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Port Washington residents embrace 'rewilding' movement to help birds, bees and the environment

Jim and Laurie Courage in their rewilded garden

Jim and Laurie Courage in their rewilded garden in Port Washington. Photo Credit: Howard Schnapp

A group of residents and environmentalists is working to make Long Island a wilder place.

By adding native plants to their yards, dozens of families on the Port Washington peninsula have “rewilded” their lawns, transforming them into natural habitats where bees buzz, birds flock and butterflies crowd at their home gardens.

The practice feeds pollinators and wildlife, the group said, and in the long run saves homeowners time, money and energy and helps the environment by reducing the use of water and fertilizer.

“It’s really a movement,” said Pat Valente, a master gardener who lives in Manorhaven. “What rewilding recognizes is you can start at the [individual] level and get people to put these gardens in their homes.”

The idea of rewilding is not new, or unique to Port Washington.

“It started as an activity largely for much bigger geographical landscapes like an African wildlife preserve or an American national park,” said Kevin Sloan, who teaches architecture and urban planning at the University of Texas at Arlington. “What started as one scale of activity now can become something for a small backyard garden project.” 

Sloan said the experience can be a fulfilling one, particularly if people do it with families and neighbors.

“They'll look out one morning and there's a set of hummingbirds swirling around their plants, and you feel like you [are more connected with] other species,” Sloan said. “That's a remarkable feeling of accomplishment.”

For Joanne Strongin, of Port Washington, the decision to change her front yard from a grass lawn to a native plants garden was an easy one to make.

“I’m just starting to read more and more about the wastefulness of grass," said Strongin, who teaches first grade in Great Neck. "I think it’s our biggest crop in America, and it’s useless. It gives us nothing. It just takes away. It takes water. It takes a lot of resources.”

Through a friend, Strongin heard about a meeting last fall at the Port Washington Public Library that was organized by a community group called ReWild Long Island.

In the spring, she covered her front lawn with cardboard and mulch to kill the grass. In early June, she planted seeds for native plants, including milkweed, aster and yarrow. Not long after, she said she began to see more bees and butterflies visiting her yard.

“I was so excited," Strongin said. "I took pictures and told families. It was very satisfying.”

ReWild Long Island has worked with dozens of families — among them Jim and Laurie Courage, and AnneMarie Ansel, all of Port Washington — to rewild their yards and has planted native flowers at several public institutions, including the Sands Point Preserve, the Science Museum of Long Island and the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Shelter Rock in Manhasset.

Raju Rajan, the organization’s board president, compared the current trend of rewilding to the beginning of the organic movement.

“It happens when a few people believe in something, it spreads and becomes a dominant value of the society,” Rajan said. “This is not just beneficial for us but also for the environment. Ultimately, our existence depends on it.”

ReWild Long Island

  • The organization was formed after a community meeting last fall at the Port Washington Public Library.
  • The group has helped about two dozen families to rewild their yards and worked with 32 others to add native plants to their gardens.
  • A public planting is planned for Sept. 22 at the Nassau County Museum of Art in Roslyn Harbor. For more information, visit ReWild Long Island at rewildlongisland.org

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