Right In Your Own Backyard

By Charlotte Overby | May 2, 2001
From Missouri Conservationist: May 2001

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 of the house, it had quite the opposite effect on the yard. No one mowed the back yard for years, and it has grown to such an extent that a four-year old friend calls it, "The Woods." That's one reason why Don and I were able to identify more than 45 plants growing in my yard last fall, and why I've continued this policy of no-mowing "neglect."

A chain-link fence separates my house from my neighbor's, but you can't see it anymore because it has grown thick with volunteer trees. These include one cedar, an eight-inch diameter mulberry tree, three or four hackberries, several redbuds and a short, stubby buckeye that's been whacked down a few times. Under the trees are some lilies and a few buckbrush shrubs.

Buckbrush is like an emergency food stash for wildlife. Birds and small mammals eat the hard clumps of red berries when harsh winters make more desirable foods unavailable.

I also discovered wild poinsettias. I didn't know there were such things. Above them, the trees jostle and crowd one another, but isn't that what they do in a forest? I've found no rule that says trees in a yard can't touch, so I'm going to prune them just enough so I can walk beneath them. I like the way they block the view of the house behind me, and they also harbor birds and many squirrels. Under this shady canopy, I've also added a dogwood, a redbud and two wild plums.

In spring, I looked out over a yard full of sweet William, which blooms bright purple and lasts a long time. I also saw violets, which I'm sure have spread with the help of the moles. I like moles. They aerate the soil, spread seeds and live out their little mole lives as best they can in the middle of a city. They also beguile my cat, who can stare unwavering at a mole hole for hours.

Don visited again in the spring and found a couple dozen more plant species, including sorrel, wild chervil, woodland blue phlox and wild licorice. The wild licorice was especially neat because it's a delicate, native woodland flower that blooms until mid-July.

Spring also brought dandelions and clover that bloomed at the base of my common elderberry bush. Elderberries, which grow deep purple atop tall stalks, can be used in pies, jellies and wines. Dried elderberry leaves work as a natural insecticide, and they also keep mice from ruining garden plants. You can also make flutes and whistles from the hollow stalks.

This winter, I'm going to kill some non-native plants that are slowly choking out some of the nicer plants. Honeysuckle will be the first to go. One or two honeysuckle bushes in a yard may not seem like a big deal, but birds eat the seeds instead of something native, and they drop the seeds in fertile ground where new honeysuckle takes root, spreads and displaces more beneficial species.

That's symbolic of what's happening to our native plants statewide. Botanists estimate that more than one-third of all plant species growing wild in Missouri are not native.

I may target other plants, too. I'd like to yank out bunches of Japanese honeysuckle vines and make room for more native Virginia creeper. Virginia creeper leaves turn a really nice shade of crimson in the fall. In late summer, I dug out about five stems of bull thistles, a plant so detrimental to pasture and agricultural land that it has been declared a state noxious weed. My peonies, surprise lilies and bulb flowers aren't native, but I'll keep them since they don't spread aggressively.

After salvaging bricks for a couple of years, I finally have enough to build a narrow sidewalk that will meander through the back yard. It will spare me from having to wade through chigger-infested foliage unless I choose to do so. Of course, I might have to shovel the walk when it snows, but it should add a nice touch, nonetheless.

My little urban island is also a testing ground of sorts. The health of our cities and towns will improve if we would mow less grass. More people could enjoy the beauty and low-maintenance of wildflowers blooming at different times of the year. We could also save money by using fewer herbicides and pesticides, because native plants usually don't need them. They also survive on rainfall and give better food and cover for more animals.

Overall our cities would have more natural, wild-looking green spaces, and our urban areas would become better places for both people and animals. Older, so-called "overgrown" neighborhoods often have more birds, a greater diversity of plants, healthier wildlife and less erosion than closely manicured yards. There are also fewer leaky basements because drainage is better.

Best of all, Missourians wouldn't have to spend a big chunk of every precious weekend mowing their lawns. Instead, people could go fishing or take naps.

Like my house, my yard will always be a work in progress, but with more native plants flourishing, less lawn to mow and some creative landscaping, it will look more and more "fixed up" every year.

Plant Literacy

The Conservation Department has available several free and for-sale publications that can help you identify and choose plants for backyard plantings.

  • "Shrubs and Woody Vines of Missouri," by Don Kurz, is available in hard cover for $15, plus $5 shipping; and in soft cover for $12, plus $2 shipping.
  • The recently updated and revised "Missouri Wildflowers," by Edgar Denison, costs $12, plus $2 shipping. Mail your order to Nature Shop, Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180; or order by phone, (573) 751-4115, ext 3325.
  • Free publications include "Landscaping for Backyard Wildlife" (10-pages, color); "Native Plants for Landscaping" (two pages listing wildflowers and grasses); and "Native Grasses for Landscaping" (a four-page booklet describing 12 varieties of native grasses for meadows, pastures and lawns). Request these publications by their name on an envelope and sending it to: Missouri Department of Conservation, P.O. Box 180, Jefferson City, MO 65102-0180. The Missouri Native Plant Society maintains a list of Missouri nurseries and greenhouses specializing in nursery-propagated native plant stock. For more information, write to Missouri Native Plant Society, P.O. Box 20073, St. Louis, MO 63144-0073 or view the list at <http://web.missouri.edu/~umo_herb/monps.publications.html>.

Except for some agricultural crops, the Conservation Department plants only native species on the land it owns or leases, unless no suitable native plant is available. In that case, area managers only use non-native species that pose little threat to native ecosystems and don't spread aggressively

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Designer - Tracy Ritter
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Composition - Libby Bode Block
Circulation - Bertha Bainer