The light, the vistas, and the bounty are what attract many to the bucolic East End, and locals will do whatever it takes to help preserve and maintain our natural resources.
For a few years now, we have been learning that bees are disappearing. In fall 2006, the Environmental Protection Agency reported that United States beekeepers had lost from 30 to 90 percent of their hives’ worker and drone bees. The mysterious condition (adult bees leaving and never returning) was dubbed Colony Collapse Disorder. Since then, research has pointed to neonicotinoid pesticides as the main culprit. In December 2013, the European Union banned the use of neonicotinoids for two years at the urging of its beekeepers and agriculturalists. But the US didn’t follow that lead. Without bees, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reports that the US stands to lose $15 billion worth of crops every year. We certainly can’t resort to pollinating trees by hand, as farmers do with apple and pear orchards in southwest China, where intensive pesticide applications eliminated most of the region’s bee populations. This summer we also are reminded of the importance of eating locally grown food, especially because the drought in California, the worst on record, is in its fourth year. As a result, more than 400,000 acres of Californian agricultural land were left fallow last year, with losses of more than $1.5 billion. “If we want fruits,” says Dr. Dennis VanEngelsdorp, a University of Maryland assistant professor and director of the Bee Informed Partnership, “we need a healthy bee population. We can all contribute by buying local honey and planting pollinator meadows.”
The Long Island Native Plant Initiative (LINPI) has been dedicated to maintaining biodiversity since its founding as a grassroots, word-of-mouth group in 2005. “Now we are a nonproft, mostly volunteer cooperative of more than 30 nonproft organizations,” says Polly Weigand, LINPI’s executive director. “Every season, through the Soil & Water Conservation District, we organize workshops, consult on planting and maintaining native meadows, and advise how to control invasive species. We use a much smaller lawn area than we think, so part of it can be easily transformed into a native meadow. We can have our lawns and meadows!”
Because it’s not a monoculture, a meadow is an elaborate composition of color, light, and texture. We see only a small portion of its ecosystem of grasses, sedges, mosses, lichens, perennials, and bulbs. “So much activity happens in the soil,” says Weigand. Native plant diversity supports the lives of bees, birds, butterfies, and vital soil microbial activity. It also contributes to the production of great wine, an important Long Island crop. Richard Olsen-Harbich, winemaker for Bedell Cellars in Cutchogue, uses an acre of native meadow to produce an outstanding 80 acres’ worth of grapes. “Insect-pollinated fowers have higher yeast levels,” says Olsen-Harbich. “When insects pollinate grapes that are surrounded by insect-pollinated plants, it augments the yeast content in the fruit, which adds character to wine.”
Wölffer Estate Vineyard in Sagaponack also uses a native meadow to protect the vineyard foor. Richie Pisacano, Wölffer’s vineyard manager, says that when he frst started working in 1997, “the soil had an unnatural density from years of repeated tilling.” After almost two decades of growing a meadow in between rows of grape vines, the soil has a healthy bounce. “Great soil pushes back,” Pisacano says. To be a part of the Long Island Sustainable Winegrowing association, “you have to have an ecological plan. We planted two rows of hedges around the property, and our meadow has 40 different wildfowers.”
Keep the Buzz Going
For most of us, the mental image of a meadow is a bucolic pasture sprinkled with soft fowers. A native meadow is not a medieval tapestry scene; its beauty derives from the beauty of pure energy, buzzing with life. A perfectly manicured garden means fewer fowers, shelter, and nesting materials for pollinators.
“There are 4,000 native species of bees in this country,” says VanEngelsdorp. Eastern carpenter bees or wood-boring bees are harmless to humans. “Encourage them by creating softwood nests. The bees will not attack finished wood,” he advises. A bright-green garden is often deceptively unhealthy, kept alive by copious amounts of pesticides and fertilizer, with half an ecosystem missing.
“Wilderness with a bit of design can be very romantic,” says Victoria Fensterer, an award-winning landscape designer in Amagansett. Fensterer greatly favors natural meadows and stays away from invasive plants. Many ornamental cultivars that don’t produce viable seeds, like Japanese barberry, butterfy bush, or maiden grass, are still aggressively escaping cultivation into the wild. Good alternatives to these are weigela (although not native, it’s not invasive either), summersweet, and little bluestem grass. If you have any invasive plants and can’t pull them out all at once, you can replace them in sections, or make sure you don’t let them go to seed.
“Native plants are generally healthier and last longer than nonnative species,” says Frederico Azevedo, owner of Unlimited Earth Care, a landscape-design frm in Bridgehampton. Dogwoods or inkberry holly are great understory trees to red oaks, magnolias, maples, and Eastern white pines.
Tips From The Talented
To keep plants healthy, Azevedo recommends adding chicken manure and compost in spring, and lime, as needed. Although a lawn does not consist of native grasses, you can keep it healthy by not mowing it too short or overwatering it. “The best way to fertilize the lawn is to spread a thin layer of aged manure or compost over the entire area,” Azevedo advises. “Add corn gluten early in the season or just weed by hand. It’s not just safer, it’s also less expensive.” Even if a garden is not completely native, it can use plants that don’t impact the environment negatively. Russian sage or mountain feece are drought-tolerant fowering perennials that are great for color and structure.
This year, the National Pollinator Garden Network started the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge throughout the country to help revive bees, butterfies, birds, bats, and other populations of pollinators. Competitive gardeners, or simply responsible citizens too shocked by the sad state of some ecosystems—including tens of thousands of fish in the Peconic River killed by wastewater treatment plants and fertilizer used on lawns—can add their pollinator-friendly gardens to an interactive US map. The plan is to keep gardeners engaged from spring through fall—from planting and photographing pollinators to fnally collecting seed before the frst frost. Right now only a few Long Island nurseries are participating in the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge, so this is the perfect time to cultivate your competitive gardener’s edge.
Throughout spring and summer, LINPI organizes plant sales to support its programs, which include collecting native seeds for the Greenbelt Native Plant Center’s Regional Seed Bank in Staten Island. Weigand encourages residents and visitors to participate in the seed collection because “it’s a great way to learn about our local ecosystem. You don’t have to plant a full meadow; even a few a native plants contribute to biodiversity.”