To save the planet, Homegrown National Park wants you to garden
Avalon Bunge giving a tour of the meadows in Elizaville, N.Y. Photo By Elias Sorich

To save the planet, Homegrown National Park wants you to garden

Part One of a series

SHARON — From a home base in the forested hills of the Northwest Corner, a nonprofit organization called Homegrown National Park (HNP) hopes to take a stab at healing one of the world’s great wounds: the decimation of biodiversity.

To do so, HNP pursues one major goal—to encourage homeowners across the country to plant native plants in however much of their property they’re able and willing to do. Whether it’s a container garden in the window of an urban apartment, or stewarding rolling acres of meadow.

On the subject of container gardening, HNP has found some viral success. A HNP TikTok video titled “Container-friendly Native Plants for Eastern Temperate Forests Ecoregion” has amassed 4.4 million views, with a number of others collecting hundreds of thousands as well.

This sort of grassroots success is exactly the sort that co-founder and Sharon resident Michelle Alfandari is striving to cultivate. Alfandari, a marketer and entrepreneur, founded HNP in 2020 with Doug Tallamy, a nationally renowned scientist and professor at the University of Delaware, and author of “Nature’s Best Hope.” Through HNP, Alfandari and Tallamy hope to promote a groundswell of participation in home-scaled ecology. Tallamy handles the science side of the messaging through speaking engagements and video lectures, and Alfandari tackles the marketing, managing, and outreach.

HNP’s messaging gears toward positive and encouraging — but Tallamy doesn’t pull punches when he describes the scale and severity of the threat the world is facing.

Reporting referenced in “What’s the Rush?,” HNP’s flagship video lecture, includes headlines such as: “2/3 of Earth’s Wildlife is Gone,” “40% of Earth’s Plants Face Extinction,” and “One Million Species Face Extinction.”

Indeed, since 1970, worldwide wildlife populations have declined by 69% and 2.5% of species have gone extinct. Recent research has suggested that such trends, the loss of species abundance and richness, were what precipitated The Great Dying 252 million years ago, in which 95% of life on Earth perished.

The biodiversity crisis, however, amounts to Tallamy’s introduction: Starting small, planting a single oak tree, amounts to a meaningful contribution. It isn’t about how much more you could be doing, because there’s always more—just start by doing something.

Biodiversity, the variety of life in the world or in a particular ecosystem, is viewed as critical to maintaining life on the planet in a balance.

Of the many causes of the biodiversity crisis, habitat loss is a primary factor, and it occurs primarily as a result of encroaching human development. Traditional, manicured lawns, which account for over 40 million acres of land in the U.S. — an area roughly the size of New England — is what Tallamy describes as “an ecological deadscape.” Very few species survive and thrive in that environment.

If enough private landowners, who own 60% of land in the U.S., commit to planting native plants, which are the bedrock for an ecosystem, then viable habitat larger than the majority of national parks combined could be established, according to Tallamy.

This objective is reflected in HNP’s map of all 50 statesvisualizing  the contributions made in each state to native planting. Individual planting sites are visible on a local level, and states are ranked based on the number of active participants. To Alfandari, the map is an invitation to friendly interstate competition, and a way to give individuals a sense of community and accomplishment.

Veiled beneath HNP’s message of small-scale individual contributions, however, is a secret hope: that once you start small, you’ll want to learn more, care more, and do more. This is more or less Alfandari’s story. A few years ago, she had little to no interest in, or awareness of, biodiversity and native planting — much less gardening as an activity.

“It was like, garden? I don’t want to garden. I don’t like bugs, I don’t like insects. But when I heard Doug speak at Hotchkiss in 2017 — that was pivotal. I went there not that interested, mostly out of a feeling of owning it to my neighbors and friends who told me to go. When I got there I learned what biodiversity, what ecosystem services were, pollination services, carbon sequestration. I didn’t know any of this.”

Alfandari was convinced by Tallamy’s clear and simple messaging, but noticed that most of the people who came to his events were, “the choir,” people already committed to many of the changes HNP advocates. Reaching a broader audience would be necessary to promote the kind of changes necessary to confront the biodiversity crisis, and so the duo began HNP.

As of writing, HNP has 33,000 participants and over 100,000 acres of land devoted to native plants across all 50 states. And as far flung as the varieties of flora being planted are the reasons that participants have signed up and become involved. In New York and Connecticut, that ranges from small front yard gardens, to hundreds of acres of privately owned woodland — and Alfandari arranged a tour of some of those properties to get a snapshot of what it looks like to participate in HNP.

From sweeping acreage to front yard gardens

Our first stop was the home of Ken Monteiro, secretary on the board of HNP, and Leo Blackman, a town councilman in Amenia. Their property in Wassaic is tucked into the banks of the Wassaic Creek and is a testament to Monteiro’s passionate gardening. Joe-pye weed loomed tall, mountain laurel exploded in the shade, and oak leaf hydrangea ballooned along a stone wall.

Monteiro has a long history of philanthropy, having served as the vice president, secretary, and general counsel of the Ford Foundation, and became involved with HNP in 2020 when he met Alfandari at Millerton’s Earth Day celebration. But like many, a fascination with nature, ecology, and native planting emerged in Monteiro during the early stages of the pandemic. During that time he read Tallamy’s book “Nature’s Best Hope” and found himself inspired to think about his garden in the more critical terms of native ecosystems.

“One of the things I love about Doug’s philosophy is that he doesn’t tell you you have to pull out all the things you love. You could just plant an oak tree. If you can’t do anything else, just plant an oak tree on your property, it’ll make a huge difference. We’ve got a garden that’s been in place for 20 years — we’re not ripping stuff out. But if something fails, we replace it with native plants. It’s a simple message, it’s easy to join and do something—to make a difference.”

That being said, Monteiro and Blackman have some more involved plans for the future of their lawn. The back end of the property has been completely clogged and overrun by invasives — chiefly, the virulent bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus)—and they’ve undergone the process of clearing and replanting that land to promote native flora. First, they’ll see what springs up naturally from the seed bank, and then they’ll plant and manage the area from there.

Though the work Monteiro and Blackman have done in Wassaic is by no means meager, it is dwarfed by the undertaking of Avalon Bunge and Eli Arnow of Elizaville, N.Y.

With masters degrees in ecosystem restoration and environmental science respectively, the duo stewards some 600 acres of family-owned land, much of it former farmland, across three noncontiguous properties at the end of a long country road. Planting native plants near their home has always been a part of expressing their connection with nature, and Bunge’s garden tour included teeming bushels of New England aster, pink yarrow, steeplebush, meadow phlox, and wild bergamot.

But Arnow and Bunge’s main approach to stewardship revolves around working to control deer populations. Arnow views deer overpopulation as a leverage point crucial to address in order to restore a balanced ecosystem. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) agrees, and lists the overabundance of deer as “reducing diversity in the forest understory; enabling invasive species to out-complete natives; and preventing seedlings of many species from growing into the next generation.”

That is, without a significant reduction of deer, “the foundation of the food web unravels in less managed places,” said Arnow. “The whole forest understory, all of the hedgerows, and pond edges in wetlands. It’s a widespread ecological catastrophe.”

Arnow and Bunge primarily advocate for reforms to hunting laws that would allow for the commercial viability of wild venison, a change that could incentivize the reduction of deer populations to sustainable levels. But such an object arose after years and years of involvement with environmental science. Bunge, who works as an ecological projects manager at Partners for Climate Action Hudson Valley, recalled her initial stages of learning about biodiversity and plant identification as transformative.

“It felt like getting glasses for the first time. The world came into focus in a whole different way.”

To that end, both Arnow and Bunge see the work HNP is doing to reach broader audiences and introduce them to the world of ecology as critical to the success of more involved objectives.

“You guys are sailing the ship. I’m so thrilled to see it, see the positivity.

“What [HNP] brings is not political. There’s no shame, there’s no guilt. It’s inclusive,” said Bunge.

“It’s, ‘start where you’re at,’” added Arnow.

 

Click here to read Part Two

Ken Monteiro on a mission to eliminate pachysandra, an invasive species often planted ornamentally, in Wassaic, N.Y. Photo By Elias Sorich

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