Creating a nature habitat in 5 months

When I first started this blog, it leaned toward hiking. But then, we had a long, excessively hot summer. And hiking in 90°-plus weather simply isn’t enjoyable. So it seems unlikely I’d spend the five-month summer out-of-doors, but that’s exactly what I did.

Now when we first moved back to Florida, I just wanted an easy-to-care-for plot of green. No plants necessary. However, keeping a suburban lawn green and weed-free proved impossible.

You see, our house backs up to a retention pond, and the neighborhood’s open, mown lawns attract geese. And new residents to the subdivision initially find geese charming and feed them, which increases their numbers. And then the geese spread seed through their droppings, as they tear tender blades of returning grass from the earth. So the neighbors’ yards soon become patchy and weed-filled. And shorn embankments are subject to erosion. And we receive “friendly reminders” from the HOA that we need to keep our yards in repair.

And this year’s flock of geese seemed quite enamored of our yard, and insisted on roosting on it each evening. In exchange, they left behind 2.5 gallons of appreciation every morning. I could leave it as it fell, but then I wouldn’t be able to step outside to enjoy the view. My solution was to gather the feces every day, mix them with an equal amount of garden soil, and spread them across eroded areas. I wasn’t sure if those areas would be weed-filled over time, or if they would grow anything at all.

And as sheets of poo-filled soil thickened, I coincidentally started volunteering at an eco-farm . And while I was there, I learned about Vetiver Grass, which is used to control erosion. My husband and I had been discussing erosion control in the back yard, and I decided Vetiver was the answer. I’d simply plant a long line of the towering grass and be done with it.

I initially planted 2×5 inch (5×13 cm) slips. A few months later, the grass was several feet tall.

I ordered some slips, but they didn’t extend as far as envisioned. But controlling erosion through plantings was on my mind and became a quest. And soon I added Roselle Hibiscus, another eco-farm introduction, smaller ornamental grasses, a Dwarf Plumbago, Dwarf Papyrus Grass, and Mexican Marigold. The more plants with roots the better since, as I planted, I discovered Saint Augustine Grass to be useless for controlling runoff. Essentially it forms a sheet on top of the soil, which can be easily pulled back to establish planting areas, but allows soil to run beneath it during downpours.

And while I was planting the back yard, a new problem developed in the front. Someone or something shredded the yard running along the sidewalk.

We didn’t have any enemies, as far as I knew. And the damage seemed too extensive to be caused by a dog. I played back security footage and found that the geese, having been dissuaded by my activity in the back yard, had taken to walking the sidewalk in front and enjoying the buffet.

I imagined the HOA complaining. I had to repair the damage here and elsewhere in the yard, but new grass would only invite the geese to return. So I wrote a polite letter to the Board, explaining that, in recent years, I had received warnings about bare spots in the lawn. I’d added sod plugs and spent fortunes on broad-spectrum insecticides, but the problem returned in the same areas season after season. I now realized, through surveillance footage, that geese were doing the damage. I sent along photos of the sidewalk and pictures of one-day’s goose droppings. I told them I’d added plantings to the back yard, and the geese were leaving these alone. My plan was to add plantings to the front, as well as decorative ground cover less enticing to fowl. I had gardening experience from previous homes, as well as a fine arts degree, and thought I could do a good job. I wanted the HOA to know the reasoning behind my endeavor, before they became suspicious of sudden activity in the yard.

First I needed to address the area along the sidewalk, and so I went looking for low-growth plants that would allow one to look across the yard and see a future array of color. I needed something that spread quickly and wasn’t too expensive. I also needed something that would play well with the blue flowers on the Dwarf Plumbago, which I’d planted on a whim two years previously. I settled on Blue Daze Evovulus and yellow-leaved sweet-potato vine.

As I planted the yard, I worked in sections, considering color choices and questioning which plants might help pollinators. When the pollination question came into play, habitat began to evolve. I added Scarlet Salvia, yellow-flowering Dwarf Alamanda, Purple Sage, Fire Bush for hummingbirds, New Gold Lantana for butterflies and bees, a Cigar Plant, and Giant Swan Milkweed for Monarchs.

As the months progressed, I started to split plants growing particularly well, and stuck these sections into the ground. Although some did not “take”, others became new members of the community. I simply treated them like any other introduction, watering daily until they showed new growth or shed a few yellow leaves. “No more water! Please!”

After the front yard, it was time to plant the side. This was a favorite walkway for the geese, as they traveled from pond to sidewalk and back again. Here I chose “disposable” plants, because the edge of the property – – the middle of their walkway – – contained a huge drainage pipe, which at some point might need maintenance or excavation. Years ago, the city sent someone to maintain the pond, and they drove a pickup across this section of yard. Anything planted here had to withstand truck tires or grow low enough that a truck might straddle it. So this strip became a line of low-growing, inexpensive, flowering plants, like Mexican Heather, Coreopsis, and Dianthus.

The geese threatened a return, but avoided areas where planted bushes had grown large. So when a local museum held a huge plant sale, I picked up lots of additional bushes and a variety of towering milkweed. By early spring, when goslings are toddling between parents, they should be reasonably large.

And, unexpectedly, the yard has become a habitat where pesticides are no longer welcome or necessary-– except for bait for particularly aggressive red ants.

I started planting around April first, and most of the work was completed by the end of August. It’s now mid-November, and many of my plantings have become independent. I no longer have to carry buckets of water or drag hoses from one plant to another. Slowly, the yard is becoming self-sufficient.

Once a week, I walk through and check each plant – – a daily ritual when the plants were tiny. I snip away dead leaves, and check for fungus or insect outbreaks.

Within weeks after planting a yellow hibiscus, I found it covered with White Flies. There were no Lacewings to eat the them. In fact, there were few predators in the yard, other than lizards. And so I resorted to spraying this plant with Neem for a week.

A group of Mexican Heather was also swarmed by Flea Beetles, and all of those plants had to be pulled.

But now the predators are arriving. I saw my first Wheel Bug yesterday, and Umbrella Wasps are patrolling flowers and leaves, looking for caterpillars to feed their young. Lacewing eggs hang from leaves in fine white filaments, and an assortment of toads and frogs have moved in. There are little ring-neck snakes, and I saw I my first Earth Snake last week. Increasingly, there is balance.

There are songbirds, which have been absent all of these years. They visit a tree in the neighbor’s yard, and then come to my garden to forage for insects and seed. Hummingbirds swarm the fire bush, hovering a few inches from the ground to drink from tubular flowers. As I stand on the patio, a red-shouldered hawk swoops in front of me, shopping for lizards, a dietary staple.

As I tend my plants, butterflies dance about me – – Monarchs, Sulphers, Skippers, Viceroys, and Peacocks. Next year, I’ll expand my offerings so that Swallowtails are invited. For them I’ll plant parsley; perhaps some celery. A garden is never really finished.

A hitchhiker on incoming Milkweed. A Monarch caterpillar
hangs in a J for up to 48 hours before becoming a chrysalis.

My plant-filled yard has become my retreat, where I listen to birdsong and watch the sun rise. Or marvel as a Scarab Beetle lands on a feathery, cone-shaped spray of Papyrus Grass, where a hidden female awaits.

My yard is becoming my grocery store, since many of my plantings are edible. I collect the calyces from the Roselle Hibiscus and make a tangy red tea. I save the boiled calyces, and add them to my oatmeal.

Roselle Hibiscus blossom

I include Ornamental Sweet Potato Vine leaves in my salads, and find they’re perfect for sandwiches. The leaves lay flat and have a strong buttery flavor. I’ve planted some Portulacaria (Elephant Bush), and when this grows bigger, I’ll harvest its leaves. Earlier in the season, I grew mint and basil in pots. When I do the same next year, I’ll use deeper containers, since I’ve found they have long legs and like to stretch them.

And the areas covered by soil and goose feces are now full of spider plants, which spill lushly down the slope as they reproduce. And while there are weeds on the slope, and throughout the yard, I treat them as any other plant. Some I pull. Others I leave alone. Clover I can live with, but I remove an invasive mimosa, which reproduces rapidly and chokes out other greenery. A weed that grows huge and spiderlike spreads by runners. That I also pull. For now, the Buttonweed is welcome where no grass will grow. It forms a mat and for now acts as ground cover. Next year it may be less welcome. And the Dollarweed tells me when the ground is wet and warns me not to water. I harvest its leaves and make a tart tea.

I foresee no end point, since gardening is experimentation, investigation, and a love of living things. It’s creating an oasis that serves many. It offers habitat to an array of tiny visitors. It offers me a chair and engages me in conversation. It beckons to my neighbors, who often stop to admire the flowers and ask questions about a favorite plant. Some volunteer that they’re creating habitat of their own. In a distant future, there will be clouds of butterflies and the cheep of hatchling warblers.

Published by cafsamsel

Carol Fullerton-Samsel is a nearly-native Floridian who lives with her husband of 25 years and three rescue animals. She has a passion for day-hiking and nature, and also enjoys writing. Be sure to visit the TenPaths YouTube channel, which is still in its infancy.

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