A New Initiative: “At Home with Nature”

The Orleans Conservation Trust has launched “At Home with Nature,” an initiative to educate residents about the use of environmentally sound stewardship practices on their properties. The initiative will be integrated into many of the Trust’s activities in the future; one key component is to improve the educational potential of OCT’s properties to demonstrate eco-friendly land care.

At Home with Nature was identified as an opportunity to expand OCT’s reach beyond our own conservation properties. As part of OCT’s Strategic Planning process in 2022, we confronted the fact that opportunities for OCT to protect additional acreage are dwindling; many of the larger properties that once made up Orleans have been either carved up and developed or are already protected. But there are thousands of acres under private ownership that can provide a lot of habitat if we can help residents understand the importance of such work and give them the resources needed to inform their decisions.

The OCT Office Demonstration Garden

OCT recognizes that eco-friendly land care can be daunting. Identifying plants, controlling invasive vegetation, choosing the right native plants all take a certain level of expertise. The OCT Office Demonstration Garden, which is a new endeavor to covert lawn to pollinator gardens and native meadow habitat at our highly visible headquarters on Route 28, represents the first installment in the At Home with Nature initiative. We hope the project will provide an example for the community that shows people what they can do at home.

For years, we’ve led educational walks on which we taught attendees about invasive plant identification and control, and we’ve encouraged practices such as leaving snags - standing dead trees - for the habitat they provide to insects, woodpeckers, and other cavity nesters. Yet at the same time we were mowing our Cape Cod lawn with staff that could have otherwise been improving habitat our own properties.

The first step in creating the Demonstration Garden was to work with an expert who helped us design the landscape plan for the property. Working with Tyler Gaudreau of Environmental Landscape Solutions, we considered sight lines, shading, planting method (e.g., sowing a seed mix vs starting with plugs or larger plants).

“We’d like our property to serve as the “gold standard,” but an expert to help design your project isn’t a necessity; there are many freely available native garden plans for you to customize. Everyone has their own aesthetic tastes, and as long as you’re planting native, I don’t think you can go wrong,” says OCT Executive Director Steve O’Grady. Pollinator Pathway Cape Cod, a regional initiative to increase pollinator-friendly habitats and food sources across the Cape, has curated a list of natives that are well adapted to our region.

With the plan massaged and finalized, OCT got to work removing three sections of the lawn, and a large patch of rugosa rose, which is an aggressive nonnative that has naturalized on the Cape. The strong backs of OCT staff and volunteers did most of this work, aided by a sod cutter, rented for the day. Limited herbicide treatment helped with the rosa rugosa eradication. OCT encourages avoidance of herbicides when possible, but there’s efficiency gained by selective use in limited quantities, and with over 500 acres under our ownership, it’s one of several important controls in OCT’s eco-restoration toolbox.

On June 9, OCT volunteers gathered once again to plant 665 plugs and gallon-size plants around the parking area. Plants included the familiar black-eyed Susan, common and butterfly milkweed, and goldenrods, but there are over 30 species and grasses and flowering perennials. A diversity of plants encourages a diversity of insects, and it also means different bloom times, which is good for the pollinators and good for human admirers, too!

OCT staff laid hoses and set up sprinklers to provide irrigation, allowing the seed mix to germinate and plants to get established, though the long-term plan is to let the gardens naturalize. Native plants were perfectly happy before the arrival of gardeners, after all! OCT Director of Land Stewardship Alex Bates points out “there will be some ongoing maintenance weeding and watering in this first season, but the goal here is less human intervention and a more natural system. Ecologically speaking, almost anything beats a lawn, and I’m happy to skip the summer mowing!”

Educational Value of the Garden

The Demonstration Garden includes three zones. The zone around our “Orleans Conservation Trust” sign will be planted with the largest plants and should fill in pretty quickly. A second zone will be planted with smaller plugs, which will allow for a bit more diversity, though it will take a bit longer to fill in. The last zone will receive only a seed mix, and will have more of a wild meadow look when fully grown in, which will take about two seasons. That zone has the potential for the greatest diversity. “That diversity of species allows us to hedge our bets a bit, because we know some seeds won’t germinate and other plants will be quickly outcompeted by others. Part of the fun of a seed mix is the same mix will result in a different combination of plants depending on the site, and the look will change from year to year, too,” says Director of Land Stewardship Alex Bates

The goal of the three zones is to show the public that they can add natives to their landscape by using a variety of methods that accommodate a range of budgets and aesthetic preferences. We’ll learn from the process, too, and we intend to share findings with OCT members as the gardens evolve.

OCT is taking on a lot at once, but we encourage residents to start small. We aim to provide a lot of diversity in species and appearance so people can pick and choose what they like. We’ll have plant ID tags that aid members in that selection. You can replace non-natives with natives as plants die, or start with a section of your property that has the most invasive plants. And if you’ve got room for a tree, you can do a lot for the ecosystem with just one plant! If you’re lacking a green thumb, trees and shrubs can go a long way and are pretty care-free as long as they’re watered.

We’re already thinking about future project at the OCT Office property that will help residents become more “At Home with Nature,” too. We envision a rain garden and have begun to look at examples nearby. We also plan to do some education on invasive plant control in the woodland around our building. The methods and times of year for controlling invasives varies from one species to the next, and we want to help people understand how to maximize their impact.