Garden Essays

About this page...

A lot of thinking about this page as I am not quite sure how I want to present it.  Environmental Stewardship is a passion and a serious concept with me, therefore presentations on this page are more on the enlightenment side and a little less on the entertainment side.  That being said I want it to be as enjoyable as possible, so I try to lighten up the original essays somewhat.  These essays and letters were composed by me in my super active years of wildlife gardening, before life's roadblocks with pet and people issues vaporized much of the time I was consuming on these projects.  My wildlife gardens are still a passion with me, but I have had to remind myself that my life consists of more than just the gardens and I need to make the other facets of my world just as important.

Welcome To Little Fourth Acre Gardens
     (Taken from the Information Packet - Environmental Stewardship In Practice which was created to give out to visitors asking about the gardens)

Ecosystem (shortened name for ecological systems):
Living organisms (plants, animals and microorganisms) all interacting among themselves and with the environment in which they live (soil, climate, water and light).  An ecosystem does not have precise boundaries - it can be as small as a pond or a dead tree, or as large as the earth itself.

Little Fourth Acre Garden's conservation efforts have been very successful.  Nature has been allowed to create a balance ecosystem.  To accomplish this, we use almost no fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.  We compost, mulch, and plant mostly drought tolerant plants.  This is a garden; therefore, we usually water the entire grounds thoroughly once a month or more, depending on rain or lack of rain, during the summer to prevent browning of plants as they try to go dormant or loose part of their leaves to survive drought conditions.  Our home is considered a part of our ecosystem; therefore, conservation of water, electricity and heat are practiced and all recyclable materials are recycled.

"In the end
we will conserve
only what we love;
We will love
only what we understand;
And we will understand
only what we
have been taught."
-Baba Dioum

Trashing Home

Why do we dominate and overpopulate a fertile environment changing it to a wasteland for all creatures that inhabit it, pushing these creatures to or towards extinction?  Would these creatures significantly benefit if we were the ones that moved to or towards extinction?  Would it be then and only then, that all life could survive as nature had intended?  Mankind does call the shots when it comes to environment; so as guardians of our environment, what does happen when we choose to inhabit a piece of land?

Rock usually is blown away; trees are wiped out; shrubs, grasses, and plants are ripped up; and the soil is dug, churned, and stripped away to create a resting place for the house.  Other families may also find the area pleasing and proceed to trash it in order to set up residency.  We collect dwellings until we form a town, multiply these dwellings until we create a city; and through this process, we proceed to compromise or wipe out entire ecosystems.

Other creatures incorporate their dwellings into the surrounding areas without disrupting the areas, thus insuring them a safe place to live and a continued supply of the food and water that is already there.  We appear to be the only ones to wipe all traces of abundant life out of our surroundings, and then proceed to set up artificial environments to provide ourselves with food, water and shelter.

We extinguish most birds, insects, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, and plant life that called our area their home.  Native plants trying to move back into "our space" are burned, chopped and poisoned into oblivion.  Native birds, insects, spiders, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals trying to move back into "our space" discover miles and miles of lawn butchered so close to the ground that it offers them nothing.  Trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers are found that are so alien that there is no seed or berry source to sustain them, no thick canopy to shelter them, and no secure nesting sites to propagate them.  They find that they are poisoned, butchered, spiked, squashed, shot and gassed.  They find the enemy and the enemy is us.

We have chosen disrespect towards the natural resources our planet offers us.  We spend our lives "fixing" everything nature didn't get right, when perhaps the best solution towards a healthier planet would be an adjustment of attitude.  Those who appreciate naturalness will benefit from The National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat Program, Wild Ones: Native Plants and Landscapes, and Audubon International programs and information.  These provide us with valuable insight into how we can become environmental stewards of our won property, and through our management create a habitat whose environment is full of life and very self-sustainable.  Giving it a try may afford you one of the most enlightening and fulfilling projects of your lifetime.

Man has been endowed with reason, with the power to create,
so that he can add to what he's been given. 
But up to now he hasn't been a creator, only a destroyer.
Forests keep disappearing, rivers dry up,
wild life's become extinct, the climate's ruined
and the land grows poorer and uglier every day.
-Anton Chekhov, Uncle Vanya, 1097

Surprise in the Garden
     (1999-Written while I was active in the Master Gardener Program as chairperson of the Tree Committee)

"Oh, no!" I cried, as I observed my Clematis viticella "Polish Spirit" unfurling leaves left and right.  I hadn't even pruned it to the ground yet as the catalog had instructed, and as I had diligently done every year.  Every year, that is until this one, and I was filled with dread about being waaaaayy behind in my yard work this past spring.

Pruning always revealed praying mantis egg sacs (which were always moved to the nearby evergreen) and even the remnants of a tiny bird nest from last year.  Well, this year, it was just going to look ugly.

Walking back to my front door after a very long, tiring day on the job, I noticed that the Clematis wasn't looking so bad after all, and it was blooming quite nicely.  It was then I happened to notice (and it was pretty hard NOT to notice) that thousands upon thousands (no exaggeration) of lady bug larvae were covering every inch of the vine, crawling all over the porch, the railings, the fence posts, the steps...even up the coiled water hose.

Days later, they began to pupate in every available space.  Space and food was at such a premium that I even began observing cannibalistic behavior among the little beasties.  What an experience!  Every year I had a lady bug nursery right under my nose, and every year I would bag it up and throw it in the trash can, never realizing what I had done!

Wiser, I am looking forward to a new batch of lady bug babies next spring!

A human being is part of the whole, called by us "Universe",
a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself,
his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest
- a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.
This delusion is a kind of prison for us,
restricting us to our personal desires and
to affection for a few persons nearest to us.
Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison
by widening our circle of compassion
to embrace all living creatures
and the whole (of) nature in its beauty.
-Albert Einstein, 1950

Another Surprise in the Garden

I garden for wildlife, and do I ever get wildlife.  You know the phrase "If you build it, he will come".  Well, if you plant it, they will come.  Boy! do they ever come!  Birds by the multitudes, more types of spiders that you ever dreamed possible, unending varieties of insects, migrating turtles, little youngsters of the raccoon variety, visiting bunnies you hope don't get too comfortable, a booming toad population, and a growing number of leopard frogs.  And then, there are those dreaded mice that come to dinner and never, ever, any time within ones lifetime, leave.  

I am sure that there are those of you who would simply reply "what's so surprising about that?"  Well, it WAS a surprise to me.  A surprise that crept up upon me over a period of years, until one day I woke up and realized my paradise - Mouseland - was the resort mecca of the area mouse population.  WHAT HAS SURPRISED ME is that no matter how I have tried to correct the problem, I still have mice, and MICE, and MORE MICE!

I realize that since I have created the type of environment that has put my garden in the "All Creatures Small" vacation brochures, I am going to have mice in the yard; and since the expanse of my yard is a measly (by animal standards) 1/4 acre, they don't always just stay in the garden.  When fall settles in, the furry creatures start packing up their little suitcases and heading for warmer weather which just happens to be (you guessed it!) the crawl space under our house.

I've plugged holes 'till I can plug no more.  Tried those little humane boxes that had all the local mice rolling in laughter at our naiveness.  Ran a hose down a mouse hole (HA!HA!) and as the creature was escaping his flooding domain, tried bashing the little devil with a shovel, the shovel only proving lethal to the surrounding vegetation.  Tried the unspeakable in sanctuary circles (poison), but it proved to only temporally relieve the problem, and gave me an enormous guilt trip wondering if one of those poisoned morsels had become bird or cat food.  We've crunched the little beasties in those simplistic traps 'till we thought we couldn't possibly crunch one more.

Called the Audubon Society, and when told to do the very same things I had already tried (minus poison), my confidence took a nose-dive to the bottom.  They suggested moving the feeders further from the house (like in the next door neighbors yard? I asked).

Since everything birds feed on mice also feed on, I can only conclude that some things were never meant to be.  A mouseless bird sanctuary is definitely very high on that list.

(Each year as the ecosystem in our yard has become more balanced, we have seen a steady decline in the mouse activity.  Now we hardly ever see them, due most likely to the presence of predators such as owls and hawks.  Sadly, the build up of the areas around us has seen the disappearance of the turtles, raccoons, and leopard frogs.  We still occasional see the rabbits which we do not discourage as they have proved not to be a problem.  We did discourage the skunk that stayed in our yard for several weeks.)

"Conventional people are roused to fury by departure from convention,
largely because they regard such departure as a criticism of themselves."
-Bertrand Russell

     (May/June 2004-Wild Ones Journal.  About a native plant conference workshop identifying native plants and considering the placement in the design so native plants can work in the landscape along with exotic ornementals.  It was questioned that native plants and exotic ornamentals, when the word design is used suggests both are acceptable. Below was my letter in reply that was published in the journal.)

I understand where you are coming from, but you have to remember that many of us started out gardening with a yard of exotics and maybe a few natives that were totally incorrect for our region.  We read, saw or heard something that then motivated us towards the path of native gardening in order to attract those birds we always wanted, promised us freedom from the consuming lawn mowing task or suggested an alternative from hazardous or unwarranted insect and weed annihilation.  We bought one or two regional native plants to fill in an empty space or replace an exotic we discovered was invasive or totally useless to attract the wildlife we wanted.  Many of us did start out finding a "placement in our design" to squeeze in a few natives, which was the very beginning of gradually becoming totally hooked into full bloom native gardening.

There now may be areas in the United States where native gardening is an accepted practice, but not where I live.  It is unacceptable, without a disheartening uphill struggle.  I began in 1989 with a yard of fence-to-fence grass and a foundation planting of exotics, and proceeded to fill it in with more exotics.  I gradually realized that constant mowing, pruning, spraying, and fertilizing was wearing me out physically, mentally and moneywise - and I still lacked the wildlife I craved.  I read about the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program for Backyards in an issue of Wild Gardens, sent for their packet, and for the past five years my 1/4-acre suburbia yard is about 3/4 native plants and a certified Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary.  Cardinals, robins, chickadees, house wrens, mockingbirds, bluejays, sparrows, toads, frogs, and rabbits have all occupied and raised young on our property; and we have received visits from turtles, opossums, racoons, and skunks.

I native garden front and back yard, and it is always a challenge to keep certain neighbors appeased.  This year I have found it necessary with the help of a state horticulturist friend to start planning to go before Environmental Court to get a waiver to make my gardening natively "legal".  Something about a front yard full of wildflowers and grasses in summer and seed heads in fall and winter being too much vegetation.  I definitely can understand why the native plant conference listed their description the way they did.  Converting people from exotic to native gardening isn't usually an overnight thing.

(Thankfully the Environmental Court appearance never materialized.  A health official was sent out to grade my yard and said he did not know what to tell me.  Although it had an unorderly appearance, he could see that everything was put in it's place by design.  All he told me was to cut down all the seed heads in the fall.  All that "dead stuff" feeds my birds in fall and winter, so I never did do that.  My answer was to redesign my front yard to be more like a park.  A stepping stone pathway right through the large island bed bordering the street, and surprisingly it curved through the border between the shrubs and only destroyed the perennials under it.  Another pathway along side the foundation gardens,  fancy concrete bench, concrete bird bath, decorative iron fence, (you know) - all that stuff that makes a city park full of vegetation acceptable.  Holding breath for years on this one, but so far no more complaints.)

"The last word in ignorance is the man
who says of an animal or plant,
'What good is it?'
If the land mechanism
as a whole is good,
then every part is good,
whether we undersdtand it or not.
If the biota, in the course of aeons,
has built something we like
but do not understand,
then who but a fool
would discard
seemingly useless parts?
To keep every cog and wheel
is the first precaution
of intelligent tinkering."
-Aldo Leopold 

Do Ethics Argue in Favor of Keeping or Eradicating your Non-Native (Exotic) Plants? - My comments:
     (This question was asked in an issue of "The Backyard Birds Newsletter", but I never did see anyone's reply published...such is life.  Who know what year it was...I probably assumed it would be published and was put in my place by it's death after it's mailing.  It is a little preachy when I look at it now.  I'm trying to soften it up a little, but will probably fail miserably.)

A plant introduced into a region it is not indigenous to always changes the rules for that region, sometimes subtly, sometimes catastrophically.  If the exotic chokes out native plants, it also chokes out their benefactors - insect, crustaceans, rodents, small mammals, birds.  We might argue that it provides a service, such as bird-loving fruit, but at what price.  If this exotic chokes out our native plants, it is choking out the food they provide, the shelter for survival they provide, and the protective nesting area so vital for propagation of the species.  It eventually creates an ecological nightmare.

This is not natual selection or survival-of-the-fittest.  The original plant was not created at that location, nor was it introduced by birds.  It was introduced by man relocating it from it's ecosystem to a foreign environment.  This is not natural selection.  This is manmade selection.  Planting an exotic bully in the neighborhood of a demure native, and that exotic wins the territory by annihilating the native is not survival-of-the-fittest.  It is invasion and eradication by a foreign entity and we gave it a passport.

Birds don't tamper with their balanced environment, so in their "perfect" world there usually isn't a need for them to possess the ability to reason beyond their immediate needs.  Birds have no clue as to the disaster the exotic plant can create.  They just know that some with fruit are fabulous.  They eat the fruit, eliminate the seeds, the seeds sprout, and the exotic's territory keeps enlarging.  We on the other hand tamper with nature knowing full well the negative consequences it can produce, has produced in the past, and is still producing in the present.  Exotic plants are still imported, nurseries still propagate and sell them, people still purchase and plant them.  We tamper with nature.  We change the rules.  It is our ethical responsibility to make things right.

Sure birds love some exotic plants that provide fruit.  They also love native cherries, blueberries, hackberries, mulberries, blackhaw berries, virginia creeper have lots of choices, so why not do our native plants a favor and eradicate the exotic plants that threaten their existence.  While we might sometimes feel there will never be an end in sight on controlling exotics, we should be obligated to fight the battles we or others of our kind created.  There is just too much of a downside not to.

Is this a satisfactory solution?  You bet it is, because it is not an impossible solution.  I may feel like I cannot win, but to embrace that idea is a defeatist attitude.  I don't have the luxury of letting some people's indifference become my excuse.  I just keep eradicating the exotics.  My actions may not change the whole world, but they do change my little part of the world in my own yard, and as long as I keep vigilance over it, it thrives.

This is the whole concept behind Wild Ones: Native Plants, Natural Landscapes, National Wildlife Federation Backyard Wildlife Habitat, and Audubon International programs.  To have your only goal as saving the world is just too daunting of a task, and few would embrace it.  Saving the world one yard, one golf course, or one town at a time is a more attainable approach to perhaps putting us just a little bit closer to that illusive goal of a healthy planet.

Fear of Fecundity
They're so afraid -
of plants that are grown too tall,
too green, a bit too wide.
The clippers, chainsaw, mower come out,
making short work of the innocent offenders.
It's not a fair fight.
The dust and fumes clear,
the plants looking stunted and sad,
in their proper place again.
No threat to anyone.
What a relief!
What is this preoccupation,
this bias against nature's lushness?
Is it so dangerous, so threatening?
Can we not enjoy the myriad green shades
of untouched prairie or woodland
rather than yet another (yawn) lawn,
where nothing of interest
or substance grows?
Christine L. Abresch
Menomonee River Area Chapter

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