Hurrying down the path to the back door of my house after work on a dusky mid-June evening in Portland, I had a close encounter with a turkey mom and her band of fluffy poults. They were pressed up against an exterior house wall and snuggled among the day lilies and the Cranesbill geraniums. I don’t know who was more surprised – mom or me. (I call it a garden bed. She just called it bed.)

That’s how it went this summer. My goal to make my garden more hospitable to the creatures who live around me – planting native plants, avoiding pesticides, deadheading with restraint, letting the lawn grow longish – seemed to be going somewhere, but it wasn’t always going somewhere I intended.

Take the yellow jackets who have nested inside the wall by my front door. I called around to get rid of them, but the “solutions” all seemed to involve poison or death by vacuum, and though I suspect I’m being foolish (very foolish), I couldn’t bring myself to condemn them to death. For the moment, we have an uneasy live-and-let-live truce. I avoid the front door, mostly. Or if I use it, I am mindful of their flight pattern and their home. For their part, they have not ventured into my space inside the house.

There are also paper wasps in the shed, just a tiny nest (so far). The wasps and I struck a similar deal: They leave me in peace (so far) if I leave them in peace. I am hoping I can slide along in stasis until the cold weather arrives, when most of them die off (I think? I hope), and get rid of the nests then.

If the wasps have made me anxious this summer, their cousin, the bees, have made me swell with pride. They have made a beeline for three plants in particular – three species of out-of-control mint (is there any other kind?) by the kitchen door, and the great blue lobelia and Globe thistle that I bought at Maine Audubon’s annual native plants sale. Many species of bees are in serious trouble, but you’d never know it if you could see five of them in a jolly football huddle on a single globe thistle flower in my yard.

I have mixed feelings about the woodchuck that I see waddle through on rare occasions. There’s no denying he’s cute. Not so cute is his appetite for my kale. Fortunately, he has not (yet) discovered the two plants I stuck in the middle of the front flower bed when I ran out of space elsewhere, so we’re at a standoff. He got two plants. I got two plants.


The woodpecker is another visitor I like in theory – as it’s one of the few birds I can identify with confidence. Still, I’d prefer not to be identifying him because in his search for a bug banquet he is methodically poking a hole in the rotting spot near the roof that has needed replacement all summer.

Many other winged creatures have stopped by, as well. The swamp milkweed that I also purchased at the Audubon sale operated, as promised, as a butterfly beacon: For a few weeks in early August, I saw monarchs every morning when I sat on the deck to drink my cup of morning coffee. The thrill never got old. That is one drop-dead gorgeous, charismatic creature! And right on cue in mid-August, I discovered two monarch caterpillars, another thrill.

I never saw a chrysalis, though. I blame it on the aphids, uninvited guests who swarmed the milkweed pods, looking like tobiko on a piece of sushi. A naturalist I heard on Maine Public Radio gave me a glimmer of hope: The caterpillars have a surprisingly large range, he said, and often wander off in search of fresh milkweed plants (would they have left so many uneaten leaves, though?).

Trixie, whose tastes usually run to mice, nevertheless shows interest in the shed skins of garter snakes living in her yard.

The swamp milkweed also attracted perhaps my favorite creature of the season. I posted two blurry pictures on Twitter with a question: “This AMAZING bug was feasting on my swamp milkweed this morning. Clear wings. Looked like a hummingbird. Hovered like a hummingbird. Very long, elegant nose?/tongue? sticking into the flower. What is she??”

Two helpful naturalists IDed her as a hummingbird moth, something I’d never seen nor even heard of before. It certainly lives up to its name. I hadn’t heard of Columbine leaf miner, either. And I never did see the fly. But my unattractively yellow/beige-curlicue-streaked Columbine leaves blared its presence. Is the lesson of my garden this summer that you have to take the good with the bad?

More bad: Given long stretches of dry weather this summer, why was I scratching and covered in mosquito bites whenever I so much as ventured into the garden?


More good! Very good: The bat I saw one August evening flitting high overhead. I hope she was dining on those mosquitoes at a bat-gorging rate of 1,000 per hour. And I hope she had company, bat friends who, like her, apparently escaped white nose syndrome. I like to think I didn’t see more bats, not because their numbers in Maine have plummeted, but because my usual garden gaze was downward.

As night fell, two other mammals got my attention in a big way.

In July, there was the fox. My cat alerted me with a shriek. The fox, unperturbed, looked at me coolly and continued to stroll across the yard.

The next month, it was a skunk. Until this summer, I didn’t know I spoke skunk, but apparently I’m fluent (not so, alas, with the languages that I spent hours, days and years studying). When this fellow stomped its feet, then charged me with its tail held high, I got the point. Fast. I backed away slowly, and miracle of miracles, avoided being sprayed.

I saw the turkey with her brood just once more. But the garter snakes and I were old friends by summer’s end. They live in the rock wall by my driveway and often come out to sun atop the wall, by the newly planted rose bushes or even on the far side of the garden, where we startle one another – they slither, I jump – on hot summer mornings (plenty of those this year). Several times over the course of the summer, they shed their skins and left them for me to the delight of a colleague’s children, and by late August, I began seeing hatchling snakes, too. I’d be even happier with my snake pals if they’d step up their game and eat a few more of the mice that populate the lawn (and come winter, my basement) but as far as I’m concerned, a snake in the garden – a bat in the garden, a moth in the garden, a bee in the garden, even, maybe, a wasp in the garden – is a good thing.

We 326 million Americans like to spread out. We like our (often excessively large) single-family homes and our neat, trimmed, monoculture lawns, however uncongenial they are to wildlife. We like our colossal, convenient asphalt parking lots, too; they surround me in the mall area of South Portland where I work and offer animals a big fat nothing. Already pressured by climate change, wildlife is forced to cope with rapid habitat loss, too.

My plan was to make my garden as inviting to them – full of good food and safe shelter – as it is to me, since increasingly they have nowhere else to go. Learning to share space may be one way to help ensure their survival. I thought, in other words, that I was granting favors. But this summer, I learned maybe I was getting the long end of the stick. The birds, the bees, the mammals, the reptiles, the crawling creatures and the buzzing ones, opened my eyes to a dynamic, vivid and vital world that’s as near as my – our – backyard.

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