There is a flash of red as the cardinal lands on a nearby branch, then blue jays screech about their dominating this yard. Wild canaries flutter about looking for seeds. What bright colors and activities. Music of Jennie wrens warble around the yard as they fly here and there seeking a good nesting spot. We should watch and listen to the fascinating activities in our backyards. Perhaps the spring peepers and other frogs are still singing in a nearby pond or marsh. What insects do we hear now?
Spring sun warms the earth, stimulating so much new growth, especially across the backyard. What plants can we see? Our yards are much more than green grass and clover. Nestled in among these favorites are strawberry plants, heal-all, buttercup and many other plants that have much to teach us about natural ecology. Go barefoot and explore these wondrous plants. Walking barefoot in dewy morning grass is very beneficial. Not only do we absorb good energies from this, but it is also relaxing and soothing.
The invasive dandelions, plantain and garlic mustard growing in the grass are so resilient that they are considered “pests” by many people who try to get rid of them. Yet each has remarkable value as food—especially in spring salads, stir-fries and vinegars—and are even useful as insect repellents. Some think of the yard as a green desert that requires mowing once a week. Others feel the green plants tickling our bare feet and appreciate the magic carpet of cool relief on hot days. Many children sit in a grassy yard to contemplate the bugs, spiders and earthworms living there. Our yards are fascinating ecologies that resemble a salad bar for some or a medicine isle to others.
A hot dry yard is a xeriscape requiring little or no watering, yet offers rugged grasses, sedges, plantains and feathery pineappleweed; the latter is a fragrant chamomile and delightful tea ingredient. Purslane is another low, creeping herb/weed among the grasses that also offers delicious vitamins to wild edible collectors.
Wet, marshy yards offer various mosses and lichens among the grasses that cover the ground, grow slowly, and also absorb valuable water for the surrounding vegetation and critters living in these environments. Look carefully among the low, wet foliage in the yard to find some rare, beautiful liverworts clinging to the earth. They are very fragrant. Also look for various mushrooms that grow up in many grassy areas and provide extra nutrients for surrounding shrubs and trees. Squirrels and chipmunks love to eat these fungi as well as various slugs and snails.
Spring dandelion greens are readily picked, cleaned and steamed as a spinach substitute that is a good cleansing herb for the liver. Fresh-picked dandelion blossoms are easily dipped in a light cornmeal/egg batter and fried for a delicious appetizer or vegetable. Some of our elders (grandparents) collected dandelions in spring to make a fine wine, and even collected many dandelion roots to use in teas and coffee.
Plantain leaves, both narrow and broad, are fine additions for other stir-fried greens; they can even provide a soothing, healing Band-Aid placed over cuts, sunburns or stings. Healing benefits come from the essence of oils in the natural leaves, which can even make these leaves soothing additions on the feet to help relieve foot problems and aching, tired feet. Simmer a small handful of plantain leaves for 10 minutes, then pour into a cool pan of water to soak the feet for relief.
Garlic mustard is a ubiquitous, fast-growing biennial herb that overtakes hedgerows gardens and roadsides. Since it self-sows readily, we now have it everywhere. If we enjoyed eating it, we might keep it in control. The tiny white flowers, soft green leaves and even the green seedpods are each edible and delicious raw and steamed; they can be served in pastas, salads and as vegetables with a variety of other foods and sandwiches. The fragrant garlic mustard also acts as a good insect repellant; when eaten by us, we become less appetizing to stinging bugs, spiders and ticks. Take a small handful of fresh garlic mustard stems and tie them into a bandana around a pet’s neck as an easy insecticide.
Bees and wasps pollinate countless flowers; they are helped by visiting hummingbirds, butterflies, moths and fireflies—each comes for their choice seasonal resources. Insects and spiders seek their special host plants; some of these are on the menu of the passing turtles, frogs, foxes, coyotes and mice that visit our backyards.
Our backyards are unique living centers of life for countless visitors, including some we may never see. From the bats at night that eat mosquitoes and other troublesome insects, to the neighborhood skunks who come to eat the Japanese beetles and other harmful garden pests, to the resident snakes that help protect the gardens from pests, we are grateful to share our backyards with a wide range of creatures.