Home & Garden

Backyard refuges for animals

I'm sitting in the kitchen with the space heater blazing away, the fan is in its winter mode and quietly sending the warm air back down from our 11 1/2-foot-high ceilings, and the cats are all huddled under the heat lamp on the back porch.

It won't be a white Christmas, but it is chilly, and when I survey the yard, I pay special attention to the plants my outdoor companions rely on for food and shelter.

Our upstairs bathroom has a door that opens on a flat porch with a view of the back 40 (actually about 2 acres). The pecans are most noticeable with their long, arching branches that squirrels use as a sky walkway. Of course those same squirrels come to the ground and eat the nuts and bury others, which sprout and are much harder than an oak seedling to pull. Talk about a tap root!

Some of the nuts fall on the road and get smashed, ruining them for us but making good pickings for birds. If you haven't had the pleasure of taking a leisurely stroll through your yard and casually picking up, cracking and munching on pecans, you've missed a wonderful experience.

Pecan trees are big, but they provide a filtered shade, and I grow all kinds of plants under mine. Hellebores, hydrangeas, mountain laurel and native azaleas add plenty of color.

Readers are sometimes slow to respond with positive comments, but I bet the next sentence will fill up the inbox with vitriol. Carolina cherry laurels may be a nuisance to some gardeners, but for bees and birds, they are four-star establishments. With dense, evergreen foliage, they provide good shelter from harsh winds and cold rains. Their starry flowers attract bees by the hundreds, and the fruits that follow are devoured by robins.

Of course, all that devouring leads to lots of activity in the cloaca department, and I pull about a zillion baby cherry laurel seedlings from the flower beds. But if you catch them when they're little, they come right up.

Crush the leaves in your hands, and they smell exactly like maraschino cherries - but don't give in to temptation and taste them because they're poisonous.

My uncle planted a cherry laurel hedge kept low by twice yearly shearings. He's been gone for more than 40 years, but the last time I drove down Adger Road, the hedge was still there and right attractive, to boot.

My girls complained about decorating our cedar Christmas tree; they resorted to wearing flannel shirts and gloves, all of which underscores the safe havens those native evergreens provide for birds and probably some mammalian creatures, too.

These trees come male or female, and by the law of averages, about half of the cedars that pop up across the countryside are females and covered with berries that are beautiful greenery and devoured by migrating cedar wax wings.

Christmas trees of all varieties should go to a mulching program or, like mine, be part of a brush pile that offers an inelegant but - like the stable in Bethlehem - welcome spot for those in need of a safe place to seek refuge.