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A wild garden filled with native plant species attracts pollinators like bumble bees to the preserve (Credit: Victoria Caruso).

A local non-profit has big plans for two small plots of land at Downs Farm Preserve in Cutchogue

Group for the East End, an organization dedicated to environmental advocacy, conservation, and education on eastern Long Island, is in the process of transforming the preserve into an ecological safe haven for wildlife. Partnering with the Town of Southold, the group is developing a pocket meadow and thicket area where hundreds of native plant species will provide habitat to pollinators and other essential insects. 

Though insects are often thought of as pests, they’re vital to the North Fork’s food chains, serving as a source of nutrition for birds and other wildlife. 

“We want as many insects as possible,” explained Group for the East End outreach director Taralynn Reynolds, who has been overseeing the project. “A lot of our insects are being threatened and their populations are declining because of pesticides and loss of habitat.” 

Non-native grasses and invasive plant species can also threaten insects, as they don’t offer the same ecological value as native plants and can create ecological deserts. “There’s a whole slew of beneficial insects that require native plants,” explained Reynolds. “There are invasive plant species that have really started to change what our wooded areas should look like and out compete and take over our native plants.”

Take Mugwort, for example, which is an invasive species found at Downs Farm Preserve that inhibits other native plants from growing and repels insects. Reynolds has already started to remove these pesky plants with an environmentally-friendly process called solarization. 

“You take rolls of cardboard and roll it out on top of the area…then you layer mulch on top of it and let the sun heat it up like it would do naturally,” she explained. “All of the seeds underneath should die off — some things are still going to be able to pop up through it, but you can weed that out by hand.” 

The restoration project is the second time that Group for the East End is setting out to plant native species at Downs Farm Preserve. The organization’s first plot has been growing for a little over two years and is still in bloom. Along the beds of native goldenrods and asters, visitors can find a variety of thriving populations of insects like bumble bees, caterpillars, and monarch butterflies. 

Over time, the organization plans on rewilding more and more areas of the preserve. The native meadow and thicket area is the latest restoration project, one that they’ve been working on since late August. 

“We consulted with a certified landscape ecologist to make sure we were choosing the exact plants that would be aggressive enough to be able to out compete [with invasive species],” said Reynolds. “We’re really trying to provide a landscape that supports insects, supports our birds and wildlife.” 

The next step is planting — a lengthy task that Reynolds says she cannot do alone. 

“We definitely need volunteers,” she said. “We’re going to have hundreds of plant plugs that need to go in there.” 

Reynolds estimates that planting will begin sometime in October or early November. Those interested in volunteering can reach out to her directly at [email protected]

“It may seem small, but it’s very exciting to be able to bring back some of our native habitat when we were losing so much of it,” she said. “​We need to focus a little bit more on inviting nature back in.”