When I bought a cottage...

by Bill Belleville

When I bought a cottage-style home at the edge of the historic district in Sanford some seven years ago, I was happy with the large double lot and the magnificent live oak trees. Sanford was a real old-fashioned town with a real old-fashioned spirit, and I cherished it.
Wooden gate I installed, along with wooden fence around entire backyard, not long after I first moved into Sanford on the edge of the historic district. Had just left 15 good years of living out in what had once been the country, and I yearned to revitalize some of the "wildness" I had known there.

What was less attractive, though, was the monoculture of St. Augustine that ruled the back yard. It stretched across my property like a giant green shag carpet---an obsessively tailored rug that met and merged with my neighbors’ own grassy decor. As a guy who writes about nature and conservation, I was well acquainted with the damage this sort of “yard” could do to both the quality and quantity of our aquifer. Despite that well-documented evidence, lawn care services regularly visited adjacent yards, cutting and fertilizing the St. Augustine. On certain occasions, they added great doses of poisons to kill weeds and insects. And, they routinely broke out raucous leaf blowers to whoosh away stray leaves and anything natural that might distract from their giant chemistry experiment otherwise known as a lawn. Birds, butterflies and any native critter with good sense were rarely seen.

It didn’t take me long to figure out how to distance my own yard from this behavior. The first thing I did was install a  stockade-style wooden fence around it. Then, I let the coiffured grass go, just to see what might drift in and grow on its own. While that was happening, I picked out the corner that received the best sunlight, and built a freshwater pond. I dug out a six by eight foot hole, lined it with a soft vinyl pond liner, and mortared flat flagstone around the edges to keep it secure.

I added some sub-aquatic plants to help keep the water clean, to aid in the oxygen exchange, and to provide hiding places for fish. To that, I added pots of native pickerel weed---which each spring sends out a bright blue-purple rod of flowers---along with wild river iris. After I installed a submersible pump, I added some native Gambusia (aka mosquitofish) and little snails called marissa goldenhorn. Once the pond gained its stasis, several bullfrogs found their way under the fence to live and breed there.

Meanwhile, I ignored the remnant St. Augustine in the hope it would get the idea and simply go away. Native plants begin to arrive on their own: tiny southern red cedar trees, beauty berry, lantana, a morning glory  vine with lovely white flowers and wildflowers like oxalis. I put several cuttings of passion flower in the ground.  They were joined by a few transplants from my former country home including a “sleeping hibiscus”, and a few queen palm seedlings. Although neither are native, they seem equipped to make it without special care. After all, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings fondly tended her own bushes of Turk’s cap. I also left some non-native bushes that seemed appealing to the butterflies, including the “rose Camilla” and a citrus tree. My horticultural approach was Darwinian---all plants, native or not, had to make do with rainwater (which I also collected in buckets) . And, if any non-natives became overbearing, they got trimmed back to size.

I babied a snippet of a passion flower vine until it started growing feather roots, and then planted it. The reward has been enormous, both in the flower and the butterflies it attracts. Dies back above ground by winter, but returns to life every spring---stretching its boundaries farther every year via its adventurous lateral roots. This is the first sign of its new season growth. Soon, the Gulf Frittilaries will discover that one of their favorite foods in all the world is growing here, and they will delight in laying eggs on them.

The eggs will hatch, and the little fuzzy caterpillars will chew their way through the leaves, and then, after a respectful hunkering down period, they'll emerge as brightly colored butterflies.

Once I built the pond and staffed it with some fish and snails and native plants like pickerel weed and wild iris, then the frogs arrive. They must have squeezed in under the six foot high wooden fence, maybe in answer to the siren's call of the water fountain splashing its way into existence. I guess it's true: If you build it, they will come. I think this guy is a juvenile bullfrog. But that's just a guess, as he ain't saying....

A coontie palm I once grew from a seed does really well in an old clay pot atop a cut log stump. The wild river iris is also starting to bloom in the little pond I built with a small fountain. The iris seem in synch with the its truly wild counterparts out in the creeks and rivers and wet ditches, cuz I am now seeing them in bloom there, too.
And here's the official sign from the National Wildlife Federation declaring this reborn place of nature to be a Certified Wildlife Habitat. That's because (as the sign says) it provides the four basic needs for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover, and places to raise young. They have some neat tips for making the transformation from grass to great little natural miracles that fly, flutter, sing, and bring a multitude of color and comfort and light to a place that, previously, had none. www.nwf.org

Thanks Bill for sharing your experiences.
Edited and posted by Ginny Stibolt

Note: When acquiring natives for your yard, please do so by purchasing them from native nurseries or taking cuttings from established populations with permission on private land. FNPS's policy is stated here: FNPS Transplanting Policy. Thanks.


Brendec7 said…
Loved your article!
NotaClueGal said…
If we all did what you did - this would be a more beautiful place!
Roger said…
Bill, can you post an aerial shot or a simple plan? :)
antigonum cajan said…
There is no turf in our one hundred species urban, concrete/asphalt garden, pollution of any kind or noise. Great post!
Sheri - Creative Spaces said…
Looks like you have done a great job transforming your yard back to a more natural state. We are doing the same thing here. First thing was removing all the grass & put in peanuts. It always makes me smile to see people stop and look at them as they go by our house. Good luck and happy gardening!

Best wishes,

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