Pictured Above: Volunteers, including students from Southold Elementary School, helped restore the Custer Preserve garden, with help from a grant from ReWild Long Island, in the fall of 2023.

Anyone who’s watched the asphalt of an abandoned shopping center crack and fill with Queen Anne’s lace and chicory, mugwort and goldenrod knows that nature will reclaim its territory whenever given a chance.

A human movement is sweeping this country looking to guide the process of rewilding, without the invasive weeds that have been a side effect of our colonization of the world. This movement has now taken deep root on the East End.

An overflow crowd packed in to the upstairs conference room in the Southold Free Library Jan. 8 for the inaugural meeting of the North Fork chapter of ReWild Long Island, a Port Washington-based non-profit that provides grants for native and food gardens and support for summer high school internship programs, as well as holding native plant sales, seed swaps and informational lectures.

ReWild is part of a growing worldwide effort to help enable anyone to plant a plot of land with native and organic plants, providing essential habitat for the creatures that share our world and restoring lands and waters that have been damaged by our past land use practices.

Organizers of the chapter had already met with new Southold Town Supervisor Al Krupski “on his first full day in office, and we identified two areas of town property that can be rewilded,” said Nancy DePas Reinertsen, a Cornell Cooperative Extension-trained Master Gardener who is spearheading the new chapter, at the inaugural meeting. Those areas are at the rear entrance to Southold Town Hall and at the town’s Recreation Center on Peconic Lane.

Vine Church, the North Fork United Methodist Church on the corner of Hortons Lane and Route 48 in Southold, has also expressed interest in partnering with ReWild on a garden, as has the Peconic Community School in Cutchogue and Johanna’s Hope, a Baiting Hollow farm that provides learning opportunities for people with developmental challenges.

Vine Church was completed in 2019, and had to plant two acres of grass surrounding the church in order to get their certificate of occupancy, said Pastor Tom MacLeod, who was at the January ReWild meeting. 

“We knew it was untenable, from an economical and ecological perspective,” he said, adding that the church has hired a landscape designer to work with them on the garden project.

Ms. Reinertsen said ReWild is looking for a two to three-year commitment of volunteers from its partner groups to maintain the gardens, as well as a source of water for the first two years to give the plants a healthy start.

“ReWild did 12 gardens last year, and their goal is 20 this year,” she said.

Groups interested in starting a ReWild Garden in a location that is open and accessible to the public can fill out an online application at www.rewildlongisland.org/gardens. Applications will be accepted on a first-come, first serve basis.

At the Custer Preserve Project in Southold

Many members of the North Fork group have been involved with the North Fork Pollinator Pathway, which has worked with the Southold Peconic Civic Association to restore the Custer Preserve Arboretum Native Garden next to the Custer Institute Observatory in Southold and held seed swaps and garden tours over the past year.

Over an eight-month period beginning in April 2023, Southold Town permitted volunteers to clear away an area over 3,600 square feet choked with invasive plants, including poison ivy.

It was the first ReWild Long Island native garden on the North Fork, and they’re hoping it will be the first of many. ReWild Long Island has more than a dozen gardens island-wide, either only native plants as at Custer or edible gardens surrounded by native pollinator plants.

In addition to supporting gardens, the group is also planning a spring native plant sale and a garden tour on the North Fork, and is working to develop a summer internship program. Vine Church’s summer youth program and the Peconic Community School have already expressed interest in the summer program, said Mary Morgan, a founder of the East End’s Slow Food chapter who is now helping to launch the North Fork ReWild chapter.

“All the North Fork schools have gardens, and they need help when the schools are closed,” suggested new Southold Town Councilwoman Anne Smith, a former Superintendent of the Mattituck-Cutchogue School District, who was at the inaugural ReWild chapter meeting. She added that Mattituck High School has an agriculture program and a Future Farmers club that might be interested in getting involved.

The South Fork ReWild chapter ran a successful student internship program in the summer of 2023, involving students at East Hampton High School.

Ms. Morgan added that the ReWild chapter can get involved with composting programs. The South Fork chapter partnered last year with East Hampton Town on a food scrap composting program. She said the North Fork chapter can also participate in public education at local environmental events such as Slow Food’s Earth Day celebration in April and the Peconic Land Trust’s Peconicinic in June.

The chapter is actively looking to partner with other community groups, religious institutions, schools and government agencies.

The Chapter’s next meeting will be held on Wednesday, Feb. 7 from 4 to 6 p.m. in the Folk Room at the Southold Free Library, 53705 Main Road, Southold.

If you’d like to get involved with this effort, email Nancy DePas Reinertsen at NancyDR@rewildlongisland.org for more information.


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Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

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