From Swamp to Wildlife Haven – A Gardener’s Journey
Nature sings us a song of serenity if we are still enough to listen, and adopting its pace, as Ralph Waldo Emerson asserted, involves patience: it also reaps the great reward of peace. My soul has recognized these truths forever, but my body required the transformation of a swampy back yard to allow such an ideology to take root. When my husband and I bought our first home, the garden that now provides such inspiration was nothing but rodent holes, wild strawberry vines, and murky mud puddles.
“I’ve tried everything with this yard,” the previous homeowner told us, “and nothing has worked!”
The lot’s picturesque oaks, maples, and sugar gums had prevented her from growing the lush, golf-course-worthy lawn most homeowners attempt to achieve. But thankfully, neither I nor my husband wanted anything to do with a lawn. In fact, through my studies I learned that investing in a traditional lawn is one of the worst attacks we can make on our natural environment: the fertilizers needed to produce green, thick grass contribute to algae blooms in our creeks, rivers, and streams, and the barren design offers little for pollinators.
My idea was for a more eco-friendly landscape, one that centers upon a meadow. This image along with Emerson’s soliloquy on nature gave me the drive needed to begin. Armed with research, establishing one seemed daunting for a novice, so I started small.
After digging up a plot of land to begin a perennial garden, I unearthed the remnants of a forgotten shed foundation — 25 or so brick pavers I later up-cycled by slathering white masonry paint and arranged them into an affordable walkway, a wonderful bonus! I then became hooked on the idea of making our yard a haven for birds, bees, and wildlife, though I had no idea what I was doing.
The first spring, I hired a landscape designer to re-direct the collection of rainwater that puddled our yard after heavy rains. For less than $800, this gentleman installed a river rock bed and diverted more than 80% of our surface runoff.
I then mulched the surrounding banks and planted shade perennials like hostas, columbine, bleeding hearts, ferns, and creeping Jenny that a friend donated from her own garden. I also shopped in the greenhouse of the technical school where I was a teacher and acquired snapdragons and Kauai blue for $2 or $3 each. The catmint I got there, a perennial that attracts bees, is a foundation plant that now blooms fabulously each year. The following winter, I consulted Better Homes and Gardens online for shade-garden design, planned next spring’s additions, and ordered crocus, grasses, and additional hostas from a mail-order catalog.
I also learned how to compost. As soon as the final frost waved farewell, I happily set about planting my free bulbs and new plants, and I transferred the egg shells, coffee grounds, and vegetable peels I’d been saving from my countertop to the rust-free trash can that was now my compost bin.
What a sense of pride I felt: things were really coming along.
As summer set in, however, I realized that the bulbs I had planted in spring seemed to be growing not in my perennial garden, but in my neighbor’s flower bed instead. “Oh yeah,” another neighbor enlightened me, “the squirrels are notorious for digging up bulbs and transplanting them in random places, even other yards.”
That fall I fought the squirrels, laying down wire mesh atop my fall bulbs and plantings, dousing nearby areas with cayenne pepper, and planting marigolds everywhere I could. But no matter what booby-traps I set, the squirrels kept coming, and they seemed to be bringing lovers, babies, enemies and friends. I had been as effective in curing my squirrel problem, it seemed, as I had been in solving my husband problem: he very often forgot to take the piles of fallen branches and brush to yard waste as I had asked.
Yet, an issue of National Wildlife Magazine provided solace, and its pages taught me that not only were my gardening dilemmas common, they were actually rather desirable. In addition to the squirrels, hummingbirds, robins, blue jays, cardinals and even turtles were now seeking refuge in my yard. The article convinced me to truly change the way I thought about these situations. Not only did I start to welcome the squirrels, but I also encouraged my husband to leave the piles of yard debris undisturbed as refuge for birds and other critters.
I even have grass – not the lawn-type – but grass in the marsh that is now our oasis. It only took four years of research, but the result is well-worth it!
Out of all the bugs that bit me that summer, the gardening for wildlife bug bit most: I ensured the animals had water and lodging, began researching native plants that attracted birds and pollinators via my local nature society, and hung a wildlife habitat sign from The National Wildlife Federation to signify that our little slice of America was a semi-protected one. And as the visits from winged friends increased, so did my desire to identify them. I quickly went from gardener to bird lady, a natural progression and two truly reciprocal hobbies.
Today as I search for ways to aid in the fight against climate change, I really need invest no further than my own backyard. Sure, I write checks to important causes, but the little oasis I have built out back is a tangible solution to a largely invisible problem. One tremendous resource has been a long-standing favorite, Better Homes and Gardens magazine.
I realize that my garden is not as tame, flourishing, or weed-free as the gardens of my pesticide-toting and fertilizer-fanatic counterparts. Yet, my garden provides peaceful glimpses into the wild world we could all stop a bit more to notice, be it a pair of Goldfinches seeking nourishment from coneflowers or a family of wrens taking cover under an ever-increasing pile of branches. These quiet, reflective moments make me feel as though I am doing my part, and I’ll gladly forgo the weed killers, insecticides, and arguments with hubby to bring back our bees, fireflies, and bird species so desperately needing their habitats restored.