The Not So Tidy Yard

By Devon Higginbotham

If you are like me, you want your yard to look neat. So you mow the grass the moment it starts to look unruly, clip the hedges into geometric cubes, rake the fallen leaves and pick up the dead branches. You may even be compelled to eliminate any pesky bugs that may munch on your favorite shrub, leaving them with unsightly bite marks. Isn’t that the human way?

But why is it we feel it so necessary to be in charge of nature? We love how it looks in the parks and natural areas, but in our own yards we feel we must help out, somehow control and shape nature into our ideals of beauty.

Who are we landscaping for? A butterfly garden must support the caterpillars. 

Who Are We Landscaping For? 

But who I we really helping out? The leaf litter that falls to the ground eventually breaks down and supplies nutrients to the soil that help the surrounding plants (plants can’t just get up and move to a better spot if the nutrients are low). The dead branches attract insects that breakdown the fibers into more humus for the soil.  Insects, in turn, become a food source for birds that peck through the leaves looking for protein for their nesting brood or themselves. Lizards, frogs and small mammals all seek insects as a primary food source.
The caterpillars munching on your favorite shrub could be breakfast for nesting Cardinals or, if not eaten, may hatch into a Gulf Fritillary, Black Swallowtail or Luna Moth.

Dead pecan trees festooned with Spanish moss provides many homes.

Life after Death!

I have a couple dead Pecan trees in my yard and periodically they drop large dead limbs with gobs of moss.  It’s been a long time since I have seen a green leaf on either of them. The wood is so decayed and crumbly, it’s not difficult to collect the fallen limbs, but I have been dying to chop them down.

Last month, as I lugged another fallen limb to the trash pile, I looked at one trunk that had slowly dwindled down to 20 feet in height. There was a hole at the base of the tree large enough for a family of hobbits to pass through.  The interior dark and mysterious, I envisioned a raccoon charging out, obviously very inconvenienced by my snooping into his home. But peering in, all I saw was darkness.  No one seemed home.  “I suppose it’s time to get rid of them,” I queried to myself. I imagined my neighbors quietly asking the same question. “Why is she keeping those behemoths?  What an eyesore!”

So I decided, “It’s time to take them down!”  I made a mental note to call my neighbor, Jerry, the next day and have him push them over with his tractor and drag the hulking masses of decaying wood to the trash.  I would be rid of them!  My yard would be tidy once again.

But, the next day, while walking past one dead trunk , I heard the rat-a-tat-tat of a Woodpecker. Looking up I saw the shy creature as he slipped around to the backside out of view.  I suppose the Woodpeckers were still finding insects in the wood, but the trunks look so dead!  “The Woodpeckers will find food in other trees!”  I thought.

The week before, listening to Shari Blisset-Clark talk about Florida Forest Bats, she described how they spend the day in hiding in hollow trees and craggy bark and I thought about the Pecan snags in my yard, ideal habitat for sleepy bats.  “Maybe”, I thought, “I should let them linger”.  The bark was perfect for slumbering creatures and the gaping hole in the trunk must already be home to multiple species of wildlife, even though I didn’t see them.

Today, as I tidied my yard, I heard the distinct call of the Red-shouldered Hawk.  Looking up I caught a glimpse of two hawks mating at the very top of one of the snags!  “Yeah”, I thought, “the snags are staying!"

Landscaping for Nature, while keeping the Neighbors Happy

So how do we reconcile our human urge to “tidy up” with our need to preserve some sense of nature in our yards and not upset our HOA?  We all want to help the birds and the bees, right?  But how?

Wooded areas add shade and cool the air for us, but they also house many types of wildlife.

1) Keep your mowed lawn but shrink it.  A circular lawn in the front yard will create a tidy appearance and help you feel in control.  Surrounding it with curving wooded areas will let you have more trees and shrubs in the remainder of your yard to create habitat.

2) Keep a woodpile in your back yard, out of view, for the fallen branches.

3) Leave the leaf litter in the areas under the trees.  If the leaves are large, like the Sycamore, mulch them with your mower.  If grass won’t grow under the trees, it’s because of the lack of sunlight, not the leaves.  Plant native ferns in those areas.

4) Create wooded areas by planting more trees, shrubs and plants.  This will attract the birds that need to feel safe from predators.  Use native plants that provide a food source like the Dahoon and American Hollies, Walter’s Viburnum and Simpson Stoppers.  Oaks are terrific at attracting insects.  Don’t forget a water source but be sure to keep it fresh so you are not breeding mosquitoes.

5) If you are fortunate enough to have a snag in your yard that is not a threat to life or property and is not in direct conflict with your HOA rules, let it stay.  If you cannot tolerate the dead appearance, plant some vines at the base such as Passion Vine or Carolina Jessamine.  They will soon crawl up it and provide flowers for pollinators.

6) Use pesticides judiciously so you don’t kill the beneficial insects, the source of protein for so many animal groups.

Download a copy of “Planting a Refuge for Wildlife” 
By taking the time to think about how you can attract wildlife, you can marry the urge to tidy up and still create a yard that is much more than just something to look at.

For more information on attracting wildlife, order a copy of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s “Planting a Refuge for Wildlife” booklet.

To find out more about the Suncoast chapter of the Florida Native Plant Society, visit our website at or join us at one of our meetings at 7PM, the third Wednesday of each month at the Seffner UF/IFAS Extension office, 5339 County Rd 579, Seffner.

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Posted by Ginny Stibolt and Donna Bollenbach


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