Share this article

print logo

Restoring nature's balance in our own backyards

I recently met with people from the Western New York Land Conservancy, Buffalo Niagara RiverKeepers and Groundwork Buffalo to talk about native plants projects. Their priorities are not quite the same as those of landscape professionals and gardeners, but they overlap in so many important ways that all of us gardeners, growers, landscapers and naturalists -- must work together toward education and change for the greater good.

I admire those who organize to protect habitat and water, and to reintroduce native species. It is especially wonderful to see the skills, knowledge and stamina of the younger environmentalists and naturalists stepping into leadership positions. Sometimes it seems that everything -- money, jobs, highways, petroleum interests, housing development, even recreation (jogging or bike paths, golf courses) -- trumps habitat protection.

As for food, society votes daily for cheap, unhealthful, inhumanely produced meat and mass-produced corn-based products, instead of systems that produce decent, healthy food choices from family farms. In short, shortsighted human interests often win over what is better for natural systems and for us in the long run.

What is a gardener or homeowner to do?

>Stewardship, one person at a time

As this question were weighing on me, I did what I always do for rebooting: I went for a walk in the woods with my dog. I started with my own acres, a former farm with many different kinds of regrowth, as the fields and woods attempt to rebound after a lot of human interference. When I moved here, I knew nothing about taking care of land except to let it be -- but I could have done so much better if I'd just known a few things.

What if I had worked 25 years ago to remove invasive plants when they were in small patches? Or if I'd taken steps to improve the woodlot to benefit wildlife -- release the black cherries and other precious hardwood trees when they were crowded out, for instance? We planted hundreds of spruces and pines, with a vague plan for Christmas tree production, where we might have made better choices. (No harm done; those that lived make nice groves that protect pheasants, rabbits and small birds.) It's complicated, and it's an illusion to think that no management is best, because it is not natural out there -- so much has upset nature's balance.

As for the creek and pond, I did learn from soil and water conservation educators not to cut the grass right to the edge of the pond (or creek). I learned that cattails and willows were appropriate water-edge habitat plants, but purple loosestrife, yellow-flag irises and phragmites are not welcome. I knew to keep synthetic fertilizers and pesticides far from water sources, but also that my own horses' manure was just as much of a problem if it ran downstream.

I've learned that land stewardship is not simple, and best management practices usually require money, time, energy or all of those. At the simplest level, I can take some steps to protect the creek and large trees, and remove some patches of invasive plants (Japanese honeysuckle, garlic mustard and multiflora rose for instance).

Also I can minimize my human disturbance, keeping mostly to this cleared walking trail. (I still remember entomologist Dr. Wayne Gall, on a creek hike, showing some crustaceans under a rock and then carefully replacing the rock. "Leave no footprint," he said.) And I can maintain more hedgerows with native plants and pasture and mow less lawn.

>Making choices

Most people don't have rural land, but the questions are similar for gardeners and homeowners: Where do we draw the line between gardens for our pleasure and nature-friendly territory? Am I not allowed my treasured collection of non-native perennials and an exotic yard tree? How far can we each go toward naturalized landscapes using native plants, and remain socially acceptable?

The fact is, we have to make some changes, as a culture, in our expectations of what a home landscape should look like. Nationwide, we use nearly 95 percent nonnative plants for landscaping. Habitat loss, endangered species and extinction rates have reached alarming proportions.

So, what shall we do? A good start is to know your own patch of land and ask these questions: What native plants would be appropriate here? If there are wet areas, trees, or open areas, what do they contribute? What non-native, invasive species can you suppress? In a city, what can you plant and how can you arrange it to support pollinators, birds and other native wildlife? What is your watershed impact?

In short, how can we manage our property to be part of the solution, rather than adding to the problem? We all have choice. And how heartening it is to meet so many individuals and organized movements that are trying. Large or small, we are all land stewards.

Sally Cunningham is a master gardener.