David Wasmuth hands a pair of loppers to a mother and daughter visiting Crane Park Demonstration Garden during the Earth Day celebration hosted by the Northeast Earth Coalition on Saturday. 

He shows them where to trim last season’s crop of milkweed, which has been left to overwinter. If you cut part-way down, the exposed hollow of the dried stem provides nesting habitat for some species of native bees, he tells them. 

Thirteen-year-old Izzy Suelto, with her mother, Maila Arzadon, is shocked that a bee could fit into such a small opening. Familiar with the beehives of the imported honeybee, she is surprised to learn of the varied sizes of native bees and of their nesting habits. 

Wasmuth shares with them the importance of milkweed, how the monarch butterfly cannot survive without it. 

From left, Izzy Suelto and Maila Arzadon learn about milkweed from David Wasmuth, founder of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project and the NEEC Board of Directors chair, April 23, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
From left, Izzy Suelto and Maila Arzadon learn about milkweed from David Wasmuth, founder of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project and the NEEC Board of Directors chair, April 23, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

With more info given come more questions. And the excitement passes back and forth from teacher to students. 

Having taught English as a second language for 30 years, teaching comes naturally to Wasmuth, but this is a different kind of teaching, he says. 

“You never know who’s going to be interested and who not, but when you find someone who has a real interest, even though they don’t know much, it’s just so much fun explaining and hearing their questions, responding, and then hoping that they’ll transfer that knowledge to their own home.” 

This teaching moment, one of many throughout the Earth Day event, highlights one of the main purposes of the demonstration garden  —  educating the community about the importance of native plants, and the relationship between pollinators and food production. The garden acts as a blueprint for a home garden that can grow food while building biodiversity. 

The demonstration garden was created by Northeast Earth Coalition along with Friends of Crane Park in 2017 under the leadership of NEEC founder Jose German-Gomez and Wasmuth, co-founder with German-Gomez of the Montclair Backyard Habitat Project and the NEEC board of directors chair.

Lexie Woods observes the garden while NEEC volunteer and board member Anne Stires works at the vegetable bed on April 23, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)
Lexie Woods observes the garden while NEEC volunteer and board member Anne Stires works at the vegetable bed on April 23, 2022. (KATE ALBRIGHT / FOR MONTCLAIR LOCAL)

It was the Crane Park Demonstration Garden that first piqued Tom Mulligan’s interest in NEEC. One of four guests to receive a plaque of recognition at the Earth Day event, Mulligan said that the transformation of Crane Park is what inspired him to get involved with the group.

“Especially these past two years with the pandemic, as someone who lives in an apartment, it was wonderful to be able to get out and work outside and meet like-minded people — working together to help the community, but also helping ourselves with sharing ideas and supporting each other,” he said. 

Mulligan has volunteered in many of the NEEC community gardens and built five of the group’s little free pantries, a grassroots solution to meeting local food needs. NEEC now hosts 16 little free pantries in five towns, with seven located in Montclair. 

Both Wasmuth and German-Gomez helped Montclair get certified as the first National Wildlife Federation Community Wildlife Habitat in New Jersey and have been promoting native plants for nearly 20 years. 

The expected passage of the Jose German-Gomez Native Species Act by the Township Council is a good sign that the community now accepts the need for planting native, Wasmuth said. 

The proposed native plant ordinance received a unanimous vote for a hearing by the council on April 19. The act would mandate that 70% of all new plantings on public property be native to the mid-Atlantic or Northeast regions of the United States. A second hearing and vote are required for the act to become official.

The first vote approving the ordinance was one of many reasons to celebrate this Earth Day, German-Gomez said to guests in Crane Park at the start of the event. He put out a call for action: that residents study their daily habits, connect with their environment, recycle more and use less plastic. 

“We don't have time to continue experiencing the life that we have been living in the past millennium,” he said. “It’s a different time. And this time we need to do and take action to support our environment.” 

German-Gomez first became aware of the importance of planting with natives while working on his Eagle Scout project as a teenager in the Dominican Republic. While restoring a section of river bank, he observed how native plants naturally protected the bank from erosion.

“I said, I don’t have money to buy plants, so I will use native plants from places where they were overpopulated. I was transferring and transplanting them to my project and replicating the same kind of planting. And that was [my] first strong connection with environmental protection,” German-Gomez told Montclair Local. 

Also speaking was Deb Ellis, founder of the Essex County chapter of the Native Plant Society of New Jersey and vice president of chapters statewide, who helped author the ordinance. With a vase of native blooms in hand, Ellis thanked the council for the first vote on the ordinance but said she wanted to challenge the township and its residents to not just change the law but to make sure residents all start planting natives.

“It was interesting in discussing the native plant ordinance, how people were really resistant to changing the idea of Montclair as a tulip place and an iris place. Well, tulips and irises are beautiful, but they’re like statues,” Ellis said. 

Tulips support zero insects, she said, while native violets support 29 different kinds of butterflies and moths, and native oaks support over 500 insect species. With the loss of an estimated 3 billion birds in the last 50 years and a third of insect species gone, Ellis said that “every single one of us can do something by planting milkweed in our garden.”

“Although I love irises and tulips, I want to change the vision of Montclair to be a city with fields of violets, our state flower — which by the way, the leaves and flowers are edible — and fields of orange and purple milkweeds,” she said. 

Along with Mulligan, Councilman Bob Russo, Councilman Peter Yacobellis and the Our Lady of Mt. Carmel Outreach Program, represented by Marialena Marzullo, were honored with plaques of recognition for their service to the environment and to the community. 

Russo spoke of his time as mayor in 2003 and his push for solar energy within school and municipal buildings. He helped put $900,000 into the school budget for solar energy, though the money was taken out after he lost the election for mayor the following year, he said. Along with solar energy, Russo said he advocates for electric vehicle charging stations in multifamily buildings and for the purchase of government electric vehicles. 

Yacobellis, who helped author the native plant ordinance, urged guests to consider their own personal purchasing power in creating a more sustainable world, and said that “we can’t wait for government.” He thanked NEEC for the recognition, saying it was the first award he’d received in a long time.

“And so I really appreciate that, but I accept it like I accept a baton in a relay race,” Yacobellis said. “I have the good fortune of running the last relay across the finish line with the native plant ordinance, and with a lot of things that we do, but other people ran many, many relays around the track to get it to that point so they could hand the baton to me.”

Also present at the event were cleanup volunteers from Redeemer Montclair church and First Congregational Church, the League of Women Voters of Montclair, the Montclair Hispano American Association, Radio Free Montclair, Montclair Make Music Day, the Community Outreach Program for OLMC, the Essex County chapter of the Native Plant Society, Montclair Backyard Wildlife Habitat, New York City Toyota headquarters and the Bonsal Wildlife Preserve Conservancy, with live music provided by Montclair High School junior Joe Colwell and Montclair band Mr. Rose.

German-Gomez told Montclair Local that he was very happy with how the event went.

“The Northeast Earth Coalition is well known for being the doers,” he said. “And that is what our people are doing: doing things for the community, collecting food, cleaning the park and right here educating people about pollinators and the importance of community gardens. We have people who are playing music. So it is a perfect combination of what we envision of a community environment in Montclair.” 

Correction: Lexie Woods was misidentified in a photo caption in an earlier version of this post.

Northeast Earth Coalition celebrates Earth Day 2022

The Northeast Earth Coalition celebrated its advocacy, held educational events and honored local officials working to make a difference in environmental efforts during an Earth Day 2022 celebration April 23.