Like any old garden, the 2 1/4-acre plot around Nancy Lawson’s brick rambler is layered with a history chronicled by its plants.
There are the field and woods sloping down to a creek, topography that speaks to a time before this was a rural subdivision outside Sykesville, Maryland, 40 to 50 miles north of Washington, D.C. There are the trees and shrubs that previous owners planted, varieties that fell from grace years ago: the silver maple, the Siberian elm, the burning bush, the forsythia. Newer landscape features bear witness to how Lawson and her husband, Will Heinz, altered the property in their own time. A thicket of suckering sassafras broadens its way across the ghostly outlines of a former vegetable plot.
But the biggest shift in this garden over time is not physical but philosophical. Lawson, who grew up in Bowie as the daughter of a plant pathologist, was always interested in growing things and loved nature. But over her 17 years here, she has come to see her garden as a place that is no longer territory to be defended against the deer, the squirrels, the moles and other invading critters, but a place to be extended to them.
Lawson, a nature editor who worked for more than 15 years at the Humane Society of the United States, based in Gaithersburg, Maryland, has written a book about gardening with wild animals, to be published April 18 – “The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.” The book is something of a guide to dealing with nuisance species — how to humanely remove squirrels from your attic, for example — but it is, at its heart, a plea to rethink our mentality about other species on our patch.
“The main goal for me is to try to break down this framework of fear we have, both toward plants and animals, the idea that plants are weedy, our animals are aggressive,” she said.
Feeding songbirds has always been trendy, and this helping hand has morphed in recent years to the idea of wildlife habitat gardening with native plants. The aim has been to shelter and sustain, along with the birds, such creatures as frogs, turtles and dragonflies and, most of all, butterflies, bees and other pollinators. This isn’t just fashionable; it has become something of an expectation.
This is all to the good, except Lawson points out that this biophilia generally extends to some animals and not others. Ironically, our fellow mammals seem least welcome. A praying mantis is adored while a rabbit is reviled.
“There are lots of books on welcoming wildlife focused on birds and butterflies, which is important,” Lawson said. “But then you have the other half of it: Wildlife rehabilitation centers and biologists who are a lot of the time trying to get people not to kill mammal species.” She speaks of a friend who has a butterfly garden “but gets freaked out when she sees trees that have been chewed on by beavers.”
The problem, as Lawson sees it, is that we see the garden as ours, to be shared with creatures of our choosing. This isn’t how nature works. At some point, Lawson decided to adapt her garden to the animal kingdom, rather than the other way around.
Her husband has happily joined the program. On summer evening swims in the pool, he rests under the diving board to watch bats swoop down to drink. “He seems to be that person who spots animals in distress and helps them,” she said.
Even in its winter mantle, one can see that this is not an overly decorous garden. The air is filled with birdsong. Titmice, bluebirds and chickadees flit among the trees.
The sassafras grove marches on. Elsewhere, a stand of silky dogwoods (Cornus amomum) does the same. The front yard is ridged by mole tunnels. The Siberian elm — a sickly tree most gardeners today would remove — is allowed to bleed, its sap drawing comma and mourning cloak butterflies.
In the back, an old, tufty lawn has been allowed to revert to meadow, in part to protect turtles from the lawn mower.
She said that when her husband, the mower, came to see how her plantings encouraged more animals, “he grew more and more enamored with the idea of filling the place up with vegetation, encouraging the natives already here, and planting more for us and for wildlife.”
Large areas are given over to native perennials. They look bare now but in a few weeks will come alive with joe-pye weed, ironweed, monardas, mountain mints, penstemons and swamp milkweed (for the monarch butterflies).
In the meadow, the broomsedge, now straw-colored, catches the afternoon light. There are flattened patches where the deer have nested. Where the meadow meets the woodland, Lawson has planted pawpaw trees, which feed the zebra swallowtail.
Animals tend to excite people, and not in a good way. People get anxious about the presence of certain creatures, namely deer, squirrels, raccoons and, of course, vermin. This is not unfounded. I have seen gardens whose plantings have been under constant marauding by voles, deer, squirrels and raccoons. A heron can turn up one day and keep a koi fancier awake at night.
I don’t like to see cats (bird-killers) or rats in my garden, but the presence of the former may chase off the latter. When I see squirrels nosing around a bed of newly planted tulips or crocus, my blood pressure climbs. I don’t share Lawson’s total laissez-faire approach, but I have relaxed my feelings about animals and the garden, even the nuisance ones. I like to see foxes in the garden, though I might feel differently if I kept hens. If I find a fly in the house, I catch it in a butterfly net and set it free. If a spider is in the bathtub, it gets rescued. I’ve been known to sprinkle a little bird feed for the mouse in the cellar. As you get older, all life seems a little more precious. I have learned to tolerate yellowjackets and endure squirrels. But mosquitoes can still take a running jump.