Backyard Transformation: Prelude

When my husband and I closed on our new home the first thing we did was walk the property. Briefly, because he broke a tooth eating a bag of chips and needed an emergency root canal…but we walked the property nonetheless. 0.4 acres is a good chunk of land and we were thrilled to see that there are some very mature trees on our lot. Unfortunately, the majority of the trees on our property are being, or have already been, choked out by aggressively growing vines. The lot obviously got to be too much for the original owners who, according to our neighbors, had entered their elderly years and were not getting around with the ease they once had. And thus, we see remnant gardens once well manicured now reclaimed by Mother Nature, embedded in overgrown forest devoid of human contact. The best kind of habitat. This brings me to the dilemma at hand; how do we transform this environment full of liabilities into a safe yard where we can coexist with nature without devastating the existing ecosystem?

You’ll see in many of my photos that the trees still standing are covered in invasive English Ivy. Brought to North America by early colonists, English Ivy has become of concern as it is easily spread by both runner production and seeds transported by birds. According to the University of Maryland Extension, “Dense foliage blocks sunlight and restricts growth of other plants. Heavy vines cause damage and death to mature trees by loosening the bark and holding moisture against the trunk, making a good environment for fungal disease and decay. Heavy vines can take trees down in wind, snow, and icy conditions. English ivy also serves as reservoir for bacterial leaf scorch, a disease in maples, oaks, and elms.” On our lot, many of these ivy laden trees are tall enough and/or close enough that if they fell they would likely damage our home, the neighbors’ property or worse, endanger the welfare of our neighbors’ small children. This left us in a position where we felt we had no choice but to take action; the trees have to go.

As you can imagine, this was hard for me to embrace. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt at the idea of removing this wealth of habitat, so my next move was to ponder ways to replace, replenish and ultimately provide a safer environment that we could share with the wildlife that calls our backyard home. How? After some thought the seemingly simple answer became clear. We garden.

We will have fruit bearing trees, berry producing shrubs, pollinator gardens, perennial gardens that provide seeds throughout multiple seasons, vegetable gardens, herbs gardens, deciduous and coniferous hedges to provide shelter, grasses for nesting materials, and water sources galore. We will NOT have 0.4 acres of lawn.

We will also do our best to relocate some of the existing plants and incorporate them into our transformation. We have beautiful hostas and heuchera, lilacs and lilies, rhododendron and roses. While I’d like to focus on planting primarily native vegetation moving forward, I’m also not in the habit of killing healthy plants if they are not a threat to local wildlife.

In contrast to the overgrown portion of the lot, we have some barren areas too. For example, along the northeast side of the house I’d like to work on a Spicebush hedge. Hardy in zones 4-9, Spicebush has early yellow blossoms in spring, serves as a host plant for multiple types of insects, produces vibrant red berries favored by more than 20 species of birds and the foliage transforms to a stunning yellow in fall. This gem is also shade tolerant making it the perfect candidate for this location on our property, which only sees a handful of hours of full sun each day.

Another space presently on our radar is at the end of our sunroom. We affectionately refer to this room as “the lounge” and I was torn on what to do with the outside space, so I pitched two ideas to my husband: a Northern Bayberry hedge or a perennial flower garden. He chose the flower garden (what a guy, am I right!?) so I’ll be starting an assortment from seed in early spring 2022. I’m thinking wild bergamot, aka bee balm, Black-eyed Susans, echinacea, lemongrass, toothache plant, blanket flower, verbena, blazing star; so many options, never enough space. Can you feel my excitement!?

When do we begin this transformation? Well, our local tree service company has us on the books for the first week in August. After they have cleared out the current vegetation I will check in and show you what we’re working with. It’s going to be a long journey but I’m excited to share it with you and I’m hoping that you’ll chime in here and there to share tips, suggestions and personal testimony. In exchange, I promise to communicate both successes and failures throughout this process to help you with similar projects in the future. Cheers, friends!

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