The Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project, Phase I

timberneck_native_plot.jpgI’m excited to announce the inauguration of the Timberneck Creek Biodiversity and Habitat Restoration Project, Phase I. Although it has also been called, more prosaically, “cleaning up my yard”, I prefer to think about it in a larger context as one small step in the goal of world domination of suburban backyards in the service of facilitating native wildlife (of all sizes), battling the spread of invasive species, and promoting truth, justice and the American way generally.

So far, the project has one unpaid employee (me), though I have received additional in-kind matching support from Liz, who has agreed to free a portion of my time that would otherwise be devoted to folding laundry so that I can hack weeds and grub around in the dirt instead.


A bit of background may be in order here.  In 1995 we bought this house, a modest Virginia farmhouse built in 1920, on 1.6 acres of land along Timberneck Creek, a tidal creek bordered by salt marsh cordgrass and marsh elder bushes.  It is by general agreement a beautiful spot, which explains why we bought the place despite the absence of a driveway, a stove, or central heat and air conditioning, a palpable breeze around the edges of the closed windows in winter, and an appalling abundance of shed snake skins in the attic.

But I digress. The place had been bush-hogged shortly before we saw it, doubtless to show off the panoramic view of the adjacent creek to best effect, but over the ensuing years, the exuberant vegetation of the area had sprouted up again with remarkable vigor.  A few years ago the scales fell from my eyes and I realized that we could not even see the water any more — in its place, our panorama had become deepest darkest jungle.  This was partly due to strong recruitment of sassafras trees, which can easily grow 2-3 feet in a year in this neck o’ the woods, but was primarily the fault of the diabolical duo of privet, an infernal invasive alien shrub, and greenbrier.  Greenbrier is a native vine that resembles barbed wire except that it’s alive. It seems to prefer the company of privet, and grows with it in impenetrable thickets.

This would not do.

The first campaign

old_maple_man.jpgI have always aimed to maximize native diversity on the property.  Over the years I had planted various trees and shrubs, and ripped out bits of greenbrier and privet here and there, mostly haphazardly.  Sought out, for example, the only sweetgum on the property and cleared the vines and surrounding saplings to give it a little breathing room.

But a couple years ago I decided to get serious.  I declared war on the jungle and went at it with hedge clippers and a bowsaw, which required no fossil fuel, exposed me to fresh air (as well as thorns and the occasional attack by angry yellowjackets trampled underfoot), and most importantly, allowed me to be selective, axing the bad guys and nurturing the good, such as little volunteer dogwoods.  I have now almost eliminated privet from most of the property and cleared out a substantial part of the greenbrier.  We can now see the sunshine glinting off the little waves on the creek, and the leaves of trees (as opposed to solid jungle) fluttering in the breeze.  The azaleas are beautiful in spring.  The dogwoods and redbuds have reached the age where they are beginning to produce big masses of flowers.  Ma and Pa can sit on the porch and survey our domain with a lemonade.  Or, more often, a martini.

Back to the future

The next phase began after I chanced on a piece about Doug Tallamy’s book Bringing Nature Home in the NY Times (see my previous post).  I bought the book and read it.  I cannot say enough about this book — it fundamentally changed the way I think about my yard specifically, and American suburbia generally.  Here at last is something of substance — something practical — that we as individuals can do to stem the receding tide of biodiversity where we live.  And by becoming intimate with the plants and creatures and ecosystems to which we are connected, we gain a lot more besides.  I enthusiastically recommend the book to any homeowner, gardener, educator, or for that matter anyone simply interested in the natural history of their surroundings (albeit the details are focused on the mid-Atlantic region of the USA).

The basic premise of the book is that we should actively promote vegetation native to our particular areas because it supports native (beneficial) insects, which in turn support a variety of native wildilfe.  In contrast, the introduced plants that have escaped and gone feral all over the place are mostly (with exceptions, of course) less hospitable to native wildlife because they lack a shared evolutionary history.

sensitive_fern.jpgShortly after I began reading the book, I took my weathered old green clothbound copy of A Field Guide to Wildflowers of Northeastern and North-Central North America and went out into the yard.  I have always been perversely proud of the fact that there are no more than perhaps a dozen shoots of grass in my yard.  The rest is a motley meadow of various wildflowers (the polite term for weeds).  But I was disturbed to find, as I looked up one plant after another, that virtually every plant in my lawn was an alien.  The problem, according to Tallamy, is that many such weeds do not support insect herbivores, and thus their production is not transferred up the food chain to bluebirds and warblers and frogs and box turtles and what not.  And that’s the lawn.  Then there is the ground cover under those trees where I had pulled out all the privet and greenbrier.  It’s mostly covered now by a tangle of alien honeysuckle.

I resolved then and there to transform our property into a model of structurally complex, diverse native vegetation explicitly designed to support native wildlife.

So: first, the jungly understory.  The challenge here is what to use for a native groundcover.  Two falls ago, I planted a bunch of azaleas on the site of the former privet thicket by the driveway (turning up two burrowing worm snakes in the process, much to 9-year-old Conor’s delight).  The interstices have since filled in with honeysuckle and various fast-growing (alien) annuals.  This is the spot shown in the photo at top right.  I started ripping this stuff out, which was relatively easy.  By a happy coincidence, just as I was cogitating on all this, I heard that the local chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society was having a sale nearby. So I bought a bunch of stuff.  For ground cover in this shady spot, I planted several “sensitive ferns” (Onoclea sensibilis, above left), which are supposed to spread and form colonies.

mayapples.jpgIn another part of this shady area I planted several mayapples (Podophyllum peltatum, at right in pots), which are also supposed to form colonies, and of which I have very fond evocative memories from high school days backpacking in the Appalachians, where one periodically sees big swaths of them among the trees.

Interspersed among the azaleas in here I planted fern-leaf bleeding hearts (which flowered a few days later!) and various other species. You get the picture.

Bring in the bugs

By this time I was on a roll.  The following weekend (last), on my way back from EarthFest, I returned to the VNPS sale and bought another bunch of native plants.  These are, primarily, for a butterfly garden, which is something I have always wanted to have. I came home and dug out a square yard or so of turfy “grass” (and alien weeds) at the corner of our frontwalk and planted ’em all. Last summer we bought a butterfly bush which indeed attracted a lot of butterflies, then senesced, after which we left it to fend for itself through the winter in a pot on the patio.  It’s still hanging in there, so I planted that in the middle of the butterfly patch.  Ditto for some little sprouts of black-eyed Susan in another feral pot.

greenman.jpgIt rained long and generously after both planting episodes, which I take to be a favorable omen.  Everyone appears to be thriving. Last night, as we came home in the dark after Conor’s baseball game, there was another favorable omen: I heard the call of the great horned owl that I had not heard around here for perhaps a year.

Stay tuned for Phase II.

About Emmett Duffy

I am a Natural Patriot and an ecologist with expertise in biodiversity and its importance to human society. My day job is Professor of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
This entry was posted in Biodiversity, Biophilia, Sustainability, Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The Timberneck Biodiversity Restoration Project, Phase I

  1. tripp says:

    This is so cool! I can’t wait until the next time I come down (June, I guess), so we can go out and we can talk about (and I can learn about) all the native plants you have (yes, my geek is showing)…since I really have no idea what is native and what is not.

    I didn’t realize butterfly bushes were native, I don’t feel as bad having them around. They typically senesce somewhat in the winter (although I’m used to NY and Maryland b-bushes). We always wack the heck out of it in late fall, and it comes back with a vengence come spring. Thanks for the update on Phase I.

    p.s. Man, your human verifier is a bit more involved than most…typing in the two words isn’t enough?

  2. Emmett Duffy says:

    You’re gonna dig it Tripp. We’re starting slowly but I get more ideas about this every day. I’ve got a bat box that’s been gathering dust in my attic, which needs to go up. And what I’m really keen on doing in the next year or so is putting in a small pond — I hear at least two species of frogs/toads calling around here at night so I’m pretty sure that “if you build it, they will come.”

    Actually, butterflybush is not native, but I figured – what the heck – we already have it growing, and they don’t seem to be a big problem escaping from cultivation, and butterflies definitely love it.

    You’d be surprised how much crap gets through the human verifier, even as cumbersome as it is. Fortunately, most (not all) of it is caught and put into the moderation queue. You’d think people had something better to do all day . . .

  3. Sarah says:

    Geez, and to think I was proud of myself for finally getting around to repotting two of my three house plants today. You shame me, Emmett.

  4. Emmett,

    This is fantastic. Good for you–definitely making the nature around you sacred.

    You should read Wendell Berry’s The Long-Legged House. It is very similar to what you are doing…and it is absolutely breathtaking.

  5. Emmett Duffy says:

    Thanks for the comments and for the lead on the book, Justin. I really admire Wendell Berry (see here, for example) and look forward to reading it.

  6. Patti says:

    With the large trees you have, try to find plans to build your own box/house for flying squirrels. A friend gave me one a few years ago and only days after hanging it on an oak tree in our back yard (NoVA) we had a resident squirrel.

  7. Damn it, Emmett – now Linda is going to pester me endlessly about doing something similar on our property. But we’ve got 5 acres – I’ll have no time at all for anything else.
    Seriously, what you are doing sounds great! Keep it up and then come tend to my place, will you…

  8. Emmett Duffy says:

    Stephen, after I make all my mistakes here I’ll come over and give you advice – FREE! That is, if I can hang on to my day job through it all.

    And Patti, I am definitely interested in attracting flying squirrels, and bats too. I will have to look into some houses for them.