Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Is "cultivating wildlife" an oxymoron?

Mother Nature is persistent, I'll give her that.

Our previous house was in a neighborhood that liked to think of itself as slightly upscale. Everybody loved their emerald green lawns. The previous owners of the house we lived in were no exception. They kept everything neat and trim and weed free. I put fertilizer/weed killer stuff on the grass once, and decided it was silly. After that, I didn't really put much into lawn care. Call it lazy, cheap, or eco-friendly. I wasn't a good neighbor to the two different guys who ran lawn care services on my street. I swear, one next-door neighbor wouldn't even wave to me because I didn't take proper care of my grass. In fact, you can pick out our old house from satellite images, just based on grass color:

Without a TruGreen ChemLawn to admire, we had to turn our attention elsewhere. Mother Nature was happy to oblige, little by little.

We first started watching the birds. There were the usual suspects: sparrows and finches, starlings and grackles. A robin made a nest under our raised deck several years in a row. We could see the eggs and later the hatchlings through the cracks of the floorboards. Then we started seeing the distinctive black, white, and red flashes of woodpeckers. The kids loved spotting the ruby-throated hummingbirds at the window feeder.

In the winter, we'd watch several species of hawks hunting, and we'd be amused as large groups of small birds would band together to chase them off.

A family of possums took up residence under our front step, and we didn't even realize it until they had already moved out. (I'll never forgive them for eating my entire peach crop one day in broad daylight though. They were fond of decapitating roses too, for some reason.)

Salamanders would turn up in the garden, and I'd have to stop for toads while cutting the grass. A northern water snake took up residence in the weeds down by the creek to feast on the abundant minnows, and peacefully co-existed with a chipmunk or two among the rocks.

A family of mallards were weekly visitors to our back yard one spring, and daily visitors the next. The ducklings would battle the squirrels for whatever dropped from the feeders.

We even had a visit from a frighteningly large fishing spider. (Yes, it does eat small fish.)

Moving from fauna to flora, I never did defeat my arch-nemesis, the invasive Asian honeysuckle shrub. It would grow 10 feet in two months, and every time I'd cut it down, it would grow back twice as many shoots, in hydra-like fashion. It didn't even smell nice in bloom.

But I did put in tons of plants and trees, and we found a few welcome party-crashers too. Wild strawberries took up residence, and though they were tasteless, they were still pretty cool. Jewelweed took over a rocky swale that had previously been religiously sprayed down with Round-Up. It did a good job of screening the beer cans and plastic bottles that would inevitably collect after heavy rains, and might have cut down on erosion a tiny bit. I'd still clean up the trash of course, but at least it irritated me for a smaller window of time. And speaking of irritating, I once accidentally pulled some stinging nettle by hand, and boy, it's first name isn't "stinging" by accident. Fortunately, a quick search online let me know that jewelweed was an excellent antidote. It was like magic. I've put a lot more faith in herbal remedies ever since.

All this was helped along by the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Wildlife Habitat program. They had so many suggestions, projects, and ideas, many of which didn't take much in the way of time, money, or effort.

Obviously, we can't take credit for all of it. The green belt and the stream behind our house certainly helped. But still, not bad for four years on a third of an acre in the 'burbs, surrounded by chemically dependent lawns.

This place was in a little better shape ecologically, with a large population of frogs, toads, birds, and butterflies, and a diverse array of weeds. I can't wait to see what it looks like in four more years...

Or forty...


At 8/23/2006 4:54 AM, Blogger Morgan said...

I see dead property

At 8/23/2006 8:05 AM, Blogger ~Lori said...

We need to remember to hang those hummingbird feeders next year! I had one hummer do a fly-by early this summer but we never got around to putting the feeders out.

That spider, I have to emphasize, was enormous. It was hanging out on the mantel of our fireplace and was instantly apparent from about 10 yards away. How big would you say it was, E4 - 3 inches including 'legspan'? At any rate, it was BIG. Not the sort of thing one expects to find in one's living room in southern Ohio.

At 8/24/2006 4:59 AM, Blogger Beo said...

We are fighting a similar struggle here with our neighbor's yards. I had intended to show them up at their own game-having a greener lawn organically, but that is like the French trying to show the Dutch how to be benevolent colonialists-better, but you're still destroying a native culture. We are settling into a happy medium-presentable organic front lawn with huge, but not crazy, perrenial and rain gardens-and the back yard is all edible with permaculture overtones.

Our results the first year are encouraging, though no 4" animal eating spiders yet-just plenty of hummingbirds and finches eating from the flowers!

Given what you did in Suburbia I am excited to see the healing that can be accomplished on more acreage!

At 8/25/2006 4:49 AM, Blogger Morgan said...

Hey I remember that photo of the spider! I remember getting a lovely description of it even though I didn't want it

At 8/30/2006 7:09 AM, Blogger LauraHinNJ said...

Kudos to you for holding out against the lawn obsessed. Wildlife is so much more interesting than pretty grass.


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