Right In Your Own Backyard

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Published on: May. 2, 2001

Last revision: Nov. 9, 2010

Anyone who has fixed up an old house knows the work is never really finished. There are always baseboards to strip, fixtures to replace and painting to be done. And when you think you're done, everything you painted the first year needs to be painted again.

Older, "overgrown" neighborhoods often have more birds, a greater diversity of plants, healthier wildlife and less erosion than closely manicured yards.

After three years, my house is as "fixed up" as it needs to be, and now it's time to move on to my next big project, the yard. Of course, yard work never ends, either.

Old neighborhood yards are neat places. They have big, scraggly trees and overgrown fencerows that often hide toppled fences. Stone walls and old flower beds lie waiting to be excavated. The lawns seldom contain just one kind of grass but, rather, a mixture of ground cover.

My yard is small. The lot is 45 feet by 90 feet, and the house occupies most of that. My street was developed about 90 years ago, so I not only have an octogenarian house with a wavy foundation, but also some trees, shrubs and plants that are getting up in years, too.

Old neighborhoods near downtown almost always have a greater variety of plants and trees than their suburban cousins. Developers of large, new neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities usually level the ground, plant turf and plug in a few small trees. It takes residents years to diversify the character of their yards.

My neighborhood and others like it may have once been dominated by grass, but with time, some dedicated gardening and, in many cases, benign neglect, they have changed for the better. Of course, having a "natural," old yard doesn't mean it has to be messy or unkempt. You can improve its appearance considerably by bordering beds with rows of rocks, logs, bricks or mulch.

Last fall, I took a break from a plumbing fiasco to walk through my yard with Don Kurz, author of "Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri," a wonderful book published by the Conservation Department. Don helped me identify native and non-native plants and grasses, useful shrubs, volunteer trees and a host of plants I'd never noticed before.

For years my house was a student rental property. Occasionally someone fixed it up a little with some idiot carpentry, but otherwise it was left to decay. While this neglect did little for the cosmetics

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