Earth Day at the Brewery

plant natives for Earth Day
Planting Natives -- Some Water to Get Them Started

For this impromptu Earth Day speech, offered between sets of Soundswell at Blue Point Brewery, I attempted to shout above the din to deliver a rant much like the one below with pictures and footnotes added.

“There is something each of us should do for the environment this Earth Day, and each day going forward:  We need to plant natives in our yards and in our public spaces throughout Long Island.  Without native plants, there is little for local wildlife to eat.  Populations collapse.  We have lifeless suburban lawns when what we need are yards.  We need to reintroduce our native trees, shrubs, and flowers everywhere we can.

The Long Island Conservancy works with municipalities, homeowner’s associations, civic groups, and schools to promote local stewardship.  Is there a park or public space in your community that is overrun with invasive plants, a place where native habitat could be restored?  No one cares more for a park than the people who visit it. 

Essential to our work is the realization that Long Island is losing badly in a battle it doesn’t even know it’s fighting, with invasive plants (and insects) destroying what is left of local habitat.  This story began long ago, with globalization.  The Dutch brought the dandelion with their bulbs, the English brought their Ivy, their lawn, and their privet, and gardeners imported everything from all over.  The result has been environmental chaos.

English Ivy now strangles trees all over Long Island, but people don’t yet see what is happening.  Berries from their ivy kill other trees far away.  Worse, the ivy provides ground cover for the White Footed Mouse, which carries the bacteria that in turn infect the ticks.  Once you see that, you can’t unsee it.  

English Ivy Killing Some Oaks

On Earth Day, we should seek to learn what’s native and what isn’t.  I am constantly learning the answer to that question.  I recommend a plant identifier app like PictureThis!   It changes how we see the world. .  What this app quickly will show  is just how much foreign flora there are in our yards.   The Forsythia is in full bloom now.  It’s a plant native to East Asia though.  Since it is sterile, it doesn’t even provide pollen for bees.  It also escapes yards and ends up in woods, choking out the natives.  

The suburbs adopted the aesthetic of the landed gentry from Europe, along with their plants. Now English Ivy chokes our trees, and privet is invading our woods.  And the lawn?  So called Kentucky Bluegrass is native to Eurasia, but here it is invasive.  It is driving out native species in our High Plains.

It also requires a great deal of effort – water, fertilizer, treatments – to keep this invasive plant happy.  And you’d better do it, or that hyperactive Scotsman in the commercials will yell at you and shame you.

It’s quite a racket. If you have a lawn, you will have weeds. The lawn, or more properly the invasive “Kentucky Blue Grass,” gives weeds the opportunity they need. The grass, a mono crop, has already disrupted the local ecology. Invasive plants exploit disturbed habitat and find their way in. But no worries. That is what the herbicides are for! Now everything is dead except the grass. The insects, the soil microbes, vastly depleted. Lifeless.

The suburban lawn is an assault on Nature. It doesn’t have to be that way. Make your lawn a yard. It will change the way you see things by reconnecting you to Nature.

Earth Day

Growing a lawn and keeping it a perfect iridescent green costs money – the water, fertilizer, the pesticides, the mowing.  At 40,000,000 acres, lawn is the #1 irrigated crop in the US, with turf now covering 2% of the continental US. This is an environmental disaster.

For this Earth Day, let us ask ourselves: Why do we fetishize the lawn so much? Why is Dad is out every weekend chained to the mower, looking miserable? Why do we need gas powered leaf blowers that for the person using them are in the 95-115 dB range? Why torture people like that?

A gas powered leaf blower is extremely polluting as well. Does anyone want to be anywhere near this?

the gasoline-powered leaf blower exists in a category of environmental hell all its own, spewing pollutants — carbon monoxide, smog-forming nitrous oxides, carcinogenic hydrocarbons — into the atmosphere at a literally breathtaking rate.

This particular environmental catastrophe is not news. A 2011 study by Edmunds found that a two-stroke gasoline-powered leaf blower spewed out more pollution than a 6,200-pound Ford F-150 SVT Raptor pickup truck. Jason Kavanagh, the engineering editor at Edmunds at the time, noted that “hydrocarbon emissions from a half-hour of yard work with the two-stroke leaf blower are about the same as a 3,900-mile drive from Texas to Alaska in a Raptor.”

For Earth Day and beyond, you may want to go electric. Electric leaf blowers such as from Ego Power are getting to where they can perform with the gas powered ones, and are about an order of magnitude (1/10th) as noisy. Still, one wonders what ever happened to the rake, which makes a gentle scratching sound and doesn’t need lithium. Further, why are we blasting air at 200 mph at the ground? Do we want to be breathing — or have others breathe — all the particulate matter shot into the air from that? What impact does that have on the soil? It compacts it.

Remember this for Earth Day and beyond: It is best to “leave the leaves.” The organic matter is just what your plants need to flourish. Instead, we mow and blow and bag up all the leaves and grass clippings so that they can be taken to the dump. We then have to fertilize the lawn because all that biomass was taken away.

Our lawns must remain pool table perfect, but they are never actually used by anyone. No one in the yard any more. Lawns are exceptionally boring, and frankly hostile to nature.

We should remember this for Earth Day: Native plants and grasses don’t need all the chemicals, all the fossil fuel fumes, and don’t need watering once established. Their beauty comes naturally, and it’s as free as Nature herself. You’ll need to do some regular weed pulling though. We — Long Island, the nation and the world — are just inundated with invasive plants.

The birds that will now come to your yard of native plants will bring them. The wind from your neighbor’s yards will. Just pray you don’t have a neighbor who can’t control his bamboo, or worse, Japanese Knotweed, whose roots bust through concrete foundations. The good news is having your yard planted with natives will help defend against the invaders.

We put over 3000 native plants on less than half an acre in Sayville, and it transformed the property. The variety of insects, and the beauty that brought, is staggering.

restoring habitat for Earth Day
Butterfly Milkweed Pods

We will be starting our tours of the yard again soon.  SWEEP, the environmental club at Sayville High School that focuses on habitat restoration, and the Sayville Junior Civic, harvested various wildflower seeds from the yard last fall, and now have a greenhouse full of seedlings to plant around Sayville.   Every community can do this.   It starts in your yard and in your park.


  1. Thank you. English Ivy certainly has exploded the last couple of years. (Aside – can that be related to rising CO2 levels?

    And, yes invasives are everywhere; phragmites, honeysuckle, invasive roses, bamboo, Norway Maple, garlic mustard, pokeweed, mugworts, etc. And that’s just the flora. It starts in yards and gardens and it moves into our neglected parkland such that changes over the last couple of decades within them have been transformative.

    It’s very, very hard to move a cultural and its generationally passed sense of entitlement to vast expanses of bluegrass lawns. This is especially so without the commercial infrastructure (like nurseries, box stores and garden centers) to support a relatively inexpensive move that scratches the itch that aspires to park-like beauty but will also support ecologically sound landscapes.

  2. It would be great to have a link for Long Islanders to see what invasives to remove and what native plants to establish. Thank you for the speech. I learned a lot.

    1. Yes, we need to help people identify these plants.

      I just saw a huge patch of Japanese Knotweed along Route 25A in Rocky Point. This may be the worst invasive on the planet, yet here it is.

      Natives – it depends on soil, light and water, so just selecting natives only gets you so far. It needs to be the right plant for the right place.

      Further, plants need to be planted together with complementary plants. The goal is to create habitat.

      That said, I love Red Maples, Arrowwood Vibernum, Bayberry, Butterfly Milkweed, Red, scarlet, black and white oak, winterberry, chokebery, beach plum, blueberry – if the crowd and squirrels dont decimate them!

      On grasses — little blue stem, big blue stem, switch grass. Imagine never mowing again!

      Purple cone flower (echinacea), blazing star, seaside goldenrod, aster.

      And many more!

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