Spring has definitely arrived on my hillside in South Charleston. The daffodils have been up and blooming for a full month, having survived the repeated temperature plunges into the teens earlier in March. Clumps of onion grass tower over the grass and weeds that are just now beginning to reawaken. The hellebores, or lenten roses, have sent their flowering blooms up where the early honeybees come after their dusting of pollen.
Our property is an acre and a quarter, about one third of the way up the hillside. The lot goes down to the creek below, nearly a hundred feet lower in elevation. Within our little slice of ground, I am proud to serve as host to a small nature preserve. Our animal inhabitants range from the hooved rats that serve to aerate and fertilize our mossy turf, down to the innumerable roly-poly’s that scurry away whenever you pick up one of the rocks around our gardens.
Speaking of the hooved rats (alias deer) that we share this landscape with, it is instructive just how much they have influenced our landscaping. Very early on we discovered that it is useless to plant many annuals, or bulbs like tulips. Begonias and impatiens serve as a deer’s salad bar. So we have focused our plantings on things that deer won’t eat. Daffodils are immune to deer’s grazing, due to their supply of calcium oxalate and other alkaloids that make them poisonous. So over the 25 years we have spent in this house, I have spread daffodils around, gathering them up in the fall when the bulbs begin to crowd the surface of the ground, and planting them everywhere. This past year I dug up two large plastic buckets worth of daffodil bulbs, and even after sharing them with many others, still had several hundred bulbs to plant on the edges of the property and down the hill. When we finally leave this property, the next owner will have a floral explosion on their first spring here.
I am glad to share our home with so many different animals. Our property is home to at least two frogs, who overwinter in the small water feature we have in the back yard. We have countless squirrels who nest 75′ up in our trees in the back, and who steal every apple we grow before they are ripe enough for human taste. Chipmunks dash across the woodland floor, usually evading our feline hunters (but not always). Mice and voles share our space, and we look forward to seeing the raccoons, especially when they have juveniles. We once saw three raccoon siblings who were undoubtedly being sent out on their own as they walked across our lawn, chittering away to themselves, until they went through our fence and down into the woods.
There are snakes that are seen briefly as they slither across the dried leaves. In the summer, we see neon-colored skinks that skitter across the deck and porch. If we leave bagged trash out, we will be visited by our resident opossums who are not afraid to climb up on our deck. I’ve given them a fright when I was outside at dusk in the summer, and suddenly I’m aware that a possum has come up on the deck. They can scurry away pretty quickly when confronted with a human unexpectedly.
One year, I was trying to understand damage I was seeing to our tomatoes. The bottom of the tomatoes were serrated, like they had been cut by a pair of pinking shears. I could not figure out what could have caused this type of damage. Then later that week, I saw one of the box turtles who live in our woods, and I realized the damage was caused by the turtle reaching up as high as it could and chomping away at the tomato. It was unable to pull the fruit down, but it still got its fill. I still remember the time when we saw two box turtles mating in our back yard. We were watching from the deck, and the male turtle turned its head to look at us as if saying, “Hey! A little privacy here, please.” Sometime later that year, I saw several small box turtles over by my vegetable garden, so I knew life was going on and we were serving as hosts.
Best of all is serving host to a huge variety of birds. We put up multiple hummingbird feeders in the summer, but no matter how many we put up, we can’t stop the aerial combat resulting from one alpha male hummer claiming our porch as his territory, and launching himself at any interloper at high velocity. We can be sitting on our porch in summer, and suddenly we are a foot away from a high speed pursuit right in front of our eyes. The arrival and departure of the hummers are annual events we watch for.
One of the rarest sightings of our residents is when we see one of our owls. Though we can hear them out in the woods, it is very rare when one graces us with its presence. One summer twilight we were sitting with our neighbor, when I suddenly said, “Turn slowly over there”. An owl had landed on the far end of our deck, and was watching us silently. It stayed there for maybe a minute, then lifted its wings and flew off the deck and into the night.
The bird feeder and suet feeder we put out in winter encourage a wide variety of species. In the morning, we are mourning dove central as 3 or 4 of them have taken up residence either in the feeder, or on the railing or ground under the feeder. Their whooshing of their wings as they take off while I go out to get the paper always gives a thrill. We have blue jays, and flickers, and chickadees, and tufted titmouse, and finches, and cardinals, and sparrows, and woodpeckers, and bluebirds, and even a rare visit from a catbird. We joke and say that we’ve installed cat TV as the cats perch on the windowsill as they watch the birds (and squirrels who also feast away at the proffered seed).
We truly are blessed to be stewards of the land we have. By managing it wisely, and by not being a slave to keeping an immaculate lawn, we are trying to encourage all of the native wildlife and plants that we can. And in return, we are blessed by all of the wildlife we get to watch on a daily basis in our yard. With the exception of the deer, who have managed to grow into a very severe irritant to everyone in our neighborhood. But since I have fenced the deer out of my vegetable gardens, and since we have planted deer resistant foliage, we can even manage to put up with their intrusions. Plus, it is fun to plunk them with my slingshot from time to time.