A Better Sense of Place

2017 February 8 (Wed)

Unsolicited landscape help

As I was about to sit down to begin writing this, there was a knock on the front door. I had just come inside from taking pictures of the front yard for this post. We don't get very many knocks. Usually just a delivery of our weekly CSA or a brown cardboard box of cat food, books, or shoes, and I was expecting neither today.

This is surely a most confusing mess to people. It's the winter end of calico asters, broomsedge, blue mistflower, ironweed, etc. The aster is an early-succession species and won't be there in such large amounts longer term as other plants fill in. And why not cut then all down? Because insects (and a bird) are living there through the winter. I'll be cutting them down this weekend as spring has arrived very early this year and seeds are starting to sprout already.

I opened the door and stepped out to talk to the man I found standing on the front porch. I closed the door behind me so the cats wouldn't get out. He explained he just needed eleven dollars for something or other and to get a bite to eat. He didn't want to just take my money without working for it and said he could cut down all those weeds for me.

To me, this is a prettier angle of the front sidewalk. The vertical form of the broomsedge makes a lovely wall for anyone walking by. The area in the bottom-right of the frame is what I hoed and sowed almost a year ago. I didn't remove all the turfgrass like I normally do, partly as experiment and partly because it's just so much work. It can only improve as I've been dumping lots and lots of seed in it over the past year.

This wasn't the first time somebody has knocked on my door, offering to cut down my "weeds" in exchange for some cash. It's usually been in the summer, though, in between my infrequent turgrass mowings. It's always some guy pushing a mower down the street and looking for yards with tall grass, which is a pretty good sign that the homeowner doesn't have a contracted service coming weekly. When I started removing turfgrass and making bordered areas for native grasses and herbaceous plants and I'd tell them no, they would squint at me, perhaps wondering why I didn't want them to do me the favor of mowing it all down for me. I guess when all you've got is a hammer... or whatever that phrase is about the nail.

Yucca will grow up and little bluestem will fill in. There's also some promising coralbean in there that somehow survived.

I see (but mostly hear and smell) the neighbors' paid service-providers crank up all sorts of loud, fume-producing, small internal-combustion engines at all times of year. String trimmers, leafblowers, and mowers are the major contraptions. The workers come quickly, drop the ramp of their trailer with a metal crash, and fire it all up, swarming the yard through a cloud of blue smoke and butchering all plant matter down to be an outdoor carpet of uniform height. The cycle of growth-decline-decay of leaves and branches is dismantled as all fallen plant matter is not allowed to return to the ground and instead is raked up and bagged. Once nature is properly sodomized, they pack up and move on.

As you may be able to tell from my diction, I don't approve. It's more than just a noise and pollution nuisance, it's keeping my neighborhood ugly and uninhabitable to diverse life. It's not enough to plant some azaleas, cast iron plants, and nandina and think you're helping to make things pretty. Yes, it's better than concrete, but where are you? Are you in Louisiana, or are you in Alabama, Georgia, or Virginia? And where are all the butterflies and birds? Azaleas feed a few bees (that one week they're in bloom), cast iron plants do nothing for anything, and nandina kills birds. And all that turfgrass? It does nothing to tell you where in the world you are, it inspires zero wonder, it's a maintenance nightmare, and it's a biological desert.

This winter, I extended the front foundation bed and replaced the liriope with recycled-plastic edging. In the center is a possumhaw viburnum. I'm in the process of removing shell ginger just behind it. I've already put in a female yaupon there. The rest will be various grasses, mostly little bluestem.

So I tell everyone who solicits to go away and that I'm taking care of it. The best term for it is stewardship. I'm not commanding. I'm not dominating. Instead, I'm figuring out a relationship between humans and non-humans. I'm helping by providing space, removing invasive exotics (which would lower biodiversity), and nurturing what takes up residence. And because this is a residential area, I do some thoughtful directing of planting location in an attempt to minimize damage to building structures, to minimize purchase costs (due to plant-location mismatches that result in plant death), and to have some aesthetically pleasing arrangements. That last bit has been very challenging.

This is the other side of the front foundation bed. Some of the sticks you see are elderberry, flowering dogwood, cherry laurel, and Virginia sweetpsire. This side is shadier, so I'm thinking of partridgeberry and purpletop tridens nearest the camera and little bluestem farther away.

You may be wondering how it ended with the guy today. Well, I told him I didn't have any work that I'd want him to do for me, but I went ahead and gave him the cash he needed. He thanked me and walked back to his bike, which was lying down in the driveway. He stopped and turned to me, pointing to the "weeds". "What is all that you're doing anyway?" I think he called it my "project". Telling him made me feel like I definitely can spare the cash because it sounded so privileged in my head even before I spoke the words: "It's a native plant habitat restoration for butterflies and birds." Then I came inside my house and opened a beer before dinner.


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