Restoring nature’s balance helps the environment — and your wallet 

In its original form, “rewilding” was a big idea. After millennia of human-caused degradation of large ecosystems, what could be done to restore natural balance? As advanced in the 1990s, rewilding was about “cores, corridors and carnivores” — restoring and protecting long-established habitats and passageways used by larger megafauna animals to migrate and traverse their traditional ranges. 

The rewards can be big. Turning, for instance, pastureland or degraded brownfields back into forest has significant environmental benefits (aside from just helping the creatures). Planting trees, reintroducing native vegetation and encouraging large mammal habitation is a proven method for increasing carbon storage and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. 

Rewilding has had some success, as in the example of restoring prairie grasslands and reintroducing the American bison in Montana, and bringing back the beaver in the U.K. and the muskox in the Arctic. But what about “rewilding” our own, much smaller habitats — our Albany-area yards? 

Yards don’t have to be the chemically fed ecological deserts that achieved supremacy in the 1950s, with uniform green grass stretching to the neighbor’s property line. When nature is allowed to reassert itself, native plants and endangered pollinators reassert themselves, and the homeowner can opt out of the process that produces more than 35 million tons of yard waste annually. 

Rewilding your property need not be expensive, and older folks on fixed incomes should consider that it will likely save money overall. Remember, the weekly mowing, the lawnmower maintenance and the chemical applications are going away. Even the water bill will go down, because native plants aren’t as thirsty as exotics. And it isn’t necessary to do it all at once — start with a few trial plantings this spring.

You can get ready by reading up on your local ecosystem (Albany is in the Agriculture Department’s zone 5B for plant hardiness) and identifying the bad-news invasive species you may be harboring — they’re still sold in many plant nurseries and big-box stores. The Cornell Cooperative Extension of Albany County might be a useful resource on invasives. And you’ll want to tell your neighbors your intentions, emphasizing that you plan a cultivated native plant garden, not a neglected bed of weeds. 

According to Gabrielle Sant’Angelo, executive director of the Pine Hollow Arboretum in Slingerlands, “Native plants support soil health, good water quality and biodiversity. And they can help fight off the invasive plants that are all around us.” Some of the more problem plants around Albany, she said, are the multiflora rose and Japanese stiltgrass. The latter is often planted by homeowners who don’t realize it’s invasive, then spread on the hooves and fur of deer.   

Your local nursery should be helpful in pointing you toward the native plants it offers. Remember, since they’re native, they’re already adapted to Albany’s colder climate. The next steps are to set your mower height higher, mow less often, stop raking your leaves and repurpose your grass clippings (they make excellent mulch).

According to Laura Barry, a master gardener at the Cornell Cooperative Extension and chair of the native tree preservation committee for the town of Guilderland, New York, “Try to add one native thing every year, a plant, a shrub or a tree. A good goal is 70 percent native, 30 percent nonnative.” 

Now think of what kind of wildlife you’d like to attract. Hummingbirds (the ruby-throated is our only East Coast resident) will flock not only to colorful red plastic feeders, but to your bee balm, catmint and butterfly bush. Monarch butterflies, increasingly endangered, will be more likely to stop by on their epic migrations and lay their eggs if you have milkweed. Barry said that dill and parsley will bring in swallowtails. “And don’t cut the plants back in the fall, because the butterflies lay their eggs in them,” she said. 

The creatures like to feel at home, so why not provide them with somewhere to nest? Bird feeders and birdbaths will create a through-the-window display that’s better than TV. Boxes are available (or can be built from plans) for specific birds, such as owls, which like to be at least 10 feet off the ground. Bats, which can devour 600 insects (including those pesky mosquitoes) in an hour, are far more beneficial than most people realize. And they like houses with tight quarters — like the space between a tree’s bark and its trunk. A small pond will be a haven for wildlife. 

Again, you can start with small projects and specific corners of your property. And things will, in every sense, grow from there.

Going Outside

It’s inevitable that there are wild spaces around you — wetlands, forests, hiking trails — that are under threat from development, defended by environmental and community groups that need both volunteers and financial support. Doing your part may mean writing letters or attending public hearings. 

You can also go global by working with organizations like Yellowstone to Yukon (focused on wildlife corridors between the U.S. and Canada), Ecological Balance (which works in Cameroon) and Rewilding Europe (helping to bring back lynx, beavers, elk, white-tailed eagles, wolves and more). 

Get out and enjoy nature. Most Americans spend 93 percent of their time inside, and getting outside at any age is good for your health. Take the grandkids, who will learn to appreciate nature at a young age. Your presence at parks and nature preserves supports these institutions financially and provides visual evidence of their popularity. A lifetime National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is only $80 for seniors 62 or over (or $20 a year). 

According to Penny Sands at the Albany-based Green Thumb, seniors can earn extra money around New York through the Environmental Beautification program. The work is offered via state agencies, and tasks include planting flowers and mowing lawns, she said. 

Top image by iStockphoto.com/Andrew_Howe.


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