By Liz Nalle, Center Volunteer and Inland Bays Garden Center Staff Member
We share our piece of paradise here in Dewey Beach with a variety of creatures, and one in particular is enchanting. We see it going about its business, heading across the driveway, involved in something, likely looking for food.
It’s a box turtle, a Woodland Box Turtle, which used to be called the Eastern Box Turtle. We don’t know if it’s a male or female, since we haven’t lifted it up to see the shape of its under shell (the plastron), which is slightly concave in males. Box turtles walk pretty fast for a turtle, with their orange and black/brown heads held up, looking around, hustling along up to 55 yards a day, according to the Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute! It’s always a pleasure to see our turtle, bringing its little bit of wild Delaware to our yard.
We usually think of nature as being elsewhere, in a park or preserve, something we go visit and admire from a distance. But our turtle, and the rabbits, deer, foxes, and wildflowers have been telling me that nature is also in my yard! Dr. Douglas Tallamy, in his excellent book, “Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard,” makes this point, and I found it to be revelationary!
As I reflected, I realized that nature, for me at least, was always reserved for weekend afternoons with family when we’d go for a walk in a local park. In between, I’d be gardening, mowing the lawn, simply taking care of my little yard. But then my turtle came along, and some Monarch butterflies passed through on their way to Mexico in the fall, and I was amazed. Nature was right there, in my yard!
I shouldn’t say I was completely amazed – for years I have been planting native plants because aesthetically, they fit better. They feel right. My hope always was that by recreating the ecosystem that would have been in my yard if I hadn’t been there, I would have to do less work and I would attract the wildlife visitors I was hoping for.
The workload of gardening has decreased a little, but mostly because I picked the right plants for the spots I wanted to fill. I have succeeded wonderfully in attracting wildlife; I have my turtle, and in November, I fret over late, lingering Monarch butterflies as they flit amongst the seaside goldenrods. I have no bird feeders because I have plenty of native grasses to feed them, along with several different berrying plants. I have a number of different butterflies and moths coming to the yarrow and bidens, and a variety of native pollinators flock to the spotted horsemint. Now I’m just waiting for other recently planted plants to get big enough to flower.
Along the back property line, there’s brush tidied from the rest of the yard that I put in a neat line, which is where I’m sure my turtle hides out. I have planted in layers, with tall trees, shorter ones, shrubs and perennials, in order, increasing the available space for birds and the insects they feed on. In one container on the deck, I have Vermillionaire Cuphea, beloved by hummingbirds, and I have a familiar hummingbird that visits every morning in summer. It also likes the zinnias in another pot, and the tropical hibiscus.
For millennia, it seems like humans were fighting nature because we had to: to hunt and gather, to survive, to find enough to eat. Eventually, this dominion of people over our surroundings resulted in carefully manicured and frequently sterile gardens and miles of lawn, drenched in pesticides, without a flower in sight.
But that tide is shifting. Take a trip to the Delaware Botanic Gardens at Pepper Creek to see. There, you’ll find an impressionist painting in the meadow, illustrated almost entirely of native plants. The handful of plants there that are not native are not invasive, either, and all support the area’s biodiversity by providing food for insects and pollinators, and the birds and wildlife that depend on those smaller species to survive.
The tide has already shifted in my small yard, which looks pretty typical with mulched flower beds, a driveway, a few Crepe myrtles. But the flower beds are full of pollinator plants, as are the pots on the deck. I’m looking forward to having grandchildren someday, to hunt for cool bugs in the yard on weekend afternoons and maybe even find our resident turtle (or its offspring).
But most of all, I’m looking forward to teaching them how to handle nature gently and respectfully, knowing that we are part of nature, and we can coexist with it.