The Rivertowns may be dotted with finely groomed lawns and ornate flower beds, but according to a group of local gardeners and environmentalists, many of these suburban plots offer nothing to sustain pollinators, like bees and butterflies. In fact, they can become harmful deserts for pollinators, which are crucial to the human food chain.
Enter August Brosnahan, who planted a new pollinator garden along the Old Croton Aqueduct (OCA), across from the Keeper’s House in Dobbs Ferry. The garden consists of only pollinator-friendly native plants.
“I want it to serve as a way to reinvigorate around the [maintenance] shop on the Aqueduct,” the 23-year-old said, “but also to serve as a way to educate people walking on the trail about native plants that they can grow on their own properties.”
Brosnahan, a lifelong resident of Dobbs Ferry, is a ceramic artist. He worked as a teacher at the Clay Arts Center in Port Chester before the Covid-19 pandemic closed the center. In mid-March he started as an assistant at the OCA facility, which is part of the New York State Department of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.
Brosnahan has enthusiastic supporters from across the Rivertowns and beyond who provided aid in the form of design advice, plant donations, planting, and weeding.
Chet Kerr, co-chair of the board of directors at the Greater Irvington Land Conservancy, has been an advocate of pollinator-friendly gardens in the Rivertowns since 2018.
Kerr and Haven Colgate, a member the Hastings Conservation Commission, began working in the fall of 2019 on a plan to encourage those who live along the OCA to plant pollinator-friendly gardens. The gardens would become part of the Pollinator Pathway, a network of public and private pollinator-friendly gardens. Kerr said that a set of guidelines for the gardens will be made available in the coming months.
Through OCA State Historic Park site manager Steve Oakes, Kerr and Colgate connected with Brosnahan. They provided their expertise on the topic, and helped to corral plant donations for the garden when the pandemic resulted in a freeze of the Aqueduct’s budget.
Kerr also put Brosnahan in touch with Cathy Ludden, a member of the steering committee at Westchester Community College’s Native Plant Center and the board president of the Greenburgh Nature Center in Hartsdale. Ludden helped Brosnahan locate and plant specimens for the garden, and to develop a design.
“August had drawn out some designs for this little garden, and I made suggestions on plants that I think are hardy and resilient, which won’t be eaten by deer, are drought tolerant and attractive to pollinators,” Ludden said.
The plants suggested by Ludden include Joe-Pye weed, goldenrod, and hyssop. Native grasses, which don’t provide pollen but coexist with the pollinators throughout their entire life cycle, were added.
Ludden, according to Brosnahan, “talked about the importance of not only having native pollinators, but also things that can coexist with pollinators. Butterflies and bees need not only flowers that provide pollen to them, but before butterflies metamorphose, when they’re caterpillars, they actually prefer native grasses. Talking with [Ludden], I wanted to make a garden that would sustain the full life cycle of a pollinator.”
The 400-square-foot garden, now blossoming with pollinator-friendly plants and native grasses, has begun attracting bees and butterflies, although it may not be in full swing for a few years, when the plants fully bloom.
Oakes said, “It’s become really interesting to so many people who walk by it. The Aqueduct has been there forever, and it really hasn’t changed much in the last 180 years. I don’t take doing anything like this lightly, and I thought twice about whether this was what I wanted to use this part of the trail for. I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by the reaction of the park patrons — they really seem to love it.”
Kerr, Ludden, and Oakes were impressed with Brosnahan’s dedication to the project, leading the garden from an idea to a reality in a matter of months.
“To my astonishment, [the garden] just looks great… August was carrying water bucket by bucket to keep these plants alive,” Ludden said. “He’s just done a phenomenal job.”
Kerr agreed. He said, “It is Augie’s enthusiasm, creativity, and hard work that has made this happen… he deserves all of the credit for having created this wonderful new garden for the community.”
Like Brosnahan, Kerr hopes the OCA project will lead to more pollinator gardens, both along the Aqueduct and across the Rivertowns.
“You can go out and plant these things in your yard, and it makes a difference,” Kerr said. “It allows people, who are frustrated with the environment and climate change, to have tools in their own yard, to go out and make decisions that have a direct supportive relationship to these animals which are crucial to so many parts of our food chain and the animal chain… It’s something that everybody in the community can be doing.”