There is a different way of looking at a ditch. My yard has 4 ditches and is graded on one side to drain the property quickly
of any standing water during the rainy season. I first looked at the front 2 ditches, actually one separated by the driveway,
as an edge habitat for animals. After several years of removing cogon grass and primrose willow (both invasives), we finally
decided to keep these ditches mowed, even though some nice things also grew up there. They are now simply drainage ditches.
The other 2 ditches are much older, once bordering an agricultural field, perhaps a hundred years ago. There are laurel
oaks growing along the sides all the way across the middle of my yard and separating the field from the house. One of these
oaks is the largest of 77 original trees (original to 3 years ago when we moved here). These ditches have matured into wonderful
animal habitats since we quit mowing. The next door neighbor has the same 4 ditches. Ours were meant to drain across his yard
into a deeper drainage ditch, dug in the 1970s when the Sundance community was developed. His ditch is still a ditch, whereas
mine is a swale and a seasonal wetland. We discovered there is no need to drain the yard quickly, because the house and the
driveway stay high and dry, while the low areas near these ditches stay covered with water for several days or weeks depending
on the amount of rain. His ditch is scraped clean so that soil is washed away with every hard rain. The only thing that grows
is the bromiliads that he planted along the sides. Even the natural mulch of laurel oak leaves is raked clean and bagged for
the landfill. The bromiliads, though pretty, are stark and unnatural sticking out there by themselves.
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Stop, stop, stop using weed whackers! Our yards are not our living rooms -but the living areas for insects and birds
and all kinds of wildlife. This compulsion to clean up and manicure our yards has cost the lives of countless creatures. Lest
you think I have gone completely radical, read "Fences: Let'em Grow" by William M. Giuliano, an IFAS publication.
He starts with the question: "What has happened to farmland wildlife populations?" Though there are "many
factors," he describes "one of the most important" reasons for declining wildlife in Florida as what has happened
to fences and fencerows: "Today, most fences in agricultural lands are "clean," devoid of any vegetation."
The same is true now in our yards. Since more efficient and less expensive weed whackers and herbicides are available to
everyone, every weed and every blade of grass can be "cleaned up;" so no one can call our yards "messy."
My wildlife yard is an example of the value of leaf litter, brush piles, and unmowed areas. I can look out any window
or sit on my back porch and see things moving: lizards, squirrels, insects, butterflies, birds -sometimes even gopher tortoises,
snakes, rabbits- and those are just the day movers. At night, while walking the dogs we see owls, bats, fireflies, and hear
small mammals moving in the brush. We leave mushrooms, fungus, ants, spiders, wasps -all kinds of life to feed other kinds
of life. I do protect myself from mosquitoes, but all the other creatures have no interest in me. We have fewer intruders
while surrounded by all this life, than we did in our manicured neighborhood. With little outside for them in such a neighborhood,
creatures will wander inside the house more often. We do have to mow, but we can leave more and more areas of bushes, native
grasses, ground covers, and trees with their natural leaf mulch.
One weekend afternoon, my husband and I watched a pileated woodpecker pair pecking and picking insects out of the leaf
litter and the brush pile in our backyard. There was enough food for them to work steadily for several hours. What a pleasure
it was to watch them. No, we didn't get very good pictures through the screen and didn't want to disturb them. I have six
brush piles in the two acres. In areas of undisturbed soil, the native vines such as smilax, Virginia creeper, Carolina Jessamine,
and corky-stemmed passion vine are starting to grow over the brush piles. In what used to be a farm field, I had to plant
wild aster vine and coral honeysuckle. In one brush pile, I see Carolina wrens (just this morning), as well as eastern indigo
snakes and ring necks. Another seems to be the province of the cardinals, another with some bigger branch openings of marsh
rabbits, and another of fritillary butterflies.
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Beautyberry in my yard
My swale is a remarkable place to explore. The list of things that grow there is long and diverse, perhaps because, unlike
the ruderal site of the joining field, it remained undisturbed except for mowing for many years. The leaf mulch makes it a
rich habitat and feeding ground for insects, small mammals, and the red shouldered hawk that I saw land in there just yesterday.
At one end is a Carolina willow and 3 or 4 beautiful royal ferns. Blue flag iris grows along the side as well as Virginia
Creeper, Smilax, blackberry, and saw palmetto. Along the bank grows wild coffee, beautyberry, and baby sabal palms. I do have
to pull out an occasional brazilian pepper, but otherwise all that grows is healthy and contributes to the seasonal wetland
environment. As often as we can, we need to return our own piece of Florida into a healthy environment for wildlife.
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Cork-stem passion vine
We have fence rows that join our neighbors on both sides. We're letting the natural stuff grow on the side of the privacy
fence, such as groundsel or salt bush, lantana, corky-stem passion vine, sow thistle, tassel flower, and walters viburnam
that we planted. The other side is a sweet viburnam hedge, an exotic that hairstreak butterflies like (planted by the former
neighbor). I do not mow too close to the natural hedge (they don't shave it, thankfully), leaving a bahia grass border there.
The IFAS article about fencerows on agricultural lands can also be applied to our yards. We can educate about the benefit
of wildlife corridors along fences and between yards in order to improve the ecology of Florida. Giuliano says: "Fencerows
are essential for at least 15-20 vertebrate species and preferred habitats for more than 74 more. The type of vegetation and
the width of a fencerow will affect what species use it.” Even leaving a fringe of grass around a tree in our yard can
be beneficial" to the tree and to the environment.
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