Pictured above: Hikers in the meadow at Mashomack Preserve on Shelter Island | Jeanne Merkel photo

by Leonard Green

As Long Island’s suburbanization moves relentlessly eastward, we are clearing native trees and entire plant communities. But we are not just removing trees and all their benefits, we are dismantling ecosystems. 

Ecosystems are interactive, mutually dependent biological communities that support plant and animal life crucial to sustaining life on Earth.

We know that our native trees, grasses, and wildflowers regulate local tempearature and humidity, hold soil in place, provide habitat for wildlife, cleanse the air and groundwater. They do so, however, as integral parts of ecosystems, where each part is enmeshed in shared dependency. 

Human introduced changes have cascading consequences. Recent studies show, for example, that introduced invasive plants, even when removed, may leave “legacy effects,” altering the soil microbiome, which in turn inhibits the return of native plants (L.S. Parsons, Restoration Ecology, 2020-09-10).

Plant Communities and Their Natural Services

Native plants grow in communities — plant and soil communities. Walk into a dune system, for example, and you’ll find flora and fauna that have evolved together. 

On my bayside morning walks, I see scrub oaks, black cherries, eastern red cedars, beach heather, beach plum, prickly pear, switchgrass, and little bluestem. They are a plant community, part of a thriving dune ecosystem.

Working with soil microbes, mycorrhizal fungi, and other soil biota, native plant communities have evolved together and provide indispensable functions or natural services, sometimes called eco-services. Research shows that, in conjunction with the soil biome, native plant communities

• Regulate nutrient cycles. On LI where we suffer from nitrogen and phosphorus overload, this is an indispensable service we ignore and diminish daily.

• Detoxify soils. Again, on LI, we suffer from an overabundance of chemical soil “inputs,” from fertilizers and pesticides to so-called “forever chemicals,” all of which native plant communities have been shown to remediate.

• Provide habitat for increasingly threatened and indispensable pollinators as well as other equally important fauna.

• Sequester carbon. We need to get carbon out of our warming atmosphere and into the ground, where it plays an active role in the soil cycles that keep the soil biome at work.

Resilient Native Ecosystems

We should keep our eyes on this big picture. Native plant communities are part of native ecosystems that have evolved in place. This is why native meadows, for example, function more fully and beneficially than non-native turf lawns on Long Island. 

Meadows function as more resilient ecosystems with richer soil and terrestrial life. They come closer to what was here before we transformed our LI prairies, pine barrens, and oak-hickory forests into suburban lawns and ornamental gardens.

Right now, our land practices work to deplete, diminish, or alter the ecosystems that provide indispensable natural services. There is a trend, for example, in my neighborhood to remove leaf litter from wooded areas on private properties and to replace it with shade-tolerant turf grasses. 

This disrupts the soil nutrient cycle, the cycle that regulates the phosphorus and nitrates that now threaten our drinking water, our bays, and estuaries. Additionally, without the leaf litter, there are no trout lilies. This is how ecosystems function. Small changes have linked and hidden effects elsewhere in the system.

Sustainable Landscape Standards?

We have grown comfortable promoting, even requiring, energy efficiency standards for new homes. It would be to our common benefit if we began to treat “sustainable landscape standards” in the same way. What we do in our yards meaningfully impacts our environment.

We need a new gardening and landscape vision, one that takes “do no harm” as its motto. We ignore the environmental consequences of our yard work at our own peril.

Community Action

This is why more and more community action groups like ReWild Long Island, ChangeHampton, and Suffolk Alliance for Pollinators are working to revive lost habitat by promoting sustainable gardens and landscaping with native plants.

ReWild Long Island recently created an East End chapter to extend its efforts to our region. This spring, ReWild is funding fourteen community groups to plant new pollinator gardens across Long Island. It is also sponsoring a summer volunteer program connecting local East End high school students with organic farms, public gardens and other volunteer nature-based activities.

To find out more about how you can get involved, visit ReWild Long Island at www.rewildlongisland.org.

After all, we are part of nature, for better or worse.

Leonard Green grew up on Long Island, spending his summers in the African-American summer community of Azurest, Sag Harbor. He now lives in East Hampton, and is a founding member of the environmental action group Change Hampton. | www.changehampton.org

East End Beacon
The East End Beacon is your guide to social and environmental issues, arts & culture on the East End of Long Island.

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