PRFCT Perspectives

Tagged with "Wildlife"

Martin Architects meadow

Photo courtesy of Nick and Christina Martin.

“Mother nature is the ultimate landscape designer. We’re just her helpers,” says Emilia deMauro, who, along with her sister Anna, runs the East Hampton, NY, landscape-design firm deMauro + deMauro. Their approach to design is imbued with a sense of community and responsibility to preserve the beauty of the native environment.

The sisters grew up shuttling between the rolling hills of rural Northeastern Pennsylvania, where their artist dad lived, and the farm fields and overgrown thickets of the east end of Long Island, where their mother was farming and gardening. “Both of those landscapes play a huge part in our designs,” says Anna, who studied at the Florence Academy of Art in Italy. “There’s something so beautiful in the wildness. We're constantly pulling from those memories.”

They found kindred spirits in clients architect Nick Martin and his wife Christina. The couple believed strongly in “pivoting away from green lawns that require chemicals and continual labor, and, most important, that strip our community of habitat for creatures big and small,” says Christina. They hired the sisters to design the landscape outside of Martin Architects, Nick’s new Bridgehampton office on the Montauk highway. A busy thoroughfare, situated just past a gas station and across from a bank, didn’t deter them from achieving their joint vision: a self-sufficient oasis, lush with native plants and alive with birds, butterflies, and wildlife, that looks beautiful year-round.

The property was neglected when the Martins bought it. “To transform the space, we removed the asphalt driveway, regraded the land because the pitch was so bad, with the goal that it wouldn’t need irrigation,” says Nick. He also tried to reuse as many materials as possible.

For the front-yard meadow, which is 90% native, the deMauros handpicked every single plant. They had roughly plotted out a matrix on paper in the office before “throwing it all up in the air come planting time,” says Anna with a laugh of their instinctual process. “Something happens when you lay out a garden,” adds Emilia. “There’s a little chaos and unknown in nature and that’s where the fun happens. You can’t be too rigid.”

While the garden is not even a year old, it already has become an attraction for wildlife and humans alike. The Martins have spotted an uncommon Henry's Elfin butterfly and specialized native bees like Colletes banksi. “The meadow has become a haven for insects and bird, all sharing space,” says Christina, who is also studying biodynamic gardening. It’s also attracted people, including Perfect Earth Project founder Edwina von Gal, who recently was compelled to step on the brakes while driving by to find out more. She’s not the only one. “We have friends stopping by to ask about our plant lists,” says Christina. “That’s the whole idea. We want to share our garden and inspire as many people as possible because the more people who do this, the better.”

The deMauros are encouraged that aesthetics are shifting. “People want to do the right thing,” says Emilia. She and her sister have seen how frustrated people are with the time, money, and effort to keep green lawns and clipped hedges. “It’s important to have these conversations. No one needs a ‘perfect’ lawn. We want to show people that they can have habitat on their property and it can be beautiful.”

Martin Architects path

Anna and Emilia planted a loose allée of native single stem Magnolia virginiana ‘Green Shadow’ trees, leading to a wood sculpture. “This space was intended to have a slightly more formal feeling from the front of the property with fewer plantings and more stone dust,” says Emilia. Photo courtesy of Nick and Christina Martin.

Martin Architects path 2

For the hardscape, the sisters used stone dust for the driveway and paths. It’s water permeable, acts as a mulch, and is “beautiful at all times but especially in winter when the garden has an open and serene feeling to it,” says Emilia. A Magnolia virginiana ‘Sweet Thing’ tree anchors one end of the path, which is flanked by asters, narrowleaf mountain mint, prairie dropseed grass, and three kinds of Carex. Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.

Martin Architects meadow 2

For the meadow in the front of the property, the deMauros devised an interspecies matrix planting. They densely planted small perennials (grasses such as prairie dropseed and wavy hair grass and flowering species including slender blue iris, gray goldenrod, and white heath asters) approximately 12- to 18-inches apart to help with weed suppression and water conservation. “We are always considering plants that match each other, such as sun/shade patterns, seasonal interest/growth patterns, succession bloom, site conditions,” says Anna. Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.

Martin Architects path 3

In front of the property is an old footpath that has been worn away by people walking along it over the years. “We wanted to honor it, so we covered it with stone dust with the hope that people will continue to use it daily and enjoy the insects and birds, and just the plain old beauty of the garden,” says Christina. Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.

Martin Architects planting

The whole office came out to plant the meadow together. “We wanted everyone to have a part in the garden and I was amazed at how much fun everyone was having putting their hands in the dirt,” says Christina. “It was a bonding experience.” Photo courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.

Martin Architects stone area

Nick wanted to use a series of rocks to create something sculptural, but “we realized that the most sculptural way of using them was to leave them as if ‘they fell off the truck.’ They formed a grouping as a gathering space hinging the composition of the grade to the structure” he says. “We modified the layout, added succulents, and nature did the rest." Photo by Doug Young, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro.

Martin Architects meadow snow

The meadow is striking covered in snow. They don’t cut back the meadow in fall but keep the stems and seedheads intact for wildlife. After returning from a family vacation to Sweden, the sisters came back with an even greater appreciation for nature au naturel. “Less is more. See the beauty in leaving things be,” says Anna. Photo by Jake Lear, courtesy of deMauro + deMauro

This is part of a series with Gardenista, which ran on January 25, 2024.

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“The garden has been an adventure,” says Brian Sawyer, co-founder and partner of the award-winning, multi-disciplinary design firm Sawyer | Berson. When he bought the property seven years ago, the yard of his Bellport, NY, home consisted of an uninspired lawn and basic foundation plantings. But Brian saw potential. From the start, he knew he wanted a PRFCT garden—one that was toxic-free and nature-based. He carved out geometric beds and filled them with loose plantings, including many native varieties, such as an array of monarch-loving milkweed, ironweed, and Coreopsis, which “made a nice, low cloud of yellow” in the beds. He transformed the dull space into a richly layered wonderland that now brims with flora and fauna, including “twice the number of birds and a ten-fold increase in insects” since he first bought the property.

As every gardener knows, a garden is never complete—and is always unpredictable. Brian is already thinking about the changes he will make later this year. He plans to add more native Rudbeckia, noting that it “works better mixed with other meadow perennials and grasses and less as a stand-alone.” He loved the beebalm (also a favorite of bees, as you might guess) when it bloomed in July but learned that he had to pair it with something that would flower when it began to fade. He discovered that hollyhocks resent the humidity of Long Island and don’t like wet feet, the Joe Pye weed grew much taller than expected, and he rejoiced at the native Lobelia, which was “really robust and flowered most of the season.” “What’s been the most rewarding is the learning experience,” says Brian. “There’s much to edit this coming year, but that’s all part of the fun.” 

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Brown Belted Bumblbee By Steven Mlodinow

The Buzz on Native Bees

December 13, 2023

This is part of a series with Gardenista , which ran on December 14, 2023.

[Top] The Brown-belted bumblebee is native to much of the U.S. It gets its name from its thin reddish-brown “belt.” Photo Credit: Steven Mlodinow

It’s winter. The trees are bare, the ground is (hopefully) covered in fallen leaves, and the palette of the landscape is muted. While it might look barren, there is a whole world living just out of sight. “Native bees might not be buzzing now,” says Sarah Kornbluth, a field associate in Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History. “But they are all around us, hibernating in soil, stems, cavities, standing dead vegetation, and leaf litter, ready to emerge next spring.” There are more than 3600 described species of native bees in North America, from large fuzzy bumblebees to tiny metallic green gems, some sporting masks and others flaunting their extra-long antennae, living in forests, deserts, tundra, meadows—basically anywhere there are flowers. While they might not get as much attention as, say, monarch butterflies, they are vital pollinators to our ecosystem and food web. They are also in trouble. Native bees are struggling due to habitat loss, pesticide use, and competition and disease from non-native honeybees. [To learn more about how honeybees compete with native bees, read this piece from Xerces Society.] At The Battery in downtown Manhattan, the garden team is working hard to support them. They removed their honeybee hives and are incorporating more pollinator-friendly native plants into the gardens, says Jennifer Bishop, zone gardener at The Battery. They’re also about to embark on a pollinator survey with Kornbluth.

“The Battery's been interested in learning a lot more about all of the organisms that use the garden besides humans to incorporate into their education programs and landscaping management practices,” says Kornbluth. “I'm very interested in knowing which bees are living where, what they need, and how we can provide for them. When you look at a bee community, you can learn a lot about what resources are available because you can see what specialist bees are thriving where. Are there bees that prefer soil nesting or cavity nesting? What nesting habitats are being provided here? What flowers do they prefer? What is the community telling us about what the habitat is rich in or poor in?” Kornbluth and team started with a preliminary study of native bees at The Battery this year and will launch a full survey in 2024.

The team surveys the population by observing and collecting species with nets and by setting passive traps. The traps, which they call bee bowls, are plastic cups painted fluorescent yellow or blue, or white. These colors mimic the color of the nectar guides that flowers use to lure pollinators to visit. The cups are filled with soapy water to trap the insects. “We then collect, pin, and identify each species and will make observations of species we can identify without killing,” says Kornbluth. They will also post photographs of bees on iNaturalist for identification.

“The priority in gardening is no longer just about mastering an aesthetic,” says Bishop. “There is a shift toward being more mindful and ethical. We need to embrace the natural systems that we've just forgotten about.” Here’s what you can do at home.

Grow native plants in your garden.

 Native insects coevolved with native plants. They’re part of an intricate food web system. For most organisms, non-native plants are like “plastic fruit in a fruit bowl,” says Kornbluth. “It may look good, but they won’t be able to eat it.” While nectar-eating insects are able to enjoy the sugary, calorie-rich nectar from a wide range of flowers, “pollen, which bees need to feed their young, is more likely to come from the local native species that they have been coevolving with them for many thousands of years,” says Kornbluth. At Perfect Earth Project, we advocate for at least two-thirds native plants in your garden.

Don’t use pesticides.

Even organic ones. Pesticides (and that includes insecticides, herbicides, fungicides) don’t discriminate and will kill all insects—not just the ones you’re targeting. When selecting plants at the nursery, ask to make sure they haven’t been treated with pesticides of any kind, especially neonicotinoids, a systemic insecticide that is absorbed by the entire plant rendering every part poisonous to pollinators.

Battery In Snow

The Battery leaves the stems intact over winter where they provide homes for insects and structural beauty all season. Photo Credit: Courtesy of The Battery.

Provide Nesting Spots

Native bees nest in the ground and in stems and wood piles. “It’s important to remember that the standing dead vegetation you see is full of bees,” says Kornbluth. Try not to cut back stems when flowers are done blooming, but leave them for the bees. If you’re concerned about how that’s going to look, visit The Battery, says Bishop, and see how pretty it is all winter long. “Embracing a plant’s complete life cycle—from seedlings in spring to seed head or grass mound in winter—is a Piet Oudolf trademark,” says Bishop of the visionary Dutch landscape designer who created the garden’s master plan. “At The Battery we continue to display the array of forms and textures a plant possesses. By not deadheading we allow the life cycle to stay on display and integrate into design year-round. And this decay becomes abundant living matter and nest material for pollinators.” It’s also beautiful. “I love the aesthetic: the decay, structure, and different textures of every plant—they each have their own kind of personality,” says Bishop. But if you must cut some stems back, Kornbluth advises to leave last year’s stems as high as you can. While you’re at it, leave the leaves. In addition to feeding the soil, fallen leaves provide insulation for ground-nesters, like bumblebees and mining bees, as well as other hibernating organisms. “It prevents the surface of the earth from getting too cold, which impacts their survival over the winter,” says Kornbluth.

Look and Learn

“Do a small insect safari at home,” suggests Kornbluth. Bishop has been doing this in her own backyard in Westchester New York and happily admits the glee she feels when finding new species in her garden. “Give yourself the opportunity to be meditative and peaceful,” says Kornbluth. See who's coming to eat. What do you notice about them? Do you see one with full pollen baskets (indentations on a bee’s rear legs that are covered in stiff hairs that trap pollen)? What plants are they visiting? When are they appearing? Share what you find on iNaturalist. “The whole process is very eye-opening, engaging, and connecting.” You’ll be amazed at what you discover. “Pollinators are often a very good indicator of ecosystem health because of their connectedness with plants,” says Kornbluth. “Plus, they’re adorable.”

Let’s meet some native bees:

Photos by Jennifer Bishop, unless otherwise indicated.

Queen Eastern Bumblebee Usgs Bee Inventory And Monitoring Lab

Photo Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Common Eastern Bumblebee

Bumblebees are social, living in colonies. Kornbluth describes their life cycle like this: The queen overwinters, hibernating in her hidey-hole or hibernaculum, an underground spot like an abandoned mouse burrow that she had chosen the previous spring after mating. Then she comes out in the spring and starts to collect pollen and lay eggs. As her daughter workers become larvae, she feeds them, they pupate and become adult workers. Then they take over a lot of the jobs. She lays more eggs. The queen has all summer to build her nest until she produces new queens in late summer or early fall. Then she dies and the cycle continues. A closeup of a queen, Bombus impatiens.

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ABOVE is a female Eastern Bumblebee with full pollen baskets. “We think that bumbles are great to include because they are some of the easiest native bees to spot and learn about,” says Kornbluth.

Masked Bee 3

Masked bee

These tiny bees are solitary, nesting in twigs and stems. Since they’re so small, they prefer small flowers, even “ones we might not really notice, like those found in an alternative lawn” says Kornbluth, and because of their size, they can go deep inside flowers to get nectar. Not particularly hairy, they don’t carry pollen on their bodies, like other bees, but carry it in their “’crop,’ the upper part of the digestive tract.” It doesn’t get digested but is regurgitated when the bee gets back to the nest. “Many species of bees use their crop to carry nectar or water, but the masked bees also use it for carrying pollen,” notes Kornbluth. This masked bee was spotted foraging on snakeroot in Bishop’s garden. “It’s a super rigorous perennial with firework white flowers,” says Bishop, who cautions that it can spread vigorously.

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Only females have pollen baskets, as you can see on this fuzzy Brown-belted Bumblebee. Kornbluth explains how you can identify them: “A female Brown-belted bumblebee has 5 visible stripes (or segments) on its abdomen. The first stripe (closest to the thorax) has yellow hairs, the second stripe has a patch of yellow to brown hairs in the middle and black hairs on the sides. Stripes three, four, and five have black hairs and are hard to tell apart.” These large ground-nesters can be found in prairies, meadows, and fields where they reuse abandoned burrows or cavities.

Green Sweat Bee Augochloropsis Metallica, Female, Usgs Bee Inventory And Monitoring Lab

Photo Credit: USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab

Green Sweat Bee

Sweat bees are small, docile, and great pollinators. They are also attracted to salt. Some are even attracted to mammal sweat. “People often mistake bright green sweat bees for flies,” says Kornbluth. One way to distinguish between the two is to look at their eyes. “Fly eyes take up more than 75% of a fly's head, while bee and wasp eyes take up less than 50%,” she says. “You'll be surprised how visible insect's eyes are once you're looking for them!”

Img 6996 Male Longhorn Bee

Male Longhorn bees feature very long antennae. These bees are specialists of Asteraceae, and especially love sunflowers. Look for them buzzing about in July and August.

Img 6823 Female Longhorn Bee

The pollen basket of the female Longhorn bee sits on much of its hind leg. It’s composed of dense hair to help trap pollen as it flies from flower to flower.

Hibernaculum (2)

“A hibernaculum is a winter refuge for animals. Late last year we built one for snakes, which are important predators of voles and white-footed mice. What do snakes need during hibernation? It’s a time of extreme vulnerability, so they need a place safe from predators where they won’t freeze. We started by creating a tangle of stumps and chunks of wood gathered from the property, making sure there were lots of air pockets for snakes to nestle into. On top, we piled soil we had left over from digging a pond, and covered it all with a layer of compost. For structure, we constructed a frame of sticks, tied them together, and covered everything with more soil, compost, and seeded it with fescue grasses. Inside we dug out a small cave, fitted it with repurposed cement pavers, and placed a warming stone just outside, which will absorb the heat of the sun and provide a snake a spot to soak up the heat. I think of it as a folly, a snake folly. I’m excited to see who will move in later this fall. A garter snake? Or the exquisite and brightly colored, but nonvenomous, milk snake? I’m crossing my fingers and will be on the lookout.” —Edwina von Gal

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Radicle Thinking by Edwina von Gal

I’ve been thinking about what our landscapes say about us. Just the same as clothing, homes, or cars, landscapes tell the world a lot about their owners. They also tell the stories of the billions of lives—visible and invisible—that are living (or not) in our yards and how we are treating these plants, animals, and fungi that were there before we took over, and still need a home.

Garden owners and gardeners manipulate properties, creating gardens that showcase to the world just how smart, successful, tasteful, plant savvy, carefree, or eco-conscious they are, or want to look like they are. The more carefully clipped, sterilized, and controlled a property, the more resources (time and money) were obviously needed to get it there. Control sends a clear message of wealth and power. More control means fewer surprises; minimal changes from season to season and year to year—frozen in time, predictable, and rather lacking in life.

But nature wants it otherwise. It wants to grow and fill a place with life. It will never stop trying, and it is powerful. Keeping a place from aging naturally requires ever more control—more machines, more sprays, more mulch, more money. More impressive? The landscape industry hopes you think so. It has become a huge machine fueled by all the services a tightly controlled landscape needs to keep it looking just so. And yes, you know where I am going with this thought: the cost to the environment is harsh. Nary a branch out of line, never a nibbled leaf; no place for non-human lives to live—and not great for humans either, considering the constant onslaught of noise and poison.

There are alternatives and they are starting to send some new messages. How to read them? Even the “drive-by” eye can easily tell what priorities the property owner has in mind. Take a ride around and judge for yourself. Here are some of my thoughts:

Wall to Wall Carpet of Lawn = Power Play: lord and master of all. Nothing much but grass.

Trees and Shrubs Shaped with Military Precision = Control issues: everything bound up in shapewear.

Privet, Boxwood, Mophead Hydranges, Crepe Myrtles = Fashion Victim: two decades late to the party.

Yellow Warning Tags = Blind Optimism: “Huh, pesticides are bad for me?”

Huge Hedges = Insecurity: “I don’t want to engage with the community, but I want them to think I’m someone special.”

Monocultures—Huge Swaths of One Kind of Plant = Short on ideas: High Impact with minimal creativity.

Diverse, Unclipped Plantings = Setting the stage: challenging the norm-complexity is not the same as messy

Native Ground Covers = Spreading the love: finding new solutions like using large swaths of lawn alternatives.

UnMowing = Conscious Uncoupling: letting go of the norm, welcoming wildlife.

Major Meadow = Eco Chic: on trend, changing the garden aesthetic.

Gardens need a new look, a new kind of care that is caring and welcoming to all life…. Can you see it coming? Could it be time for a bit of self assessment? Landscape as therapy—the best kind.


The Book of Wilding: A Practical Guide to Rewilding Big and Small , by Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell
“In this age of eco-anxiety, when we can so easily feel utterly powerless and overwhelmed by the challenges of climate change and biodiversity loss, experiencing rewilding seems to restore a sense of agency and ambition.” —Isabella Tree and Charlie Burrell

Photo: The owners of this garden designed by Refugia outside of Philadelphia replaced their front lawn with a vibrant, native meadow. Photo by Ngoc Minh Ngo.

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