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LifestyleColumnistsJessica Damiano

Planting a dream: Native garden brings suburban landscape to life

Anthony Marinello's native plant garden, as seen last

Anthony Marinello's native plant garden, as seen last July. Credit: Anthony Marinello

On a warm morning early in the summer of 2010, Anthony Marinello plunged a shovel into the ground in the front yard of his parents’ West Hempstead home and began to dig. The recent high school graduate had been plotting this for months, working to convince his parents that converting their lawn into a native garden would be best for wildlife — as well as their wallets.

As the 17-year-old set the first Virginia roses and wild columbines into their planting holes, his friends were playing baseball. “I was never into that,” he said. “I always had reptiles as pets and spent a lot of time in the window, watching the birds come.”

Growing up, Marinello spent summers in a campground in upstate Athens where his family had a trailer. There he nurtured what would become a lifelong love of nature. “When we’d come back home, I would set out bird feeders,” he said. “I was always in the garden as a kid.” As a teenager, he subscribed to publications from the Sierra Club and The Nature Conservancy. “It was my hobby,” he explained.

The more he read and observed, the more he wanted to put his learning into action, so “I started researching studies that showed that by planting native plants, you are supporting native insects that most birds will feed their chicks until they grow,” he said. What he found was eye-opening — and life-changing. For instance, studies by native plant pioneer and University of Delaware Professor Doug Tallamy (found at bringingnaturehome.net) demonstrate that “native insects cannot recognize foreign plant species as food, which disrupts the food chain at its source, leading to ecosystem collapse,” Marinello said.

“As far as pollinators go, certainly there's a benefit in planting natives,” said Nelson Sterner, director of Bayard Cutting Arboretum in Great River, which has planted primarily natives in its Breezy Island garden section. "Local plants are hardy here because they are adapted to our soil, our climate and our environment," he pointed out. "Some are saltwater tolerant, others are deer tolerant, and they're all generally easy to find and have a long bloom cycle with none of the disease or insect problems that exotics have."

Digging deeper

As the summer after high school progressed, Marinello’s work intensified as he implemented his newfound knowledge. He removed exotic plants in the garden since his family moved in when he was in the fifth grade, and kept the plants his research revealed were native. Working mostly alone, he cut down old, exotic shrubs, used his Jeep to rip out Japanese maples, smothered the lawn with cardboard then topsoil, spread mulch and planted. His father, Pat, pitched in with “random projects,” Marinello said: building a pond and installing rain barrels to capture water for plants.

Convincing his parents to allow him to disrupt their curb appeal had been a bit of a hard sell, Marinello remembers. “It helped to have the publications with all of the different movements happening across the country. Seeing how they would overall save money compared to maintaining a lawn in the long run also made sense to them,” he said. “If you do it all at once, there tends to be a large upfront cost to creating a native garden, [but] the savings come in the following year through [reduced] maintenance, little or no irrigation, no pesticides, no fertilizers and no weekly mowing.”

So Marinello showed his parents — who were fearful of having a “wild mess” in front of their house — photos of established native gardens in National Wildlife Federation and National Audubon Society publications. Assured that their son wasn’t simply planning to scatter wildflower seeds, they gave him “free rein” to overhaul the front yard, his mother, Jodie, recalled. But it wasn’t without initial remorse: “He was ripping out my tulips, daffodils, daylilies and some evergreens,” she said, “and I asked him, ‘how come I can’t have the flowers I want?’” After he explained that those plants, as well as her tiger lilies, German and Siberian irises, and Japanese honeysuckle, were not native to Long Island, she said she “went along with it.”

The native plants, in fact, were “more ornamental than they ever had,” Marinello said, adding that he took care to replace his mother’s favorite non-natives with similar native plantings.

“So now we have Canada lilies, northern and southern blue flag irises, and trumpet honeysuckle.” He even replaced her favorite roses with Long Island ecotype Virginia roses. “Gardening with native plants doesn't mean you have to forgo old-time garden favorites,” he said. “We can still grow lilies, roses, irises, columbines, etc., as long as we choose native species.

“You can even have a formal garden and select all native plants,” he said, “but I prefer a more naturalistic design simulating a natural ecosystem.” 

As for the backyard, which is “mostly patio and pool with just two strips for plantings,” Marinello kept it simple, sticking mostly to native ground covers and tall switch grass because “they would look ornamental but not flop over and impede the entertainment areas.”

Once onboard, Marinello’s parents paid for the initial plantings, driving with him to Fort Pond Native Plants in Montauk to purchase native plants grown by Glover Perennials, a wholesale nursery on the North Fork. “It was the only native plant nursery we could find at the time,” Marinello explained. “The roses are actually a native strain from Long Island beaches, which is a great reason to look for Glover-grown perennials in the local nurseries.

“Local ecotypes, locally grown, supporting a family-owned horticulture business — everybody wins,” he said.

Supporting nature

As those first plants became established and the years progressed, Marinello became something of a local activist, involved with local nature groups and gaining certifications for his garden as pollinator, wildlife and butterfly habitats from conservation organizations. Those included the National Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation, the North American Butterfly Association, the National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Habitat Program, and designation as a Monarch Waystation by the national Monarch Watch. Locally, his garden has been recognized by the I Love Long Island Campaign and the Save the Great South Bay’s Bay Friendly Yards program.

Signs explaining the certifications adorn the garden, informing passersby that “the garden provides food and shelter for wildlife,” Marinello said, adding, “that’s important because I’m not always outside to explain why my garden looks a little different.”

And different, it is.

The maintenance required for a native garden differs markedly from that of a traditional garden, Marinello said, beginning with easier cleanup: “In the fall, you don’t want to clean up your perennials, and, aside from the pavement, you don’t want to clean up leaves. Keep them in your garden beds without shredding them and rake them underneath plants in beds — that’s free mulch,” he said. “All the butterfly and moth eggs and cocoons are in the leaves. All the insects, and especially miner bees and mason bees, nest in hollow stems, so you don’t want to cut them down and throw them out. If you do, you’ll have no overwintering shelter for insects,” he warned. Likewise, “when you deadhead or remove seed heads from the flowers, you’re removing the food source for the birds.”

Marinello recommends waiting until mid-April to cut the prior year’s growth back on perennials because “if you cut back too early, all the hibernating insects will still be in there.” When you do cut them, “leave them where they fall as mulch.”

Looking around his garden to spy pollinators hard at work, it isn’t lost on Marinello that if he hadn’t planted a native garden, “these guys wouldn’t be here.”

What do the neighbors think? “I have kids begging their parents to come to my yard to see the butterflies,” he said.

His mother echoed,: “It’s fun for us to watch all the passersby that stop by with kids. Even adults are amazed by it, and personally, I love the garden even better than I did before,” she said, adding that she enjoys the periodic tours her son gives her, “pointing out the plants and flowers, and the wildlife that lives in it.”

As any gardener knows, however, the garden is never finished. Marinello, who at 27 owns a Voortman Bakery distribution route, is not resting on his laurels. He has obtained a certification in permaculture from the Center for Bioregional Living in Brooklyn. The program, which also offers hands-on training in upstate Ellenville, focuses on using “perennial food systems and crops to support not only yourself and your family, but the whole neighborhood and all the animals,” he said, adding that permaculture emphasizes “the creation of food forests with regenerative practices instead of heavy agriculture.

“I use those principles in the design of my native garden; whether it’s food crops or ornamental plants to attract pollinators, the principles are the same,” said Marinello, who also grows such edibles as American persimmons, beach plums, rhubarb, asparagus, garden sorrel and an assortment of native berries.

Building community

As he began following Facebook groups focused on gardening and native plant identification, Marinello noticed there weren’t any such online communities based on Long Island. “I was bored one day [last July] and wanted to see how many people would be interested, so I started a Facebook group and uploaded some pictures of my garden, and people started noticing.” His Long Island Native Plant Gardening Group currently has more than 900 members, gaining roughly 100 new followers per week.

With the group, Marinello has created a tight-knit virtual community, where like-minded members post notices of local native plant sales, collaborate to identify plants and weeds, post photos to seek (and offer) planting advice, and share plants and seeds. He posts his own photos, answers questions and provides guidance when asked.

When the Manorhaven Town Park in Port Washington installed a native-plant garden in 2017, Marinello provided materials for sheet mulching, taught volunteers on-site how to plant properly, then rolled up his sleeves and helped them do it. He has given talks about native plants at the Cornell Cooperative Extension of Nassau County in East Meadow, and he is involved with Save the Great South Bay, which has commissioned him to overhaul its Bay Friendly Yards certification program.

Of particular concern to Marinello is the damage that homeowners and “so much of the landscaping industry are causing by planting exotics,” which he said research has shown leads to degradation of the ecosystem, including waterways.

Marinello understands it may be difficult for some to give up a lawn completely. His father was intent on keeping some grass on the property, so he incorporated creeping yarrow, clover, wild strawberries, wild violets and mowable native grass seeds. The result doesn’t require supplemental irrigation or fertilizer.

Marinello stresses the importance of avoiding pesticides and rethinking conventional gardening practices. “There’s no point in planting native plants and attracting pollinators and then poisoning them. Pesticides and herbicides don’t have any place in a native garden,” he explained. “Most of our native bees are solitary bees, so if you put down grub killer, you are killing the bees when you may not even need it but just doing it because it’s that time of year.”

In addition to reducing upkeep and cost, and increasing wildlife activity, Marinello points to another benefit of a native plant garden: It’s good for the soul. “When you go out and you’re looking at your little prairie in your front yard, and you see the bumblebees and the butterflies and all the wasps and hornets, you know you’re creating that life,” he said. “Without you planting it, it wouldn’t exist.”

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