I cut back the old lilac that came with my property. It may be fifty years old, and had gotten leggy, ungainly, sparse below the crown, barely blooming. Old-fashioned lilacs are basically a one-act shrub, pretty and fragrant in spring, offering little the rest of the year. They typically (that leggy habit) aren’t dense enough to shelter birds for nesting, they don’t produce food for wildlife, and they don’t have fall color.
But the trunks and limbs of this one gave me material to finish out the above section of my stick-fence border.
Reusing fallen and pruned off debris does great things for habitat-building. The stacked wood makes instant shelter for your insects. Ants will gladly colonize here—and ants are huge consumers of insect eggs, newly hatched worms and grubs, slug eggs…pretty much anything they can eat as individuals or en masse. Our healthy ecosystem depends on the work of ants, which in turn are food for important bird species, like the Pileated woodpecker, and for many other creatures, including bears.
As the wood at the bottom of the pile breaks down, it provides the best slow-release fertilizer of all. The elevation of the pile, slight as it is, creates a lee side, sheltered from wind and temperature-moderated, making for a microclimate where plants appropriate to your zone thrive, and outliers may survive. The height of the bed also lets perennials planted there put down deep roots. And all of the bed’s material feeds the trees nearby.
Finally, spongy soil and leaf cover make their immediate environment water-retentive. Water-retentive means, in good time, water independent. And that is the crux of restoring habitat, of reversing severe drought patterns in our changing weather.
For years I had a good stand of milkweed growing along my garage wall. A couple of summers ago, the milkweed started to deform, becoming stunted and yellowed, and dying off, to be replaced by goldenrod. Goldenrod is wind-sown, as is milkweed, so where the wind blows against a wall is a where you’ll find volunteer wildflowers (and trees).
The above hickory sapling (squirrel sown) was one I’d been cutting off when it reappeared each year. I can’t dig the roots because they’re tucked under an old yew trunk. But I thought keeping it cut back would kill it in time. Instead, it steadily built roots and shot up four feet tall this year. But that solves the mystery of what was killing the milkweed.
Hickories are related to walnuts, and their roots produce juglone. If you have a big lawn and want to covert it to habitat, hickories and black walnuts are fine to plant, both important native trees in eastern oak/hickory forests, which are declining. You just need to pick a corner for your hickory patch, and look up surrounding plants to install that are unbothered by juglone.
However, if you get hickory seedlings sprouting in your flowerbeds, or along any walls, ditches, fencerows, that you want nature to plant for you, it’s a good idea to root them up quickly.
In other tree news, my sweetgum is showing the full range of colors, from dark burgundy, to red, to yellow, that sweetgums are famous for. All these years, it turned only yellow in the fall, and I’d even surmised it was a cultivar that just didn’t color up. The answer must be that the Bradford pear growing next to it, which I had cut down this year, was taking up nutrients the sweetgum needed. Another good reason to replace a Bradford pear with something nicer!