have a beautiful lawn while remaining mindful of the living creatures and native plants surrounding it. Native landscapers like Muroski are becoming more readily available. Jessi Terzi, owner of New Eco Landscapes,located in Brooklyn, uses organic fertilizers and pesticides for lawn care. All machinery used is gas-free. The company uses onsite grass clipping and debris for mulch, which helps reduce waste and cost.Like Muroski, Terzi also uses plants that are local.
“Whenever we are doing a landscape, we use plants and trees that are completely native, meaning they’ve been growing in the New York State region for the last 150 to 200 years,” Terzi explains.
Along with designing gorgeous landscapes and green roofs, Terzi has also created a way to collect gray water and rain water, and distribute it to the lawn. The Blue Eco system, which uses UV filter and a small amount of electricity to operate, collects water from the roof, tub, and even toilet. After purifying it, the water can be reused.
While some may be concerned about the price of having environmentally friendly lawn, natural landscapers like Terzi and Muroski agree that the concern is unnecessary. Because native plants are specific to the region, they do not need to be excessively watered or tended.
Those who are looking to get their green thumbs dirty can easily transform their gardens and yards into something more environmentally conscious.
Barbara Restaino, a member of the NY Upstate Chapter of the US Green Building Council and owner of Restaino Design, Landscape Architects, has ten tips that everyone can follow.
1. Become educated about native plants and non-native plants
“You really need to look at plants, and be able to discriminate the different varieties,” Restaino suggests. The internet provides a large resource for those who want to become more proactive about creating a native landscape. She recommends that those who want to arm themselves with more knowledge visit USDA Plant Database and the New York Botanical Garden. She also advises to search out a local corporative extension master gardener program.
2. Focus on learning about invasive plants, and how to remove them from your landscape
Websites for the New England Wild Flower Society, and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden provide excellent information on invasive plants. After identifying what Restaino calls “garden thugs” it’s important to not make the mistake of buying another invasive species in a nursery. For that reason, education remains key.“It’s not rocket science,” Restaino says. “You just need to know the top ten invasive plants to really start to have a knowledge of removing them from your landscape.”
3. Allow water to enter into the ground
When paving walkways and driveways, choose permeable pavement. Creating a rain garden from the water that comes from a roof can also be helpful. When rainwater falls, instead of running into a gutter or storm sewer, it can go back into the earth.
4. Plant trees for shading
Planting deciduous trees, especially in urban areas where there is a lot of blacktop, can prevent a “heat island” effect, according to Restaino.Try planting the trees on the southern or southwestern exposure of a property, where there tends to be more heat. During the summer, the trees will help block excess sun and during the winter, when they lose their leaves, they provide a passive solar effect.
5. Use Evergreen Windbreaks
If a property is large enough to plant the trees, Evergreen windbreaks can help to prevent wind from taking heat from housing. Restaino recommends planting the trees on the Northwest side of your property.
6. Use Rain Water Collection for Irrigation
Rain water collection is when runoff from the roof, or any impervious surfaces is stored for later use. The process can be as easy as taking a barrel and placing it beneath the spout of a gutter. Restaino suggests removing the barrel during the winter months, and covering it with a lid to prevent it from becoming a breeding ground to mosquitoes. For larger gardens, underground collection, which involves plastic tanks, can be useful. For more info on options of rain water collection, click here.
7. Reduce Lawn Areas
Large lawn areas take longer to mow and require more energy. While lawns do not require a lot of fertilizers and herbicides, many people use them.Herbicides and fertilizers can build up in the ground, killing the microbes. This creates a sterile environment where bugs and birds cannot live. Pollutants affect water runoff and degrade water quality.“I think that America has an obsession with their perfect lawn, which is misdirected,” she says. “There are so many consequences to using the weed and feed type fertilizers. They’re fairly toxic, even to humans.”
Restaino suggests using organic herbicides and fertilizers, which can be found in most farm and garden stores.Another alternative is to reduce the area of the lawn by replacing with tree, shrub, and ground cover. This will not only make your lawn look more interesting, but it will create a natural landscape that will attract more wildlife, such as birds.
8.Don’t Use Landscape Fabric
Landscape fabric is often made from plastic filters. It doesn’t stop weeds from growing and prevents the flowers from spreading. Restaino recommends using newspaper instead. After wetting it, place it down on the ground. It will allow the flowers to spread and attack the weeds. Because the papers are printed with soy ink, they are not harmful to the plants or ground. For those who have extra time and larger yards, Restaino recommends using cardboard.
9. Understand How Tree Roots Grow
People often forget that trees grow horizontally. The roots are sensitive, so it’s important to avoid doing construction around or over them. Even mowing over top of them can be harmful. Restaino recommends sectioning them off with a fence. A pretty alternative is to place mulch around the base. This will not only help to keep your lawnmower from accidentally mowing on top of the roots, but will also keep the lawn from competing with the roots for space.
10. Plant for Biodiversity
Not all invasive plants are bad, Restaino makes clear. She personally loves her lilies. The trick is to learn and avoid the ones that are harmful and aggressive. When choosing native plants, if possible try to choose rare ones. You’ll be helping to “protect the gene pool.” Make sure the nurseries you purchase plants from are “nursery propagated.”
For additional reading on plants and creating a native landscape, check out the following site and books:
Bringing Nature Home: How Native Plants Sustain Wildlife in Our Gardens, by Douglas W. Tallamy
Second Nature, by Michael Pollan
The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth, by E.O. Wilson
Arboretum America: A Philosophy of the Forest, by Diana Beresford-Kroegar
Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies
Natural Audubon Society
Natural Wildlife Federation
New Eco Landscapes
22 Schermerhorn, Brooklyn, NY 11201
991 Route 22, Pawling, NY 12564
Restaino Design, Landscape Architects PC
290 Main St., Grahamsville, NY 12740
Garden Gate Landscape & Design
PO Box 195 Rhinecliff, NY 12574
Amber Freda Home and Garden Design