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  • ljmarkson

S**t Happens - and Opens up Possibilities!

One of the main lessons in my daily guided meditation is how our suffering comes from not being able to align our inner expectations with reality. It’s hard when sucky things happen to not only accept that this is part of life, but that something unexpected and unwanted opens up possibilities for change.

My yard recently hosted a handful of serious plumbers!

Recently we had what we thought was a small, slightly stinky drainage problem in our basement. The plumber who came out to fix it explained it was a big deal because it appeared a section of our 100-year-old terra cotta sewer pipe had collapsed between our house and the street (hence the smell!) He spray painted a long line to a spot in my rewilded yard where he placed a big pink X. He told us a team would be out in a few days to dig 4 feet down and replace the pipe. I asked him if he would show me an outline of where they might dig. It covered about a twelve-by-seven-foot area where a half a dozen years ago we had laboriously removed Lenten roses, variegated Solomon’s seal, and invasive vinca then replaced them with a community of native plants.

The big pink X indicated the epicenter of digging that would be done in my rewilded yard.

The area was settled - leaves, pinecones, stems & stalks remained where they fell and a rich layer of humus soil was developing. It didn’t look like much because it is winter, but there was a community of about a dozen different native plants in the area the plumber outlined for me.

These are some of the plants living in the area where the plumbers needed to dig.

I spent the next day methodically digging up all the plants. I felt a little like an archeologist on a dig and a lot like a pirate on a treasure hunt because most of the plants were dormant and the only way I could find them was by their roots or searching for tiny plants.

  • Clumps of what I think are native dwarf crested iris (iris cristata) roots were everywhere. Identifying roots is definitely not my thing because they could also be heartleaf foamflower (Tiarella cordifolia).

  • Golden ragwort (packera aura) is semi-evergreen and just starting to spread so it was easy to see above ground but more difficult to get all the small roots branching out from the main plants.

  • The roots of the spotted geranium (geranium maculatum) were illusive even though I knew exactly where the geranium had grown.

  • I let native violets grow anywhere they want in my yard but I didn't see any leaves or underground rhizomes. There was a bunny hopping around my yard last fall who adored violets so maybe that's why they’re not as obvious.

  • I had to hunt for the small runners of the fuzzy variety of green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) – there’s a stable colony during the growing season, but in the winter it kind of disappears.

I tried to rescue as many of the plants as possible where the sewer pipe needed to be replaced. Some were easier to find than others.

It was a bummer to dig up the seersucker sedge (Carex plantaginea) and blue wood sedge (Carex flaccosperma) that were starting to weave together to form a nice groundcover - but I'm confidant they will do this again when replanted!

In my head, I kept reassuring myself that change happens, native plants are resilient, and it’s less disruptive to the ecosystem to transplant in the winter than in the middle of summer.

These are the flats of plants I dug up from the area where the pipe broke. I had to let the idea of somehow saving the soil go. I just reminded myself that most of my yard is now covered in a layer of rich soil.

I also started looking around the area and took the opportunity to remove anything that wasn't native. This included fairy lilies (Zephyranthes candida) that are native to South America. Back when I planted them I didn’t understand how they could do any harm. Yet they were quickly forming a strong colony of thick evergreen clumps and starting to outcompete the nearby dwarf crested iris, heartleaf foamflower, and native geranium.

These lovely non-native lilies looked pretty and innocent when I first planted them, but were starting to form large clumps that were muscling out nearby natives. I was dragging my feet removing them and this situation gave me the push.

While I was at it, I decided to remove a patch of nearby crocosmia I’ve grown for years because the hummingbirds love it. It’s a striking tropical plant and spreads fast in our hot, humid summers. I was having a hard time keeping it from taking over where other native plants were growing. I have a long list of hummingbird-friendly native plants blooming around same time in the summer as the crocosmia. This includes beardstongue (Penstemon), garden phlox (Phlox paniculate), scarlet beebalm (Mondarda didyma), scarlet sage (Salvia coccinea), blue sage (Salvia azurea), skullcap (Scutellaria), coral honeysuckle (Lonicera sempirvirens), and yellow evening primrose (Oenothera biennis).

My yard is a nectar buffet for hummingbirds so I don't need to rely on non-native plants to attract them anymore. All the native plants in the photo collage bloom around the same time as the non-native crocosmia..

I went all in on the task of clearing out more non-natives including the last few daffodils around this small area that keep popping up from back when I didn’t know the difference between naturalized and native. I think daffodils are somewhat invasive because where I’ve tried to remove them they still appear for years from the tiniest bulbs that are left in the ground. I’ve written about my daffodil dilemma and my decision to not remove them from my right-of-way strip and along my front sidewalk to give context to my yard being intentional in the late winter when its beauty is not as appreciated by neighbors as its function is by wildlife.

I have nothing against daffodils, they just form such large, solid clumps it can make it hard for any nearby delicate spring native flowers to emerge,

The next day the utility guy came in the rain and trampled through my yard to spray paint more lines and put down brightly colored flags so the plumbing crew didn't dig and disrupt our other utilities. He also dug around the gas entry line a bit. I quickly saved a small native hydrangea bush (Hydrangea arborescens) near where he was digging in the mud. I admit I had a hard time sleeping knowing the crew would be there the next day.

I'm sure the utility location service person thought I was a bit crazy when I asked him if he could wait a few minutes for me to quickly remove a small native shrub before he started digging around a bit.

When a crew of plumbers showed up bright and early (as in 7am!) to dig in the muddy, soggy soil. I had to take deep meditative/yoga breathes to refocus my anxiety. I had a visceral response to seeing all that soil and small part of the ecosystem destroyed. I worried most about the possibly of disturbing native bees. Yet I reminded myself that we're doing our best to coexist with nature but our home is our human habitat and we can’t have sludgy sewer water in it!

There was no way around the process of fixing the sewer pipe - the persistent crew worked 12 hours without much of a break replacing a relatively small section - much of it by taking turns working in sludge.

I’ve learned more about what grows in this small area of my yard since the plants I removed were initially added. There are so many possibilities!

  • When the crew finished they left an ugly capped white PVC pipe sticking out of the ground so they can access the sewer if this happens again which they indicated might happen since we have 100 year old terra cotta sewer pipes. It will be a bit of a challenge to think about how to hide this pipe from view and yet make sure it's accessible. One idea is to plant native grasses all around it.

  • I’ve developed an appreciation for sedges and grasses and may expand planting this area with them. Low growing sedges can be walked on and would be a perfect groundcover since the area is right next to the driveway. Taller clumps of grasses and sedges behind the low growing ones can soften the white PVC pipe and provide little patches of habitat for wildlife. .

  • In this space I can try out a few new plants that I winter sowed last year and will be ready to plant out next month. It will be fun to decide which ones to plant.

  • I now have a “newly disturbed area” where annuals tend to like to grow, so maybe where the crocosmia was I’ll add partridge pea (Chamaecrista fasciculata) or even my diy “easy prairie mix” made up of annuals and easily germinated perennials.

  • This is a great opportunity to divide plants like the sedges to ultimately expand their reach in my yard and maybe pot up a few slips to share.

  • I may also take the opportunity to keep some of this area bare to attract native bees. I’ve been working so hard to build plant density as I rewilded my yard but only recently learned how important it is to keep parts of my yard plant free.

  • The plants I decide not to put back in this area I can replant where they might be happier. For example, the green and gold (Chrysogonum virginianum) has been valiantly intermingling with the wild strawberry (fragraria virginica). I think it would do better if given its own space.

  • They ended up digging beyond the area I removed plants from and unavoidably cut chunks of roots under the canopy of a Japanese maple. I haven’t removed non-native trees and large shrubs because the value they offer the ecosystem is not easily replaced. This tree offers shelter, roosting and nesting for birds and is part of the squirrel pathway around the yard. Yet if the Japanese maple happened to die because of this I would take the opportunity to replace it with as big a native tree as I could afford. Maybe a native maple, serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea), or some kind of native prunus.

This area now offers so many possibilities. I just have to make a plan!

I also feel like this experience is a needed practice run for how I will accept other calamities when they inevitably happen in my little nature sanctuary.

This is what the sewer pipe that runs from our almost 100 year old house to the street is made of. I'm surprised we haven't had any issues until now!

Even without human intervention nature is constantly in flux. Atlanta still has enough tree canopy that falling branches and trees are to be expected. Change is an inevitable part of being alive and I’d like to think I’m ready for all the possibilities any unforeseen changes to my yard will offer me!

Part of having a rewilded yard is letting go of the idea that I am in control of everything that happens in it - this includes natural and manmade related changes.

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