GENCO: Earth Day a time to give our thanks

Joe Genco

Happy Earth Day. I am a tree hugger. Always have been. Always will be. Think of me as a hippie who doesn't smoke pot or listen to jam bands.

When I was a child, I would climb into North Buffalo elm tree tops with a pillow, perched on a limb, swaying in the breeze. I actually met Mark Twain that way, reading Huck Finn.

I am a serial spreader of native plants and trees as well a flower child. Perhaps Joey Oakseed. I plant real trees, the kind that make our world a better place, not the toxic, invasive hybrids sold at your local big box. I spread meaningful plants like butterfly weed, echinacea, calendula and bergamot. A uniformly green lawn reminds me of death. It has no ecological or food value. It's as useless as a political community with no dissent.

Several years ago I discovered Doug Tallamy, of the University of Delaware who focuses on promoting native flora as a quality of life issue through his role as a professor and author of books like “Bringing Nature Home.” You can find many of his talks on Youtube. It is worth the visit.

Tallamy spreads the gospel that native trees and plants are the base of the natural food chain and our lives are better when we live in harmony with nature. They call it biophillic living. The DeVeaux neighborhood of the Falls within a few blocks of the gorge is a great example.

That oak or black cherry in your yard is teeming with native caterpillars. You might not see the creepy crawlies but the songbirds find them.

Plant a subdivision full of Bradford pear trees and barberry bushes and you will soon have pricker bushes and fast growing weed trees. Oh sure, the Bradford pears look pretty for a week or two a year, but they smell bad when in bloom. They have no benefit other than the aesthetic of growing fast and being green. That fast growth comes with its own hazard: A shallow root system and weak branches susceptible to wind and ice damage. The barberries turn scarlet in fall but offer nothing else.

There’s another ugly reality as well. The happy songbirds, chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers will be nowhere to be found with those Bradford pears because native insects are absent. Plant a mountain ash and landscape with winterberry, elderberry or currant bushes instead.

One of my favorite fast-growing trees is the honey locust. Sure it has big thorns, but rather than pretty white flowers that smell like death it has pretty white flowers that smell nice, go great in salad and taste like a cross between vanilla and asparagus.

Another of my favorite trees is the tulip or yellow poplar, also a fast-growing wildlife-benefiting hardwood that gets beautiful tulip-like flowers every spring. I remember as a child wondering where the flower petals came from on the ground at Letchworth State Park. We just didn’t know to look at the treetops. As an added bonus, its roots host morels, among the most choice wild mushrooms.

We just endured the arduous process of preparing our home for sale in Clarence. Every year at that property, there was a little less grass and a little more garden. More ecologically beneficial habitat, less boring green plain plain. Last summer, I took to skipping mowing over large patches of the backyard, going north to south one week, skipping one row with my riding lawnmower and east to west the next, skipping again.

The resulting checkerboard pattern soon filled with native wildflowers, some of which were transplanted from wild areas and field borders near our home.

We were visited by hummingbirds, bumblebees, honey bees in greater numbers than ever. Bluebirds nested in our birch tree for the first time. We have regular visits from turkeys now. 

Our realtor didn’t understand and demanded I fully mow to create that warm green, suburban effect. I begrudgingly agreed to tame some of it. Midway through, however, the landscape corrected my impulse. I hit a 6-inch in diameter blackwalnut stump cut flush and left behind last year. Flush but not flush enough. I cut that tree down for being too close to my tomato plants. I planned to replace it with a sycamore but that was before we decided to move. I replaced a bent mower blade but never finished because it rained the following day. The house sold any way.

As I drove to work Thursday in the snow, I admired how our early spring brought leaves to which the snow could stick creating a beautiful image. That happens a lot. Whether you see beauty or ugly is a choice you can make.

Joe Genco is the regional news editor for the Niagara Gazette and the Lockport Union-Sun & Journal. Contact him at joe.genco@niagara-gazette.com or 282-2311, extension 2250.

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