Doing our part: Little steps add up to help the environment

Lance Shearer

If you would like to help save the world, a good place to start is in your own backyard.

There are a multitude of little steps each of us can take that, individually, may not seem to make a dent in the environmental hole we have dug for ourselves, but with enough people making their daily lives a little eco-friendlier, can add up to a real benefit for our air, our water, our soil, our wildlife, and ultimately for ourselves. 

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In her own backyard is literally where Sue Oldershaw chooses to make a difference. The 40-year Marco Island resident has turned her waterfront lot into a showcase for native and “Florida-friendly” trees, shrubs, and ground cover, demonstrating that plants that belong here can be beautiful without chemicals or excessive irrigation.

“Grass is hard to grow here,” said Oldershaw, escorting a visitor through the luxuriant yard that “my husband calls the jungle, but I call the garden. Grass takes lots of water, fertilizer, and pesticides. On Marco, everything in the soil goes right into the water.”

Oldershaw has grass only along the street. “You have to have something to absorb the water that comes from the street. But I plug the grass with mimosa,” which helps it stay green without sprinklers. The Calusa Garden Club, of which Oldershaw is past president, “wrote the book” on Marco gardening, which is available on their website at calusa.org, or from local booksellers.

Oldershaw keeps her sprinklers turned off, and spot-waters with a hose as needed. Her home is surrounded by a host of native and Florida-friendly plants, adding beauty, color, and shade to the landscape, with some of them performing specific beneficial functions. The firebush and giant milkweed attract butterflies and pollinators, the beach sunflower provides groundcover by the water’s edge where fertilizer is prohibited, and the leaves of the moringa tree has leaves that, when dried, can be infused as sun tea.

Moringa leaves, according to a booklet Oldershaw pulls out, contain “7x more vitamin C than oranges, 3x more iron than spinach, 3x more potassium than bananas, 4x more vitamin A than carrots, and 4x more calcium than milk.” They make a delicate, tasty glass of iced tea, as well.

Fertilizer use is a critical issue on Marco. The City Council adopted a fertilizer ordinance in 2016 and being careful with applying fertilizer is not just good environmental stewardship, it’s the law. From June through Sept. 30, or when heavy rainfall is predicted, it is illegal to fertilize, and it’s always illegal within 10 feet of any “watercourse, lake, wetland or storm drain.”

There are additional requirements, listed on the City of Marco Island website, cityofmarcoisland.com, along with much more on the environment. Professional landscapers applying fertilizers must register with the city, pass a course, display the certificate, and anyone applying fertilizer must first apply for a permit.

Keeping manmade chemicals out of the food chain and therefore out of wildlife is critical to keeping animals safe, particularly predators such as eagles that, at the top of the food chain, consume other animals that naturally concentrate the pesticides they consume in their tissues. Protecting eagles is the mission of the Marco Island Nature Preserve and Bird Sanctuary, who maintain the sanctuary off Tigertail Court where Calusa and Herb, Marco’s resident pair of bald eagles, have a treetop nest and this spring fledged two chicks.

File: An Eagle returns to the nest with another stick for building at the Marco Island Nature Preserve and Bird Sanctuary

“Obey the fertilizer ordinance. Don’t contaminate the water, and don’t feed wildlife,” advised Linda Turner, director of communications and outreach for the Nature Preserve. She added that people may support their efforts by donating to the Preserve on their website, including purchasing a commemorative paver that will put their name at the observation site overlooking the nest. Learn more at marcoislandnaturepreserve.org.

“The eagles did very well this year,” said Turner, although they are away from the nest and the nest-cam for the summer. Herb, she said, was the name chosen by fifth graders at Tommie Barfield Elementary to honor the late Herb Savage, Marco pioneer.

Sea turtles are another facet of Marco Island’s amazing natural surroundings, and another that need our help, or at least need us not to disrupt their nesting activity. Female leatherback and green turtles swim ashore on Marco Island and area beaches during summer nights, returning to the beach where they were hatched decades before.

The turtles have a dedicated protector in the person of Mary Nelson, the “turtle lady,” who has been monitoring, marking and defending their nests for 25 years.

Turtle monitor Mary Nelson points out the trail of a nesting turtle in this file photo.

“Protecting the turtle nests just takes common sense – but people don’t seem to have a lot of that,” said Nelson, who said this has been a productive summer season so far for turtle nesting, although not yet at the record-breaking levels of Collier County beaches to the north.

“Don’t leave trash on the beach. It’s amazing the things people abandon, including fishing lines, beach chairs, and tents. Don’t leave holes you’ve dug. And keep the beach dark.”

Protecting turtles also falls under the mission of the Rookery Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, whose Environmental Learning Center (ELC) along Collier Boulevard offers the easiest and most complete way to get an overview of the unique Southwest Florida environment.

File: Sea turtle offshore of Marco Island, and 50 feet below the surface, hence imperfect lighting.

Rookery Bay has an “adopt a sea turtle nest” program in which, for $250, you can have your name on signs at the ELC and on the nest itself, said Amy Gray, communications specialist with the Reserve. You may also sponsor a hatchling for $20, or an individual egg for just $5. Joining the Friends of Rookery Bay and taking on any of the myriad volunteer opportunities doing fieldwork or at the center are additional ways to become a net personal positive for our natural surroundings. Learn more about all these online at rookerybay.org.

And if you want to get some sand in your toes, you can protect the environment “hands-on” at the Friends of Tigertail quarterly beach cleanup, the morning of Saturday, July 6, headquartered at the Tigertail Beach kiosk in the county park on the northwest corner of the island. Not only can you beautify the beach, said Friends’ stewardship chair Susan LaGrotta, you can help remove plastics from the environment before they find their way into the stomach of a sea turtle or a dolphin.

More information at friendsoftigertail.com.