ONE OF THE COOL (yet weird) things about deciding to rewild our yard here in Tallahassee is picking up knowledge unavailable in any user’s manual. Sure, a book on growing native plants in Florida will tell you the type of wildflower to use for sun or in part shade, and whether something will grow better in limestone or with pine straw. But will it tell you what to do when you’re maybe too successful and the critters come calling?
Maybe, maybe not—even though the point of rewilding is usually to make the yard a better sanctuary for wildlife. I’m here to share some summer yard hacks that might just help you be good to the environment and our animal pals without them getting on your last nerve.
Got yellow jackets? Not for long.
I love yellow jackets because summer tanagers and other birds love them. You haven’t lived until you’ve watched a summer tanager in a state of bliss pluck a yellow jacket out of the air and then crunch down on it. They’re a valuable source of protein for migrating birds, and also, frankly, I’ve walked past yellow jacket ground nests for months with nary an angry glance my way. As with most things, it’s how you conduct yourself. I try to be calm and slow and steady in the yard.
Still, yellow jackets can be belligerent—they’re the social wasps that unfortunately give the unsocial, peaceful wasps a bad name. Mostly, this irritation of yellow jackets occurs in October, when their queen dies. A queen dying would make anyone surly, but especially yellow jackets.
So, what should you do if they become a problem?
What I discovered is that most common solutions are either terrible for the environment or, well, complicated. The most thorough way is for someone experienced to don a beekeeper’s outfit and vacuum out the ground nest after dark, when the yellow jackets are asleep.
The other time-honored way is the dubious one of pouring pesticide into the nest or, worse, pouring gasoline in and sealing the nest (illegal in most places). In addition to ruining the environment around the nest, these methods are not reliable, because the queen often escapes—and then goes on to produce a million more even angrier yellow jackets.
So, in wanting to do right by the neighbors who have legitimate concerns, I came up with an effective solution that also happens to require very little effort on my part. At dusk, when the yellow jackets begin to sleep, put a spoonful of peanut butter next to the mouth of their ground nest. In the morning, more likely than not the entire nest will be dug up and every last yellow jacket and grub eaten. It’s like a holiday miracle! Only it’s usually happening in July or August.
Who’s the secret hero of this story? Raccoons, who love yellow jackets. The only problem is, without the strong scent of the peanut butter, raccoons may not find the ground nest for weeks or months. Other creatures also love to dig up yellow jacket nests, but again, on their schedule, not yours. So, you just have to nudge the process along a little.
I’ve used this method four times now, and three of the four times it only took one night for the nest to be destroyed. (I promise that you will not habituate any neighborhood raccoons to being fed if they get a scoop of peanut butter a couple of times a year.)
Suffering armadillo garden damage? Hey, presto, not now!
Armadillos can definitely cause damage to a garden. As with the yellow jacket situation, I mostly don’t care because the point of the plantings in our yard is to support wildlife. However, it’s true that if you have a gorgeous rampaging sexy exoskeleton beast rooting through your new wildflowers, those flowers probably don’t stand a chance, and that, for some, is exasperating.
Did I have sympathy for the plants? Sure. But I wasn’t interested in buying some spray of dubious provenance to keep them away, and I wasn’t interested in interfering with the arc of their wild snuffling lives either. You haven’t lived until you’ve experienced the joy that is a couple of armadillos happily snorting away in their search for juicy, delectable grubs.
So, instead, I built the world’s first armadillo obstacle course. I placed logs several feet long, about ten inches in diameter, around all the sensitive plantings. I made sure that the armadillo-friendly areas through these no-go zones were covered in pine straw . . . but, more important, that past the log areas was an area of open ground full of grub delights where they could frolic to their heart’s content.
It did take some adjustments in terms of using a few larger logs and a couple of reroutes, but in about two weeks’ time, the armadillos had grown accustomed to their maze and had no interest in storming the log barriers to engage in plant destruction. Instead, they trundle like miniature tanks to their new favorite feeding area.
We’d reached a true period of peace and accommodation, which is all anyone really wants. Now when I see the places where they’ve dug up a bit of dirt, I have only fond thoughts of them and their kind. Exactly as it should be.
Raccoons turned curious botanists? Patience, Grasshopper, patience.
Raccoons aren’t just bright creatures who will eat yellow jackets for you—they’re curious in ways I still can’t quite fathom. When I first started rewilding the yard, raccoons dug up everything. They just would not stop digging up every damn wildflower, sapling, and small bush I put in the ground. I love raccoons and didn’t want to curb their enthusiasm for life or their interest in amateur botany, but something had to be done. I refused to allow them to dictate to me with their eccentric take on landscaping decisions—their absurd belief, apparently, that all plants should lie rooted up and on their sides at all times.
So, I got busy thinking about creative solutions that would use the strength of the enemy against them. I had noticed first of all that the raccoons lived by the Rule of Threes. Which is to say, not only do they usually have three babies, but they’d dig up the same plant three times, and then they’d usually leave it alone. Of course, by then, the plant might be in critical condition and in definite need of a trip to the native nurseries ER.
However, if I’d been lazy and not planted the flower firmly, the raccoons didn’t inflict much if any damage. On the day I discovered four lazily planted coneflowers lying gently on their sides—roots devoid of dirt, but not a petal harmed on their blossomy heads—it dawned on me. Mock planting! I would pretend to plant until the raccoon plant investigation squad had done their due diligence.
To this day, I now put the plant in its place in the yard in a pot first. Then the next day, I plant it, but leave the soil very loose around it. The raccoon digs it up, but given that there’s not much resistance, the plant’s placed gently on its side, the process repeated two more nights, if necessary. No harm, no foul. The fourth day, I plant that damn wildflower for real, and usually no digging up occurs thereafter.
Over time, I got to know the critter trails in the yard via trail cams, and gave up planting things smack dab in the middle of them. And wouldn’t you know it?—many fewer things were dug up in the middle of the night anyway. Also, the regular raccoons—not any passing visitor raccoons, unfamiliar with yard etiquette—got used to new stuff being planted and often decided not to bother digging it up after the first year.
It’s true I still get irritated notes from Raccoon Mother, our favorite raccoon, but not about this issue, so that’s a relief at least.
Weeds got you down? Deploy the squirrels!
Sometimes weeding out invasive plants like this damn invasive spiderwort we have down here can be a real pain. Your back hurts, you’re in the sun all day, and the stuff seems to still be everywhere and laughing at you, to boot. I love a bit of gardening, but fighting invasive plants can get you down.
At the same time, I noticed that our local yard squirrels seemed to need something to do. True, they’d needed a year or two to get over the PTSD of the former owner keeping a dog in the yard, and we’d been patient in letting them recover and laze around just eating seeds and acorns and drinking from the bird baths. We understood that it had been . . . a lot.
But now it was time for them to get motivated, to contribute to the rewilding through more than just reproducing themselves at an ever faster rate. So, I got to thinking about that damn invasive spiderwort and how it doesn’t root very deep, so there’s at least that in any gardener’s favor . . . maybe even . . . a nonhuman one.
Next, I calculated the amount of seed spillage by doves over the side of the birdfeeders. This, by sheer chance, happens to be the exact amount of birdseed the squirrels eat daily. I came up with a plan to put less birdseed in the feeder, but refill it more often, resulting in almost no spillage. More work for me, but less work in another way, as you’ll see.
Because then I started, on every second day, to implement the new schedule and put those damn squirrels to work. I sprinkled the exact amount of spilled birdseed over the invasive spiderwort and exhorted the squirrels to become gardeners themselves.
“Weed that out!” I would shout through a bullhorn on the deck. “Weed it, squirrels! Weed it! Weed it good!”
And, lo and behold, they did! In foraging for the seeds, they completely tore up and destroyed the spiderwort. Why, they could clear a five-foot section in a day! It was miraculous and such a pure interaction. Honest squirrel labor was being rewarded on honest squirrel terms—and all I had to do is keep shifting where I sprinkled the seed.
Now, too much of a good thing is still a bad thing, so I only do this on a limited basis when I run out of energy to weed. But, to this day, the hardworking squirrel gardeners of the ravine roll up their nonexistent sleeves on their cute little furry arms and go to work on the irregular as my trusted assistants in the fight against invasive plants.
Neighbors depressed about your weedy front yard? Try periscoping plants.
You might think that raccoons, armadillos, and squirrels are some of a gardener’s biggest foes when rewilding, even though I’ve proven you dead wrong on all three of those amazing critters that you should instead be cherishing. In fact, if you plant native plants, it may well be a neighbor who looks askance at your front lawn.
Why, I’ve even heard of neighbors sneaking around in the middle of the night and creeping over to dig up other people’s plants, just like a raccoon, except tossing them instead of laying them on their sides. This usually happens just because native plants can look unruly and, unfortunately, many of us seem to like a bit of order in our gardens above all else.
My solution came down to a belief in the gaslighting plants that are periscoping wildflowers. Oh, oh—it looks like a weed—oh, oh wait, it doesn’t. It wasn’t ever a weed—why do you ask?
Basically, these periscoping wildflowers only look unkempt for a few weeks in the spring. To test out my theory of kempt/unkempt, I decided to plant some periscopers in the front yard ditch, for all to admire: flowers that in the summer, fall, and winter look like very flat leaves close to the ground. Then, in March and April, stalks grow up warily about two feet tall and on the end sprout the flowers—rich with pollen for pollinators.
For about a month, my front yard looks like a meadow of infinite proportions, a giddy, pollen-drunken mess o’ weeds having a twenty-four-hour block party. This is actually a showcase for highly sophisticated wildflowers of maximum value to the world.
And yet, just as a neighbor begins to complain . . . it’s the end of the season and frantic calls of “Down periscope! Down periscope!” all around. Such that the depth charge of the neighbor’s complaint never reaches my ears.
Such bliss of silence. The problem has sorted itself. The lawn is flat. Flat, flat, flat, as apparently it should be, horizontalism apparently close to godliness and verticalness close to the devil and the hellfire of sin.
Now, will all these tips work in your neck of the woods? I surely don’t know, because so many solutions are specific to regions, just like plants. Your raccoons may not like yellow jackets quite as much. Your armadillos may be woodchucks (in which case: bless, cherish, repeat).
But in all of this rewilding and negotiations with nature, my general take-aways about wildlife have been:
- Respect the wildlife that lives in your yard.
- Know where the animals like to walk and don’t plant there.
- A natural solution is always preferable to an unnatural one.
- Patience and careful observation are your friends. Being creative is also energizing and fun—take it from me.
Now, that said, if you have mutant moose-bears in your yard . . . you’re on your own.
- Read “Hummingbirds and the Ecstatic Moment,” an essay from Jeff VanderMeer.
- Meet the author’s five favorite (common) birds.
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