The American backyard is generally a fenced-in and mown space of grass. Any trees or plants stand along the edges, based with mulch in an attempt at clean perfection. But designs for clean perfection are static, and often devoid of life – they miss the chance to reference and nurture the greater environment. They require artificial aids to maintain, because nature works against squared off, scrubbed portions of the outdoors.
Lawns are lovely, for sure. Though our “lawn” is about a third crabgrass and violets, it’s a sweet expanse of green when it’s just been mowed. I imagine lying on it, on a blanket, on some Saturday afternoon when I commit to relaxing in my backyard with a book. But it dries out easily. Weeds spring up. It’s not very interesting. The basic rectangular views leave no mystery – no secrets or surprises. We have a panoramic view of this yard out our kitchen windows. What we mostly see is the back fence.
Our yards are part of a much bigger landscape, even if we work to keep them as barren nicks in the canopy. Where I live, the original landscape is composed of forests, meadows, wetlands, and ponds. A few miles east of me, salt marshes signal the transition from land to sea. Wildlife travel across and thrive within these landscapes where they can, though humans disrupt their habitat and corridors not only with concrete but also with mulched and pesticided perfection.
It doesn’t take much to turn your small piece of the rock into an oasis of flora, a connector and resting place for the fauna that belong where you live, and something much more soulful to enjoy. When planted with depth, yards become more visually intriguing and sensually pleasant.
Rather than decorating the edges with the usual plant fare at Home Depot – plus mulch – consider disrupting the rectangle, even when it’s fenced in. You can start small, as we’re planning to in our yard this year. I’d like to plant a few smaller trees throughout the interior, trees that might naturally succeed in a sun-drenched forest clearing and would look pretty out the window in the winter. I discovered that two such natives in my state are black birch and serviceberry. I also learned that the right trees would support not only birds and other usual arboreal customers, but would also provide hatcheries, in their bark, for butterflies and moths.
Start with one change this year – a single tree in the center, three or four native shrubs to one side, or an area of native grasses and perennials in your own private hummingbird and butterfly meadow. Take down a side of fence and plant a natural barrier of native shrubs that will thrive in that spot, with a native ground cover, rather than mulch, to spread beneath them.
Then sit outside, or look out the window, and start documenting the new life that you see – the birds that visit, butterflies, bees – it’s addicting once you get started.
Here is our yard at its bleakest: After the winter, before the spring. Soon the leaves will be cleaned up — they were left deliberately to mulch the lawn. The bushes and trees will leaf out, and the rhododendrons, azaleas, and forsythia will bloom. Birds will sing, and bunnies will continue to bound out of our leaf pile. It’s a sure sign we got our piece of the rock. So why is it so… square?
If you give Nature an inch, she will take a mile: In the corner of our yard, shared with our neighbor, stands a five story tall hemlock. Its lower branches spread above our sprawling leaf pile. While I took the dogs out yesterday I heard a tap tap tap that made me look up, and I saw a small woodpecker making its way around one of those limbs. Closer to me, several chickadees trolled for seeds, their gray and white, black-capped bodies hopping around just above my head. Two blue jays flew out of the middle. We’ve seen red tailed hawks regularly landing at the very top, many other birds at the mid-section, and rabbits, possums, squirrels of course, and a fox beneath it.Just looking up brought busy and multi-colored life into view, all around one tall tree.