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  • Writer's picturechasmccabe

Go Native, Go Organic (my plea for a change in park operations & maintenance)

Updated: Feb 15, 2022

(Above: A bee on a variety of Hyssop in my front garden, photo by Mark Erickson)

I've spent the past few posts talking about funding percentages and partnerships between public agencies and parks nonprofits. It seems like a good time to talk about native plants, organic park care and wax a bit about park operations and maintenance in general. Maybe this is due in part to a expected snow storm slated to visit the Northeast U. S. late Friday and all day Saturday. :-)

If you read my post about bittersweet, an invasive vine that plagues open spaces around New England and my volunteer efforts to combat it, you might not be too surprised to hear that I'm a big fan of planting native plants as well as managing landscapes organically. My inspiration comes from two urban parks, The Rose Kennedy Greenway (aka The Greenway) in Boston and Brooklyn Bridge Park (aka BBP) in Brooklyn. (Full disclosure, I worked at the Greenway for several years and currently volunteer as a zone gardener in season. I volunteered at Brooklyn Bridge Park for a year when I was in graduate school in Brooklyn a few years back.)

The Greenway, BBP and Madison Square Park, also in NYC, have great programs that focus on planting natives, not using chemicals or synthetic fertilizers, planting in the fall versus the spring, letting plants die back and overwinter, providing hibernation spaces for insects, installing bee hives, composting all weeds, cuttings and clippings, providing organic plant care (via compost tea) and having knowledgeable staff and volunteers that are well-versed in work needed to make it all work. Still, the number of parks and gardens that follow these practices are few in number and making the switch to an organic, native approach is not any more expensive, but does require a change in mindset.

That mindset includes things like switching cut backs of flowering plants to the spring versus the fall, leaving leaves in garden beds and under trees, where they provide cover for overwintering insects, performing annual pruning of shrubs and trees in the winter months when impacts to those shrubs and trees is far less than during the growing season and so on. Things look messier and maybe even a bit ragged. But parks with native plants and trees that are managed organically are better for people and animals. You can live with the fall leaves on lawns in our parks and yards, and for the ones that are gathered up off of streets and sidewalks, they can be composted onsite and used for mulching garden beds, like many New York City parks have done for many, many years.

But, more good news to aid in this effort, in 2020, Douglas Tallamy and Michelle Alfandari have started Homegrown National Park, which is an effort to get homeowners to convert 20 million acres to native plants and thus improve conditions for insects, birds and wildlife in general. Their website does a great job of giving the reasons why this is important and if you haven't read any of Doug's books, you'll be tempted (they are available in many libraries as well as bookstores). Doug was featured as the keynote speaker for the 2021 Horticultural Symposium organized by the Madison Square Park Conservancy (New York) which also has a sustainable, ecological approach. (They also published a Guide To Restoring Native Plants for NYC.

On a personal note, my wife Sara jokes that the bees and butterflies have followed me from house to house as we've moved through out the years from San Jose, CA to Austin, TX to the Boston area. We moved about eleven months ago to a new (old) house and I immediately dug up about 250 square feet of front lawn and planted natives. I also discovered what my resident population of very happy rabbits and chipmunks like to eat and adjusted my plantings as we moved into the summer and fall. But I've also discovered the range of insects, bees and butterflies as well as birds that visit these spaces and how from early spring into late fall, how the garden is literally humming with insects.

Winter is still here in the Boston area and I'll continue with volunteering efforts including winter cutbacks on the Greenway, looking for bittersweet strangling large trees and looking forward to the spring days when I can dig up (and compost) more of my lawn.

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