Audubon in Action

Revitalizing Vacant City Lots to Feed People—and Birds

In Buffalo, New York, gardeners are growing crops and native plants to bring food and wildlife to communities in need.

Like many other U.S. cities, Buffalo, New York, struggles with issues of urban blight—think vacant lots filled with trash and weeds—and food deserts where residents lack access to stores selling fresh, healthy food. In response, a local nonprofit is transforming these empty lots into gardens blooming with flowers, vegetables, and fruit. And at the same time, Buffalo Audubon Society is making sure these green spaces are a boon for birds, too.

Grassroots Gardens of Western New York leases empty lots from the cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls, then provides insurance and support for local residents to turn these spaces into community gardens—more than 100 to date—that are not only beautiful, but also provide fresh vegetables and fruits in food deserts.

Buffalo Audubon started working with Grassroots Gardens in 2015, promoting native plants and their benefits for birds, people, and the changing climate. The chapter has led pollinator workshops for community gardeners and offers additional resources at open houses and community events.

Loren Smith, Buffalo Audubon’s executive director, says initially most of the gardeners didn’t have much information about native plants and were focused on food crops. Native plants, which provide ideal habitat and food for birds, turned out to be a natural addition to the community gardens. Due to concerns about existing soil quality, the gardeners usually plant vegetables and fruits in raised beds with purchased topsoil. This leaves an open perimeter around the beds, which can fill with invasive plants if untended.

Instead, Buffalo Audubon encourages gardeners to add native plants such as milkweed and Joe-Pye weed around the raised beds. These plants attract birds and bees that pollinate vegetables and flowers, helping the crops flourish and providing a better harvest. Buffalo Audubon also starts conversations with gardeners about climate change and birds, and new signs posted in the gardens will underscore these connections for visitors. 

The second key part of the garden project takes place in area schools, where Grassroots Gardens has the ambitious goal to bring gardens to every school in Buffalo. The Audubon group created a climate, birds, and native plants curriculum tailored to different age groups, using activities that teach young people about these issues while reinforcing math and literacy skills. Chapter educators lead students on pollinator counts in community gardens, have them graph their sightings, and even use interactive games to show the effects of climate change on pollen production. “The hope then is that we can parlay this into kids taking this information home and saying, ‘Hey mom, we need to plant this at home so we can attract hummingbirds and other birds and bees,’” Smith says.

According to Smith, well-planned gardens with native plants can act as carbon sinks and reduce runoff in addition to providing habitat. "They can have a broader [benefit for] the community and the ecosystem in which it’s embedded,” he says. As the world's climate continues to warm, birds will need this habitat more than ever. Native plants aren’t the only solution to fighting climate change, Smith says, but they go a long way to building resiliency for bird and human communities alike.

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