WILTON — Those who walk along the Norwalk River Valley Trail in the vicinity of Raymond Lane may notice an unobtrusive fence of black netting enclosing a space of about 30-by-30 feet. A sign identifies it as a Biodiversity Experiment Station.

It is a project of the Wilton Land Conservation Trust and Wilton High School organic garden, spearheaded by 2020 graduate Brett Gilman. He and several others planted hundreds of native plants here and at two other locations in town to foster their growth and encourage homeowners to use more native plants in their residential landscapes.

The other two locations are at Schenck’s Island in Wilton Center and the Walter Preserve near Keeler’s Ridge. The plants were put in over 12 days by Gilman and fellow students Sara Schneidman and Eli Grass, WHS alum Kimberly Castano, and Donna Merrill, former executive director of the land trust.

The flower species they planted are: Joe Pye weed, New York ironweed, wild bergamot, short-toothed mountain mint, narrow-leaved mountain mint, blue wood aster, and floxglove beardtongue.

“They are all good at attracting pollinators,” Gilman said during a visit last week to the station at the land trust’s Spencer-Rice Preserve along the NRVT. He was joined there by David McCarthy, who recently took over as the land trust’s executive director.

Last fall, as president of the high school’s organic garden, Gilman took A.P. Environmental Science “and became aware that my passion for nature could be a career — more than just hiking in the woods.”

Rather than the popular outside-the-box philosophy, a teacher encouraged Gilman to think inside the box: “to take what we have and work within our own limitations.”

Merrill, who was executive director of the land trust at the time, introduced Gilman to large-scale pollinator efforts in Connecticut, and he became familiar with the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA).

The association’s Ecotype Project is working to create genetic wildflower seeds native to Wilton by harvesting seeds of species growing in this area, he said.

“Most wildflowers you buy are from the West,” Gilman said, “and that affects how they will fare with climate change.”

NOFA has ties to the science department at Wilton High School and saw that as a way to disseminate the project’s efforts at a local level. Gilman has worked to further the project’s mission in Wilton and Fairfield County.

One way he did that was to lead the high school’s native plant sale this spring in which 5,500 plugs — grown by a wholesale nursery from seeds collected by NOFA — were sold to people all over Connecticut as well as parts of New York, he said.

“That proved there is a market for them,” he said. The more native species are planted, the better habitat there is for pollinators.

Dead forests

There are numerous reasons for the loss of native species: land fragmentation, deer who eat the forest understory, development, invasive species, pollution.

Surrounded by the black deer fence, the biodiversity project will demonstrate a habitat for pollinators, particularly bees, that have a direct impact on the ecosystem as a whole. Native bees — adapted to native species — account for most of the pollination that takes place.

“Native plants are the basis of food webs,” Gilman explained. The plants support insects, such as caterpillars, which are adapted to feed on native plants, not invasive species. The caterpillars and other insects are then eaten by birds.

“Birds are an indicator species of a healthy environment,” he said.

“A quiet forest is a dead forest,” McCarthy added.

Biodiversity

These experiment stations are the basis of establishing biodiversity on land trust property. The plants there now are difficult to see because they are establishing their root systems and not in bloom. The plants will reseed themselves and spread.

“Next year they will flower like crazy,” Gilman said, “and people on the NRVT will go ‘wow!’”

“The land trust is not just about preserving, but restoring,” McCarthy said.

To that end, Gilman, who has now been hired by the land trust as its field ranger and open space steward, has become interested in “ecological landscaping that’s incredibly beautiful but also serves an ecosystem function.”

He is working on developing a plan for the three-acre Walter Preserve that includes trees, shrubs and flowers.

“What I want people in Wilton to know is that you don’t need a lot of land” to be part of the pollinator movement. “Just let a small portion grow wild. Plant a few native plants. If everybody dedicated a small space, we’d connect all these patches for wildlife to thrive for the enjoyment of Wilton and the ecosystem services they provide.”

“There is a common misconception that ‘my backyard’ doesn’t matter, but over 50 percent of forest land in the U.S. is privatey owned,” McCarthy said.

“People are worried about the Amazon, but 83 percent of East Coast forests are gone,” Gilman added. “We need to encourage homeowners to be good land stewards.”

Future plans

In addition to the Wilton land trust, Gilman is also working for the Redding-based Homefront Farmers, where he is leading the creation of a new branch of the company dedicated to the installation of native wildflowers for homeowners.

When he heads off to Middlebury College in February, Gilman will leave the biodiversity experiment stations in the hands of rising senior Eli Grass.

Wilton High School’s organic garden is planning a fall plant sale in which it expects to offer another selection of wildflowers from NOFA’s Ecotype Project. For details, visit its website.

For information on the Wilton Land Conservation Trust, visit wiltonlandtrust.org. Anyone interested in volunteering for the land trust may email David McCarthy at david.mccarthy@yale.edu.

jross@wiltonbulletin.com\