When my husband and I bought our one-acre property 21 years ago, it was a sunbaked hilltop devoid of vegetation except for an ill-placed dogwood, an ancient smokebush, a couple boring big-box-store shrubs and a sea of scrubby lawn. Inside, we were amazed at the amount of dust and cat hair on our furniture now apparent in the bright house.
I approached the blank-slate property with its rich soil and abundant light as my canvas and it has become my laboratory where I test plants and watch what they do each season. Sometimes I move plants around or split them to share with gardening friends. Some, I dig out and throw away. I have a manila folder titled, ‘Plants That Croaked’ that is bulging with the tags of dead plants. The winners remain in the garden and are included in my plant lists for clients.
As a by-product of all this planting, our property is now an oasis for us as well as wildlife we never encountered when the landscape was barren. We love nothing better than spending an evening on the shady patio watching birds flit among the trees and shrubs, scrappy hummingbirds fighting over the feeder and rabbits nibbling and leaping.
The increase in birds is the most noticeable change. Their songs fill the air and they raise families in the dense foliage. I find their abandoned nests each autumn after the leaves fall. There is an astonishing array of bird species too. Not only the usual suburban wrens, sparrows, chickadees, jays, crows and cardinals, but bluebirds too, and cedar waxwings who descend en masse like bandits in their dark masks to gobble ripe fruits from the serviceberry, holly and dogwood trees. Red-tailed hawks cruise low and fast past the bird feeder, and often ride the thermals high above the open land of the lower yard. Sometimes a puff of rabbit fur tells the tale of a meal found. And climate change has pushed the range of the annoying mockingbird our way.
An eastern box turtle makes an appearance in the vegetable garden every June. I can tell it’s the same one because it has a distinctive ‘E’ marking on its shell so I’ve named it Ernie. This year Ernie brought a friend, a smaller box turtle I saw just once nestled between the rows of garlic. I’m not sure if the scent of ripe strawberries draws Ernie from the woods several hundred feet away, but he always samples the bounty and I don’t mind sharing. Ernie hung around longer this year. From the vegetable garden, he relocated to the shelter of the fig and was last seen burrowed under the towering lovage in the herb garden. After all these years, I have never seen Ernie on the move (although my husband nearly ran him over with the lawn tractor once) and he seems to resent human contact. He slowly withdraws into his shell if I approach, and just our appearance is enough to make him disappear for days. Nonetheless, I feel I have been bestowed with a great blessing when he makes an appearance.
We have seen fox trotting along the woods line and one chilly Thanksgiving morning, I watched a beady-eyed mangy one catch a chipmunk outside the kitchen door and chomp it down in three bites. After its meal, the wretched thing ambled out to the back garden and curled up in the leaves to nap in the sunshine.
The other day I upended in my hand a small plastic pot containing a pepper plant and laughed when I spied a tiny toad butt. I turned the unpotted plant in my hand, and one sleepy eye of the toad stared back at me, looking somewhat annoyed at the disturbance. I gently set the plant and soil into the hole that I had dug and carefully patted soil around it. I hope the toad went back to sleep in its more spacious home.
There has been, to my dismay, the occasional snake. Many years ago on a hot afternoon, a long dark snake slithered my way across the lawn as I watered plants on the patio. I resisted the urge to drop the watering wand and run; instead, I trained the stream of water onto its back, which it seemed to appreciate. After a few minutes, I turned off the water, carefully set down the wand, scooped up the cat, who was staring goggle-eyed, and headed indoors. From the door, I watched the snake curl up in one of the pots I had just watered. A few minutes later it was gone and thankfully I never saw it after that. My husband dispatched a small garter snake who slithered into the garage on a hot day, seeking shade and the cool cement. Recently, my neighbor’s nine-year-old grandson saw a rat snake crawl up her chimney and into her house, no doubt to eat the starling chicks that were nesting in her siding. An hour later we saw the awful thing retreating under the hollies outside our kitchen door. I checked on a robin nest nearby and the lone turquois egg was gone that had been there the day before. I then realized there were far fewer chipmunks making holes in the garden this year and virtually no baby bunnies. Clearly, the snake was enjoying the smorgasbord around here. I know snakes are good and eat a lot of varmints, but I don’t want one nearby, especially one that climbs so well. So I spray a cinnamon oil concoction, which is reported to repel snakes, and keep a long bamboo pole handy to rustle and poke the shrubbery as I mutter “Go away, Mr. Snake.”
For better or worse, the gardens we make enrich our lives and support bugs and birds, mammals and reptiles. And these creatures become part of the story of our garden too.