When my husband and I first moved to our current home, over forty years ago, we threw ourselves into the suburban backyard life. We planted flowers, veggies, added a terrace and three stone walls, and planted shrubs in lieu of a fence. Over the years we’ve moved the veggies, added shrubs, and coped with various pests. I pick up ideas from the summer garden tours and I’ve used poisonous plants as murder weapons in some of my stories.
Some gardens are chaotic in color and placement of plants, and others are neatly arranged beds of one or two colors. Some include chickens, decorative pieces, and unusual shrubs. But most are neat and tidy. I admire neat and tidy because that’s a struggle for me.
Over the years we neglected our gardens because of other demands–work, lack of energy, health. For a long time the uncontrolled mess out back bothered me enough to consider hiring a landscaper, but I never went very far with the idea. Then a few random comments from our neighbors changed my perspective. All around me are flat well-kept lawns leading up to a few shrubs by a foundation, and the occasional flowering tree. All very tidy. Our yard offers something different.
My neighbors look out upon trees, our trees, lots and lots of green, thick enough to block out most of the neighbors behind us and to entice deer and other animals. When I look out back I look into the edge of a forest, where a small path seems to lead deep into the dark recesses, the sunlight blocked by a thick canopy. The trees are ordinary but mature, the quiet is soothing, and animals scurry past me. My neighbors and I have seen a coterie of the usual and the not so usual—squirrels, rabbits, toads, mice, raccoons, skunks, voles, opossum, deer, coyote, and possibly a fox.
It took me a while to realize this is now a wildlife habitat. My unruly neglected yard has become something useful for the animal world. The National Wildlife Federation offers a sign declaring an area like ours a Certified Wildlife Habitat, if it meets certain requirements for wildlife: food, water, cover, places to raise young, and sustainable practices. The certification process is more complicated than this simple list may make it appear, with more specific examples of each criterion. The Federation website includes a certification checklist for those interested in applying.
The certification sign is really a fundraising tool, but an effective one. As I look out over my yard, where the drought has turned the grass to something akin to straw, weeds proliferate along the edges of the shrubbery, and the ground itself has turned lumpy, I imagine the area growing up naturally, with birds bringing in seeds and animals shaping the ground, with native plants, or weeds, emerging in unexpected places. All this happens slowly, but I can sit on my terrace and enjoy the view, and enjoy the visitors scurrying through my mini forest. And not feel guilty for letting the back yard return to a more natural state.