Heron Meadows, Mecosta, MI
Featured Site Created By DiYoung
Gardening is all about trial and error–as this property owner reminds us. As we learn new skills, acquire more information, and get our hands dirty in our landscapes, we gain a better sense of our long-term vision and how to tackle smaller tasks to accomplish our bigger goals. After sixteen years of immense hard work, this property owner is not afraid to put the safety and well-being of her resident wildlife before all else. The result is a gorgeous three acre property that inspired some of our staff to create a list of plants they want to add to their gardens this spring.
Eco-Region: Laurentian Mixed Forest Province
Planting Zone: 5b
What work has been done to improve this site for birds and other wildlife? How long did it take?
What sold me on the property 16 years ago was the setting, more than the house. The house was small enough to be in my price range, new enough that I could maintain it when I was single, and sited with a deck that overlooks the river and yard on 2 1/2 sides. Most of the windows are also large, built by the previous owner with the intent of being able to view the natural surroundings. Perfect for my tastes!
The previous owners had, unfortunately, died so that I couldn’t learn their goals, but I knew from the realtor, his niece, that the man loved to fish. The stream was a registered trout stream and he had obviously left habitat along the river edges to encourage fishing holes and cool, shady areas for fish. As I moved in during a very cold, snowy January, I spent the first winter tromping around the 5-6 acre property just observing the birds and trying to identify what shrubs and trees I had with a field guide of Eastern Forests. I occasionally spotted a mink or a group of deer crossing near the river. The first couple of years were spent mostly assessing what was present, studying light patterns in various parts of the yard to know what types of plants would accept the combinations of sun and shade, dry, sandy slopes or low, wet boggy areas, and poring over plant catalogues to learn plant requirements.
I knew there were artesian springs, a neighboring pond, as well as the river, all reliable water sources. I knew that I wanted the site to remain as natural as possible; because of the river and wildlife, I did not want to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or weed killers. I had grown up on a Michigan farm not far from where I live now and I can remember the wildlife there both before DDT was widely used and how it changed as my dad used it on crops. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, which I read during college, perfectly described what I had observed in the large maple tree outside my bedroom window growing up. We once had plenty of Ring-necked Pheasants, Bobolinks, Meadowlarks, Killdeers on the farm when I was a child and by the time I was ready for college, most were gone. I knew that I wanted to co-exist with the species here, even if it meant the mosquitoes would drive me out of the lower parts of the yard by dusk. The tree bats, swallows, and other birds do their part to keep down the annoying insects when we want to sit out on the deck at night; and, we make sure to light plenty of insect repellent candles or torches. (I would never own one of those commercial bug-zappers, they destroy the ambience of outdoor living.)
Nearly five acres were committed to traditional lawn when I purchased the place and I decided I did not want to have to maintain that much lawn. I spent the first hot summer mowing the whole thing with a push mower! It took most of my summer (I was a school teacher, so fortunately I had time in summer to devote to the yard) just maintaining the lawn and digging up the turf to create foundation beds around the house perimeter and along the rock walls that held back the slopes for the walkout basement level. My first big ticket purchase that fall was a lawn tractor mower.
By the first spring, I knew that the river could become a seasonal flood-zone. By the second spring, I had a good idea of all the native, non-native, and invasive species I was dealing with and in my head I had a five-year plan for further landscaping the yard. I knew that the yard lacked trees that provided good autumn colors–box elders (Acer negundo) in Michigan go from green to dead brown leaves laying on the ground. Many of the trees were old growth, some were dead or dying elms, box elders or poplars. Many of them were leaning more and more each year due to erosional flooding. My young neighbor joked with me that if he owned my property, he would just clear-cut the whole place and start over. Looking back, I sometimes wish I had taken that advice.
There were plenty of “weak trees,” all right! The first summer, a bad windstorm took out a huge weeping willow on the small island. My dad gave me his old chain saw for trimming brush and dead branches after he cut up the willow into manageable lengths. My adult children gave me a brush/weed trimmer for Christmas to do the upkeep along the river banks where I wanted a more “park-like setting” than an impassable jungle. By then I had discovered that my river was a stop on the local deer highway that ran through woods to the south and north of my property and that I also shared my homestead with rabbits, chipmunks, squirrels, and many moles.
The small meadow, which the previous owner had brush-hogged, clearing out a native willow swamp, was home to many mice if I didn’t keep the lawn mowed low enough. Even with a riding mower, it still took about 14 hours to mow the entire lawn weekly in the summer, and parts of the meadow remained wet all year except the month of August, so I dreamed of creating a wildflower meadow, part dry, part wet, but keeping the boundaries and paths mowed so that it wouldn’t completely revert to tangled brush. I wanted picturesque, long views from both the house and other points in the yard, but I also wanted to create habitats acceptable to the birds and other wildlife that came to my stream, some to visit infrequently, others that I was learning had burrows or brush piles on my land as their homes.
My intent had been to cut down and burn the “unsightly” dead trees, until I began to recognize how many species of woodpeckers were using the snags. I had learned there were plenty of insects in my trees, too, such as Box Elder bugs, borers, etc., and so I began to encourage the woodpeckers to stick around by leaving wind-downed dead tree branches in the edge woods, not cutting down dead snags, and supplementing their winter diet with suet, peanut butter and seed feeders. I put up nyjer seed tube feeders for the goldfinches that lived here; a large tray feeder was attached near a kitchen window that overlooked the deck, and another mixed birdseed feeder was suspended from a tree with a pulley system to keep the local raccoons and squirrels out of it. After raccoons became a nuisance (one mama moved into my neighbor’s abandoned shed a few feet from my raised vegetable beds and compost bins and promptly raised a litter of 5 babies!), I stopped feeding birds year round, but only in winter and spring nesting seasons, to avoid attracting pest rodents and too many raccoons and began to keep hummingbird nectar feeders in places the raccoons couldn’t reach. They like sugar water, too, if they can get to it!
When my new sweetheart first saw all the yard work there was to do, he happily put his arm around my shoulder and grinned, “Ah, job security!” He readily took over the duties of chainsaw and lawn mowing, leaving me free to weed, plan landscaping, and plant. Raised in the city, he claims not to know a weed from a flower, but I suspect he just dislikes weeding.
Gradually, my husband and I have learned to encourage the fish and frogs by not removing too many overhanging branches or broken logs along the river’s edge and we let nature take its own course, only correcting with human interference when we spot invasive or poisonous weeds, or relocating tree seedlings when the birds have “planted” them in the wrong place, like under the deck. I leave seed heads on perennials over winter that the birds eat, like echinaceas, and have planted plenty of nectar-producing perennials for birds and pollinators. I’ve learned from both my own observations and from reading many gardening books that diversity of plants and habitats increases diversity of bird, amphibian and mammal species, and the more of them there are, the better-balanced the ecosystem becomes. I’ve tried to leave pest outbreaks alone, as other species usually do eventually balance the numbers. However, I do spend some time early mornings before the dew goes off every summer hand-picking Japanese beetles, rose chafers, and invasive stink bugs and drowning them in a plastic Folger’s jug of soapy water whenever I spot them ravaging my English roses or cherry tree leaves.
One of the problems I have encountered, is that there are many invasives on our property. Along the river, the bulk of the shrubs are non-native honeysuckles, which I plan to gradually eradicate and replace. I have been pleased to find American highbush cranberry (Viburnum trilobum), silky (Cornus amomum), gray (Cornus racemosa) red osier dogwoods (Cornus sericea), and native elderberry. There is also sumac, which lights up with color in autumn. There are wild roses, but unfortunately they are invasive multi-flower rose, so I plan to replace those with natives. I have planted a variety of Sambucus, Viburnums, rhododendrons and azaleas, with varying degrees of success. The old trees have wild fox grape (Vitis labrusca) vines and five-leaf ivy climbing them, good habitat for the shy sparrows and warblers that return each spring. We manage those vines somewhat so that they don’t pull down the aging trees completely, while leaving food and cover for the birds. Another problem is that, when the natural river floods in spring snow-melts or heavy summer thunderstorms, the power of water is a force than can erode human-planned landscapes. We’ve had record floods in recent years which covered much of the lower parts of the yard. And, unlike man-made streams or ponds, the water levels can vary a great deal. The river and I have needed to get to know each other and I’ve made peace with what I can and cannot successfully plant along its banks.
I have planted a few trees, both for fruit for human and bird consumption, as well as autumn color. We have four ancient apple trees (which a neighbor who reached age 99 told me were never planted by humans), as well as young apple, crabapple, cherry, peach, and pear trees that have been planted in the past 15 years. I’ve added some red maples (Acer rubrum) that can tolerate the wetter parts of the yard and a red oak (Quercus coccinea), and plan to add some more trees for acorns and nuts, since there is a large flock of wild turkeys in the area. Our neighbors to the north feed them corn, but they roost in the tall white pines across the road from us and come down into our yard to drink from the river and to eat grubs from our lawn. Sometimes the turkeys visit under our bird feeders for seeds the birds have dropped, and have been known to fly up into the old apple trees in winter to eat the dried fruit we couldn’t reach.
I originally had a five-year plan, but circumstances and energy levels change with age, and I’ve learned that many things I did early on were not the best choices of plants for the soil or light, or were plants that attracted the deer where I didn’t want them eaten. When it comes to bulbs, I’ve given up on crocus and tulips, between the deer, voles and squirrels, and plant a couple hundred daffodils each year, which the mammals ignore. We’ve had to invest in fencing to keep deer away from young seedling trees and shrubs, particularly those meant to feed humans, and after hauling hundreds of feet of water hose to water in plants, I’ve realized that to maintain gardens or woodlands any distance from the house, they need to be filled with native plants, and not those that are deer candy. So my original five-year plan is now more like a 25-year plan, but done more intelligently as I’ve learned more about the ecosystem. I still want to add more shrub and tree layers along the yard perimeters and river edges and complete the wildflower/pollinator meadow in stages. I plan to leave sunny areas to expand food plots for fruits and vegetables.
What are some successes that you've seen since the improvements were made? (alternatively, "What are you most proud of, or excited to share about this site?")
I’ve learned to use the dropped leaves as both weed-barrier, mulch, and compost. I have two four-foot diameter compost bins for yard waste and vegetable food scraps and could use two or three times more just to feed my plantings. I’ve also learned a lot about what plants make acceptable groundcovers and which ones do not. And I’m continually seeking out more native plants that attract beneficial insects, support pollinators, and birds. So, both by educating myself and by trial and error, I know that I’ll have plenty to keep me excited to garden (without killing myself with work) well into my 100’s, if I live that long. As I’ve learned more, I/we spend less time watering and spreading hardwood mulch, less time mowing, plant more symbiotic plant pairings that help each other, and spend more time observing, noticing and thinking about what works well and which plant needs to be moved to a better location.
I’ve been happy to see new species that I didn’t see the first couple of years here. We’ve attracted Pileated Woodpeckers, Baltimore Orioles, Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, the occasional migrating Indigo Bunting, bluebird, and frequently see Great Blue Herons, as we live near a nesting area. A pair of Mallard ducks visits each spring, and kingfishers now regularly chatter along the river. Last spring, we saw Sand Hill Cranes for the first time here. Before, I had only seen them in the Upper Peninsula. I’ve also had a close encounter with a baby fawn and looked up to see his mother doe watching me through the shrubbery only a few feet away on the other bank of the river. The robins and chickadees will hardly move when I come near, as though they know I’m not harmful. In fact, the robins that come back each spring will hang out close by when I’m weeding in the garden beds, knowing that if I dig out a grub, I will toss it to them.
I get a kick out of flocks of Canada geese every time they fly over. They don’t stay on our immediate property, but mild winters mean they often stay locally for much of fall and winter. Since we’ve come to see Pileated Woodpeckers regularly, that’s been special. I remember looking at the Audubon bird book as a child and being fascinated by the size of those birds. Their call in the woods is always exciting. We also enjoy the flash of blue and the chatter of kingfishers as they zoom along the river. And whenever the local turkey flock comes to visit, it’s always fun to watch their behaviors. We also enjoy the occasional visits of Great Blue Herons as they quietly wade along the river, fishing. When they fly in or out, their wingspan shadows remind me of how their prehistoric ancestors must have looked. And it was a high point the day I was quietly weeding in the yard and a spotted baby fawn walked up right behind me and bleated, looking for his mom. It was a very close encounter.
Are there any tough decisions that had to be made regarding its management? How were they handled?
The main issue has been the deer. We didn’t feel we could afford to fence the entire yard, and we enjoy seeing them stop by at the river as they pass through. But we’ve had a couple of harsh winters and springs that forced the deer to come up into parts of the yard where they ravaged valuable shrubs, apple trees, etc. I’ve tried to plant things that encourage them to browse along the property boundary near the river away from the foundation plantings near the house. The problem is, our neighbors have a loud dog that barks when it sees them, which means they tend to re-route their path closer to the off-limit plants. That has forced me to spend lots on deer deterrent sprays (which don’t work well), or to place physical barriers around plantings (expensive). I’ve learned a great deal about what plants are “deer-resistant,” and do interplant those with more desired plantings. What I’ve learned is a deer will chew on anything if it is hungry enough, which means most damage to shrubs and trees occurs in March, sometimes after the snow has melted, but before grasses and other deer browse have leafed out. But we do have an overpopulation of deer in Michigan, without enough of the traditional large carnivores (wolves, coyotes, human hunters) to balance the herd. I’ve had to learn to co-exist and check woody plants regularly, pruners in hand, to clean up ragged damage done by deer to protect plants from disease or poor branch angles caused by them.
The second issue involves the river. We love having the river and a small natural waterfall on the site. We’re just downstream from where there used to be a working sawmill, so there is quite a bit of fall in elevation across the property from north to southeast. This means we enjoy the sound of rushing water and the wildlife it attracts, but it also means erosion. The island has changed shape from a plump kidney bean to a narrow-necked crookneck squash in 16 years. That means we seasonally have to decide how much to intervene in reinforcing the rocks in the waterfall, how much we buttress the river curves where water erodes, especially near the tractor bridge, and how much we fill in sinkholes in the island and banks where water has cut out underneath. Do we trap muskrats that dig into the banks, when we know they invite bank erosion during high water? Do we spray for mosquitos to avoid the chance of contracting West Nile virus? There have been cases in southern counties of our state. What about Zika if that virus spreads north? How best do we maintain or improve water quality? These are decisions we periodically confront.
There are reasons for human interaction with land and water, but we constantly seek scientific study to make wiser choices. DDT and Dursban were once considered “safe” products to use. My father died of liver cancer after several years of working in the area of Dow Chemical where Dursban was produced. Round-up was touted as a great weed killer until people realized the frogs had disappeared in astounding numbers. We need access to better information to guide our selection of garden products, which can only come from more transparency from the corporations that manufacture and create them. I wish I had confidence that these manufacturers were putting long-term health of the environment ahead of short-term profits. But, in the current political climate, I don’t have confidence that keeping the planet safe and maximizing the health and diversity of species is a priority over corporate greed. All I can do is speak out and educate others while using the best practices I can to keep this little piece of the earth as healthy as possible.
I use as many techniques as I can that my grandparents used. I try to weed by hand when weeds are small, I mulch my veggie beds with organic compost and clean straw, wildflower beds with leaves and pine needles. I interplant vegetable crops in squares rather than monoculture rows, interplant flowers that discourage pests and those that encourage beneficial insects. I rotate the beds on a regular schedule to avoid disease and insect infestations, I handpick the “bad” bugs, encourage microorganisms by disturbing the soil as little as possible and avoiding chemicals, we delay mowing in spring and mow lawn areas higher than we used to in order to encourage healthier turf and eliminate watering needs, I compost healthy plant material and destroy diseased ones. And I’m gradually replacing non-native shrubs and other plants with native species to supply habitat to native insects, birds, and other wildlife. And we’ve learned to leave brush piles, cover logs, toad houses, mud spots for butterflies and other habitat improvements to balance the ecosystem. I’ve even learned to appreciate snakes for their place in the ecosystem, although they still startle me whenever I encounter one sunning along the rock walls.