2020 is clearly a year for change. Last fall, we could never have imagined the alterations that have occurred in our daily lives, jobs, and household routines. 2019 was the year we made big plans to update the landscaping around the Nantucket Conservation Foundation office at 118 Cliff Road. Why make the change, and why now? The original landscaping was designed and installed decades ago, when even conservationists planted non-native shrubs and trees for “wildlife value,” not realizing that these species provide little in the way of real sustenance for native insects, birds, and other wildlife. A fairly small group of species, like privet, burning bush, non-native junipers were staples of the landscaping business, and were planted in yards and around businesses everywhere.
Since then, conservationists and ecologists have realized that while many of these species provide nectar for butterflies or fruit for the birds, they have some serious flaws. They offer poor food value for native insects, the animal base of the food chain. Like it or not, caterpillars and insects chomping on your trees and shrubs are the protein source fueling our birds’ families through the breeding season. And without the complex fats and nutrients provided by native species’ nuts and berries, our wild birds just don’t get the fuel they need to be able to migrate long distances to faraway wintering grounds.
On Nantucket, we’ve been relatively lucky. In spite of centuries of alterations to the landscape, beginning with agricultural and hunting/fishing/foraging practices of the Native Americans and followed by the sheep-intensive farming of the European colonists, approximately 45% of the island remains in undeveloped, protected conservation land. Most of this land is still covered with native vegetation. Even more fortunate: the majority of native species that grow well on Nantucket are the tenacious, highly competitive sort—they have to be in order to resist wind and salt spray, and subsist for the most part on sandy, acidic, lower nutrient soils. As a result, many of our dominant species are tough shrubs and vines, such as scrub oak, black huckleberry, fox grape, and blueberry, or graminoids (grasses, sedges and rushes) that can take a lot of punishment, such as little bluestem and Pennsylvania sedge and Greene’s rush. Even our wildflowers are robust and abundant in our open grasslands and moors, a wide range of native asters and goldenrods, mints and legumes, and dozens of other species supporting a highly diverse group of native bees, butterflies and moths, and countless other insect groups.
Fortunately for us, Nantucket’s scrappy, tough plant life and harsh conditions have made it harder for non-native and invasive species to dominate. On the mainland, parks and yards are choked with non-native invasive plants, species that come in and rapidly spread to crowd out natives which never encountered such competition. Forests with dense understory of barberry and old fields overtaken with bush honeysuckle and multiflora rose are the norm.
In response to the trend of dwindling native plants and wildlife worldwide, conservationists and ecologists have begun to urge a trend in “rewilding,” not just by protecting remaining wilderness or parks. Instead they have encouraged a process of converting areas of suburban yards and other landscaped areas back to native species to support the highest diversity of wildlife. Updating your landscaping? Or if building a new house and starting from scratch? By retaining what you can of the native plants in your yard and removing invasives, you can help reverse the trend of dwindling biodiversity and keep developed areas from becoming biologically sterile zones. Think of your yard and your neighborhood as a bridge that connects larger tracts of conservation land, but also feeds native species as they pass through.
While Nantucket has a lot of conservation land, every yard and landscaped area can count towards better habitat for wildlife. If 55% of the island is not protected in conservation, that’s a lot of room for potential habitat. That’s why we worked with our Properties Maintenance crew in 2019 to remove much of the invasive species and low-diversity landscaping around our Cliff Road office. And in the spring, we prepared the site for new plantings of native shrubs and trees, as well as a large area that will become a diverse wildflower meadow.
A generous grant from the Nantucket Garden Club has gone towards purchasing native trees and shrubs as well as educational signs that will be installed in the next year. One of our board members, Dave Champoux, prepared a landscape plan for the more formal shrub and tree plantings around the office entrance. Craig Beni at Surfing Hydrangea assisted us with obtaining the shrub and tree stock for our plans, and although we had to delay planting until the fall, we are happy to say that in mid-October all the plantings were installed, surrounded by deer fencing for the off-season, kindly sponsored by Marine Home Center and one of our other board members, Susan Rein. It takes an island full of supporters to maintain and protect our conservation lands and provide public education, and we really appreciate it!
Meanwhile as soon as Covid restrictions allowed last spring, we seeded the biodiversity meadow area with locally collected seed, and filled our greenhouse at Tupancy Links with trays sown with native island seed; over the summer we grew out more than a thousand native grass and wildflower seedlings for the biodiversity meadow area, finally completing the planting of the seedlings in the fall.
We hope to have the educational signage in place sometime next season, and that the newly re-vamped landscape will evolve over time to include an additional shade garden area, completing a second stage of the landscape plan designed by Dave Champoux. As soon as Covid restrictions permit, we plan to welcome the public to visit the gardens and take a tour through the biodiversity meadow on a meandering path, and explore ideas to update their own gardens to benefit native plant communities and wildlife. Informational signs will mark the different species and explain their best use in the landscape, as well as offering highlights explaining how these species help support our local wildlife and ecosystems. While our offices remain closed due to Covid for the time being, we are hoping you will soon be able to visit and explore this teaching garden!