A few years ago, when we were living in a rather tidy Towson community, we had the happy idea of letting a portion of the back yard grow as tall grasses and wildflowers. We mowed a big circle around the wild patch, dragged a gracefully arched dead tree limb into the middle, and cut a few meandering paths through it.
At first, it only attracted the cats, who fastidiously walked the paths. But soon we noticed neighborhood children playing follow-the-leader through it. We also saw cardinals and mourning doves (who feed on ground seeds) and goldfinches (seed eaters, too). The squirrels loved to cavort on the dead limb, using it as a lookout on their way to the trees.
But alas, the birds, squirrels, children, and our own delight in watching the long-stemmed timothy hay wave in the wind, were insufficient to impress the neighborhood association. We were cited for having noxious weeds. What was to us a bird sanctuary, a reminder of the wild fields we had played in as children, was seen by tidier-minded folk only as Too Long, Not Lawn.
I am pleased to say that the trend in lawns today is firmly in our direction. It seems to have begun when ecologists took note of Rachel Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring," which warned of the dangers of chemical pollution. It got a big boost from Lady Bird Johnson's championship of wildflowers instead of mowed lawn for highway median dividers. All those cornflowers, poppies, Indian paintbrush and black-eyed Susans down the middle of Interstate 95 looked so sprightly, people started asking for them at the garden center.
Then, too, baby boomers didn't like the idea of their baby rolling on a chemically achieved, cloverless green sward, with its blades straight and even as Prussian soldiers. The sensibilities of those with a little bit of dirt to play with turned away from the XTC monochrome green lawn with a carefully planted azalea at each corner to a riot of leggy wildflowers, berry bushes, native grasses and the English look of cottage gardens.
Taking the green spaces back to fragrant, burgeoning plots full of Queen Anne's lace, butterfly bushes, chicory and scarlet trumpet vine has become a national conspiracy. Nurseries are diversifying their stock in response to public demand. A few years ago, you were lucky to find basil and oregano on a back shelf. Now you can now get five or six kinds of each, acres of wildflowers, pots of jack-in-the-pulpit and Dutchman's-breeches.
Flowers and herbs mean bees. Bees mean pollination. Pollination means diversity of plants and sturdy stock. Many varieties of plants mean many varieties of country birds and butterflies called into the lawns by the plants they love. See how it works?
Greater interest in gardens means more people sitting outside to admire them; more people interested in getting rid of mosquitoes, beetles, slugs and other pests in their Eden. Well, did you know firelies eat slugs? (But they need long grasses to survive.) That purple martins practically eat their weight in gnats and mosquitoes? (They need the long grasses, too.)
And what about those people who would call your bit of Thoreauvian tangle noxious weeds? (We now live out in the country and have no such problem.) Well, you can do as the English have done for years. Make your wild thicket look like a planned community for the birds, not an accidental bit of neglected property. Mow neatly around it, so the wild place is defined. Hang birdhouses on a central, weathered wood post. Set a birdbath amid a rich tangle of honeysuckle and blueberry bushes. Surround your long grasses with a curve of low white pickets or ornamental rocks. Plant a butterfly bush or a small cherry tree, just for the birds.
There's now a thriving small industry catering to the desires of those who would have creative wild plots. Upscale garden catalogs now carry everything from elaborate Victorian-mansion birdhouses and expensive garden fountains to vine lattices and topiary arches that look as if they have been crafted from twigs by an aged cottager somewhere in Sussex (and cost just as much as if they had been).
But you don't have to spend a lot to decorate well in the garden. Hardware and craft stores have all sorts of supplies you can put to good use. Try using twig and vine bundles from a craft store to turn a plain hardware-store birdhouse into a Black Forest fantasy. An inexpensive birdbath, topped with an unusual rock or bit of driftwood, becomes the charming center of a complex of bird bushes. Common wire tomato cages can be adapted to make a topiary vine frame.
A friend of mine fell in love with the arched white lattice garden dividers in Annapolis' Colonial gardens. So she contrived an equally graceful (and much less expensive) arched gateway for her city garden from hardware-store lattice arched with curved sections of white plastic plumbing pipe. It fences in her wild place and makes it look like a secret garden.
Birds don't need very much. Just, perhaps, a graceful dead tree limb, artfully fringed with raspberry canes and blueberry bushes. Or a free-standing fence section, covered with a climbing rose and crowned with a birdhouse. Or a birdbath, framed with waving plumes of goldenrod and milkweed.
If you're lucky, within a year you'll see the brilliant blue blur of the Eastern bluebird as she skims in to feed her young ones on your fence post. You'll hear the rat-tat-tat of the redheaded woodpecker as he picks the bugs off your trees. You'll see the bright yellow flash of the goldfinch's summer plumage, and the intoxicating flutter of the monarch butterflies, moving among the goldenrod. You'll hear the incredibly liquid, trilling song of the Carolina wren. All they need is an inviting climate. Grow it, and they will come.
For more information on establishing a wildflower garden and attracting wildlife to it, consult the following reading materials
"Noah's Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards," by Sara Stein, Houghton Mifflin Co., 1993. A humorous how-to that's also a meditation on the relationships between people, plants and animals. Specific suggestions, clear advice and an index of plants arranged by common as well as botanical name.
"Backyard Bird Habitat: Create Your Own Thriving Bird Sanctuary," by Will and Jane Curtis, the Countryman Press, Woodstock, Vt., 1988. Practical advice and detailed sections on feeders, plants, water contrivances and management of plots. Also, information about which birds come to which plants, and on the natural rhythms of the bird year.
Rodale's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Gardening and Landscaping Techniques (Chemical Free). Barbara Ellis, editor, Rodale Press, 1990. Everything you need to know about growing the plants suggested in the other books. Includes a section on container gardening for those with limited space.
"Tips for Carefree Landscapes," by Marianne Binetti, Garden Way Publishing, 1990. Unconventional advice for minimizing gardening chores. Arranged in sections in problem-and-solution style.