Suburban Shangri-la

Better Backyard Living Without Chemistry

When we bought our home in suburban Fairfield, Connecticut, we knew the garden would be a long-term project. The house had been rented to unsympathetic tenants for the past several years, and they’d allowed the 50-by-100-foot backyard to become a sickly testament to the endurance of "local wildflowers," also known as weeds. Purple pokeweed crowded the edge of the in-ground pool, which was filled with black water.

Jim Motavallir

Despite all this, we saw the potential. Under all that unkempt growth was the remains of what had once been a well-tended garden.

Our goal was a natural space to be shared by our family of four and the native birds, insects and small mammals. There had to be open space for our two girls, Maya, 9, and Delia, 6, to play, beds for vegetables and herbs, and plenty of flowers. Our garden would be organic. None of us wanted the putting green look, because it requires heavy doses of fertilizer and weed killer.

Our yard is flat and square, with no large trees, so it receives an abundance of sun. In deciding what to plant, we concentrated on native, drought-tolerant plants. Flowers, shrubs and trees that provide the local fauna with food, cover or a place to raise their babies were given pride of place. We stayed away from pretty but non-native invasive plants like purple loosestrife and Japanese honeysuckle.

Bird Friendly

We installed a concrete birdbath (soon to be replaced by a more effective dripper), and began by planting an array of sunflowers, which attract chickadees, cardinals, titmice, nuthatches and buntings, as well as bees. When the plants die back in the fall, we leave them in place and watch their seeds become food for acrobatic squirrels. Bright yellow, red, orange and pink zinnias account for the goldfinches that flit around our yard all summer. A corner devoted to raspberries, blueberries and blackberries brings in wrens, blue jays and towhees, and also attracts Maya and Delia for daily pilgrimages.

While we don’t have tall trees, our neighbors do, and the firs and oaks that surround our property drop acorns and provide homes for jays, woodpeckers, robins and sparrows. One towering spruce attracts a raucous colony of monk parakeets, bright green refugees from South America that have established themselves around New England. Every spring, a pair of mallard ducks flies in to enjoy the pond created by the water on top of our pool cover. Wild turkeys drop by, too.

Calling All Beasts and Bees

Our yard grows copious amounts of clover, which attracts honeybees. Native wildflowers such as black-eyed susans and phlox also bring them in, as does the aptly named bee balm, a hardy, spreading perennial that Native Americans used for tea. We’ve had great success attracting butterflies, mostly monarchs and swallowtails. They come for the butterfly weed, lilacs, echinacea and anise hyssop, and especially for the white, lavender and pink butterfly bushes. Butterflies love overripe fruit, so we set out dishes of spoiled strawberries.

Our girls raised painted lady butterflies from a mail-order kit, and then released them. "They fell in love with our yard and never left," says Maya. As for the bad bugs, we use nasturtiums as a "decoy" plant to keep them busy, and plant dill, fennel and coriander to attract aphid-eating lacewings.

Even though we’re on the edge of a major city, our yard is populated by a variety of mice, moles, squirrels, chipmunks and opossums. Our compost pile provides a perfect nesting area, and the dense foliage around the fence offers shelter. The untreated lawn is full of worms and insects. The rich pickings have attracted a red-tailed hawk, which parks itself in an oak tree and dive bombs for rodents.

Not everything we’ve tried works. We never get around to turning the compost pile, so it never produces the rich loam shown in the "back to the land" books. Our one bird feeder, a bright red plastic affair filled with nectar for the hummingbirds, has so far attracted only ants. The birdhouses keep falling down. We can’t even get the "self-pollinating" cherry tree to flower, let alone produce fruit. This past winter’s cold took a heavy toll on various roses and butterfly bushes; it did in the rosemary, too.

"You can’t let it bother you," says the principal gardener in our house, my wife Mary Ann. "We plant things, water them, and occasionally feed the soil with organic nutrients, including manure, compost or bone meal. But if we get mildew on the zinnias, so be it. We don’t spray for pests. Everything in our yard has to hold its own."

JIM MOTAVALLI defers to his wife in the garden.