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Yards of food and flowers

Fri, Jul 10th, 2009
Posted in Commentary

Over the years that my husband and I lived in the Big Woods, our mowed lawn decreased in size. We gave up gardening after the first five years because we didn't want to fend off the deer and other creatures. We loved the encroaching trees, shrubs and wildflowers planted by nature, the woodpeckers that nested in aging poplar trees between our house and workshop, the field sparrows, blue-winged warblers and catbirds that nested in brushy areas, the raccoon families that managed to climb up to the bird feeders no matter how we tried to discourage them, the fox that barked in the night, the coyotes that howled and the hissing baby barred owls.

Now we live in Preston where the purr of lawnmowers is a common sound of summer. We have a big yard with a vegetable garden and patches of perennial flowers. Our first summer we didn't mow the perimeter of our yard and it filled in with jewelweed, which the hummingbirds loved. This, our second summer, we are mowing less and have planted more native perennials, such as Joe-pye weed, bee-balm, columbines and geraniums. We have also planted shrubs - ninebark, viburnum, barberry and choke cherry. I look out on our yard and imagine it filled with flowers and vegetables with just a small amount of grass. I think of the birds, butterflies, bees, squirrels, rabbits and a few deer that come for seeds, nectar and berries and yes, for some of my garden produce. I think of the lettuce I have enjoyed and the tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and squash that are yet to come.

I walk through my new town and see a few gardens, some lovely flower patches and great amounts of mowed grass, which might as well be deserts as far as most of the wildlife is concerned. I travel through the countryside of Fillmore County and see vast stretches of mowed grass and people out mowing even their ditches, which if left alone would provide habitat for various creatures.

Perhaps someday our standard for yards will not be neatly mowed grass, but mixtures of vines, ferns, flowers, vegetables, shrubs and trees. I have a friend whose neighbors complained that her yard, fitting this possible future standard, was too messy and she should clean it up, much the way some of our neighbors in the Big Woods thought we weren't taking good care of our property because we let it go wild.

More people in our country are gardening now than in recent years, perhaps as a way to make ends meet in the face of difficult financial times, perhaps in response to a heightened awareness of the food we eat and the healthy benefits that come from eating locally grown produce that is not tainted with pesticides and herbicides. Even Michelle Obama has a vegetable garden and has involved children in its planting and harvesting.

Gardening is hard work and is not something everyone likes or is able to do. In such cases, visits to local farmer's markets are a good alternative. I avoided gardening for years and still don't feel exactly competent, so I am always looking for advice and was happy for the fine advice in Loni Kemps's recent column titled "Less-work Gardening." Carrol Henderson's book, "Landscaping for Wildlife," also provides excellent suggestions. Another good book is Douglas Tallamy's "Bringing Nature Home; How You Can Sustain Wildlife with Native Plants." Information is also available from the Master Gardeners in Fillmore County.

People not interested in planting vegetables, might still plant native perennial flowers, shrubs and trees, which require little work once they are established and none of the herbicides or pesticides that go on so many lawns. Native plants provide homes and food for wildlife that is increasingly suffering from loss of habitat due to human expansion. Trees reduce carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is a primary contributor to global warming.

Neatly mowed lawns still look good to many of us, but fashions change and so do cultures and when you think about what a yard with a diversity of plants has to offer, mowed lawns become less appealing.

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