The Long Island Conservancy, with Spadefoot Design and Construction, has created a native planting showcase in Sayville at 275 Candee Avenue. Thousands of flowers, trees, shrubs, and grasses went on less than half an acre two years ago June 21st 2020.
Invasive and Non-Native Removal
Before the planting could begin, we had much of the non-native trees and bushes removed from the property. That meant 150 feet of privet, 150 feet of yews overgrown to 15 feet high, and 3 sizable Norway Maples — most maples on Long Island are now non-native. All these legacy trees were planted in ignorance over the decades. Of the three, the yew is the only one that is not invasive. Still, since it is non native, it is pretty much ecologically useless. It will be at best a poor food source for local insects and local wildlife generally. In a world where space is precious, we can’t afford such a wasted opportunities to build native habitat.
The property, about 1200 feet from the bay, is regularly inundated by street runoff that starts several blocks up and builds up on the long decline to the water. Flat expanses of compacted lawn combined with curb stones now running up the street means there is little to absorb the water when it at all rains. A wave of water would build in the minutes after a downpour, and there were mallards swimming in the front yard. This flooding was new to our experience, and we go back here sixty years.
Every year, more lawn, less native vegetation, more sprinklers, more non natives and invasive plants, which don’t help to manage the water. Each year the lawns get more industrialized, sterilized, all the leaves, which would be so effective otherwise in retaining water if say they were mulched, are instead carted off to a landfill. The soil is thereby depleted, which necessitates fertilizer for the lawn, which isn’t native to begin with, but I digress.
As we lose our native biome, flooding is increasingly becoming a problem. Native habitats are much more efficient at sequestering excess water than the hodgepodge of lawn, weeds, ornamentals, and garden store and landscaped non-natives that are alien to the very soil in which they grow. Soil must be fed with native organic materials if it is to retain its ecological functions. The modern suburban yard does a poor job of retaining water, and the pervasive (and utterly unnecessary) use of sprinklers only exacerbates the problem.
The first order of business after the removal of the nonnatives then had to be creating The Bioswale. We had to mitigate flooding in the yard while dealing with street and lawn runoff. We needed to redirect the street water along a meandering channel lined with native pollinators and grasses that would filter the nutrient laden water, alleviate neighborhood water before it reached The Great South Bay.
This project, to create a local showcase for native plantings, began June 21st, 2020. It was the longest day of the year, and less than ideal for planting, but this was the window the pandemic gave us, even to plant outdoors. Here was our chance to live by our ecological principles. We advocate creating native habitat where ever we can, and in particular in our yards.
So we took up the challenge of transforming one yard to demonstrate to others the many benefits of native plantings. They become habitat for local wildlife, something non-native or invasive plants barely do if at all. If you are not fertilizing (natives evolved to thrive on what is here), using pesticides (don’t mess with the biome), or watering. Other than for establishing a new plant, natives should never require water, barring, say, catastrophic drought.
That was not the situation at 275 Candee though. Far from it. We are 1200 feet from The Great South Bay. The sump pumps now go almost constantly. When it rains, with curbs now being mostly hardscape and with flat lawns about as absorptive as concrete in a rain event, there’s often a wall of water that comes down the street. It used to make a hard left up my driveway where we’d attract mallards on the front lawn on occasion. We needed stormwater management.
Crucial then was the creation of the bioswale. Instead of all the water cascading down the street then making a left turn onto the lawn / duck pond, the water now is diverted along a meandering path long the street, with now massive stands of Seaside Goldenrod, Purple Joe Pye, Purple Cone Flower, Blue Wild Indigo, Little Blue Stem, White Aster, New York Ironweed, White Boneset, Sensitive Fern, Canada Goldenrod, and now Hibiscus, Dogwood, Magnolia, Blue Lobelia, Coreopsis, Black-Eyed Susans.
So it was that on June 21st 2020, Day One, that the bioswale was dug out. The longest day of the year became, with Covid, the first day we could begin our plantings legally and logistically. The bioswale, as promised, was immediately effective, and would get dramatically more so with each passing month.
And here it was exactly a year later. Unrecognizable, and far more effective.
Now let’s look at 2022.
The growth has been explosive. The plants seem to be growing absurdly tall and quickly. This all led me to reflect on the peculiarities of microclimates, and how The Great South Bay very often enshrouds the neighborhood in fogs and mists when on Main Street, it is bring sunshine. Maybe too it’s a testament to the fact that what was planted belongs there. In any case, it really has to be experienced.
The Native Forest runs 100 feet along the southern border of the property, or half way along, from the front. It has the typical alternation of Oak and Pitch Pine such as you’d see in the Pine Barrens, and once over much of Long Island itself. Accompanying that are beeches, black gum, sassafras, red maple, red and black chokeberry, compact ink berry and cohosh and purple coneflower.
A second Pollinator Garden was added in September 2020 on what was some weedy sand left over from some utility work. Here it is as of June 25th 2022.
This grove was planted specifically to draw down the ground water on the property. All the many trees we’ve planted carry that function. Red (swamp) Maples and Willow and Tupelo are particularly thirsty, let’s say. A year out, the sump pump is going with less frequency, anecdotally, and by stopwatch.
The Meadow had been driveway — ancient, pitted, crumbling blacktop. It was probably 100 years old. Along the one side of it were a line of privet a hundred feet long. Since privet as it turns out is quite invasive in addition to creating virtually nothing of ecological value as an Old World Plant in The New World, it all had to go. The old driveway was scraped up and some wildflower seeds and grass plugs went in.
The Rain Garden was the last place to plant. It was never a place that had any functional value on the property — just a patch of weeds in the sand and a lot of invasive zoysia covering over a cesspool and an old dry well. It was not an area that drained at all well. The plan is to channel water from the roof to this area while the trees will help to make the soil more absorbent.
The Right Plants In The Right Place
After two years of planting, weeding, planning and waiting, we are ready.
Today, there are nine distinct plantings composed of thousands of native plants on less than half an acre. The plantings have all been growing explosively. It’s pretty obvious that they belong here in the sandy nutrient poor soil that’s typical of Long Island. No fertilizer, water, or pesticides necessary or even desirable.
The Long Island Conservancy recommends only watering when you first plant so that the plant gets established. After that, it’s on its own, unlike most anything you are likely to see planted in your typical yard, sadly. Chances are it won’t be from here, and so will require all the special care required to keep it alive in an alien environment. We enjoy an extra bonus — we get all the mist, fog, and drizzle from being near to The Great South Bay.
Begin Your Own Journey Out Of “Plant Blindness”
Over these last two years I have been healing from what it turns out was a thoroughgoing case of “pIant blindness.” Until those plants starting dropping in the ground here, I had no idea what I was looking at, what belonged and what didn’t and why. And what were all these strange insects that emerged with the native plants, and what kind of birds are these and what are they all up to? Trapped in our yards these last years really helped to bring that point across. As a result, we have seen interest in native plants skyrocketing. People are starting to understand why planting natives (and removing invasive plants) is so important.
Restoring Nature In Our Yards
Throughout, our efforts have been deeply informed by an understanding of the importance of native plantings, the local wildlife they support. An excellent guide to our thinking would be Nature’s Best Hope where Prof. Douglas Tallamy champions our each creating native habitat in our yards as a way of blunting what is otherwise a mass extinction event both globally and locally.
Translated: If Long Island wants to preserve its wildlife, then a fair portion of people’s yards needs to go native — whether it’s 70% or “Two Thirds For The Birds,” it’s really a substantial amount given any yard (or public space) survey wouldn’t crack 25% given invasive plants and hundreds of years of gardening culminating in the suburban lawn, which was pretty much invented here.
Professor Tallamy is part of a ‘rewilding’ movement that is local, national, and global. At Homegrown National Park, people who have ‘gone native’ can post their plantings on a map. Now we just have to cover it!
It is on the basis of such science that The Long Island Conservancy is advocating for creating native habitat wherever we can. We champion local stewardship, not only community by community, but yard by yard. Each of us have agency, and we each hold a responsibility. Nature is not somewhere else. It is — or should be right up next to us. We should be immersed in it to really feel truly human. Be a good steward to the land you are on. It’s mostly a matter of getting away from our lawn culture.
Schedule a Tour
We will be conducting walking tours for groups up to ten people beginning in mid-July. Just let us know when you’d like to visit and how many of you there would be.
Marshall Brown, Executive Director, The Long Island Conservancy