Musings from a Garden Tour


Everything you see in this yard, except for three trees and two shrubs, was planted by us “sometime” between 30 years ago when we purchased our home . . . and yesterday. Back in the day, we did not know about native plants and the importance of “naturescaping.” We planted anything that tickled our fancy, presuming that whatever was sold by a gardening center was regionally appropriate and would do just fine in our yard. We also had a fuzzy sense that we were doing something good for nature by planting more and mowing less. We did some things right. Others wrong.

Regionally native vegetation (except for the pollinator-magnet orange Mexican sunflower in the distance).

Creating Barriers
Many of the things we did right (and wrong) in those early days were mostly accidental. We replaced much of the turf in our yard with vegetation and mulch so that we wouldn’t have to mow so much. While we thought ourselves clever putting down a permeable covering on top of our yard to kill the lawn, and then planting and mulching, we have since learned we did not earn a gold star.

While removing turf was an accidentally smart idea, turns out putting a barrier between us and ground-dwelling beneficial insects, soil microbes, potential nesting sites for pollinators and other critters, etc., was not. Since becoming aware of this huge disservice to those we wish to share this yard with, we have spent many hours pulling up that barrier and throwing it away. Our lesson learned: Mother Nature is not served when we construct a barrier between the living world above and the living world below.

Planting Trees
We also planted a lot of trees for privacy. We planted trees and other vegetation we liked. Good for us and the privacy objective. But, so-so for wildlife as we did not necessarily plant regional vegetation that provides optimal nutrition for birds, pollinators, and other critters. Some of what we planted was “nutritionally sterile.” Some vegetation was downright bad: amur maple, oriental bittersweet, crown vetch, burning bush, to name a few. [These turn into “environmental outlaws” (aka, invasive vegetation) when they bust free and make their bullying way to our natural areas (like the environmentally disastrous buckthorn and garlic mustard)]. The invasives we naively planted have all been removed.

Putting on a garden tour: nerveracking!

Some trees we planted thrived. The native white pines like our yard just fine thank you and pollinators and birds thoroughly enjoy these trees. The non-native blue spruces, which like hot, dry, and tolerate some altitude, mostly died throughout that first decade. The non-native Ponderosa and Austrian pines became infested with Zimmerman pine moth and we hired a tree service to spray and spray and spray every spring and fall year after year. Until we thought maybe we should stop hiring the folks who came to spray dressed in hazmat suits and told us to shut our windows for a day after spraying. We started removing unhappy trees and replacing with a variety of native trees. We haven’t sprayed in twenty years (although the last of our infested trees are still hanging in there and will need to be removed some day).

Our lesson learned: choose trees that fit three criteria. 1) You enjoy the tree. 2) Wildlife optimally benefit from the ecological gifts of this tree. 3) The tree will have a good chance of thriving in the yard without external inputs (chemicals, soil amendments, fertilizers, etc.). Note: native trees are not immune to pests and disease.

Native white pine (and a pagoda dogwood) like it here very much, thank you. The blue spruce in the background: not so much.

The BIG Idea
We could expound on mistakes made, lessons learned, and serendipity. Feel free to ask. However, we aren’t complete bumblers. The thing we did right was to stay curious which led to the discovery of “THE BIG IDEA” which is we want to share our yard with wildlife because wildlife really need our yards for food and shelter (aka, survival). We became aware that the wilderness “out there” is no longer as abundant as we thought it was to support life the way it once did. Safe havens are waning. We learned our suburban yard is desperately needed as a safe and healthy place to support bees, birds, pollinators, beneficial insects, and more. (A terrific book on this topic, Bringing Nature Home, by Doug Tallamy, is highly recommended.)

We also learned wildlife doesn’t thrive on just any food. Example: buckthorn berries. Buckthorn berry nutrition is “not good” and the berries are a diuretic.  (Note: although this analogy is completely made up so don’t ask for the citing; buckthorn berries for birds are akin to eating Twinkies rather than garbanzo beans.) Likewise, some shelter is more helpful than other: e.g., refer to the exciting “barrier story” recounted earlier covering the accidental taking away of shelter/habitat.

Native vs. Non-native Vegetation
We also discovered the scientific research that confirms the overall superiority of native flora in support of native fauna (and vice versa), over cultivars and non-native vegetation. The concept of co-evolution is central to this research. We found this topic riveting. There is a lovely ancient dance between trees and flowers and shrubs and vines and birds and bugs and bears and beetles and bats and others, that has endured throughout the millennia. A survival relationship has been established that is often not filled well (or not filled at all) by flora and fauna that are meant to perform their dances elsewhere.

The BIG Idea: we want to share our yard with wildlife because wildlife really need our yards for food and shelter (aka, survival).

Vegetation from outside an ecosystem may not bloom at the right time, provide the right nutrition, nor act as a host for regional insects, for example. The same can be said of cultivars—regional vegetation that has been altered through cultivation or hybridization. We learned that the tweaking of the color, nutrition, bloom time, shape, texture, leaf variegation, even scent of a plant can throw wildlife way off its game. A flower that has been frilled and ruffled and deepened to the point that a pollinator can no longer reach in its tongue for sustenance (or if that sustenance has become non-existent) is for humans only. Planting native vegetation eliminates these conundrums.

Bringing Nature to Our Home
To bring nature home, we decided to enter that lovely, ancient dance ourselves. We did not pull out the non-native hostas, sedum, catmint, peonies, lady’s mantle, or sweet William. We built around our traditional foundational plantings. Now that the gardens are mostly established, they take little time to manage. The benches in the yard are used for enjoyment and observation. Our lesson learned: the phrase, “Build it and they will come” is actually about offering sanctuary to wildlife.

Experiencing the thrill of watching wildlife discover and thrive in our yard makes us happy. Thank you for accepting our invitation to explore and enjoy our yard today.



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