Regardless of the size of your residential property or estate, maintaining its balance with the local environment—both with plants and animals—often seems like a daunting task. We asked Greg Gagliano of Red Tail Restoration about the common problems homeowners have and how they can best be addressed.
Gagliano has thrived in the field of ecology for over a decade. With a degree in wildlife conservation from the University of Delaware, he has worked across the Mid-Atlantic region with invasive species, aquatic ecosystems, endangered shorebirds, wildlife diseases, deer management, wetland and salt marsh quality assessment, youth education, and land management.
The Hunt: What are the biggest problems private landowners call you to fix? What are some possible solutions?
Greg Gagliano: The most common environmental issue is an overabundance of exotic, invasive plants that threaten natural biodiversity of native plants and associated wildlife. We look at each property individually and remove invasive plants in a manner that’s most likely to support a resurgence of native plants in the future.
Other common issues include water runoff that causes erosion or poor water quality, and excessive deer browsing that inhibits normal plant growth. Homeowners may also want to create and improve wildlife habitat on their properties, which is often done by carefully choosing native plants and habitat features that attract and support desired species such as birds, pollinators and small mammals.
The Hunt: How big a problem are invasive species across the board, and is there such a thing as a “good” invasive species?
Gagliano: The impact of invasive species includes reducing agricultural yield, clogging waterways and threatening native species, among other concerns. The term ‘invasive’ is nearly always used to describe an exotic species that lacks natural checks and balances, allowing it to spread to such levels that it negatively alters the new environment.
However, the term ‘invasive’ is sometimes used with native plants to describe significant spread of any species that out-competes neighboring species. In this case, using the term ‘aggressive’ is probably more appropriate. Rarely is anything in the environment all good or all bad. However, a diversity of native plants is almost always a healthier option.
TH: What are the biggest problems homeowners and landowners have with water flow?
GG: The first issue is excessive flow that causes erosion, which may create gullies that worsen over time and may send sediment pollution into nearby streams. The second is ponding in areas where water is not allowed to escape. This may create ice on walkways during the winter, create areas for mosquitos to breed during the summer, or create basement flooding when against a foundation.
Most homeowners are quick to realize they have a problem, but understanding the solution is not as obvious. Sometimes, older communities will think that everything is fine because the water is sent from rooftop gutters, streets and driveways directly into sewers that drain right into nearby streams. However, this unnaturally excessive runoff may have serious implications for stream ecosystems, due to the increased sediment and pollutants, as well as reduced water quality. We work with these communities to improve water runoff on a site-by-site basis.
TH: Won’t the abandoned fields and meadows in this area automatically grow back into pristine forests?
GG: Natural plant succession states that the plants growing in one ‘sere,’ or timeframe of plant community growth, create an environment that is suitable for a different community of plants, which ultimately out-compete the first sere and so on. The meadow environment soon includes pioneer species of trees and shrubs that require some protection from the meadow species but are still able to handle drier soils and more sunlight than late-successional species.
As the pioneer trees grow, they begin to shade out and kill the meadow plants that allowed them to survive. The new environment created underneath the pioneer trees is more suitable for late-successional tree species, which eventually grow over and shade out the pioneer trees. The environment underneath the late-successional trees is now suitable for all the other types of plants typically found in a forest.
But natural succession is now very rare in this region due to invasive plants, which often come in during the early successional
stages and hold the environment in a new type of sere that’s dominated by exotic species [such as entangling vines]. Proper land management can help to maintain the environment in a desired sere—such as timing mowing to maintain a meadow, or supporting natural growth of a healthy forest.
TH: What can homeowners do to improve the appearance of their properties?
GG: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. We’re trained to view manicured lawns and mowed pond edges as neat, tidy and beautiful. But really, we may be missing out on having the natural beauty of our regional environment expressed through our own landscapes.
Here are three things that homeowners can do to improve the appearance of their properties:
• Landscape unused or underused portions of lawn.
• Thoughtfully use a variety of native plants to provide color and visual interest throughout the year.
• Reevaluate old concepts of manicured lawns and perfect edges to allow for aesthetically pleasing wildlife habitat.
People often forget that the beauty of the land is matched by the beauty of the animals that live in it.