A patch of wildness may soon flourish in the midst of Guilderland’s commercial hub

We are writing a paean to pollination.
We are observing No Mow May inspired two years ago by Altamont’s Ellen Howie, who called to tell us about the beauties of her unmown lawn. She likened her lawn to a prairie or to undulating ocean waves. As she named many wildflowers flourishing there, she declared, “I just think it’s beautiful.”

Today we saw a Painted Lady butterfly feeding on nectar in a flower in our yard. Bees, their  magnanimities of sound, are everywhere, the musical score to the symphony of emerging spring colors.

No Mow May, as we’ve written on this page before, increases plant diversity as well as nectar for pollinators. Since its founding in Great Britain in 2019, it has caught on in many places in the United States, with some entire cities signing on.

We previously called on the boards in the towns we cover to adopt resolutions in support of No Mow May and we do so with more urgency now. As with any movement, the more people who participate, the greater the effect.

Not only will it help the pollinators that are crucial to agriculture and indeed to all life on our planet — a quarter of all bee species in North America are in danger of extinction — it could change our societal perceptions of what is beautiful.

No mowing increases biodiversity as well as food for pollinators. A study in Massachusetts, which notes lawns blanket half of urban and suburban landscapes in the United States, compared lawns that did not use chemical pesticides or herbicides with those that did. The researchers found 63 plant varieties in the untreated lawns with nearly a third of them native plants.

In Appleton, Wisconsin, which participated in No Mow May, researchers there found “No Mow May homes had three times higher bee richness and five times higher bee abundances than frequently mowed greenspaces.”

Attitudes were changed in Appleton as the tall grasses grew in May 2020. “A post-No Mow May survey revealed that the participants were keen to increase native floral resources in their yards, increase native bee nesting habitat, reduce mowing intensities, and limit herbicide, pesticide, and fertilizer applications to their lawns,” the study said.

A monoculture lawn that is heavily manicured with frequent mowing, and chemically managed is not what is best for the long-term health of our planet. Climate change exacerbates the problems of shrinking biodiversity.

Lawns filled with what many consider weeds — even non-native plants like dandelions — can support native bees.

More surface area in the United States is devoted to lawns than to individual irrigated crops such as corn or wheat. This is according to satellite calculations done by Cristina Milesi for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Milesi’s calculations show that 200 gallons of fresh, usually drinking-quality water per person per day is required to keep up our nation’s lawn surface area.

Fifty to 70 percent of residential water in the United States is used for landscaping, with most used to water lawns.

This is in a time when water supplies are increasingly under pressure nationwide — and right here in Guilderland — as populations grow and climate change wreaks havoc.

“The water table has dropped hundreds of feet in many locations, and rivers and streams go dry for long stretches in various seasons as water is siphoned off for agriculture, industry, and individual residences,” says NASA’s Earth Observatory. “All along the Atlantic seaboard from Florida to New York, saltwater is flowing into formerly freshwater aquifers and wells because we are pumping freshwater out faster than nature can put it back.”

Given these pressures, says Milesi, it’s important to think about how society uses the available water.

Watering lawns is not the best use of our limited resources. 

This week, though, we are writing not just about pollination as an essential biological process needed for plants to reproduce, supporting all kinds of life including human life, but also about metaphorical pollination.

Cross-pollination can occur with ideas, too. Much as a bee carries pollen from one plant to another, creating a seed so, too, can an idea be carried from one group to another forming a seed for a project that, if carefully tended, will grow and even flourish.

This is our story of cross-pollination. Whether this project flourishes may be up to our readers.

Pastor Jim Dorner came to Albany in 2019 “right before the world fell apart,” he said, referencing the pandemic. “We were all shut down.”

He was the pastor of the historic St. Paul’s Church in Albany and used the time to research church records going back to the 1800s, many of them in German.

Between the 1920s and 1940s, he learned, a mission society raised money to “hire ministers to plant three other congregations in the growing suburbs of Albany.” The churches founded then in Colonie and Bethlehem are still in existence while the one in Guilderland closed in 2018.

Now, that Guilderland church on Western Avenue, formerly Christ Lutheran and currently Unity Lutheran, is the home to congregants from two Lutheran churches that were sold — St. Paul’s and St. Mathew’s, both in Albany — as well as members of Christ Lutheran.

Dorner along with his wife and their three young children live in McKownville not far from the church.

Dorner attended a meeting of the McKownville Improvement Association where Laura Barry, another McKownville resident, spoke about the virtues of native plants.

“The statistics are insane,” said Dorner of what he learned. “A non-native tree will only attract, like, one species of caterpillar whereas, if you plant a native tree, you’ll get 200 different species, which of course then bring the native birds and other wildlife.”

He concluded, “We in suburbia have really done a number on our natural world without really realizing it.”

After Barry’s talk, Dorner spoke to her about the church property. Next to the church is a vacant field, right along busy Route 20, the town’s major thoroughfare, facing Stuyvesant Plaza.

The church had originally thought of expanding, Dorner said, or perhaps building a community center in the vacant lot. “We found out a river runs underneath and it would be incredibly costly to build on,” Dorner said, noting that the area frequently floods.

The lawn-care service the church called said the ground was too soft to mow and they’d have to bushwack it, which Dorner termed “a pain in the neck and much more costly.”

Barry called Dorner two years after they had spoken “out of the blue” last December, he said, and told him about a grant possibility with Wild Ones.

The nationwide not-for-profit organization’s mission is to promote native landscapes through education, advocacy, and collaborative action.

“A healthy planet starts with native plants,” says Wild Ones’ mission statement. “Dwindling biodiversity is a threat to the foundation of life on earth. In the last century alone, we’ve lost millions of acres of diverse ecosystems to urbanization.

“Native plants help protect and restore biodiversity, improve air and water quality and provide wildlife with quality food and shelter. Our vision is native plants and natural landscapes in every community.”

“They had three stipulations for the grant,” said Dorner. “It had to be in the town of Guilderland, to have high visibility, and to have some sort of community involvement for ongoing maintenance.”

Lutheran United checked all the boxes and got the grant.

Wild Ones is currently designing a native plant garden for the property with plans of planting in the fall.

Last month, Kristi Shelper of Wild Ones led a session at the church, saying, “Our goal is to connect people with native plants.”

She introduced the group to a Google app, iNaturalist, that allows users to identify plants by photographing them while at the same time creating a database for scientists to use.

Shelper encouraged the group to be “citizen scientists” and said that the goal was to photograph and identify the plants in the church’s vacant lot. 

“It doesn’t matter if it’s a good plant or a bad plant,” she said. “We just need to get the data into the app so that we can pull it up and start deciding what needs to go and when is the best time to check it out.”

Pam Lupien, a church member who attended Shelper’s workshop, says she has never been a gardener. “My plants die,” she said.

But she is enthused about this project and getting community groups, like Scouts, involved. “At the end of the session, everyone was out there with their phones,” Lupien said, enthusiastically describing using the app for plant identification.

Dorner is enthused about the app, too, calling it “a really neat thing.”

He went on, “We’re all kind of in this together, just kind of learning as we go, but really hopeful this might actually help some of the flooding issues down the road.”

He said a vernal pool is being planned for the garden, describing it as a pond to hold overflowing rain water.

He also said that, while non-native plants don’t have a deep root system, native marsh plants might reduce the flooding. “The roots can go down deep and suck up gallons of water,” he said. “So we’re curious and hopeful to see how it might help some of the flooding issues, but also turn into an educational spot for the world that God has created.”

The church runs an after-school program with about 30 elementary-school children and Dorner envisions the children helping with the garden.

“If you put a spade in their hands and say ‘dig,’ what kid wouldn’t like that?” he asked.

Eventually, once the garden is established, Dorner envisions having the plants labeled with their names and benefits, so that school groups and others can tour and learn from the garden.

Dorner notes that anyone is welcome to help with the garden. They need not be Lutheran or religious at all.

On the third Sunday of every month — the next is May 19 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. — the church holds a potluck lunch that features a garden presentation and related activity. On May 19, Laura Davis will present “A Journey to a Natural Yard in Suburbia.”

The attendees, if the weather is nice, will then head to the church’s vacant lot to remove invasive species such as garlic mustard weed and dames rocket before they go to seed.

“Bring your gloves, tick repellent, and … wear appropriate clothing for our unpredictable weather,” urges the Wild Ones post. “This event is open to the community so please bring a friend and spread the word.”

Dorner has returned to the place where he first got inspired to plant a native garden, the McKownville Improvement Association, to do some cross-pollinating.

He recently made a presentation to the group. “I said, ‘Anyone is welcome.’”

One of the women attending the session led by Shelper at Unity Lutheran noted that the gathering was in a holy place.

She cited a Buddhist monk and teacher who “used to talk about seeds we had in our consciousness — and there are whole bunches of them that we don’t know what they are. We have to be alert,” she said, “to what’s coming up and, you know, take care of the ones that are positive  …

“That’s the sort of Buddhist spiritual end of what we’re doing on the ground. There’s a seed bank in there and we’re going to cultivate the ones that are native and helpful and, the ones that are not, encourage them to become compost for the soil.”

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