Saturday, May 28, 2016

Saturday Morning in the Yard Forest

In November 2007, shortly after I had accepted a position outside of the Southeast Missouri Lowlands where I had lived since the storm, I began combing through Craigslist looking for rental property close to downtown. I had a dog, dart frogs, and a penchant for Craftsman architecture, so I landed on a street with numerous rentals in a downtown neighborhood. People were frightened when I told them the address. Of course, having lived in downtown New Orleans for many years, this neighborhood with ethnic, age and income diversity was not "scary" to me. Nonetheless, when I moved into this house, colleagues recommended I "pack heat" to walk to the gym and grocery store. That's pretty stupid, racist, and classist, and not based in any facts but solely in fear of "other," so I relished the new house which I rented based on multiple factors: the yard, the old growth trees, the original hardwood floors, the proximity to a thriving downtown, and the gas stove. All of my nice pans were trashed from the electric stove in the Bootheel.

I rented this house from 2007 until I bought it in September 2015. Upon renting, I immediately began an exotic species eradication program. Being situated in an urban area, bush honeysuckle and wintercreeper coursed throughout the yard, despite the native flora that persisted under the canopy. There is no lawn here, and if there ever was one, it was lost to the natives that lived in the seedbank which have been stimulated by the recurring management regimes we have put in place. I have not introduced any plants to the yard except for a small vegetable garden of kale and some lousy peppers. The Craftsman bungalow with no air conditioning had been owned by an elderly lady whom the neighbors called the "paper towel lady" because she was always wiping her windows with paper towels. She lived here quietly for over 50 years and after she died, my landlady bought the bungalow primarily for the yard. I rented it for the yard. Being close to downtown and in the middle of a city, the yard in 2007 did not have any super floristic diversity, but the understory was predominantly native. While walking through the backyard upon signing the lease that November, my trousers became vectors for the spread of Tovara, Solidago canadense, and three species of Desmodiums. I could see recovery. I moved in and immediately began managing the yard. (Sadly, Google Earth's street view drive-by occurred when there was still an abandoned van in the front yard and there was no vegetation but some crummy catalpas that remain today. On Google Earth my house looks like a crack den-- lots of bare soil and old, broken clay tiles from the roof replacement.) The developer who renovated the house after the paper towel lady died put a slap of paint and a new roof on it and sold it to my landlady for a ridiculous amount at the height of the housing boom. But the yard was restorable. And it had a witness tree in the back, a sickly chinquapin oak that stood sentry over a black oak-walnut woodland that grew to huge heights thanks to the Missouri loessal soils.

Since 2007, we have managed the yard and have had run-ins with the weed inspector, meetings which I have catalogued here through the years. The backyard continues to accrue species richness, though dominated by Silphium perfoliatum and Tovara--not the worst plants for pollinators by any stretch, but not intact natural community-loyal species. Blue-eyed grass and inland sea oats showed up a few years ago, along with morel mushrooms around my elm. But I have no lawn. My sedge list has increased from two species in 2007 to eight in 2016 with Carex davisii and C. amphibola serving as the dominant species. After a few years of management, Penstemon digitalis and spiderwort appeared, and their populations continue to expand across the yard. Now that I own the house and have worked closely through the years with the weed inspector to impart the importance of native landscapes, I feel confident that my yard will not be brushhogged thanks to my National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat sign, even when the Desmodium and Solidago reach two feet high.

I now have four species of native grape in my yard and this spring they have matured to the point that the flowers are pollinated. The insect, bird, and herptile diversity in the yard is significant, especially considering how close I am to downtown and the urban interface. My witness tree still stands. Thanks to James Harlan's incredible digitization of Missouri's General Land Office survey records, I have created a map for my Neighborhood Association that shows which witness trees persist in neighborhood yards. My chinquapin oak is one of them. I love that tree. Anyone else would cut it down and plant a Bradford pear. The chinquapin oak was a primary driver in my securing funding to buy this little 645 ft.2 bungalow with no air conditioning and no attic fan or duct work.

So I think a lot about the recent trend in native plant gardening. I have not added any plants to my yard, but recognize that if I brought in more natives I could probably entice more pollinators, but I prefer to preserve my landscape however altered it has been from years of mowing. Doug Tallamy's landmark book, Bringing Nature Home, has caused a huge movement in native plant gardening which is a great trend. Of course, native plants are certainly preferred over exotics and petunias loaded in chemicals. When I worked in New Orleans in a largely destroyed ecosystem, I worked closely with the local Native Plant Society chapter to secure local genotypes to restore species richness in a garden setting for my workplace. Now, using natives is mainstream, especially with the decline of monarchs and other pollinators. Unfortunately, these native plants are being scattered throughout our community without much regard for local genotype. Native to Missouri does not mean native to Shannon County or native to the moist slopes of the streambanks of the Jack's Fork River, for example.

Recently, on multiple occasions, I have visited places touting their "native flowerbeds" which "support pollinators and wildlife." This is all good and fine, but when I am in an area with distinct, unique characteristic natural communities such as chert glades, globally significant chert glades, mind you, I sort of recoil at seeing native plant beds filled with dolomite glade species collected from the White River Hills region. Baptisia australis? Gorgeous plant. Does it belong in an area outside of its natural range? Oh, I can see planting it in a yard in St. Louis in a suburb of nothing but turfgrass, but it should not be planted anywhere near natural communities -restored or degraded- where it may escape cultivation. Where are the genetics hailing from? And is it a cultivar? We lose the scientific value of native flora when we start playing Johnny Appleseed. So many native trees are succumbing to old age only to be replaced in the urban landscape with cultivars. Red maple var. 'Duraheat' for example. You won't find that variety in an intact least not until it escapes cultivation.

I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of owning a backyard that has been spared transformation, the step beyond homogenization, but both representing the point of no return for biodiversity and species accrual. Native plant gardening is all good and well in areas that have been destroyed. In monocultures of Tifway 319 or fescue where there is no chance of species accrual from natural systems, sure, plant away. But in my yard, managed with fire and showing some resiliency in the understory along with recruitment in the canopy layer, I won't do it. I won't be planting "natives." My local weed inspector has learned a lot about Aster drummondii and Solidago ulmifolia, neither of which are particularly showy until the fall, but when they reach maturity, they're incredible. My yard will never be natural area status, of course, but I'm happy I bought it and that chinquapin oak is very happy with all the fire management.


Anonymous said...

Your words and photos provide nice image of your yard. It sounds beautiful. But, your continued criticism of others who don't manage as you do is draining and frustrating to read, especially when its of folks who have good intentions, such as planting native plants.

Prescribed burning is generally not allowed within city limits. Are you involved in your local community to help educate the urban homeowners on property management for your region? If not, I feel that with all your knowledge and experience, you would be a great asset to your community, rather than just a critic.

Allison Vaughn said...

Hm, I'll have to reread the post--I thought I made it clear that planting natives is highly desirable, a practice which I have done everywhere I've lived before landing at my current residence that still has intact natural community quality (not high quality, but a native plant component). I have also hired entomologists to survey pollinator use in my pollinator gardens which I have installed with purchased plants at my last residence. I see significant value in planting natives, but when an intact ecosystem presents itself, it may take some hesitation to sit back and see what natural integrity remains. I'm sorry my posts sound critical. I'm a huge supporter of native plant gardening and worked assiduously in the field during my tenure in New Orleans. Also sorry I sound draining and repetitive. I certainly don't expect a suburban family to manage an urban area with fire, especially when the rewards probably wouldn't be that great. However, in intact, natural systems in Missouri, fire management is essential even critical to the protection of biodiversity. My town has an active Wild Ones chapter who also manage this way. Sorry my posts are draining to you.