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Bringing nature home

West Hempstead gardener sparks interest in native planting

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From colorful prairie plants to flowing water, West Hempstead gardener Anthony Marinello turned his parents’ garden into a native plant oasis. On most days, Marinello can hear the sounds of bullfrogs croaking, songbirds chirping and bees buzzing in the garden.

It now attracts people from throughout the community. “A lot of people love to check out the birds and butterflies, almost as if this is a park,” Marinello, 28, said of the garden, which is in front of his parents’ house on Steven Avenue. “So many people come here because they can’t get this kind of exposure to a native garden anywhere else.”

While most children spent their summers playing, Marinello enjoyed spending time in the garden with his mother, Jodie. During his high school years, he fed birds as well, and developed a passion for growing native plants.

“I started reading about how you grow native plants to support the birds instead of feeding them out of a bird feeder,” Marinello explained. “I started reading up as much as I could about native plants and how they support the local ecosystem, and how, by including them in the garden, you’ll be supporting the wildlife.”

He started converting his parents’ yard, which had a small garden, into a native garden in 2010, shortly after he graduated from H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square. He started by identifying the types of plants they were growing, and discovered that many of them were exotics from Europe and Asia. He removed them — along with most of the lawn — covered the ground with three to four inches of topsoil and began to expand the garden.

Persuading his parents to let him convert their lawn took some time, however. “A lot of people in the suburbs just love their lawn so much, and my dad is one of those people,” Marinello said. “It took a little convincing, but showing them different publications and how other people all over the country and the world are doing the same thing kind of helped to convince them.”

He told his parents that native gardens require less maintenance because they don’t need watering, fertilizer or mowing, so they would save money. He explained that native plants only have to be watered while they are being established in the first year. After that, maintenance is needed only twice a year.

“It took me a little while to appreciate what he was trying to do,” said his father, Patrick. “My first thought when he started making changes was, ‘What are you doing to my lawn?’ Now I’m very proud of what he did and what he accomplished.”

Anthony’s older brother, Pat, 31, also thought he was a little crazy when he saw the lawn getting torn up. “It took me a while to appreciate what he was doing, because he brought all the plants when they were small,” Pat recalled, “but he promised that it would all grow. It was kind of just a dirt pit when he started this, but once it took off, it just kept flourishing. There’s always something blossoming.”

Anthony learned about native plants from reading publications from the National Audubon Society, the National Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy. He also follows the work of Doug Tallamy, a professor at the University of Delaware who is one of native gardening’s pioneers. From there, he learned about many of the ecological benefits of native gardening.

“You need native plants to support native insects,” Marinello explained. “Plants are the first step of the food chain, so if you have an entire geographic area planted out with exotic foliage from Asia, Africa or Europe, you’re not supporting the base layer of insects that are going to go forth and support everything else.”

Most species of songbirds feed their young caterpillars, he said, but if there are no native plants or trees, the babies can go hungry. Marinello said that the adverse effects of traditional gardening are adding to a trend of songbirds going hungry throughout the country.

“As suburbs take over and developments increase and people remove what was naturally there and start planting out exotic foliage and ornamentals,” he said, “the animals are literally starving to the point where they can’t reproduce anymore.”

While most people learn about the basics of the food chain, he said, most gardeners don’t realize the impact they can have on the ecosystem of their home gardens. “We’re at the point in society where there’s so many people doing the same thing that’s causing a negative impact on the environment,” he said. “All you need to do is just take some time to study about this, and you can still have a beautiful yard and living space that functions properly while supporting the native fauna and flora.”

Marinello now does consulting work for people interested in native gardening through his company Dropseed Native Landscapes. He has also worked with local groups such as the Central Nassau County Rotary Club, sharing tips on plant species for homeowners who want to start native gardening. Last year he launched the Long Island Native Plant Gardening Group on Facebook. It now has more than 2,500 members.

“I wanted to create space where people could learn how to bring that nature home to them,” Marinello said. “I was surprised to see that there was a large amount of people who were already doing it, and there were many people that were willing to do it.”

He noticed that because so many residents were at home over the past few months because of the coronavirus pandemic, many of them became interested in gardening. He said that several novice gardeners found his Facebook group because they simply wanted to keep themselves busy at home.

“The pandemic kind of helped other people to get some momentum going for their gardens,” Marinello said. “To able to step outside your house, dive into your garden and forget what’s happening is something that we all need.”

Going forward, he said, he hopes to continue to build interest in native gardening on Long Island. He noted that the pesticides and fertilizers used in traditional gardening end up in Long Island’s groundwater.

“We’re experiencing a brown tide now in the Great South Bay,” Marinello said. “Recent studies have shown that pesticides have infected Long Island’s drinking water. By planting native plants, we can prevent all of that from happening. It’s a multifaceted approach, and it really encompasses so many issues that can be fixed by incorporating native gardens into our homes, and even our public spaces.”