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Guestwords: Our Own Backyards

Wed, 03/27/2024 - 18:04

Back when I was in college 25 years ago studying environmental science, I would often bring like-minded students home with me to East Hampton during the summer break. One of the best parts of those visits would be their reactions to our immaculate beaches, pristine waterways, and vast public woodlands, incredulous that such a place could exist just a hundred miles from New York City.

Of course, most of them had heard of “The Hamptons” — the stunning oceanfront estates, the polo matches, the celebrity bacchanals — but they never imagined that the same place featured so often in the tabloids also contained such a rich local tradition, and a strong ethos of preservation and protection of its natural resources.

As we are bombarded with information detailing the catastrophic environmental degradation around the world and the impending doom we face if we do not collectively change our ways, it often seems we live in a bubble of sorts here on the East End. Many of the more pressing issues didn’t seem to exist here for the longest time — even as many groups and individuals locally were sounding the alarm about overdevelopment and the lack of a sustainable plan for both our surroundings and the very fabric of the community itself.

Like most warnings about the future, these largely have gone unheeded, and we now find ourselves faced with dire issues that have palpable and undeniable consequences here. Invasive insects have decimated our majestic pitch pine forests on Napeague, parts of Northwest Woods, and along Route 114. An untreatable nematode is killing our American beech trees. The East Hampton Town Trustees’ annual Largest Clam Contest had to be canceled last year because of toxic bacteria in our waterways. There has been a massive loss of habitat for endangered species and pollinators. Bay scallops and skimmer clams are all but wiped out because of algae blooms. Invasive plant species are spreading unchecked throughout natural areas.

Most shocking of all is the report published in The East Hampton Star this past year detailing the staggering amounts of pesticides, fungicides, and herbicides used here — millions of pounds’ worth — mainly for the benefit of turfgrass and non-native plant species.  

Most of these issues are widely known, and the fact that our relationship with nature needs to change is certainly not a new idea. The main problem one encounters when thinking about climate change and the ecological crises threatening humanity and the planet is that the vastness of these problems can be overwhelming when considered on that scale. Yet in the face of these complex challenges, where can we find real, impactful answers, let alone a completely new attitude? A good place to start looking is right in our own backyard.

Our landscapes present the world in miniature. What constitutes nature for us and how we relate to it — be it as individuals or as a society — are questions that again and again, across all ages and cultures, have been pondered and negotiated in our gardens.

East Hampton has a long history as a destination for its natural beauty and cutting-edge garden design. More recently, that history has become somewhat fraught and problematic because of the negative impacts of high-octane development, cookie-cutter spec houses with outdated suburban landscaping, and the noise and pollution of conventional landscape maintenance. Indeed, so much of our native habitat and areas within residential properties that have the potential for native plantings are instead used for unnecessary tracts of turf, which require massive amounts of synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides to keep that generic look, not to mention extreme amounts of water through the overuse of old, inefficient irrigation systems. Most of this overuse of pesticides and water results from our fascination with having the perfect lawn.

It is not uncommon to drive down any street in town and observe either a pristine woodland or mature, healthy trees being mowed down, only to be replaced with either a tired, hackneyed combination of sod, boxwood, hydrangea, and privet or invasive species that soon spread outside the properties they are planted on, sometimes outcompeting their native counterparts.

The solution to this lies in observing natural plant communities and basing our gardening on that type of interaction. The use of native plants brings far better results — a healthier, dynamic landscape, and one that demands substantially fewer inputs: less water, no pesticides, and less pollution-causing mechanical maintenance.

Native plants have adapted to the local climate, soil conditions, and wildlife over millenniums. They are uniquely suited to withstand local weather patterns, such as droughts and storms. They support local wildlife, providing both food and habitat for birds, pollinators, and other beneficial insects — in fact, natives are integral to reducing the climate-driven spread of invasives that are now disrupting our local ecosystems and lessening the biodiversity of the region.

Additionally, most natives have a cultural and historical significance, connecting us to them in a unique way, and connecting our landscapes to East Hampton’s heritage.

As we become more and more aware of the risks associated with climate change, depleting biodiversity, loss of habitat, and polluted waterways, our gardens and our approach to landscape design and maintenance are experiencing a small but impressive renaissance. No longer seen as just a luxury item or a purely aesthetic pursuit, our landscapes have the potential to become dynamic places of diversity and experimentation for a more sustainable future.

An added benefit is that naturalistic planting, pollinator-friendly gardens, and the use of natives in commercial and public settings are extremely cost-effective as compared with traditional landscaping, and they happen to lend themselves very well to most styles of architecture, so we can work toward sustainability and still look good doing it. Besides, it’s long overdue that we ditch the 1980s-style landscaping and move into current times, both aesthetically and for the health of the community.

There are many things in the world today that we would obviously like to change, both globally and right here in East Hampton, but feel powerless to do so. By encouraging the preservation of our existing trees, planting natives, lessening lawn areas, and replacing invasives with pollinator gardens that foster biodiversity, we can make an immediate impact for the betterment of the environment, as well as our own lives.

We can transform our public spaces and properties from chemically intensive, toxic places that attempt to control nature to places of productivity, pleasure, and regeneration that give us a glimpse of the wild, untouched forces of nature, and show us the possibilities that lie within.

Jason LaGarenne is a landscape designer and advocate for sustainable landscaping. He lives in East Hampton.


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