A blog about a first-time house owner learning to maintain his backyard, and thoughts about nature, science, history, and life.

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Saturday, September 29, 2012


Look around.

Look around.  See the world.  You want to build.
Look around.  Build the world.  You want to see.

Look around.

Yard work plans 9/29

It looks like I don't need to mow today, and there aren't enough leaves down to make raking worthwhile, so I'll be working on clearing out the brush next to the garden.  Deliberating on whether to take the time to move some junk to the pile of eyesore or just leave it in place for now.  Happy Saturday!

Friday, September 28, 2012


When I finally got around to mowing the lawn this past Sunday, I noticed a problem.  My lawn was getting torn up.  There were clods of grass that had been ripped out of the ground, as if a golfer had launched a shot from the fairway.  I attributed this to the groundhog, because my dad had similar problems with a groundhog in his yard.

But then I kept mowing.  I noticed that even though it was after 5 pm, and it hadn’t rained since early in the morning, the soil was still wet.  As I pivoted the lawnmower to turn it around, I saw the REAL problem...me.   I was pivoting the mower too slowly and it was ripping into the grass.  It wasn’t the groundhog’s fault, and it wasn’t the lawnmower’s fault.  It was my fault.  Problem solved.

So here’s my first yard maintenance top tip: Be gentle on the grass.

Fundamental Attribution Error

There are some things I’ve done- that some people don’t know about - that would appall people, you know.  There are some things I’ve done - that some people don’t know about – that would amaze people...I know!  Knowledge is power…power to decide.  Understanding is power…power to love.  And everything I’ve done - and everything I will do – is water…...under the bridge.

Thursday, September 27, 2012


There are two ways to get from the lawn to the creek.  There’s the long trail, which winds its way around the fringes of the wildflower patch.  Then there’s the shortcut trail, a mown straight shot from the lawn toward the north-northeast corner of the property.  Then again, the shortest route would be to emulate the deer, bound straight through the wildflowers, and try not to get stuck.  

I wouldn’t want to take the long trail barefoot.  It gets muddy, and there are scattered shards of glass left by someone, probably years ago.  It would be a pain to clean up.  Because it’s not the shortcut trail, the long trail is the scenic route, so I guess it inevitably requires scenery…there’s refuse along the long trail.  I found my first brick hiding in the woods next to it.  I also saw my first snake there…a long, old chain that made me feel like a conjuror, pulling up its coils from its resting ground in and under the soil.  I took the brick and the chain and put them on my slowly growing pile of eyesore near the fringe of the yard.  I’m sure I’ll find more stuff of interest along the long trail over time and add it to the pile, too.

I don’t take the shortcut trail often.   And when I take it, I take my time, because there’s a big log smack dab in the middle of it.  It’s like the trail’s speed bump, reminding me to take my time getting from one end to the other.  And, besides, the shortcut trail isn’t really a shortcut to the creek.  Sure, it takes me to the edge of the bowl that looks down on the creek, but if I want to get straight to the dock, as I said, I’d have to plow through the wildflowers, and try not to get stuck.  

The deer have their own trails.  The most worn one is a zigzag path from the western side of the lawn into a neighbor’s yard, behind the government property.  This must be their shortcut trail.  But why do deer need a shortcut trail, when they have no natural reason to hurry?  

Maybe it’s an escape route.  The deer like to stand on the lawn and graze on the grass.  They’ll slowly work their way through the lawn, eating the wildflowers.   The two fawns, I noticed one morning, like to frolic in the wildflower patch, somehow avoiding the thorny plants.  But sometimes, they see me staring out through the sliding glass door window; I don’t know how. I don’t see much when I look inside from out there.  But if I do something from inside the living room to give them a start, they get going.

Besides the deer, there’s a groundhog, the next biggest permanent resident on my property to me, and he’s got tenure.  He lives under the shed, but I only see him when he’s in the lawn, and he only sees me just before he sprints back home.  I imagine he spends a good bit of time in the garden.  Maybe I should even call it HIS garden, because he’s probably tended it more than anyone has in years.  Though I see parts of the lawn that are torn up, I don’t think HE’s the one doing it (that’s another story for another day), but he must be eating something, and the garden’s the most likely candidate.   At some point, it’s likely that people grew food there, and since then, I’m sure the groundhog’s done all he can to keep his favorite meals coming.  So as I decide what to do with the garden, I guess I have to keep my tenant in mind.  I probably need to find a way to keep the meals coming so he doesn’t tear up the lawn.

There’s a path within the garden.  It’s overgrown, so I can’t tell what its purpose is, but I suspect that it lies between what used to be flower beds.  There are signs of disruption…places, for example, where I can see that the deer have stopped for a snack.  The garden itself looks like a wave…it’s tall with thorny plants that bow over into the lawn at the end nearest the shed, but at the far end, the garden is almost grassy.   In between, there are plants that I see nowhere else on the property.  I imagine that these might be some of the groundhog’s favorite snacks…if he is smart enough to eat the stems but not the roots.  

There’s also a shortcut path connecting the long trail to a neighbor’s yard.  I don’t know why, or how long, this neighbor exit ramp has been there.  Without the ramp, it would be hard to go over, say hi, and shake the neighbor’s hand.  But it is there, so I mowed it one time.  I still haven’t met that neighbor, though.

I don’t have to mow the paths often.  Surprisingly, it’s the more well-traveled (since I’ve been here at least) long trail that requires the most frequent mowing.  There are clumps of grass that grow quickly, and it’s annoying to trim grass by hand.  It’s also annoying to mow the long trail because it has twists and turns, and my mower was made for straight lines. Some of the roads around here (well, one, at least) have snowplow turnarounds…I need to make room for a lawnmower turnaround.

I’ve only mowed the shortcut path once, and only of half of it at that.  Of course, I mowed the half that starts in the lawn, and left the half that ends in the woods alone.  I don’t see much difference.  Though the shortcut trail is a reverse mohawk of brilliant green amidst the wildflower patch, it’s not grass; it’s short, stubby, weedy stuff.  Like most things in my yard, I don’t know what it’s really called, so I just describe it the best I can and then somehow you get the picture.  I hope.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012


That stick isn’t in my yard.  There is only so much ground that I’m charged with taking care of, and where that ground ends is now marked by little pink flags and ribbons left by the surveyor.
My yard isn’t rectangular.  The front of the property is a straight line, and it borders the road.   In the back, the creek forms the boundary.  So, I suppose, when the creek is low, I own just a little bit more land, and when the creek is high, I own just a little bit less.  The dock sits over the creek, of course, so it’s like my own extension of my property floating in the air.  In a way, I’ve circumvented the boundary by using the third dimension.  The creek is in the middle of a bend when it comes alongside my property, which, I think, will be interesting for my contemplation of flash flooding.  Curves cause acceleration, and acceleration causes force.  I worry that this may make the dock especially vulnerable to being washed away.  You can see lots of evidence of scouring in the slope that borders the creek.   My backyard is ever so slowly shrinking.
The sides of my land are marked by the pink flags and ribbons, and though they all form straight lines, they form a bit of a jigsaw puzzle.  The southwest side of the property, apparently, is zig zaggy because of the way the land was bought and sold; my property extends into what should be my neighbor’s backyard.  The northeast side of the property, adjoined by a government building with its own ground, has a little zig where my well is located.
There are also the boundaries between where I live and where nature lives.  There’s the house.  You don’t normally think of a house as a boundary, and the couple of worms that have found their way inside since I moved here certainly haven’t.  Then there is the screened front porch fronted by a worn welcome mat, where equally tired leaves are beginning to accumulate with the changing of the seasons.
There are boundaries within my yard as well.  Most obviously, there’s the fence around the garden.  There’s the edge of the yard, where it meets the wildflowers, the thorny plants, and the bare ground surrounding the trees.  There are boundaries between the wildflowers and the bare ground surrounding the trees.  There are boundaries between tree trunks and the soil.  Between natural and manmade things.
You know, I’m really talking about two types of boundaries.  There are interfaces – like between the lawn and the house, between the fence surrounding the garden and the thorny plants.  But there are also those boundaries without interfaces – like the ones marked by the pink flags - and these are the ones I’ll call boundaries for the rest of the post.  Boundaries are the stuff that maps are made of: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas…  But interfaces are like oil and water.  They can move over time.  The creek swells with rainwater.  The thorny plants grow both inside and outside the garden’s fence.
There are boundaries in time, too.  We’ve recently passed the autumnal equinox – the day when everywhere on Earth sees equal daylight and night – the day when the Sun skirts the horizon at the North and South Poles.  Now my nights are longer than my days, and this will continue for about another six months.  This, of course, affects my ability to manage my lawn, as the sun has nearly set by the time I get home.  
There are also things that happen over longer time periods.  In my yard, it’s the changes in the microhabitats.   The garden didn’t get overgrown overnight.   The patches of wildflowers weren’t always there.  At one point, this land was forest, looking not at all like my current tiny patch of forest, which has been turned into a branch collecting ground.  
And I have to decide how to manage these places going forward.  Do I want to replace the patches of thorny plants with wildflowers?  Right now my property is a bit like a farm, with “crops” in different places: the garden, the wildflowers, the “forest”.  Do I want to maintain that, or do I want something a bit more like the way things would be in nature?
Then there’s the garden.  It’s a fenced-off area not quite in the middle of the yard, but nearer to the house.  I could take the fence out, clear the overgrowth, and replace it with grass.  But then I would have more to mow.  I could leave the fence, clean it up, and put some real kind of garden there.  But I’m not much of a gardener.  So the garden is another kind of boundary - a boundary in my mind, between the parts of my property I can easily imagine how to manage, and the parts that I cannot.  So naturally, the garden is the place where I’ll start my first big project.  Once I figure out what to do with it.
Just as the weeds have grown up along the interface of the garden fence, what I put on the grass works its way down through the soil’s interstices.  I’m not sure whether to use fertilizer, but I’m sure not to use pesticide, because my house uses well water, and the well is on my property.  But even if the well weren’t on my property, I wouldn’t want to use pesticide or fertilizer.  The well draws water from the aquifer under my land.  I don’t want to drink pesticide or fertilizer, and I don’t want anyone else to have to drink pesticide or fertilizer.
The nice thing about my yard’s boundaries is that they simplify things.  If I want, I can take all of the thorny plants out of the wildflower patches, and all of the wildflowers out of the thorny plant patches.  I know that I’m responsible for this stick here, but not that stick there.  I am master of my own domain.