Pictured Above: Southold fifth graders Rowan Schur, Zoe Serrano and Vanessa Mejia planted native grasses at the Custer Preserve Oct. 23.
On a rainy Saturday in late October, people who love native plants converged on the nature center at Downs Farm Preserve in Cutchogue to share their seeds and cuttings from native asters, milkweed, mountain mint, black-eyed Susans and a whole host of other species, building a network of garden and nature lovers, one seed head at a time.
Just two days later, many of these same people gathered again on Custer Preserve, a meadow that has in recent years become choked by invasive species adjacent to the Custer Institute on Main Bayview Road.
They brought with them 537 plugs of native plants and a chorus of fifth graders at Southold Elementary School, who diligently set to work planting them.
All sorts of people who love wild places are working together throughout the East End in efforts to restore our ecosystems, one small plot of land at a time.
This isn’t happening by accident.
The Suffolk Alliance for Pollinators, a project spearheaded by Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Community Horticultural Specialist Roxanne Zimmer this past winter, has inspired community groups throughout Suffolk County to restore ecosystems, with the help of local residents trained through CCE’s Master Gardener program, providing the habitat and nourishment necessary for pollinators to thrive.
On the North Fork, master gardeners have been busy this year creating the North Fork Pollinator Pathway, which is as much a collection of gardens with a mission to provide contiguous habitat as it is a community with a shared ethos.
Southold Master Gardener Nancy DePas Reinertsen, Southold Elementary School Science Teacher Debra Kimmelman and Group for the East End Outreach Director Taralynn Reynolds are among the leaders of this inclusive network, which kicked off in late June with an inaugural garden crawl through 13 local gardens.
The gardens ranged from formal Victorian spaces planted with an eye toward species that have historically called the North Fork home to Ms. DePas Reinertsen’s garden, which she began by pulling up patches of lawn, little by little, creating a space that is “completely different and wild,” she said. Another garden on the crawl was a sliver of Southold Town’s Silversmith’s Corner planted specifically to attract pollinators.
“They all had special things — alpacas or beehives or berries for birds,” said Ms. Kimmelman, referring to North Fork Audubon’s gardens designed specifically to provide food for birds.
Ms. Kimmelman said a rule of thumb when planting native plants is to realize that it will take three years for the garden to take hold — a year in which it appears to sleep, and then a year in which it appears to creep, and then, in the third year, it will leap into its mature form.
Her students at the Southold Elementary School begin learning about the patience and skills necessary for gardeners in Kindergarten in the school’s greenhouse and vegetable garden, which also helps supply the school’s lunch room with fresh vegetables.
Left: Barbara Butterworth of Cutchogue brings seeds to share at the seed swap. Right: Connor Zehil plants false sunflowers at the Custer Preserve.
The seed swap attracted all sorts of local gardeners, some of whom showed up without seeds but filled with questions, others who brought seed heads and cuttings from their gardens, aware they could be planted but not sure about the best methodologies, and some filled with information.
“This time of year, my garden is flooded with seed heads, blowing around,” said Barbara Butterworth of Cutchogue, as she unpacked carefully wrapped seeds from native plants in her garden.
Mark Murray of Eastport, who started a native planting business called Spadefoot just before the pandemic, also brought his wild seed mixes, and instructions for planting them. He said his mission to be “disrupters of the status quo of mow and blow.” He urged people to plant the best type of plants for each of the five different ecosystems on Long Island. Equally important, he said, is getting rid of invasive plants. Birds will eat the berries of invasive plants, he said, spreading their seeds as they fly to other parts of Long Island.
“Everybody’s afraid of getting rid of their lawn. I encourage people to start with border gardens,” he said. “If you have a lawn and a meadow or forest on your property, you aren’t going to find your kids on the grass. And a lot of older people are just done with mowing their lawn.”
Starting small is exactly what the Pollinator Pathway crew is doing at the Custer Preserve, six acres that had been Southold Town’s arboretum, but has since become choked by invasive weeds.
The Southold-Peconic Civic Association and the North Fork Pollinator Pathway have adopted this park and, with the town’s blessing, have been working to clear sections of invasive species over the past year.
“This was planted as a meadow years ago,” said Ms. Reynolds of the Group for the East End.“There are some good plants in there, but they’re not ecotype or regional plants,” she said, adding that it is important that the varieties of plants that are planted in restored areas be the same variant of a plant that had grown in that area historically.
The groups recently received a $1,500 grant from Rewild Long Island to begin to replant cleared areas of the meadow with native species, including false sunflowers, Joe Pye weed, sassafras, mountain mint, spice bush, yarrow, buttonbush, anise hyssop, common switchgrass and big bluestem.
ReWild Long Island Gardens Program Manager Maggie Muzant helped pick out the plantings, and gave the kids a pep talk about the importance of the work they were doing as they planted the plugs.
“These plants are going to go dormant now, and in the springtime they’ll pop up and start growing,” she said. “This is one of the biggest gardens we’re involved with, and it’s a wild restoration. Others are more formal. In this planting, we focused on fragrance and flowers, plants that I know are going to thrive.”
The groups plan to build on this effort in the years ahead, clearing invasive species from more areas of the meadow and replanting.
“Without volunteers getting out here on a regular basis, this wouldn’t happen,” said Ms. Reynolds.
Members of the Southold-Peconic Civic Association tend to work at the preserve on Thursdays at 10 a.m., though that schedule may shift in the winter months.