Tuesday, November 3, 2009

A Backyard Amble

My tiny inner-city backyard is actually a National Wildlife Federation Certified Wildlife Habitat. And I have a plaque to prove it. But all you have to do is look around at the overgrown weeds and unkempt flowerstalks to know that the plants grow wild back here. But do wild animals also live here? Yes, if you count the squirrels and rabbits and Viburnum Leaf Beetles that destroyed most of the native shrubs I planted last year to qualify for certification. But lo! Some shrubs have grown back! I'm especially pleased to see the Red Chokeberry, which provides such vivid late-season color to its corner of the yard. As well as a few red berries for the birds to eat late in the winter.

To the left of the chokeberry bush, a Trumpet Honeysuckle has also revived after a rabbit slashed it down last winter. Maybe next year it will flower and then set fruit. On the right, you can see the dried seedheads of Giant Purple Hyssop and Great Lobelia, favorites of the bumble bees in summer, and source of food for birds when winter comes. Unlike tidy gardeners who would clean up all this "mess," I leave all the spent flower stalks until spring.

These spent flower heads are like none I have seen before. I don't know the name of this plant; it's some kind of anemone that's not native to this part of the country but which bears big pale-pink blooms late into the fall, so I welcomed it into my otherwise "all native" border. Most of the plant's seedheads are like little hard balls, but a few are encased in puffs of fluff that are dotted with seeds like a strawberry is.

You can peel the fluff back like cotton batting, and there's a hard little green ball inside. Very curious. I'll be watching to see if the rest of the seedheads develop this cottony wadding.

Another flower that blooms way late in the fall, and keeps blooming well past frost, is the beautiful Monkshood. What a vivid blue!

I thought it would never bloom. August came, no flowers. September passed, same thing. The stalks grew taller and taller and taller, but still just closed tight buds until late in October, and then ka-boom! They burst into bloom! And promptly all fell over, sprawling across the grass. Next summer I'll stake them or something to keep them upright. That goes against my policy of benign neglect, but hey, these flowers are so lovely, I'll grant them just a little cultivation. They reward us with splendid color when all other flowers are gone.

I hope these Flowering Dogwood buds are still here come the spring. The tree was covered with them this last spring, and just as they were starting to bloom, the squirrels snipped them all off. Every single one! I didn't have one flower. Which means I didn't have one single berry to feed the birds this fall.

Next spring I'm going to do what my friend Ellen suggested to save the buds from the squirrels: mix talcum powder and cayenne pepper and put it in an old sock, then hit the sock with a wooden spoon and dust the buds with this mix. Now, I love my squirrels and don't wish to do them harm. But I must confess I shall feel a certain glee when I see them frantically wiping their snouts after they get a snoot full of cayenne from snipping my dogwood buds.


Ellen Rathbone said...

Monkshood is one of my favorites. I've had it bloom here after frost and snow have graced the gardens. It's an amazingly hardy plant!

Carolyn H said...

Does having a certified wildlife habitat in your backyard mean that you can ignore the regulations that restrict so many homeowners in what they can grow or how high things can grow there? Of course, I don't have to worry about any of that at the cabin, but I know a lot of people who tell me they can't plant such-and-such because of local regulations. Thanks!

Carolyn h.

Jacqueline Donnelly said...

Hi Ellen and Carolyn, thanks for your comments. To be certified as a NWF Wildlife Habitat you are asked to provide food, water, shelter, and nesting spots for wildlife; use no chemical fertilizers or pesticides; and plant native species of flowers and shrubs that serve as food sources for birds, mammals, and insects (including butterflies). Check out the National Wildlife Federation's website for particulars.

As for municipal restrictions, I know of none. Maybe the city could fine me for never mowing the area between the sidewalk and the street (a safety issue?), but I don't know. They certainly can't tell me how to manage the plantings in my back yard. I would hate to live in such a neighborhood, but I know they exist (shudder!).

Bird said...

"Benign neglect" can be such a hard concept to get across, can't it? I often find myself having to defend the stick pile at the bottom of the garden and the "weeds" I allow to cover the soil at this time of year. People always mistake it for laziness or genuine neglect but to me a garden has to have some wildness or it will just be a pretty desert. I hope the native plants you included in your garden pick up and thrive - once they get established they look after themselves.