“A lot of problems with the health of our planet are being addressed by attempts to minimize human impact, which is good,” said Bryan Quinn of One Nature, an environmental landscaping firm in Beacon. “But I also want to focus on how to maximize positive impact.”
Quinn has applied environmental principles to such diverse projects as the Etsy corporate headquarters rooftop garden in Brooklyn, an agro-ecological master plan for the Bee Farm in the Catskill Creek watershed, the Ash Creek ecological dune restoration in Bridgeport, CT, and the currently in-progress Beacon pollinator project. The same earth-friendly principles that guided these efforts can be used by homeowners in their own landscaping, to encourage bees and butterflies that pollinate many food plants, conserve or manage water, and reduce our carbon footprint.
Plant a meadow
You can do your bit to help counter the widely acknowledged decline in the bee population by cultivating more pollinator-friendly plants —which are largely absent from lawns. Quinn encourages his clients to minimize their lawn area and grow meadows instead. The feasibility of this conversion depends on where you live. Many suburban areas ban tall grasses, and even in the country your close neighbors may not be pleased to see you turn your lawn into a meadow.
“If you do it little by little,” said Quinn, “the neighbors won’t be shocked. The key is to do it in a controlled manner that is going to look good as an end result.” Some people convert only ten percent to half their lawn, with a clear boundary demarcated. Others turn over the back yard to meadow and keep a lawn in front.
The simplest approach to establishing a meadow is to let your lawn grow out. The full-grown grasses will soon be mixed with wildflowers of all kinds.
A more intentional design involves laying waste cardboard (those boxes from UPS and your new TV, dismantled) on top of the grass and adding six inches of wood chips or mulch. Herbaceous plugs — ready-to-plant seedlings — can be installed by poking holes in the cardboard. The grass-smothering cardboard breaks down in three or four weeks and will be totally decayed within a year, while your meadow grows above.
“We use only native plants that would’ve been in New York State when Henry Hudson sailed up the river,” said Quinn. “The animal community has adapted to those plants over thousands of years. The monarch butterfly only nests on milkweed, butterflyweed or swamp milkweed.” Native plants are also adapted to our climate. After the first few weeks of establishing roots, they don’t need extra water, and they will flourish in sun to full shade. He recommends native grasses, such as little and big bluestem, and plants such as goldenrod, native rudbeckias, asters, monarda, heliopsis (our indigenous sunflower), and vines, including native clematis and Virginia creeper.
In the Hudson Valley, deer ticks are a concern, but carefully scheduled mowing or weed-whacking can minimize the tick population. Mowing in mid-May coincides with a key breeding time for deer ticks, eliminating the tall plants they use for egg laying. A second mowing in late fall spreads around the wildflower seeds and discourages the sprouting of trees that would tend to move the meadow in the direction of forest.
Parents often feel lawns are essential for kids to run around on, and Quinn agrees that children may benefit from a small lawn, adding, “But there’s a whole different type of play that happens in forests and meadows or on paths.”
Best of all, a meadow saves money and work. Less mowing means consuming less gasoline and spewing less pollutants into the air and soil. Once plants are established, they require no watering in most habitats, conserving water supplies. Meadows are self-sustaining, without a need for commercial fertilizers and the attendant chemical pollution. By supporting more plant mass than a lawn, a meadow absorbs more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing, one meadow at a time, the impact of climate change.
Quinn makes exceptions to native plantings when it comes to edible trees and hedgerows. “In my grand utopian scheme, we have to have agriculture,” he said, “so we can’t limit to ourselves to native plants. Fruits also feed the wildlife.”
Instead of planting exotic ornamentals, consider apples, pears or pawpaws. The luscious pawpaw, or custard-apple, is better-known in the South, but Quinn says the trees can grow in the Hudson Valley. Juneberry (a.k.a. serviceberry or shadbush) yields floppy white flowers in early spring and tasty sweet berries in June. Elderberry, mulberry, and Asian pear will also do well locally.
If your property is large enough, you might consider building a small wetland by collecting water from your roof in a downspout and conveying it to a low point on the land. “I work a lot with permaculture design,” said Quinn. “One of its principles is to keep water on your property. I built a wetland in the middle of someone’s 2000-square-foot vegetable garden. The water goes into the soil and moves laterally, doing a passive job of keeping the garden soils moist. It also creates an opportunity for esthetic design. If you have a square or circular or teardrop-shaped wetland, juxtaposed against meadow or lawn or a paved area, it gives more diversity to the eye.”
Wetlands support plantings of native ferns, switchgrass, rushes, and blue flag iris.
To assist in devising and implementing master plans for parks and farms, One Nature also maintains a native plant nursery. “We collect seeds from the Catskills to get the most local genetics we can,” Quinn explained, “and we deliver them to jobsites. Our biggest client now is the New York City Department of Environmental Protection. It’s often cheaper to plant along stream edges than to manage the silt that erosion causes downstream.” Streamside landowners can also prevent erosion by planting stream banks with willow, alder, red-osier dogwood, and other water-loving species.
Sometimes we feel helpless in the face of ecological problems, but the more we consider the environment in making our decisions the better chance we have of keeping the planet vibrant.