Our Backyard: Where Disney Meets Reality

August 2014

Deer in the garden - again 7-8-14

Deer in the garden again – 7-8-2014



The other morning I went downstairs and into our sunroom to find two large stags with newly growing antlers in our backyard. One was standing, and the other was sitting grandly in the sedge, just a few yards from the house. As I stared at him through the French doors, he stared back at me. He looked at me unflinchingly as if to say, “ ‘You lookin’ at me?” He seemed determined to stand his ground … or, actually, sit his ground.

Exactly whose ground it was I had never before questioned, since the backyard was included in the price when we bought the house, so of course it was our ground – although not, apparently, as far as those deer were concerned.

They were not the first deer to have come into our backyard. We live near Rock Creek Park, which runs through Montgomery County, Maryland, down into Washington D.C. In the absence of any natural predators, the deer population in the park is burgeoning, and some of them amble into the adjacent neighborhoods to partake of the tasty plants and flowers and planted vegetables. Recently, there have been a lot of deer; they come in twos and threes and fours.

The first time I saw deer in our backyard, I was ecstatic. It was as if Bambi and his family had come to visit us. I just wanted to go out and hug them. This is also how I felt when we saw rabbits in our yard … and an occasional fox. Since we had plenty of squirrels and birds in Queens, New York, where I grew up, they weren’t as special to me, but there are lots of them in our backyard too.

I’m not sure I’d go so far as to say our backyard is teeming with wildlife, but there’s a lot of biodiversity back there, especially if you count all the different species of birds (which we once did – robins, starlings, cardinals, sparrows, blue jays, goldfinches, cedar waxwings, catbirds, hummingbirds, crows, morning doves, chickadees, nuthatches, red-headed woodpeckers, flickers   … and the occasional hawk or heron or eagle passing through).

I love nature in all its glorious diversity and sheer beauty, and I’ve come to regard our backyard as a small portal into the natural world. I’ve spent hours just staring at it, sometimes with binoculars. But as I looked up close, I started to notice that the actual natural world diverges significantly from the Disney version I had in my head – think Snow White and all those adorable little birds flying happily and chirping sweetly around her, carrying gaily colored ribbons for her hair, or Bambi and Thumper and all their little forest friends.

I noticed some tension, for instance, among the birds that would fly to our birdbath on hot summer days. Through the binoculars I could see the robins “facing off” with threatening poses, thrusting their heads forward at each other and opening their beaks, as if to scream, “Watch it, trespasser; I’m going in first.”

And actual nature – at least the nature in our backyard – turned out to be quite … weedy. For the first twenty-two years we lived in our house, we left the backyard largely alone, not doing any planting or landscaping. We had some lovely large trees and a few azalea bushes that someone before us must have planted, although those were getting rather straggly. We called it “the woodsy look.” Over time, this sounded to me more and more like a euphemism for “a jungle” – which was the word used by the first landscaper who came to assess our backyard when we finally decided to get some estimates to have some landscaping done. He looked horrified and sort of defeated as he gazed at the veritable thicket of root sprouts coming from our Chinese Toon trees. He said he’d call to give me an estimate, but I never heard back from him.

Luckily, the second landscaper was not so easily defeated, and a few years ago she and her team transformed our “woodsy and weedy glen” into a lovely large garden filled with different types of ferns and perennial flowering plants and bushes among the trees. She designed it so that there would always be something in bloom throughout the spring, summer, and early fall.

It turned out that my adoration of nature was more than matched by my appreciation of just what the “human touch” can do with nature. I love our new and glorious garden – all the ferns and the flowering plants and bushes. The first to flower in the early spring are the golden ragworts, which are deliriously happy in the back of our backyard. (Our landscaper said she’d never seen golden ragwort so happy.) In fact, we recently installed a river rock border to contain the golden ragwort, which, in all its happy enthusiasm for spreading, might otherwise take over the entire backyard.

Later in the spring and into the summer and early fall the various other plants come into bloom – bright yellow flowers on the green & golds, pale pink evening primroses, long spikes of little white flowers on the snakeroots, red and yellow Spigelia marilandica, bright purple flowers on the butterfly bushes, white flowers on the azalea bushes, big bunches of little white flowers on the hydrangeas, pink and orange coneflowers, and, in the early fall, bright yellow Solidagos.

My favorite is the green & gold, a plant that is native to this area. It grows low to the ground and easily extends out in all directions, forming a lovely ground cover; in the spring it sports many beautiful bright yellow star-shaped flowers. Just gazing at the green & golds in the spring was one of the simple pleasures I never tired of – I say “was” because last spring the green & golds suddenly started wilting and dying. It was so sudden and dramatic that we figured they must have some kind of disease – and that introduced me to the world of soil fungi.

The green & golds were planted around two trees in our backyard – a large holly tree and a huge Kentucky Coffee tree. About a year and a half ago, we had the Kentucky Coffee tree (and the Chinese Toon trees) taken down. We adored the Kentucky Coffee tree, but it had a natural lean – towards our neighbors’ bedroom – and, because of climate change-related increasingly severe storms, we became more and more nervous that the tree would eventually topple in a storm and kill our neighbors in their bed. By the time we had it taken down, it had already lost a number of huge limbs in various storms – Hurricane Isabelle, for one, and the derecho that swept through our area in June of 2012[1] – and was not so magnificent as it once was. Same for the Chinese Toon trees.

We had hired an arborist to assess the Kentucky Coffee tree and help us decide whether or not to take it down. The arborist told us that trees often exude chemicals into the soil, and that could be the reason for the demise of the green & golds at its base. Or it could be a fungus. Or perhaps both. It turns out that nature can be venomous. And it doesn’t care one whit that the green & golds were my favorite plant.

That’s another lesson I’ve learned from our backyard: nature is completely indifferent to us. And, for all its glorious biodiversity and beauty, it has its more sinister side too. Take mosquitoes. If ever there was an argument for the non-existence of a benevolent and omnipotent God, mosquitoes are it. And for those who say that God is Mother Nature – or something – she doesn’t care either. Nor do the many Asian tiger mosquitoes that are around in the summer, biting away from morning ‘til night (unlike the less noxious variety they have apparently replaced) – they love our blood but are indifferent to us (and our dislike of them, to say nothing of our itchiness).

Or take gnats. (Please!) Or the vines that wrap their tendrils around other plants and look like they would strangle you if they could. Or poison ivy – yes, we’ve discovered that in our backyard too, on occasion. In my (thankfully, limited) experience, the briefest contact with poison ivy sets the gold standard for itchiness.

And then there are the truly serious threats. All those magnificent deer I wanted to hug? – It’s a good thing I didn’t. It turns out they carry ticks, and some of those ticks carry Lyme disease – which, according to some friends who’ve had it, is no fun at all. And those robins that are so amusing to watch threatening each other for bathing space? Some of them carry West Nile virus.[2] I’m not talking about some place in Africa; I’m talking about my own backyard here in Maryland.

When I found out about these more serious threats, my whole perception of our backyard changed. Disneyland suddenly morphed into a more sinister place where deadly threats lurked under every leaf and blade, and I was unwilling to venture out into our backyard unless I was properly covered (from head to toe) and sprayed all over with DEET.[3]

My reaction reminded me of one of the Berenstain Bears children’s books, “The Berenstain Bears Learn About Strangers.” In that book, young Sister Bear is very outgoing and trusting, not hesitating to talk to strangers. When her parents sit her down and tell her it could be dangerous to be quite so trusting of strangers, her whole view of the world changes; all the assumed-friendly-and-trustworthy strangers on the street are suddenly seen as menacing characters to be feared. In the end, Sister Bear strikes a good balance between being friendly to new people (or bears) and maintaining a healthy caution when in the presence of strangers.

And ultimately I struck what I think is a healthy balance too. I don’t bother with DEET if I’m staying on the flagstone path and I’m not intending to be out very long, but I take all the precautions if I am planning to be out there for a while – to protect against mosquito bites and, more importantly, tick bites. And I check myself for ticks when I come back in. So far, I haven’t found any, nor have I come down with any dread diseases.

You might wonder why I would ever spend a long while out in my backyard among the mosquitoes and, possibly, ticks, when I can simply enjoy viewing it from inside the sunroom or even out on our small deck. I have a simple one-word answer: weeds. Well, maybe more than one word: Weeds, weeds, weeds … and more weeds.

They say that a weed is just a plant that is growing where you don’t want it to be. You don’t think of weeds in the woods; but you do think of weeds in your garden – and you want them out of there; at least, I do. Even before we had our backyard transformed from a “woodsy area” to a large garden, there were plants I considered weeds.

There is one, in particular, that I thought of as the Killer Weed. It isn’t threatening – it doesn’t cause itchiness and it doesn’t have thorns (like another weed in our backyard). But it was everywhere, and it extended itself underground by sprouting from its roots, so all the ostensibly separate plants were connected underground. It was basically one humongous weed.[4] And worst of all, when I pulled up a plant it broke off at the base, so the root was left intact, ready to send up another plant. Grrrr!

And then there are the root sprouts. Even after we took down the Chinese Toon trees and the Kentucky Coffee tree, both (now stumps) are still producing root sprouts, and their underground root systems are so extensive that the sprouts are everywhere. The arborist warned us that taking the trees down would actually increase the sprouting for a few years. But it will eventually die down and, hopefully, stop – the more root sprouts we pull out as we see them, the more quickly. We’re still in the heavy sprouting phase. Chinese Toon trees are not native to this area, so someone must have had them planted here many years ago. Whoever it was probably didn’t know about their sprouting habit.

And similarly for the bamboo in our neighbors’ backyards. Bamboo is actually a pretty plant, which is presumably why so many people have it in their backyards, since it too is not native to this area. But bamboo must be the most invasive plant on the planet. It spreads via rhizomes underground, and it is relentless. Our next-door neighbors noticed bamboo shoots popping up in the middle of their grassy backyard, spreading into their space from their neighbors’ untended backyard, which is now a bamboo forest. Distressed that the bamboo would take over their yard (and possibly attack their house), our neighbors hired a bamboo eradication company, which dug up their entire backyard in pursuit of every last rhizome – and still they saw a few new shoots popping up the following spring. They have rethought the problem as one of “maintenance.”

“Maintenance” implies a continuous expenditure of energy. And even in the absence of bamboo – well, we have noticed a few shoots, but we’ve dug up the rhizomes faster than you can say, “NO BAMBOO IN OUR BACKYARD!” – I’ve noticed that our backyard garden does indeed require a continuous expenditure of energy. As much as we pull up the weeds and the sprouts, more will come up. As the saying goes, “Nature abhors a vacuum” (or even a teeny tiny just-cleared space).

In fact, I have come to think of our backyard as a living illustration of the second law of thermodynamics, which, loosely phrased, says that all things tend towards randomness and chaos unless there is an input of energy to counter that process.[5]

I suppose we could have stuck with the “woodsy look,” which was indeed somewhat random and chaotic. But I really do love our garden – the fungi problems and weeds and sprouts notwithstanding – and, so far, at least, I’m willing to exert the energy to keep it from reverting back to chaos. I just so love the look of the garden, all those beautiful flowers amidst the trees and the sedge, and the little birds flying happily and chirping sweetly around me, carrying gaily colored ribbons for my hair, and Bambi and Thumper and all their little forest friends … oh, wait …

I just have to stop anthropomorphizing everything. The deer and the rabbits aren’t Bambi and Thumper; they’re just deer and rabbits. And the birds aren’t my little winged friends; they’re just birds. And the vines aren’t really out to strangle me; they don’t have minds. And the mosquitoes … well, those might be out to get me.

I really do see the difference between the Disney version of our backyard and the real one, and even with all its challenges I like the real version – although I won’t hug the deer, and I will keep my DEET handy.

As for the wildlife, the animals and birds don’t seem to mind the conversion of our woodsy glen into a garden – all the more tasty flowers and plants to eat, in fact! Which brings up another “challenge” – I’ve noticed that there aren’t as many bunches of (tasty) flowers on the hydrangeas this season as in past seasons … and the petals on the coneflowers look like they’ve been nibbled … and I saw a rabbit munching on the leaves of one of the few remaining green & golds … Hey, wait a minute! Just whose garden is it, anyway?



[1] Wikipedia gives a nice description. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/June_2012_North_American_derecho

[2] See http://www.news.wisc.edu/20980 and/or http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/American_robin

[3] DEET is shorthand for N,N-Diethyl-meta-toluamide, the most common active ingredient in insect repellents. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/DEET

[4] Root sprouting is a common means of spreading in plants and trees. There are whole aspen woods, for example, that are basically all one plant – the trees are all connected beneath the ground. You can tell they’re all one plant because they all have identical markings.

[5] See http://www.allaboutscience.org/second-law-of-thermodynamics.htm



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