By Pamela Doan
To kick off the New Year, Roots and Shoots will be talking with local organizations that are leading efforts to protect and improve the environment in order to delve into the most challenging issues that are facing our area. Along with that, the intent is to also provide inspiration and ways that people can engage and get involved. The first installation is a conversation with Dianne Olsen, Senior Educator, and Jennifer Stengle, Community Educator, both in Environmental Horticulture and Natural Resources at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Office in Putnam County.
The CCE is a statewide network with offices in every county of New York that extends the research and knowledge of scientists at Cornell University into practical uses for anyone who interacts with the landscape from home gardeners to farmers, commercial landscapers to arborists, and local officials involved in decisions about managing natural resources and land use.
In Putnam County, the CCE offers a diagnostic lab for pest and pathogens, a hotline for garden questions, and programs for everyone mentioned above. Olsen’s role broadly focuses on agriculture, home gardening, and water quality while Stengle oversees programs for natural resources, commercial horticulture and entomology.
When asked about the main environmental challenges facing us here in Philipstown, Olsen said, “A lot of this ties together with climate change, whether we want to acknowledge that or not. Emergency preparedness, invasive species, and mitigating the effects of our changing weather.”
In New York, winters are warmer. Rainfall patterns have changed so that we have prolonged periods of drought and our rainfall comes in heavy downpours, both of which contribute to flooding. We have hotter summers and extended heat waves. Overall, the pattern is for ongoing extreme bouts of weather, hot or cold, with more intense storms. All of these things have created major changes in our forests, waterways and landscapes.
Stengle discussed the widespread threat of invasive species of plants and insects altering our landscape, maybe permanently. She said, “Invasive species create pressures on natural resources and impact forest health, agriculture and backyard gardening, and on top of that, there’s deer pressure from the overpopulation.” Jokingly, she said that something everyone can do is to cultivate a taste for venison.
It’s not a question of whether or not an invasive species will arrive, it’s a question of when. Stengle elaborated, “If there’s an invasive species, we’ve pretty much got them all. We have the opportunity to pick up invasive species in the waterways and also insects that come along for the ride on anything that is being transported through the Hudson Valley.” While the Department of Environmental Conservation is leading efforts with a conglomerate of groups currently working on a regional plan for managing invasive species in the lower Hudson Valley, there are things that anyone can do in the backyard, too.
Stengle recommends, “Take an area that’s doable and concentrate on eradicating the invasive species in that area. Say it’s Japanese barberry. Clear it, and replant the area with diverse native plants. To protect the plants, fence the area from deer either until they get above browsing height or indefinitely. It’s going to bring in pollinators and insects that didn’t have a food source or habitat before and increase the biodiversity in your yard.”
Olsen talked about her focus on expanding home vegetable gardening as a main focus in 2014. In terms of the environmental impact, Olsen said, “Let’s say your current backyard is all lawn and a couple of trees. Take 10 percent of that lawn and turn it into a vegetable garden. Less lawn is less mowing and less lawn fertilizer. Maybe that’s not a huge savings in gas and chemicals, but it’s an improvement. And any plant is better than lawn grass for pollinators.”
She continued, emphasizing the positive impact on reducing waste: “Compost all your garden waste and you get this wonderful fertilizer and you save money because you don’t have to buy it and it isn’t being trucked in from far away. Your impact on the environment is lessened and your carbon footprint is smaller.”
Stengle summed it up: “It isn’t all grim. Nature has a certain amount of flexibility to adapt but when we put so many pressures on the environment, we can see devastating changes.” As you’re making plans for the yard this summer, consider putting in a new vegetable garden or expanding one. What may seem like small efforts can have a big impact in creating a more sustainable landscape.