Native plants pop up in many places these days – I was delighted to see a large group of Fothergilla in front of a Burger King one day in Alpharetta, GA. It was gorgeous and happy in that full sun area, and I was encouraged to see that a landscaper had thought to spec it into the design. Seeing native plants in commercially landscaped areas is actually a bit uncommon (if you don’t consider Acer rubrum ‘October Glory’ and Pin Oak (Quercus palustris) trees). I imagine the unique bottlebrush blooms of the Fothergilla turned a few heads in the springtime.
However, let an area go untended and native plants will cautiously poke up out of the soil, returning from dormant seeds or those newly sown by wind and birds – first a few grasses, some brambles (Rubus) and a bit of Goldenrod (Solidago). Let the area stay untouched and more will appear – a few tree seedlings and some white asters. Before you know it, the area is lush with growth and host to a variety of insects and birds.
Here is a picture of such a place in my neighborhood. The homeowner doesn’t mow this area because it has a wet spring in it – mowing would be difficult. Some people probably see this as messy – especially given the clipped lawn all around it. I see it as a 24x7 diner for pollinators, spiders, birds, and so many other creatures. The blue lobelia (Lobelia) spikes provide vibrant color against the white of the calico aster (Symphyotrichum lateriflorum). Burgundy colored tree leaves will soon be falling nearby, adding even more color as they get tangled in the tan grasses. Breezes give the whole area movement as yellow butterflies move from flower to flower. The tall dogfennel (Eupatorium capillifolium) towers over the shorter plants, already turning whitish with seed, providing a feast for small birds.
Another place in my neighborhood that hosts a different environment is a dry bank that is too steep to mow. A variety of grasses – noticeably different kinds by their seed heads now – are there, plus at least two different species of Goldenrod, several asters such as calico aster and bushy aster (Symphyotrichum dumosum), the annual blue curls (Trichostema dichotomum), one lone butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa) and a couple young white oaks (Quercus alba) and pines are all there now.
If you have a chance to leave a spot untended, nature just might surprise you. I know people have had trilliums (Trillium sp.) and jacks in the pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) spring up once vegetation like English ivy was removed. Restoration of areas is sometimes best left to nature initially to allow natives to regenerate from dormant seed banks.
Consider also abandoning any attempt to remove your fallen leaves. Well, rearrange them if you must, but they don’t need to leave your property. Fallen leaves are an important source of nutrition, returning nutrients to the soil as they decompose. They also shelter and feed insects, giving them both a place to reproduce and be eaten by others. I heard that snails are an important source of calcium for birds when laying eggs. Of course that could be a clever story spread by the snails themselves; I have stopped squishing them ever since I heard that.
Of course leaving areas alone can also invite invasive seeds to sprout. Be on the lookout for invasive plants common in your area. In my case that would be the annual Microstegium grass, Japanese honeysuckle, privet (Ligustrum sp.), non-native grasses like fescue, and the non-native lespedeza (usually the white flowered Lespedeza cuneata).
I do like these abandoned areas – vibrant with life, to me they are fields of abandon. Here I use the word “abandon” in both ways: where man has left it alone and nature has a chance to return to lush and lusty wildness. Keep a look out for these areas yourself and see if you can recognize the community that is evolving right before your eyes.