Atlas, the Kingsnake, and Contemporary Landscaping

Learning to shoulder one's own corner of the world.

I didn’t start out to re-landscape the yard. I was just frustrated by our slow—and expensive—curbside trash pick-up.

But then came drought, and global warming, and the extinction crisis, to say nothing of poisoned foods. Before long, I had visions of Atlas dropping a threatened globe. Ever the pragmatist, I squared my shoulders to help him hold it up.

My corner of the globe is a half-acre city lot in an area of such rapid growth that the county can hardly keep up with its garbage. As Atlas’s assistant, I first challenged myself to return all of this household’s nonhuman organic wastes directly to this tiny plot of earth.

It all started because I was frustrated with our slow (and expensive) curbside trash pick-up.

Composting merely required changing habits. The compost pile works well—a simple circle of wire supported by stakes and shielded from view behind the tool shed and a holly bush. Every bit of garbage decomposing there—from coffee grounds and banana peels to grass clippings—lightens the burden on collection systems and landfills.

Replacing the kitchen disposal with a plastic container covered by a plate (easily used and washed) proved simple enough. But disposing of outdoor organic material, such as tree limbs and trimmings from shrubs, posed a greater challenge. The large pieces make fuel for the fireplace, a few small ones in the compost pile help promote aeration, but what of the rest?

Then came another energy crisis. As Atlas’s assistant, obviously I should reduce my use of nonrenewable resources. So less power mowing; more naturalized areas. There, of course, lay the answer to recycling organic trash.

Naturalized areas of trees, understory shrubs, and shade-loving flowers now border three sides of the yard. They delight the eye and increase privacy for both us and the neighbors. Most important, the naturalized areas have almost eliminated the need to take organic trash to the curb for pick-up. After all, a thick groundcover of mulch is part of what makes a naturalized area work—and the thicker the better. Now the leaves and pruning by-products from the remainder of the yard simply increase the mulch cover in these miniature woodlands.

The naturalized areas offer my assistant answer to another frustration: helplessness in the face of species extinction. We can help preserve the natural diversity of plant life, I realized, by landscaping with native plants. Some nurseries sell them, but a shovel in the trunk of the car has made it possible to salvage a delightful variety of seedlings from new road cuts and construction sites.

The result? A tiny, native woods in our own yard. The birds—even the shy wood thrush—have moved in to share it with us. May apples and jack-in-the-pulpit complement dogwood and redbud in the spring; the perfume from Carolina allspice and pinxter flower invites lingering to enjoy. American holly and red cedar provide winter shelter and food for the birds plus a welcome touch of green for the humans.

And how the natives thrive! As though grateful for a chance to live, they bloom and multiply, withstanding insects, winter freeze, and summer drought more easily than their neighboring hybrids. One reason, of course, is that heavy layer of mulch underneath. It adds nutrients, stabilizes soil temperature, and helps preserve soil moisture.

Oh, yes, the drought. The message from several devastating summers is simple: make every drop of water count. Drip irrigation helps, with equipment ranging from expensive, underground plumbing to half-buried plastic milk jugs with holes in the bottom. I’m also searching for an empty barrel to convert into an old-fashioned rain barrel at the roof downspout.

There are other ways, too. Timbers and rocks surround vegetable and flower beds to help prevent washing and runoff. Heavy layers of natural mulch on cultivated areas reduce evaporation and increase organic content, enabling the soil to hold water more readily. The town cheerfully provides the mulch free of charge: They dump several loads of leaves along the back alley each fall. It means that much less in their overburdened landfill.

As a self-appointed assistant to Atlas, I try to address the broad problems of environmental management with small-scale landscaping solutions.

Global warming? A planted tree not only helps purify the air around it but can shade or shelter the house, cutting down on its energy needs.

A contaminated environment? After a family of bluebirds sickened and died, I decided the time had come to stop using artificial insecticides. I’ve found that my backyard orchard can be both attractive and productive with only organic controls. Out front a cherry tree puts on a flowering show in spring, then sets enough fruit to treat us and the neighbors to pies and preserves. A growing pecan tree has begun to yield nuts as well as shade.

I can almost see myself, standing there beside Atlas, doing my part.

A hedge of blueberry bushes thrives beneath the south windows. Fig bushes in front of west windows offer shade in summer, then drop their leaves to invite solar heat in winter. Together. these bushes put fruit on our cereal for several months of the year. One apple tree stocks our freezer with applesauce. I confess, though, that so far another apple, a peach, and several plums seem unable to produce edible fruit without spraying. In the open sun of the mid-yard, walkways of brick (salvaged from construction jobs) separate a grid of raised garden beds that keep our family in unsprayed vegetables much of the year. Beyond the raised beds, more permanent clusters of perennials, herbs, and shrubs merge into the naturalized areas.

All told, the yard has become a small-scale wildlife preserve. Some of my resident creatures, like the bluebirds, are pure joy. Others, like the banded kingsnake, took some getting used to. But we’ve all reached a workable balance. The birds help with insect control (one very territorial mockingbird also keeps other birds out of his cherry tree). The kingsnake keeps rodents from being a problem at the compost pile and limits the vole family, a nuisance before the snake moved in. The rabbit population—hungriest when carrots and beets are coming on—is curbed by the fox and barred owl which, displaced from spacious woods by recent development, now frequent our semi-wooded neighborhood.

Like I said, I didn’t start out to re-landscape the yard. But now that it has happened, I no longer feel quite so helpless in the face of environmental problems. I can almost see myself, standing there beside Atlas, doing my part.


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