In most of the country, daffodils (genus Narcissus) bloom in March and are among the first signs of spring. Some places might have blooms as early as February, and others not until April. In all places, the leaves pop up from the ground while freezing weather is still frequent, and inexperienced gardeners and curious onlookers worry that the plants have come up too early and will suffer damage from the cold. Not to worry. The daffodils have been through it all before and will be fine. Any damage they do incur from late winter weather usually comes from being bent down to the ground or snapped by the weight of a late snow or ice storm.
Deer, rabbits, and squirrels do not eat daffodil bulbs, foliage, or flowers since they are toxic. The plants spread by jumping from place to place by seed dispersal as well as increasing into clumps formed by daughter bulbs dividing from their parent bulbs, rather like offspring who have matured and set up housekeeping next door. Not all daffodils are noticeably fragrant, and as often happens with flowers it is the older, original varieties that are most fragrant, because plant hybridizers sometimes lose that aspect in pursuit of other traits such as size or color. Trade-offs.
Despite a substantial list of pests, fungi, and viruses that can adversely affect daffodils, in practice they should not gravely concern the gardener since the daffodils seem to cope well on their own. The worst condition affecting daffodils, particularly their bulbs, comes from poor drainage or excessive water, particularly in winter. Hardly anyone likes cold, wet feet, and daffodils are no exception. On account of the wet winter in most of the eastern half of the United States, daffodil displays may be subdued this March.
In the 1965 film Doctor Zhivago, a long winter finally turns to spring, heralded by a field of daffodils.
About the only thing an American gardener can say against daffodils is that they are not native to North America or to any part of the Western Hemisphere. Daffodils originate from southern Europe and northern Africa. That daffodils are not native here is an academic complaint, however, since the genie can hardly be stuffed back in the bottle at this point. Most of the people living now in the Western Hemisphere do not belong here, either, and it’s possible to argue they have done far more damage to the native habitat than anything innocent daffodils could have done. On the contrary, daffodils perform a great service everywhere because their trouble free disposition, loosening of hard soils, and cheerful announcement of spring give a greater portion to the gardener and non-gardener alike than they require in return.
Anyone who has ever been driving and had a collision with a deer or other large animal knows just how devastating it can be for the animal as well as for the driver and any passengers, besides the damage to the vehicle. Every year millions of animals die in collisions with vehicles, though of course only estimates are available on that number, and damage to vehicles comes to over eight billion dollars. The best method for reducing both those numbers appears to lie in building ways for animals to cross roads safely.
France led the way in the 1950s, building overpasses and underpasses for animals to use in crossing busy highways. Other European nations followed, and then Canada and the United States. There is still much to be done in all those countries, and even more in the rest of the world. The animals have a hard enough time navigating a world dominated by people, and they should not also have to risk death in the simple act of trying to get from point A to point B. People do it every day without serious thought of not returning home safely from their journey, though all the other drivers on the roads don’t always make it easy on account of their distractions and reckless behavior.
A spotted deer crosses a road near a “Wildlife crossing” sign in Nagarhole National Park in India. Photo by Chinmayisk.
Wildlife crossing warning signs portraying a deer, a fox, and a turtle, in Orient Beach State Park in Orient Point, New York. Throughout the country, signs like this are often pockmarked by blasts from the firearms of people who pass themselves off as wits. Photo by DanTD.
It makes even more sense to build more safe wildlife crossings when considering it is in our own self interest. A high speed collision between your vehicle and a deer will kill the deer either instantly or harm the deer grievously enough it will die later in great pain, and the collision will also cause thousands of dollars of damage to your vehicle and possible injuries to yourself and passengers, if any, adding up to thousands of dollars in medical expenses, as well as psychological trauma which may make you justifiably jumpy behind the wheel of an automobile from that point on. All this is obvious, and old news really. Why then wouldn’t highway departments across the country do more to mitigate this kind of thing?
A certain kind of person might view a wildlife crossing, be it an overpass or an underpass, and think “Look at all the money the highway department threw away just to protect some stupid animals, probably because a bunch of animal loving tree huggers wouldn’t shut up about it until they built it.” No, the wildlife crossing isn’t there solely for the sake of the animals, and whether a group of people this certain kind of person is contemptuous of pushed for the project is besides the point. The wildlife crossing is there for everyone, for animals to use and for people of every political persuasion to admire as they motor along more safely than they did without it. It is there to save everyone’s lives, and in the case of people it is there to save the treasure they care very much about, possibly more than the well-being of other creatures on this Earth. It is way past time for that certain kind of person to ask who is really the stupid one when it comes to how we cope with animals crossing the road which, as we all know, they will do come what may.
It may seem like hyperbole to compare growing a lawn with smoking (not combining the two, as in smoking grass), but when weighing the environmental and health effects of both rather useless activities, they may not be all that dissimilar. A lawn is purely ornamental and serves no practical purpose when it is not used as pasture for grazing animals. Deer may come out of the woods to clip parts of a suburban lawn, but for the most part keeping a lawn within the height limits deemed proper by neighbors is left up to the homeowner. Anything higher than about six inches meets with disapproval from neighbors and, in the case of a homeowners association rules, may merit a written slap on the wrist.
There was a time not long ago when most people smoked, and smoked everywhere. Movies of contemporary stories from the 1940s and 1950s showed actors portraying their characters as human chimneys. Few people thought much of it up until 1964, when the Surgeon General issued a report on the dangers of smoking. Even then, it took another generation for the momentum of social disapproval of smoking to build to a tipping point, largely because of the obstructive practices of the tobacco industry. In the matter of lawn growing, the balance is now tipped in favor of the people who dump fertilizers and broad leaf herbicides on their lawns to achieve an ideal of carpeted green perfection, and then burn up fossil fuels in order to keep that exuberant growth clipped to a manicured standard.
Sheep, goats, and a shepherd near Lake Vistonida in Thrace, Greece. Photo by Ggia.
Given the information available about the toxic effects of fertilizer and herbicide runoff, and the deleterious effects on the climate of continued burning of fossil fuels, it seems insane to idealize the perfect lawn and what it can take to achieve perfection. Yet as things stand now, the people with model lawns are the ones who look down on everyone else and appoint themselves as standard bearers. Perhaps if more people understood the destructive effects to their own health and to the environment of all their fussing over lawns, then the balance would start to tip the other way toward saner practices.
When homeowners apply fertilizers and herbicides to their lawns, there is no obvious puff of smoke to notify everyone else of the activity. It is not as obvious then as smoking, and therefore general social disapproval will take a long time to build, and may never build to a tipping point the way it did with smoking. Education will probably be the main factor in changing people’s behavior. There are state laws which require commercial herbicide or pesticide applicators to post signs on lawns they have treated. Those are the 4 inch cards on sticks stuck into lawns, and to the extent that most passersby and neighbors give them any attention, they can easily mistake them as advertisements for the lawn care company.
The opening scene of Blue Velvet, a darkly satirical 1986 film directed by David Lynch. Besides demanding large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides to look their best, lawns gulp huge amounts of water in order to stay green throughout the warmest months.
Most people are away at work when lawn care companies do their treatments, and so they aren’t around to catch a whiff of the cabbage smell of the typical broad leaf herbicide as it drifts around the neighborhood. And of course, the homeowner who does his or her own applications, usually on the weekends when neighbors are also home, does not bother with any formal notifications at all. A neighbor might ask such a homeowner “What’s that smell?” To which the enterprising amateur lawn care enthusiast might reply, without apparent knowledge of or concern about the collateral damage of his or her efforts, “That’s the smell of the green, green grass of home!”
For decades now when gardeners needed a windbreak or a privacy screen they have resorted to planting hedgerow monocultures of a few relatively fast growing evergreen species, among them the Leyland cypress. For some who prefer a more formal, planned look, that plan has sufficed, but others might look at such a hedgerow as boring and as a lost opportunity to bring more wildlife into their gardens. Planting with wildlife in mind takes a generous spirit, particularly for the gardener who is also trying to raise fruits and vegetables for their own consumption. There are trade offs and compromises involved.
One of the problems with a hedgerow monoculture occurs when one or more of the plants dies, creating a gap that must then be filled with the same kind of plant, sometimes at considerable expense if the new plant is not to be too conspicuous by its smaller size. The gardener can feel trapped, and the trap can get more enveloping and add even more expense if the reason for a plant’s death is a disease or pest, engaging the gardener in an endless battle. Sometimes it can be a blessing when a disease or pest spreads quickly from one plant in the monoculture to the next, ending the battle with its consequent frustrations and expenses and presenting the gardener with a blank slate after a tree removal company has carted away the battlefield fallen.
This colonnade of Leyland cypresses in England is presumably a windbreak for the greenhouses behind. Photo by Ben Gamble.
Instead of persisting in folly and boring landscaping, a gardener might decide it is wiser and more interesting to plant rows or clumps of a diverse assortment of trees and shrubs, more closely imitating nature. The gardener might look for evergreen trees for year round screening for the gardener and cover for wildlife; deciduous trees which with their tall, rounded crowns fill visual gaps between the conical forms of the evergreens, and add nuts and acorns for wildlife food; shrubs and small trees both evergreen and deciduous which give fruits and berries in different seasons; and finally a water source, preferably running rather than stagnant. That’s a privacy screen for the gardener and a home for wildlife, and it isn’t only for large properties, since there are almost always dwarf or semi-dwarf forms of trees available.
Inviting wildlife into the garden this way means being willing to compromise on the amount of produce left for the gardener, and also means protecting vulnerable young plants from the very same wildlife. This is a microcosm and an imitation of nature, after all, and not truly nature. In nature the loss of a few sapling trees here and there to deer browsing is not necessarily a catastrophe since there may be as many more that will survive to maturity. But for the gardener who may have space to plant only a few trees, the loss of even one young tree is important. An example would be the gardener who joins in the effort to restore the American chestnut to the landscape and helps the cause by buying and planting a few saplings at home. Unless that gardener cages the chestnut saplings for the first two or three years of their growth, deer will come along and browse its foliage and rub the velvet off their antlers on the trunks of the saplings, debarking them. Caging is the only truly effective way to get deer to leave the chestnut saplings alone until they are big and strong enough to withstand their attentions.
On a small lot in particular a gardener should not expect to get very many fruits and berries for their own consumption. Birds love eating the same things, and they are outside all day every day, watching for ripeness, and when it comes the birds get to the fruits and berries very soon. Netting is a nasty business that tangles up birds and other critters, killing them, and it has no place in a garden planted for wildlife. Either be content with gleaning a few fruits and berries here and there, or build a small greenhouse to grow a few protected plants. Gardeners with large plots of land have more options, both for the wildlife and for themselves. Plant native plants when possible, because they are better adapted to coexist with native wildlife. Once there are birds and frogs and other insect eaters living nearby, the gardener may actually find fewer pest and disease problems in the rest of the garden, and that alone makes it worth the trouble of devising a landscape scheme more varied and interesting than a soldier row of Leyland cypresses.
Every gardenerwill at one time or other have to contend with wildlife or neighborhood pets causing problems in their yard and garden. Vegetable gardens are especially apt to be browsed by wildlife, obviously, and the legal options for backyard gardeners in coping with unwelcome visitors are much more limited than the options available to a farmer whose livelihood is at stake. Today as in the past a farmer can dispose of a varmint chewing up his or her crops with a well-aimed shot from a .22 caliber rifle and law enforcement or neighbors are unlikely to interfere. That option is not generally available to the urban or suburban gardener tending a small plot in close proximity to neighbors’ houses.
What is a varmint?A varmint is any animal whose survival habits conflict with your own, just like a weed is a plant out of place. Some people are thrilled to see deer browsing in their back yard, at least for a while, but to others those same deer have long since crossed over into varminthood after they have eaten hostas down to the ground, nibbled away rosebuds on the cusp of bloom, and used their antlers to rub the bark off young fruit trees, killing them. Garden enemies are not limited to deer, although they are probably at the top of most peoples’ lists, and a by no means complete catalog of varmints would for most folks have to include groundhogs (woodchucks), gophers, rabbits, rats, mice, voles, moles, chipmunks, skunks, dogs, cats, poisonous snakes, raccoons, opossums, squirrels, inattentive drivers, and unsupervised children.
Bill Murray as a golf course groundskeeper in the 1980 movie Caddyshack plots the destruction of the gophers who have been disfiguring the fairways and greens.
For some of these varmints, the critter kind, there are no shortage of chemical and mechanical repellents manufactured by companies eager to help out a distressed gardener and incidentally make a buck on a continuing basis, because all of them require regular re-application or constant tweaking to keep up their effectiveness. Gardeners who have wised up to this laborious and expensive treadmill may look instead to fencing, the only truly effective solution, though effective only in the sense of diminished and insecure expectations. No fence is a 100% effective deterrent for all critters at all times in all situations, as any convict will tell you, although in this case the malefactors seek to break in rather than out.
Some gardenerswill try to remove the problem from the garden by relocating it, or by hiring someone to do so. Although this practice is illegal nearly everywhere, the gardener can feel smugly humane about it. Unfortunately, it is a poor strategy for everyone concerned. The varmint, let’s say a groundhog, is trapped in a humane trap, but sometimes the animal injures itself in some way in its panic to escape. Injury to a wild animal is often a slow death sentence. The gardener, or his or her proxy, then takes the groundhog out to some countrified place and releases it, feeling good about him or herself, even if the groundhog begs to differ. This is likely another slow death sentence for the groundhog, because for one thing it is not familiar with the new territory, and for another the territory, if it is any good, is likely already occupied by another groundhog or two who will not treat an interloper kindly. The gardener then, with a warm and fuzzy feeling brought on by reflecting on the newfound happiness of the groundhog he or she has just released to frolic in fields of daisies in the countryside, returns home where another groundhog from a neighboring yard eyes the newly unoccupied territory and its fresh crop of tasty vegetation.
There are all sorts of other strategiesfor dealing with varmint pressure on the garden, such as companion plantings or planting only things offensive to them. It can seem the options come down to living in a fenced-in or foul-smelling compound, or giving up on planting old garden favorites like roses and daylilies. There is another option involving compromise and a relinquishing of control, and in the end it may be the only sensible option whether the gardener is willing to acknowledge it or not. It doesn’t mean giving up, but merely giving in where other options are inhumane, or too expensive or unsightly, or just plain idiotic insistence on controlling every little thing. The critters – varmints, if you insist – have just as much right to be here as we do, and that’s true whether you want to acknowledge it or not. Putting up a fight is fine, but try to retain perspective on who is supposed to be the rational creature capable of long-term, ethical considerations. ― Izzy
One of the Varmint Cong, or a Beloved Creature? A white tailed deer fawn, Odocoileus virginianus, in Raleigh, North Carolina; photo by Clay Heaton.