This blog post is the continuation of an interview with Lisa Calfee. Read part one here.
How have you applied these ideas in your yard, helped other people apply them, and helped educate others?
After grad school, I worked for HARP (Habitat Assessment and Restoration Program) in Charlotte restoring streams in the Piedmont of North Carolina. Eventually, I started teaching at universities. I’ve always tried to spread the word about the damage that invasives do to habitats through teaching and trying to inform future homeowners (students) about how the landscaping decisions they make effect the natural world around them. I’m pleased to have students who email me five years later and say, “Hey, you know what I had to do this weekend? I had to go clean privet out of my grandma’s yard, and I thought of you. And I could tell her why she wanted that privet gone!”
What are some of the practical things you’ve done in your yard?
Almost all of the backyard was bush honeysuckle and privet. When we first moved here, my husband pulled out a school bus-sized pile of honeysuckle, privet, and other invasives. You can see the difference. There’s a line (the property line) where you can see the parts that haven’t been cleared. It’s more profound in the summer when the leaves of the honeysuckle are green. It becomes an impenetrable green wall.
And I have worked with the neighborhood some to help encourage invasive removal.
What do you do to keep the invasive species from coming back?
I just keep hand pulling. For a while, my husband wanted to spray, so we used to fight about that, but we just pull and very rarely use pesticides.
And does replacing the invasives you remove with native species help?
It does. When I was working with that restoration group in Charlotte, I learned about that. It wasn’t intuitive to me at the time, but I was taught that if you don’t put back in the good stuff, the invasive plants come back because they form the seedbank. The seedbank is the seeds that exist in the ground at that time, so if it’s been covered with invasive plants for twenty years, that’s what will grow back.
I haven’t done much planting in the past four or five years, but in the first several years we were here, I put in a lot of native plants and wildflowers like river oats, Joe-Pye weed, goldenroad, wingstem, ironweed, black-eyed Susans, milkweed, inkberry, serviceberry, fothergilla, redbuds, cedars, oaks, and a bunch more.
There was a learning curve because I came from the Appalachian area with more acidic soils where it was easier to grow things.
Since you started removing invasive plants and restoring native communities and improving habitat, have you noticed a change in the insects and animals in your yard?
Yeah, the Bald Eagle. [laughter] I built it! And what Kevin Costner says in the movie Field of Dreams is true, “If you build it, they will come.” I’ve noticed that since I feed the chickens seeds a lot of birds have moved in. More than in past years.
Two weeks ago, our cedar tree was covered with cedar waxwings. I’ve never seen those in my yard before. I also put in evening primrose, and I have seen twenty goldfinches outside our living room window. Goldfinches love evening primrose.
We had monarchs here for about three years. The number got smaller and smaller each year, and we saw maybe two last summer. But one year, I had fifty chrysalises on the eaves of the house and the front porch. Again, it really was a thing of building it, and they came. There were so many, probably a thousand caterpillars. You could stand on the porch and hear a mass chewing on the milkweed. It was common milkweed, and they were chewing it straight down the stalk almost to the ground.
This year in particular, we have a lot of titmice. There’s just a lot more birds here than there used to be. And, without them, we wouldn’t have the bald eagle that has moved in.
So there are pros and cons.
Definitely. You can’t have predator unless it has things to feed on. I’ve got the whole cycle here!
We had a lot of butterflies this year. The first three years we were here, you never saw butterflies. Now you see butterflies all the time in the summer. I feel fortunate to get to see all this. And we have lots of turtles. Last summer, I saw six different box turtles. We also had one red-eared slider.
And they are residents of our yard. They’re not like the Bald Eagle. He’s here, but he’s also over this entire neighborhood. I can’t take credit for him. I do think that the turtles are a reflection of what we’ve done here, though. And the butterflies. The butterflies do not come unless there is food.
That’s amazing. So what are three really practical things that people can do to help decrease invasive populations in their yard and increase native populations?
Compost. Tons and tons of compost. You cannot overdo the compost. I believe that is why we have so many turtles. Chickens also love the compost, because compost provides bugs. Many coffee places will give you free coffee grounds, which provide nitrogen for the compost pile. We pick up 50-200 bags of leaves each fall to add to a massive compost pile that is fun for kids to play on. We have enough compost to share every year. Many tree services will also give you free wood chips if they are in your area. (I like to tip them something.) The wood chips make good mulch and break down into compost. I do not worry about them affecting the soil fertility. For 10 years we’ve been adding to our property and I’ve seen no issue with nutrient deficiency. Do make sure it is from a non-diseased tree and not a load full of privet or honeysuckle fruits.
Clear out the invasives, of course, and then thoughtfully bring back in some native plants. Think about what you want your site to look like in terms of shade and habitat. Different organisms live in different conditions. Rabbits like more open spaces, but the turtles need semi-forested areas and lots of compost. Birds and butterflies need particular food sources and cover. All of these are things to consider. The Tennessee Exotic Plant Pest Council has a brochure to help. Tennessee Valley Authority also has a native plant search site, as do other non-profits. Make sure you are looking for plants that are regionally native.
Keep your cats indoors. Cats are a significant (if not the greatest) threat to birds.
Those are great tips. Thank you so much for your time and for sharing your expertise with us.
Lisa Calfee formerly taught botany and biology at Vanderbilt, Queens University, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and Central Piedmont Community College. Prior to working in academics she worked for Habitat Assessment and Restoration Program and Bartlett Tree Service, both in Charlotte. Upon moving to Nashville, Lisa helped her husband open a small animal veterinary referral and emergency practice. She has a B.S. in Zoology and Biology and a M.S. in Plant Sciences from University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her Ph.D. is in Horticulture from Virginia Tech. Currently Lisa serves on the Board of Trustees for the Tennessee chapter of the Nature Conservancy and spends most of her time homeschooling her son.
Native plant photos are public domain, licensed under CC0 1.0.