Pictured Above: A Canadian owlet caterpillar.

Are you overwhelmed by the problems facing the planet and unsure where to start fixing them?

It turns out that right in your backyard is one of the best places to start, and this is the perfect time of year to set your trowel to work.

This year, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County’s virtual Spring Gardening School, held on the Spring Equinox, was filled with tips for how to make the little changes, in your own backyard, that help increase the biodiversity of your little corner of the world, provide habitat for pollinators, reduce the urban heat island effect that is spreading ever eastward, conserve water and provide food for our communities. 

Newspaper mulch

So how do you get to work? Dr. Tamson Yeh, a pest management and turf specialist at CCE, picked one spot to start: Reducing the size of your lawn. And here at The Beacon, we are happy to endorse one method she recommends: using newspapers (which these days use soy-based ink) as a first layer of mulch to cover and choke out your turf grass as you convert your lawn into a natural habitat.

“What’s below the turf? Crappy soil!” she said at the Zoom Gardening School, pointing out a horrorshow of a slide show of compacted brittle dirt that you’ll find if you dig up what’s under your lawn. “You need to see what your soil profile looks like, and smell the soil. If it has a sulphury smell, it means there’s not a lot of oxygen and the drainage is poor.”

The good news is, you can work together with plants to turn this soil into something healthy, using ground covers of essentially any “vigorous plants that grow low to the ground.”

“When we plant ground covers, even if weeds sprout, many times they can’t get big enough to start off,” said Dr. Yeh, adding that most ground covers don’t need a lot of soil to get started, and it’s best to plant them in clumps of three to four plants.

Another place to start with getting rid of your turf is in the shady parts of your yard, where turf doesn’t really take hold anyway. 

She urges homeowners to not bring in soil or fill from another site, but to instead build up the organic material on your own site by using compost and mulch.

Once you’ve committed to getting rid of some of your turf, you can have fun with the new creative spaces in your yard, adding in non-plant features like benches, statues and boulders. Every 400 square feet of turf you rip up, she says, will save the equivalent of four months of indoor water use that you might have otherwise used on a lawn.

“Long Island is an urban heat island,” she added. “We are insane about our hardscaping. This is destroying our climate. Over a long period of time, that temperature increase is going to mess up insects, and decrease air and water quality. If you add 10 percent green space, you can mitigate the urban heat island effect by seven degrees.”

Author Doug Tallamy, who gave the keynote address at this year’s Spring Gardening School, built on these ideas, showing how he’d turned a 10-acre parcel of spent farmland where he lives in Pennsylvania into a microhabitat for important species, based on entomologist E.O. Wilson’s premise that life as we know it depends on insects.

Mr. Tallamy started by making his property an oasis for caterpillars, which dominate the diets of birds, especially when they are feeding their young, in addition to turning into moths and acting as pollinators if they live beyond the larval stage.

He cautioned that, while it’s important to plant native species, it’s also important to determine which native species provide the most benefit to the ecosystem.

For instance, he said, goldenrod, meadow rue, ditch daisies and hackberries have proven to be an effective lure to bring caterpillars to his property. He’s since documented 1,034 species of moths there, along with 59 species of birds that have bred and raised their young on his land. He also pointed out that, by choosing the right species of plants, people with urban and suburban properties have also been able to provide an oasis for biodiversity.

“Five percent of native plants make 75 percent of the caterpillars, which is the food that drives food webs,” he said. “I’m offering this to give you some hope. We can turn these terrible headlines around.”

Mr. Tallamy calls these plants “keystone” plants, and the biggest among them are oak trees, which are the subject of his new book, “The Nature of Oaks,” to be published March 30 of this year.

“Oaks represent less than 1.5 percent of woody plant biodiversity, yet they support 30 percent of moth diversity,” he said.

He’s launched a nationwide effort called Homegrown National Park, at homegrownnationalpark.org, which has set a goal of getting citizens to pledge to turn a total of 20 million acres across the United States into oases for biodiversity.

To make your own backyard project work, he recommended reducing light pollution, and also making sure not to use insecticides on the property, which would defeat the purpose of attracting caterpillars. If you have a mosquito problem, he said, pick up some mosquito dunks at the hardware store and put them in a bucket filled with water and straw or hay that you’ve let ferment for a day or too. Another important landscaping tip is to let leaf litter remain under trees to provide habitat for nesting insects, which is easier to do if you have garden beds around your trees instead of grass.

We’ve made some missteps in conserving the natural world, he said, among them assuming nature is important but not essential, that nature and humans cannot coexist, and in “leaving earth stewardship to specialists, not as the inherent responsibility for every human being on the planet.

“You are nature’s best hope,” he said.

Here’s a good site to find out more about native plants that help provide a productive ecosystem www.nwf.org/nativeplantfinder

Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Horticultural Information Line in Riverhead is also a great resource, at 631.727.4126.

Another helpful resource at the Spring Gardening School came from Susan Leonetti, who is working on a community plant sharing website called www.diggit-plantshare.com/

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County offers a wide range of gardening workshops and lectures throughout the year. Read more at ccesuffolk.org/gardening/speakers-bureau.

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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