Backyard Habitat

It’s almost impossible to walk through my backyard right now.  The asters are chest-high and beginning to flower.  The globe mallow is higher than my head and showing off orange flowers.  We weave through, clipping only what we must and enjoying the greenery.

Asters and Mallow

Asters and Mallow

To understand how wonderful this is, I need to take you back to my first Spring into Summer in this house.  This was 1996.  I’d moved into the house in December of 1995, helped by a crew of people that read like the staff of a major SF convention.  Melinda Snodgrass loaned her horse trailer and labor.  Walter Jon Williams, George R.R. Martin, Pati Nagle, and a host of spouses and just plain nice people helped move boxes and beds and my life-sized reproduction carousel horse, Goliath.

A fellow I knew from gaming, one “Jim” (I only vaguely knew his last name was “Moore”), was  among these nice people.  He offered to come back and fix a cabinet door that had gotten broken in the moving.  I’d marry him something over thirteen months later…

But that’s another story.

My house was built before real estate on the west side of Albuquerque was worth anything.  So my yard is fairly large – not acres or anything – but sizeable.  When that first Spring came, I set about discovering what was growing in it.  The answer was a discouraging “not much.”  There were two rose bushes and one juniper, all in the process of dying.  A few cedars near the house.  One tree out front.

Otherwise, there was a lot of a low ground-cover that looked pretty nice, especially when it broke out into tiny yellow flowers.  Less nice was discovering that this was a plant known locally as “goat’s head,” because of the caltrop-like seed heads that are designed so that at least one thorn is always up and ready to poke the unwary.

(“Goat’s head” is also known as puncture vine, tackweed, or ground bur-nut.  Its formal name is tribulus terrestis, which it completely deserves.)

My dad went on a vendetta against the goat’s heads, filling no fewer than eight thirty-gallon trash bags with the plants.  For years after, Jim and I would weed them out every Spring until, finally, it became possible to walk in the yard in our bare feet.  We did a lot more with the yard as well.

In addition to our beloved garden beds, we planted a trees and shrubs, opting mostly for types that don’t need a lot of water.  We learned which native plants and grasses didn’t produce thorns and encouraged these, while weeding out those with prickles.  We put in a tiny pond, bird feeders, and a couple of bird baths.

Over time, we developed a crop we hadn’t anticipated: wild life.  First were the lizards.  These mostly fall into two groups, the fence lizards and the blue-tailed lizards.  Neither are very large – though the blue-tails grow very long tails, often longer than the rest of their bodies.

As soon as we put up bird-feeders and water sources, we got the usual sparrows and finches.  Not long after, we began to get mourning doves, ring-necked doves, and rock doves.  Robins discovered our garden beds.  We now have at least a couple robins year-round and have, apparently, become a scheduled stop along the migration route.  Quail regularly parade through, as do roadrunners.  Hummingbirds.  Scrub jays.  Grackles.  And a wide variety of migrators, including some very showy oriels.  One cloudy afternoon I even saw a very confused night heron at our pond.

Then came the toads.  And this year we’ve had a desert box turtle make periodic visits.

As each type of creature has come through, we’ve done what we can to make them welcome.  We noticed that the finches and sparrows really liked the seeds of the spectacle pod, so, instead of weeding these out once the pretty white flowers were done, we left some to go to seed.  We did the same with Indian rice grass and other seed-bearing grasses.

At first we put up hummingbird feeders but, as we learned what plants we could get to grow, we eliminated the “soda pop” in favor of planting what the hummers naturally eat.  Now they buzz around our desert willow, cardinal vine, and trumpet vine.  What’s really interesting is finding out that they also like zinnias and hollyhocks.  The other night, I went out to pick some cinnamon basil for a salad and found a hummingbird sampling the tiny purple flowers.

For the toads, we let the Virginia creeper along the fence get bushy, so they have a cool, comparatively damp place to shelter during the day.  Many times on a summer evening, when we’ve gone to bring in the guinea pigs from their outside hutch, we’ve encountered a toad hopping slowly on its way to take a quick dip in the pond before beginning its evening rounds.

When the turtle showed up, we dug a shallow bowl – hardly more than a tray – into the ground so that it could get water or take a bath.  We’d love for it to become a full-time resident.

Right now we have some amazing wild sunflowers.  They’re easily twelve to fifteen feet tall, with small blossoms that are just opening up.  However, even when they are done with their dramatic flowers, we’ll leave them up so that the birds can forage.  In past years, we’ve had thrashers and small woodpeckers busily hammering away at the woody stems.  Goldfinches love the seeds and look like tiny ornaments as they flutter from branchlet to branchlet.

We don’t live in the country…  We have a good-sized yard, but not a huge one.  However, what we’ve learned is that if you let Nature in, she’ll accept the invitation, bringing you wonders never to be seen in your more typical neatly-planted, tidily-mowed yard.

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10 Responses to “Backyard Habitat”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Lovely! That sounds like a wonderful yard!

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Gee, with an incentive like that, you just might force me to get into gardening. I wouldn’t mind attracting birds to my home, especially the collared doves. I had one once. Long story, but now I get a kind or feeling anytime I see one.

    • Chad Merkley Says:

      The collared dove population up here in Eastern Washington has exploded in recent years. In 2004, I was going on trips specifically to find them, but now they’re an every day sighting (or hearing).

      They were introduced from Eurasia into the Bahamas in the 1970’s, and spread themselves to the mainland. Now they are absolutely everywhere.

  3. Chad Merkley Says:

    Just uphill from my house there’s a couple of big empty lots, with lots of native shrubs–mostly sagebrush and gray rabbitbrush. Lots of birds and animals use the habitat. Last winter, we had flocks of a hundred California Quail moving through regularly. We even had northern harriers hunting there a time or two.

    So at 6:30 this morning, there were backhoes and bucket loaders out there getting ready to put a house in.

  4. Tori Says:

    I would love to see the turtle if you can snap a photo of it before it scuttles away! 🙂

    • janelindskold Says:

      He really can move… We’re hoping that he’ll become more accustomed to us and slow down. Most of the time we hear him plowing through the Virginia creeper, rather than see him.

  5. Faerlie Bartholomaeus Says:

    Great article. We’re in South Australia – the dreaded Tribulus terrestris is well-known in the Riverland, where we holiday with my husband’s family. The watchword is – “The price of freedom is eternal vigilance” – freedom from yet another lovely spike in the foot of the unwary, of course. I’ve always known it as caltrop.

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yep. Caltrop is another name — often applied to a whole family of these nasties! The ones we have are also mildly poisonous (I use the word in the loosest sense) so that the punctures burn.

    • Heteromeles Says:

      I’ve often wondered why more ecoteurs don’t plant Tribulus terrestris where they want to exclude cars and people. Those seeds supposedly will deflate tires too. I’m lucky in that there isn’t much of it here.

  6. Other Jane Says:

    It takes a lot of work to get results like that. You’ll have to blog about it like this again in the spring to fill us in on the details and visitors.

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