These first bursts of springtime are sending us all outdoors again to see what has become of the world around us since we entered this winter’s chilling hibernation.
The rooftops echo with the hammers of carpenters, as stunned-looking drivers roll down their windows and take in the fresh breezes, off the Peconics, off the ocean, off the farms and Hither Hills, on the long drives out to the ends of these two forks, already choked with day-tripping cars.
As each new flower buds — crocuses now as we are writing and soon daffodils, forsythia, cherries and dogwoods — we turn to our backyard oases and dream of how we will surround ourselves with the natural world for the year ahead.
It’s decision-making time, and as we make these backyard decisions we’re also playing a foundational role in the health of the world around us. When we choose to work with nature, we’re the winners, and so are our children, and their children.
But in a world driven by marketing, it’s often difficult to find this message. Mosquitoes, crabgrass and dandelions are the purported enemies of a whole home improvement store aisle’s worth of products, when perhaps the most important feature of these products is their ability to harm us and our children and pets.
If you want the greenest lawn, the marketers say, you need to spread more petrochemical fertilizer than your neighbor. Peek over his fence and make sure you add more than him, they say. But in those commercials, you never see how quickly those fertilizers wash from our lawns into our drinking water and then out into our bay.
We often hear these bays called “ours,” but we humans really just skim their surface. They belong to the ever-rarer juvenile flounder, blending in to the sand along a clear-watered shoreline, as schools of silversides dart between the legs of children whose toes catch snails and fiddler crabs. Farther out, you’ll soon see the characteristic froth of schools of bunker and the bluefish that trap them along our shores. The ospreys have returned (a little late, but we’re not complaining), betting everything, again, on plentiful fishing, and we’ve even heard tell of a couple of bald eagle sightings this month. We’ve come so far since these raptors were nearly destroyed by DDT just a few decades ago.
But the fight for nature has continued to opened up on other fronts, and we can only let our guard down long enough to enjoy this beauty, to remember this is what we were always fighting for, and then put our shoulder back to the task at hand.
So back to your backyard. Are you thinking about your lawn? Have you thought about getting rid of some of it? If you were home last year, you likely have a good idea of how much of your lawn you really use, and of how much requires too much maintenance. Now is a great time to rethink this space.
The folks over at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County had a lot of great suggestions for how to give your backyard over to nature at this year’s Spring Gardening School (see page 4). This starts with getting rid of turf and nurturing your soil, and one of the best ways to get rid of turf is to take the sheets of this newspaper, or any newspaper, after you’ve read it, and lay them down over the turf — water this layer, and then cover it with a layer of mulch and compost. You will quickly have a bed suitable for planting creeping ground covers with shallow roots, and as you build up the soil, you can begin to plant more and more.
Cornell scientists say that every 400 square feet of lawn you rip out saves the equivalent of four months of indoor water use. That’s impressive enough, but with the addition of the right new plants, you will also see the return of wildlife, beginning with bees and soft, juicy caterpillars, and spreading out into the web of everything that has always connected us to the natural world.
This is all within our grasp, in our own backyards.