Thursday, September 6, 2012

Leaving the Land a Little Better Off

I am reading a little-known environmental/farming book called Pleasant Valley, written by a quite prolific writer, Louis Bromfield in 1943.  In it, like Aldo Leopold, he talks about the land he has purchased and although I am only to chapter five, I see where he is going.  He writes:

“I knew in my heart that we as a nation were already much further along the path to destruction than most people knew.  What we needed was a new kind of pioneer, not the sort which cut down the forests and burned off the prairies and raped the land, but pioneers who created new forests and healed and restored the richness of the country…I had a foolish idea that I wanted to be one of that new race of pioneers.”

This give rise to thoughts about my own impact on my land—on this city lot on which I have lived and gardened these past thirteen years.  I like to think I have been a bit of a pioneer here, too.  I have never used one pesticide or herbicide here, except those organic cures like beer for slugs or tobacco juice spray for the plants.  I compost as much as possible, but in a lazy way.  I don’t turn or move my compost, just pack it into compost cages I have in various places in the yard, where it rots or feeds the squirrels as nature decides until the bottoms of the cages yield loose, dark brown, rich new compost-y soil, usually a year or two.  Then I use that soil to repot my houseplants, or to mix with the really strong compost I buy from the City of Davenport’s recycling center to top-dress the garden beds. 

I have made the place into a backyard wildlife habitat.  Everywhere there are birdhouses and niches for wildlife.  We have all sorts of songbirds, crows and ravens and starlings, and even once a red-tailed hawk for a couple of weeks.  We have seen raccoons, and oppossums, chipmunks, snakes, and the ubiquitous squirrel in many colors.

Wildlife habitat sign and daylilies at the base of an oak.

 I planted native flowers in the front where there is sun, and planted understory trees beneath our oaks.  I have added peonies and hostas and other shade-lovers to this oak-guarded property, and I have allowed the back to return (or at least begin its return) to its natural woodland state.  As a result I get lovely woodland flowers each spring, wild roses, and wild strawberries.

I have added my own hand to it, too, with tulips and daffodils, crocuses and hyacinths.  For summer color I have daylilies and Asiatic lilies and Oriental lilies (though I never really learned the difference).  They are crowded now and not flowering as they once did, but I am unable to garden as much as the summers have grown hotter and hotter.

The American redbuds (“Clara Barton,” planted in 2001 when I was a Red Cross Vista volunteer) I planted are now respectable tree-size, and the lilac has swollen to dominate the southeast corner and soars at least twelve feet.  It is too high now for me to even prune anymore. 

I have added groundcovers for the hillside on the south side, to prevent too-rapid runoff that contributes to downstream flooding.  I have ignored the lawn in favor of the creeping charlie, which I think smells better than grass when you mow it, and it has nice little purple flowers in the spring.  I allowed the mint to run rampant, too, and for a few years I had a lovely harvest of mint throughout the summer and fall.  Now, the heat and the drought have defeated even the indefatigable and invasive mint. 

I shall be sad to leave this garden, these trees I have loved so dearly, the Mother Oak in the front and all her sisters, which still, I believe, mourn their missing member that was removed from the backyard some years before we bought the place, and is marked now by a never-fillable sinkhole. 

Instead of concrete walkways, I laid down old screen doors found in an alley and filled them with wood chips I got from a tree-trimming service.  They were glad to dump the chips in my yard, rather than pay to have them disposed of at the recycling center.  So I helped that small business save money and got my mulch for free.  The screen doors placed in this way formed natural and soft walkways, which I directed carefully around the sinkhole grave of the fallen oak.  They lead back into the woodland and wander beneath the magnificent magnolia that puts forth such robust blooms in the spring that by May the back yard looks as though it is covered with giant rose petals as the magnolia blossoms drop.  Enormous pink velvet rose petals. 

Also in May, the lilies of the valley hug the foundation of the house and put forth their tiny delicate white bells that give off such a sweet and subtle fragrance.  In the front, I have placed a bench, now falling apart that I loved to sit on and survey my garden, watch the sunlight dapple its way through the oak canopy that towers over the green roof of the little yellow cottage that has been my home. 

Yes, I am sad to leave.  But I hope that I have left it a better place.  That I have somehow restored a bit of the land’s original dignity and added some aesthetic enhancements that do no harm.  I can only hope now that whoever attains the place at auction will love it and belong here as much as I have.  I leave it in the care of the grand old oak guardians who watched over it before I came and I hope will continue to do so long after I am gone.

1 comment:

  1. I love your screen door idea.... I have a shade garden -- a big one --- on a hillside. I have never been happy with the pathways that need so much maintenance with mulch every year.