Sunday, January 15, 2012

Backyard Habitat - weaving yourself into the Web of Life

I'm an urban pagan. I last year I spent 2 weeks on my teacher's homestead and loved it! But day in day out, I'm an urban pagan. So my yard and the skies above my house is where I watch and listen to Nature, the great teacher.

By some standards we have a lot of yard; by others not so much.
In New Orleans, specially postKatrina, yard sizes vary greatly. In some older parts of town, houses have 3 feet of alleyway down each side, are right on the street. There is 10 to maybe 15 feet behind the house. In these areas there may not even be a greenstrip in front of the house where a small tree could be planted. New Orleans also has a Garden District where the houses and the yards are larger and the houses are set back from the street in the American fashion rather than the French/Spanish fashion of placing the house fronts right on or very close to the sidewalk. And then there is the PostWar Lakefront and New Orleans East a combination of what was once swampland, farmland, PostWar development & 60s/70s sprawl. PostK in these areas there are some houses that now sit on their original lots and also have the lots or lots next door making for really large yards. In other areas there is every combination of the above. New Orleans is nothing if not diverse.
And then there is the lower 9th Ward. This area is still a shadow of its former self. Areas near the river in the Holy Cross Area are recovering and looking more like they once did. There is the area that Brad Pitt has worked to help redevelop with more solar powered, sustainable green houses popping up every day. It's impressive and a tourist attraction and rightfully so on so many levels. And then there are broad areas where there are only vacant lots. There is a push to make this area large urban gardens, which is in many ways, a return to its roots. There are other endeavors that are linking people to the wetlands in a way they were not before. It is a land of devastation and opportunity. Leftover sadness and hope. But I digress.
In our yard have a combination of both small scale intimate backyard and a large open area front yard. What we don't have is a lawn mower.
In the back of the house there is the French/Spanish private garden a bricked courtyard with plantings around the edges and a covered area which can allow us to be outside and protected from the sun and rain. This patio is overlooked by a deck that allows us to watch the sunsets and pick papayas and naval oranges without getting a ladder or a picking tool. Because we now have a mature tree at the center back of the patio this area along the back fence is more shaded and subdued than it used to be. We've started trying to grow mushrooms in the shade. And I've planted some slow growing ever sweet olive trees along this area because the now mature bradford pear won't last forever and because these trees are evergreen and will one day provide a better privacy barrier. But mostly I planted these because absolutely nothing beats the smell of sweet olive. Our Queen of the Night and butterfly ginger provide occasional competition but nothing tops sweet olive. Even with the shade along the back there is still room in the sun for a lime, a grapefruit and a few kumquats. And of course no patio is complete without a water feature, so we have a small fountain surrounded by lavender and garlic chives and oregano. And no garden is complete without roses so we have some of those as well. The patio is where we treat the birds to sunflower seeds, at least if they get to the seeds before the squirrels do.
There is also a more sun-drenched area in the front of the house that probably sightly larger than the back patio, especially if you count the strip between the sidewalk and the street. This front yard is planted with evergreens: yews, gardenias, camellias against the house, satsumas, rosemary, roses and perennials like lantana and mint around the edges. But the center of this area is where I work with more closely the seasons and broadcast seeds from American Meadows. In the late winter/early spring we have creeping daisy and baby blue eyes, baby snapdragons and poppies. I'm trying some old rue seeds to see if I can get this growing in the cool of our year. I have been successful with rue only once. I've seeded alyssum again for probably the last time because this seems to freely reseed itself and create a wonderful backdrop for just about any other flower. In the summer we'll have heat loving zinnias and cosmos and some Chinese forget me nots. Our summers are so long that just after Cornucopia I have to reseed with more zinnia's and cosmos. While all these flowers freely self seed, saving the seed or getting an occasional new batch from American Meadows makes for more robust displays. The zinnias will die off in the fall but the cosmos can make it through the bulk of the winter (providing seed for the birds). The blanket flower is coming up where it was last year and in any other place it wants. This flower also tends to bridge the seasons; leafy in winter, flowering in late spring/early summer and then self seeding away (with a little of my help to spread the wealth!).

It may sound lush but, it's still the city. Cars pass in front of my house just 3 feet on the other side of the sidewalk. There are 2 side by side paved driveways on one side of the house; one for us one for our neighbor. It's a heat sink that we can do nothing about. Our back patio abuts our backyard neighbor's driveway. The other side of the house is a yard, separated by a high fence from the front of the house, where there are air conditioning units and limited sun between the houses. It's enough space to grow some sweet potatoes, more papayas (because they are so easy to seed), some bananas (new as of last fall), a fig (which I keep trying to kill off because it is not a good producer, but the birds like it) and a grapevine and where I let the basil go wild. The ground is hard clay. The limited light makes growing tricky but nature usually fines a way for something to grow. My only job is to figure out what this is. I can get arugula, greens (mustard, spinach) to grow but other vegetables elude me.

As an urban pagan, the city and more specifically my yard is where I have had to learn to relate to Nature. The collective yard is also a Certified National Wildlife Backyard Habitat. I don't use pesticides. I let the caterpillars (except for tomato horn worms!!!!) have free reign. I have enough seeding and nectar producers to keep the birds happy. This year we had a possum in the neighborhood. Anyone can register for their yard to be a Backyard Habitat. It's not about how big your yard is; it is about how closely the yard works with nature and how much habitat it can provide for species other than homo sapiens.
It's a new year and spring is not that far away. Think about what you can do to weave where your live into the Web of Life. I think the guidelines for the National Wildlife Federation's Backyard Habitat are a good place to start.

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