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  • September 14th, 2010

Backyard Biodegradation

By Joel M. Vance

The green section of the local bookstore features titles like: Bring Elk Herds to Your Back Yard or Jurassic Suburbs, the idea being that you can enjoy the tooth and claw of raw nature with a little judicious planting.

The authors tell how they turned a typical suburban back yard, with crabgrass and moles into habitat for Bengal tigers. All it took was a bit of wildlife management (and the $30 book). “Biodiversity” is the catchword. Instead of just crabgrass, you encourage a multitude of noxious weeds some of which are capable of swallowing mature raccoons, and instead of just moles, you bring in bobcats, foxes and the occasional pit viper.

My former urban backyard? It looked like something Tarzan would shun. I don’t know if it was biodiversity or not, but it certainly was biodespicable, at least from the neighbors’ standpoint. When we moved to the real country, the old neighborhood held a block party that lasted for days (part of it was the lighting of bonfires to keep the larger predators at bay).

I began planting trees a quarter of a century ago when we moved to the house on the dead end street, with two hundred acres of woodlands at the end of the road. As an employee of a conservation department, I got free seedlings, manna for a plantaholic. .

By the time I moved, there was a huge cypress tree shading the dog pen–lovely, open shade that cooled the dogs in July. There was a white pine tree in the middle of the yard. My five-year-old son found it after I’d accidentally dropped the seedling. It had dried and looked as dead as Johnny Appleseed, but J.B. wanted to plant it.

I didn’t think it would live, but he did and a small child’s faith is far stronger than that of an adult. The tree grew more than five times taller than the kid.

Four apple trees hosted their own biodiversity–birds, wasps, yellowjackets, and a host of syrup-sucking creatures. We didn’t spray them (either the trees or the insects) because I don’t believe in it and because I’m lazy (take your pick). We enjoyed a few knobby apples every fall and the Brittanies loved to chase thrown apples beginning in August.

They ate the green apples and threw up copiously, but never tired of the game.

A redbud sprouted under the canoe rack and I intended to transplant it, but I didn’t know where. All the holes were filled. The domestic grapes I planted below the dog pen were supplanted by poison ivy which did very nicely. Poison ivy berries make very fine bird food so I left the plants in place. It was, to coin a pun, a rash decision.

My son, the same one who planted the pine tree, also made a wren house as a Cub Scout project about 30 years ago (he since has married and fathered three children). We hung the house on the clothes pole and it had wrens every spring. The wrens melodiously cussed us for trying to dry our wash. Our cat was too arthritic to bother birds anymore. The dogs pointed them once in a while, just to keep in practice.

I wonder what the buyers of the old house will think about what they find on my former biodiverse back yard. Probably rev up the chainsaw and then place an emergency call to the ChemLawn people.

We moved to 40 acres in the country where I could exercise my mania for wildlife cultivation. Everyone hangs hummingbird feeders and I did too. The dwarf buckeye I planted in town was too big to transplant and I missed it because its red blossoms drew hummers like honey draws bees.

But the feeders substituted admirably and it’s difficult to read on the deck if I’m wearing a red cap because the little rubythroats zip past my head with a disconcerting buzz.

For a while I buried the heads and guts from fish I caught in our one-acre pond. I learned in grade school that Squanto, a Wampanoag Indian, taught the Pilgrims to fertilize each hill of corn with a buried fish. That’s all I learned in grade school, except that Judy Miller, who sat one row over and two seats up, thought I was a jerk.

The bird dogs, who sometimes act as if they couldn’t smell a quail if it were stapled to their noses, can sniff out a buried gut pile, have it disinterred and rolled in before I can get through even half of my Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.

There are oxeye daisies in the yard. I skirt them with my lawnmower, leaving little living bouquets here and there. I learned that trick from Charlie Schwartz the illustrator of Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac, the Bible of all conservationists.

Charlie’s back yard always was diverse–full of geese and people and once a road-killed deer, staked down next to the patio so he could photograph feeding buzzards from his living room. It was a marvelous setup except on days when the wind blew across the decomposing carcass into the house.

I was fortunate to hang around with biologists who did things like that. My late prairie biologist friend Don Christisen planted his front yard with native prairie grass and forbs. The city got after him for not mowing his lawn, but he faced them down by claiming it was a natural area. Since none of them knew natural areas from sewer maintenance, they scratched their heads and went away.

I do have brush piles for the rabbits that routinely eat my garden (which is within a few feet of the dog pen—apparently rabbits are super perceptive when it comes to canine incarceration). I try to discourage the rabbits by spreading blood meal, but all that does is make the garden grow better so they can eat more of it.

There’s much I don’t know about planned planting for wildlife. I guess you’re supposed to make a detailed plan and my son could do it since he took a college course in landscaping, but mostly he tells me I should cut down some things which I can’t do because I planted them such a long time ago and we have grown older together.

The more I look at my biodiverse back yard, the more I realize it’s mostly the result of neglect and poor planning.

But we do raise rabbits right in the middle of the garden and there are toads to eat some of the noxious insects and there are fireflies in the summer evenings to illuminate our souls and the ripe smell of a compost heap to illuminate our nasal passages.

I established a mini-prairie with native plants. My favorite was Queen of the Prairie, a lovely name, but the Brittanies ran over it and broke it down to a stub, which died. This is a plant that survived the stampedes of the historic bison herds, but couldn’t hack it with a few bird dogs. The mini-prairie throbs with purple gayfeather in July and glitters with black- eyed Susan in August.

In a wet year, Indiangrass and big bluestem will be eight feet tall. I collected the seeds off a highway right-of-way, all the while worrying that a patrolman would stop and ask what I was harvesting and I would reply “grass seed” and he would handcuff me to the door handle while he called in a drug bust.

Once a patrolman did stop as I collected big rocks from a right-of-way. “What are you doing?” he asked. I thought it was pretty obvious and a dozen smart aleck remarks sprang to mind (i.e. “folding parachutes”), but one doesn’t mouth off to those with guns and badges, so I told him I was building a rock garden and he told me about a nearby right of way that had better rocks.

Couple of years ago, I killed a gobbler up on the ridge across the lake, and I missed a shot at a buck. The place is overrun with gray squirrels, and raccoons regularly visit the deck to snack on my sunflower seeds, the ones the squirrels don’t get.

My cedar sauna, built with logs cut from our woods, has a resident black rat snake that fell on a visitor’s shoulder. It was not a Finnish snake.

The fellow didn’t say much after we pried him off the ceiling, but I think he believes I have just a little bit too much biodiversity in the back yard.


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