Fixing the Lawn, Year 6

Six years ago I started a post with a photo showing what our front yard looked like before Julia and I did anything to it. For a few years now, I’ve been giving a slideshow in which I show that photo and then highlight some of the native plants and associated insect communities that have colonized the parts of our yard we’ve stopped mowing (or at least mow less often). At the end of the talk people sometimes say they wish I had included a photo showing what the whole yard looks like now. So this year I marked on the calendar that September 9 was the day in 2013 that I had taken several photos from various points in our yard, with the idea of replicating each photo on the same date. As it turned out Julia and I went to Nantucket for our annual leafminer survey last Wednesday, and we got back yesterday (the 9th) with just a little daylight to spare. So after we noted the damage from the remnants of Hurricane Dorian (mainly consisting of a fallen trellis in the middle of our front yard and a large fallen sumac at the southeast corner, which just missed damaging a small apple tree) and had our fill of the raspberries, beach plums, and other sweet fruits that had ripened in our absence, Julia began to deal with the overwhelming bounty of new cucumbers and tomatoes while I darted in and out of the house, checking the old photos on my computer screen and then taking new photos that matched their perspectives as closely as I could.

As you’ll see, the focus of our planting efforts has been providing food for ourselves, and in the interstitial spaces we’ve largely let nature take its course, apart from a network of mowed pathways (though recently we’ve been enhancing these areas by planting less common native perennials as opportunities arise.) The “before” shots don’t require much explanation, but I’ll point out the more prominent features in the “after” shots.

The first shot is from the northeast corner of the front yard:

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Clockwise from lower left are a big patch of deertongue grass (Dichanthelium clandestinum); two plum trees; two sweet cherry trees; plantings along the front of the house including some spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris, courtesy of Margaret Roach); a couple of strawberry patches largely obscured by wildflowers from a seed mix from Vermont Wildflower Farm that Julia scattered a few years ago; a clump of pawpaws that arose from seeds we planted in the spot where the snow always melts first; and a black cherry sapling (Prunus serotina) that our local red fox planted several years ago.

Now we’re looking southwest into the backyard from our driveway. In the late summer of 2013 we had made a tiny garden with some tomato and basil plants, visible at right behind our first little compost pile.

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The site of our original tiny garden is now a productive asparagus patch, and there are rows of assorted raspberry varieties next to it and between it and the driveway. Beyond all that is our main vegetable garden and hoophouse, where we grow all manner of annual crops. (For finer details of this and various other goings on around our yard, you can check out Julia’s blog.) At far right is a peach tree that Danny Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm grew from a pit and then we rescued (along with a Chinese chestnut) when he dug it up to make way for a new greenhouse. And of course there is blooming goldenrod scattered here and there.

Now, that picture I included in the original “Fixing the Lawn” post, looking southeast from the driveway:

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Here, from foreground to background, you can see the edge of our “presentable” garden of perennials that lines the entrance to the driveway, with plants mostly acquired from our mothers and our neighbor across the road; the same strawberry patches and plum and cherry trees as before; and our upper vegetable garden, including the grape trellis we built this spring (which did not blow down this weekend). Tucked among the plum and cherry trees are some blueberries, beach plums, and shadbushes, as well as quite a bit of milkweed (which we did not plant and which has been swarming with monarchs this year, along with various other insects that are equally dependent on milkweed and equally deserving of our appreciation).

The next view is from the southeast corner of the yard and shows (at right) the beautiful white ash that I still have regrets about having cut down. We wanted to install solar panels, and the roof wasn’t a good option because it faces east-west; where the ash tree stood was by far the most suitable spot for a pole-mounted system.

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Here a patch of wingstem (Verbesina alternifolia), which came from a few seeds we brought from Ohio, obscures much of what would otherwise be visible: several apple and pear trees, more asparagus, and a patchwork of goldenrod, asters, and assorted other native wildflowers. We’ve been especially excited to see blue-eyed grass (Sisyrinchium montanum) and wood betony (Pedicularis canadensis) come up in this area—the former came up on its own and I originally thought the latter had too, but now I have a vague memory of sprinkling a few seeds there, possibly after I was done rearing some fly larvae that I’d found feeding in the fruits. A few sprigs of our currant and gooseberry bushes can be seen poking up at lower left, and at lower right is one of the numerous black raspberry bushes that have sprung up all over the yard.

Near the southwest corner of the yard are the only other trees that existed when we moved in: a black cherry (left) and an old apple tree flanking the shed. At right is the chicken house Julia had built not long before I took the photo.

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In addition to the goldenrod at left is a bunch of tall blue lettuce (Lactuca biennis) that I encouraged to grow because of some leaf- and stem-mining flies I was hoping would show up—which they did. The tall fence around the chickens is as much to keep them safe from the foxes, coyotes, opossums, raccoons, bobcats, and bears as to keep the rest of our yard safe from the chickens. We do let them out from time to time, but only under supervision since they tend to make a bee line to the most precious plants and start scratching around them with wild abandon. If we pull up unwanted plants and want to make sure they die, all we have to do is throw them in with the chickens. Their enclosure was completely barren for a while, but last fall we transplanted a couple of forsythias in there and the chickens have left them alone. Also we threw in a particularly dense tangle of uprooted multiflora rose at some point, and although the chickens made sure the rose was dead, a lush patch of plants has now grown up through it that is safe from their scratching (including some dill that came in handy recently when there were no green leaves left on any of our intentionally planted dill). In front of the chicken house you can see a dense patch of native sunflowers (Helianthus decapetalus) that started from a few little sprigs we pulled up from the side of the road near my parents’ house to save them from getting mowed down by the highway department.

And finally, looking north from the chicken house:

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I had to stand in the chickens’ enclosure for this one. This is one of our two largest remaining patches of lawn, kept open because of the clothesline that runs from the chicken enclosure to the house. At far left is part of a moist thicket of jewelweed and wild raspberries and blackberries; between that and the clothesline is a little clump of rapberries that I decided to let grow. Between this and the vegetable garden in the background is a sizable meadow, and along the south side of the house is a big patch of Jerusalem artichoke (Helianthus tuberosus) where we planted some tubers two years ago.

So this gives you some idea of the lay of the land, but hardly any sense of the diversity of wild flora and fauna living in our gardens and fruit and nut trees and the spaces between them. I have a list of 234 plants that I’ve identified (or we’ve planted) in our yard and adjacent woods, but I haven’t added to it in a while and there are certainly far more than that. I’ve done a better job keeping track of our sightings of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles; at this point I’ve tallied 128 species. I only have 675 invertebrates listed because I’ve never made a priority of that; if I had been out every night attracting insects with lights (instead of never, and if I were better at identifying them), the moths alone would probably number about that many. At some point I’d like to do some posts featuring various plants in the yard and the bugs that are associated with them, as I did for ragweed here. But for now, I’ll close with links to two videos that deliver the same message—advocating for replacing as much of your lawn as possible with native plants—in very different ways:

About Charley Eiseman

I am a freelance naturalist, endlessly fascinated by the interconnections of all the living and nonliving things around me. I am the lead author of Tracks & Sign of Insects and Other Invertebrates (Stackpole Books, 2010), and continue to collect photographs and information on this subject. These days I am especially drawn to galls, leaf mines, and other plant-insect interactions.
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12 Responses to Fixing the Lawn, Year 6

  1. Thomas of Baltimore says:

    You know I love you but as a naturalist but you know most people would be comfortable with Trifolium repens in their lawns, at first, right?

    Love,

    THOMas of Baltimore

    P.S. I quit Facebook. (I have always hated FB.)

  2. Thomas of Baltimore says:

    The same corps that sell poisons for “weeds” are poisoning our food supply.

  3. discovering says:

    Wow, your garden looks great now!

  4. Wonderful place – very inspiring, Charley and Julia!

  5. Your garden is like a dream.

  6. Stan Malcolm says:

    Your yard looks great. The first video is AWESOME! And I think the guy narrating the second video grew up in my NYC neighborhood “wit me”.

  7. bcottam2014 says:

    Thanks for this, Charley! It’s an inspiring piece and hopeful too – what a lot can be done in 6 short years! (My wordpress account is messed up and I couldn’t add this as a comment…)

    Barry

  8. Peggy says:

    I love your yard. Our 1/2 acre has been similarly improved. The spiders, native pollinators, birds, & lepidoptera love it. The neighbors hate it. One of them actually came out one fall, & guffawed uproariously at my husband, as he (my husband) did the annual scything.

  9. Anonymous says:

    I am so impressed with what you two have done! I love it.

  10. Jennifer Weed says:

    Beautiful! we still have some front and back yard but most of it is clover, dandelions and other green stuff. We do have a lovely pollinator garden and an insect house!

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