Fact Sheets Shine a Light on Sustainable Coastal Gardening and Landscaping Practices

Formerly the Long Island Sound Study’s Connecticut Outreach Coordinator through Connecticut Sea Grant, Judy Preston is a self-proclaimed “plant person” who has spent her lifetime educating others about sustainable gardening practices.

Judy Preston, the Long Island Sound Study Outreach Coordinator, is talking into a microphone at the iCRV internet radio station.
Judy Preston at the iCRV internet radio station hosting her 2023 show “Gardening for Good” which aimed to draw connections between good gardening practices and protecting local streams and Long Island Sound.

In 2013, she developed the Coastal Certificate Program, a partnership between LISS and UConn Extension offering advanced certification to Master Gardeners and outreach to coastal and watershed residents about water quality issues affecting the Sound. The program’s curriculum centered on replacing lawns with wildlife habitats, native coastal plants, vegetative buffers, and resilient living shoreline projects.

“The types of people that joined were already totally motivated, they love gardening and were prepared to learn,” said Preston. “People had a pretty good sense of a broad spectrum of science and relating it directly to Long Island Sound and to the issue of hypoxia, but we also wanted to make sure that people could understand these issues start in your backyard. It was fun.”

Preston’s program inspired the Sound Coastal Gardening Partnership through Cornell Cooperative Suffolk. Led by Roxanne Zimmer, an educational program is set to pilot next year in New York including sessions with regional specialists and accompanying brochures. Program participants will be eligible to receive an advanced certification for water-wise gardening. The partnership hopes to teach homeowners best practices for lawn care and help them to understand the impact of their actions on the estuary.  

Fact Sheets

Despite her retirement, Preston continues to educate the public on sustainable gardening and landscaping, most recently developing informative fact sheets. Chosen for their relevance and impact on the Sound, the fact sheets explore topics like riparian buffers, climate landscaping, native plants, and sustainable lawn care practices. Preston says there are limitless discussions to be had on building healthy ecosystems, but the biggest barrier seems to be a lack of information.

“And it takes work to do it. You can simplify it to a point, but ecosystems are complex things and I tried to get at some of that in these fact sheets,” said Preston. “We can look at nature as a template for how to group plants. People are always surprised to hear how amazing our natural environment is and all its complexities.”

Preston uses her yard as an experiment for educational opportunities, where you can find a 30-year-old shadbush adorned with winding poison ivy. Also sprinkled throughout her yard are bayberry shrubs, holly berry, and violets.

“Poison ivy is not only a beautiful vine but it has really nutritious berries in the fall that migrating birds come through and will consume,” she said. “All around my house, I’ve tried to be as consistent as I can with using natives.”

Native Plants

A 2022 survey by the National Wildlife Federation found that one in three people garden and landscape their yards with wildlife in mind, especially butterflies, bees, and birds. In addition to helping pollinators do their job, native plants are also well-adapted to survive harsh conditions with deep root systems that absorb excess rainwater.

I’ve never seen this much receptivity in the press and community conversations about native plants,” Preston said. “I think people want to do the right thing which is why I love community-based stuff. People are talking about it much more than they did a decade ago, which is fantastic.”

Plants set the table for the food web by capturing sunlight and turning it into energy for everyone from small bugs to humans. They keep the air and water clean, produce oxygen, and absorb CO2 in the atmosphere which is often a driver of climate change. Plants along Long Island Sound’s coastline provide storm protection and contribute to a healthy ecosystem, reducing the amount of fertilizer and pesticides necessary to keep your garden healthy and happy. You can find a list of plants native to New York or Connecticut here. Connecticut Sea Grant also has a coastal planting guide available.

Riparian Buffer

Riparian buffers act as transitional areas between land and water that help protect water quality. They provide many benefits, ranging from natural filtering of pollutants to providing habitat for wildlife throughout the Long Island Sound region.

A vegetated buffer. Photo by Judy Preston

“People don’t often understand the whole utility of why buffers work,” Preston said. “The hope is that this fact sheet makes it more understandable. It’s an important topic.”

Contaminated waters move through soil layers of the buffer while on their way to bordering water bodies. Through its travels, roots and soil organisms filter the water for extra nutrients or toxins and process them. Buffer areas can be filled with plants like trees and shrubs that build on soil layers, making for an added layer of protection. The leaf-covered and uneven ground helps soil organisms clean pollutants by allowing water to seep in. This, along with organic carbon from plants, helps remove nitrogen, a major threat to Long Island Sound. Even in the winter, riparian buffers can effectively remove nitrates. Shade from buffers can also provide a cooler and moister space for wildlife, especially migratory fish that are impacted by higher temperatures resulting from climate change.

Climate Landscaping

Sustainable landscaping is one way that homeowners can take cues from nature to lessen the challenges of climate disruption. Enhancing biodiversity in local ecosystems affects our food supply, access to clean water, and fuels local economies. Preston describes her yard as messy, but not unkept. She says that using “cues to care” is ideal for maintenance.

“If you’re going to let your yard naturalize, what you need to do is have cues to care,” said Preston. “Don’t let it look abandoned or neglected. I mow around my islands of experiments so that people looking at my yard can see that it’s untraditional. A lot of people are still at the point where they want to see a lot of color, a lot of flowers, shrubs, but nature is infinitely more subtle than that.”

Some of Preston’s tips for landscaping include:

  • Choose from a variety of natives and put them in groups.
  • Know and avoid planting invasive species.
  • Use mulch to protect soil layers.
  • Don’t disturb the soil by rototilling or turning it over.
  • Incorporate living mulch, like cover crops, into your garden beds.
  • Use compost to feed your soil.
  • Skip pesticides and talk with your Extension office about integrated pest management.

Lawns of Yesterday

Preston views lawns as the most prominent issue of them all. During the 1950s and 60s, bright green manicured lawns became mainstream in America as more people moved to the suburbs. In a Fortune magazine article from 1952, Abraham Levitt, a garden columnist for the Levittown Tribune wrote “No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.”

This green lawn may be putting nearby waters, and ultimately Long Island Sound, at risk from excess nitrogen, and pesticide inputs. Even a modest vegetated buffer along the waterfront could help reduce polluted runoff. Photo by Judy Preston.

To keep up the appearance of a vibrant healthy lawn, homeowners will oftentimes use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and water their lawns. Preston says that the standardization from the 50s and 60s left a permanent imprint on what is viewed as correct landscaping.

In a world examining its use of limited resources with the changing climate, the environmental cost of an ideal weed-free American lawn is being reconsidered. Preston recommends homeowners gradually make changes to their lawns to support pollinators and reduce flooding from stormwater. This includes mowing higher and less often, watering in the early morning to reduce evaporation, and being frugal with fertilizer. When shifting away from a traditional lawn, homeowners can consider incorporating native grasses and low-lying flowering plants.

“There’s so many different ways that people can make a difference in their home landscapes,” said Preston. “Healthy watersheds is more than just nitrogen, all stormwater is carrying a bunch of stuff so that’s where the overlap in these fact sheets is. I think when you talk to individuals, they would really like to feel like they can make a difference, whether its on a balcony in your apartment or its in a community open space or in your backyard.”

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