Seaside goldenrod sprouts were emerging green along the bioswale. Little blue stems, whose blue hue was still hibernating, were poised to grow six feet.
“Ferns will be joining the party soon,” said Marshall Brown, a Save the Great South Bay Inc. founder, who is overseeing the transformation of his front and back yard in Sayville as the new residence to native wildflowers, plants and trees.
It is the bioswale that is riveting; a depressed area braced with stones that wander out close to the curb. “The water would come roaring down the street after a storm and you’d see this gushing stream and then a duck pond in front,” he explained. “It gets diverted with this and all the runoff gets absorbed.”
Brown’s mission is urging people to pay attention to their lawns and plantings and utilize those that are native to the area. For starters, native plants don’t require fertilizer, use less water and encourage the soil’s capacity to hold moisture. They return an area to a healthy ecosystem that attracts birds and butterflies. As for lawns, keep it simple. No pesticides or fertilizers.
Brown has a native wildflower garden planted in his east lawn that segues back; pitch and white pine trees are on the west lawn.
There’s a “Save the Great South Bay Certified Bay Friendly Yard” sign in front. The program is among the initiatives pushed by Save the Great South Bay Inc., which also includes The Creek Defender Program and The Habitat Restoration Program. The nonprofit’s efforts span from Lindenhurst to Mastic.
“You’ll see a lot of wildlife because the native plants and trees draw insects,” he said, looking over the property. “Everything here is planted to provide a food source for birds.”
So far, Brown has removed three 30-foot Norway maples; a row of yews 15 feet high, 18 feet long; and 150 feet of privet hedges and ivy.
“They were all imported from England,” explained Brown about landscape thinking at the turn of the 20th century, where plants and trees were shipped over to emulate English gardens.
What was planted in their place?
“Thirty different species of flowers and trees, including native oaks and maples,” he answered. “We planted 30 pitch pines, 40 oak saplings and 20 black willow saplings.” As he strolled in the back, he pointed out bayberry shrubs and winterberry bushes, which will provide low coverage.
The native plantings, he emphasized, will lure back beneficial insects. And the birds will come.
Brown’s house, which dates back to 1871, was purchased by his family in 1965. Back then, he said, a mimosa tree graced the front, apple and pear trees abounded, as well as tiger lilies and a green lawn. “There were a lot more trees,” he recalled.
Brown returned a couple of years ago after his mother died and lives with his sister, an artist. He’d spent seven years on the Save the Great South Bay board, which originated when the Sayville Class of 1977 celebrated their 35th year at the former Grey Horse Tavern in 2012. Brown and current advisory board member Howard Ryan, also a founder, discussed the appalling condition of the bay they grew up on, got others on board for solutions, and the nonprofit was launched.
Brown is currently a native-planting advocate for SMPIL Consulting, Ltd.-Experts in Native Plantings, which will do yard assessments. Before that he worked with several internet startups in New York, and assisted them in the development of their technology and business plans. He also helped create the public Wi-Fi movement in New York City, lighting up 10 parks in 18 locations in four boroughs, as well as Times Square and Union Square. Since that fateful class reunion in 2012, he’s been a kind of environmental knight, even pitching a Civilian Conservation Corps-type program to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last year to get people working to repair local streams and ponds.
So what’s his advice for homeowners?
“Try to do an inventory on your property of what’s native and what’s not,” he said. “Identify plants appropriate for your yard and what needs to go where. What’s upland forest? What’s swamp? What needs shade? And don’t let landscapers plant non-native species.”
Check your local nursery for native plants; most have them. As for lawns, fertilizers lead to algae blooms in the water which kill fish; pesticides can negatively affect bees, birds, amphibians, fish and humans.