With nearly 94 percent of land in Connecticut in the hands of private owners, according to the U.S. Bureau of the Census — what plants are growing in your yard, and your neighbor’s yard, can make a significant difference for insects and wildlife.
“That’s the whole idea behind Pollinator Pathways, the whole movement grew out of the idea that your yard makes a difference,” said Margot Burns, an environmental planner for the Lower Connecticut River Valley Council of Government (RiverCOG).
The Pollinator Pathways project began with the goal of providing food and shelter free of harmful pesticides for the 349 native bees, as well as hummingbirds, butterfields and other pollinators. Since its beginnings in 2017 in Wilton, the project has created pathways in 27 towns in Connecticut and New York and is working to expand eastward across the state.
The idea is to connect backyards with public land in corridors that provide continuous swatches of pesticide-free land, planted with native plants.
“Not only is it important to remove invasives because they are competing with native plants, but from the wildlife perspective, invasive species don’t support the insect and the pollinators that form the base of the food chain,” said Lisa Wahle, a contractor for the Wildlife Management Institute at the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP). “Our insects haven’t adapted to utilize these plants.”
Many non-native plants – especially flowering ones – are sold in garden shops touting this fact as a selling point, said Judy Preston, the Long Island Sound outreach coordinator for Connecticut Sea Grant at UConn. Homeowners often think that the fewer insects on a plant the better.
“Our local pollinators have evolved to depend on our local plants. Our caterpillars and bees can’t use trees from China and Japan,” according to the Pollinator Pathway organization. “The monarch butterfly is a good example as it must have the milkweed plant to survive. Without the milkweed, there will be no monarchs, and we don’t typically put these “weeds” in our yards. They have also been eradicated from fields by farmers, and now the monarch is in danger of extinction.”
Gardens for native species
Programs like the Master Gardener and Advanced Coastal Certificate run through UConn Extension provide participants with information about the importance of planting native plants and working to curb the spread of invasive species. The idea is to redefine what is considered acceptable and beautiful to have in our backyards. Preston takes her classes through the history of lawn culture and the reasons why landscaping with a mixture of native plants is better for the ecology of land and sea.
“Invasive species are much more likely to start growing in a garden bed instead of a lawn. That’s why it’s important to keep soil covered,” Preston said. “Plant in layers in your gardens. Flowers, then shade tolerant plants and then ground covers. That’s the way nature would do it.”
But it doesn’t always seem that easy for those that study it – let alone private land and homeowners – to understand where the invasive plants came from or how to keep them at bay.
“We do get questions about how to control invasive species, but even more so in the last year or two,” Burns said. “People are coming to us for help.”
Some seeds are wind-born, some are trekked in by foot and others – Preston suspects – may be carried to individual yards in the compost many people get from town composting centers.
“You have to get compost to a certain temperature so it’s killing weed seeds,” Preston said. “People might take compost that is incompletely cooked or from the edges of the mound. Then they take it home and spread it or the town will take it and spread it and it’s amazing how you see the same species coming up like knotweed, umbrella sedge, bittersweet and mugwort.”
Whenever soil is disturbed, it is an opportunity for invasives to be introduced. Other times equipment like mowers used by landscaping companies that might be used in multiple locations can also bring in invasives. And unlike native plants, invasives have very few if any predators.
Combating invasives on private land
“You try keeping up with the weeds and the invasives. I didn’t put them there,” said David Berggren, a lifetime resident of Old Lyme, who now lives along Black Hall Pond. The edge of Berggren’s yard is lined with phragmites, or common reed, an invasive aquatic plant which grows quickly and densely often leading to a monoculture.
Berggren isn’t the only one fighting phragmites, Richard Snarski has spent the past five years working to eradicate the plant and restore the natural habitat on his property on Lord Cove in Lyme. Unlike most private property owners, however, Snarski has a professional career in invasive plant management and was able to form a coalition which attracted funders like the Connecticut River Gateway Commission and DEEP to assist in his efforts. Most individuals do not have his expertise or resources to know what the first step should even be.
That’s where experts at UConn Extension offices can help, Preston said. There is also a lot of information on the Connecticut Invasive Plant Working Group website and the group even has speakers that can come out to educate neighborhoods or other groups that are starting to see invasive plants cropping up.
For aquatic invasive plants the goal is to get them before they form a dense monoculture – like what Snarski has been dealing with. If it is caught early, the plants can just be cut each year.
“I know people who live along the waterways who just keep cutting it,” Preston said. “Late in the season when it has everything above the ground is when it’s most at risk.” Once it gets to the point where it is simply too big a job to cut, Preston explained, herbicides are the only option.
Snarski opted to use imazapyr, instead of a glyphosate-based herbicide like RoundUp, because it specifically targets a metabolic pathway in phragmites. If the growth is near standing water, however, the application requires a permit from DEEP and hiring a professional.
For upland plants the go-to method is mowing, in stages.
“What you really don’t want to do is attack these all at once. You don’t want to go mowing down during the middle of the nesting season,” Wahle said. “Sometimes these invasives are actually providing structural cover, it’s what the animals have to find cover in right now.”
Be aware of when rabbits and birds and other animals may be nesting in the bushes and pick another time of year to mow, Wahle advised.
A Program for larger landowners
For larger landowners, like the Lyme Land Trust, there is an option to get federal assistance for invasive species management.
The federal program, administered by DEEP, is called the Young Forest Project. A private owner of six or more acres, willing to have the land cut, can apply for assistance through a cost reimbursement program.
“The program will fund the habitat management patch cut and invasive species treatment on private property,” Wahle said. “We go after people with 50 acres and ask for them to give at least six for the project. We really wanted to promote the species in young forests. There are more than 50 species that rely on young forests as their habitat.”
The project began in 2011 in Connecticut primarily as an effort to save the New England Cottontail Rabbit and now the Woodcock. Since then almost 70 individual projects, all on privately-owned land, have been completed including projects in Lyme, Stonington, North Stonington, Montville and Groton.