Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls of all ages: Come see husband Ray's magnificent horizontal tree! It's true. The leafy branches of the tall old hackberry that once brushed the sky are now hugging the ground ... and have been for the past three years. Toppled by a windstorm, the tree continues to leaf out each year and - operating on the same principle that won't allow him to destroy any sick animal that's making an effort to live by eating - Ray won't remove the tree until it quits greening up each spring.
For the most part, Ray likes to let nature have its way. Is larkspur coming up in the wrong place? Hey, if it wants to grow there, Ray's content to let it be. On the other hand, if he decides he wants a shade plant - say hosta - to grow in a sunny spot, he sees no reason why it shouldn't thrive. And it usually does. Our friend Alice, a Master Gardener, saw where Ray had planted our first hosta and said, "You'll have to move that, or it will die."
That was about seven years ago, and the hosta is doing well ... so well that Ray has planted three more hostas next to the original plant. They have taken their marching orders from the mother plant and seem to be enjoying life in the sun.
Ray loves to plant flowers, but trees are a close second and - while he has planted sycamores (my favorite), Bradford pears, redbuds, maples and others commonly seen in the Midwest - he loves to grow unusual trees like tamarisks, redleaf birches, white fringes and cypress. He's especially fond of a crooked tree named Harry Lauder walking stick, and several trees of that variety dot our landscape. We also have a champion umbrella tree, a gift to Ray from co-workers almost a decade ago. It attracts the big yellow-and-black striped worms with horns on their tails that scared the daylights out of my mother when they adorned the umbrella tree that once lived in my parents' front yard.
The cool thing about all trees is the multitude of birds that nest and rest in them. Bluebirds favor the boxes Ray has wired to the wild cherry trees (I suspect they also fancy the cherries) that form a line along the western side of our property, while the cardinals, bluejays and bright little goldfinches prefer to sit in the birches just outside my office window. I've seen no nests in the birches, but hummingbirds have built two tiny nests in bushes, one in spirea, the other in holly.
Last summer, a couple of swallows built a nest on top of one of the porch lights on our deck. While the mud nest was interesting - it looked as though it had been crafted on a potter's wheel - I would have evicted them in a heartbeat. Not so Ray. Sure, they were fun to watch, especially when the three baby birds, scrawny and featherless, emerged from their eggs with wide-open beaks, demanding sustenance. Both parents were worn to a frazzle foraging for food and cramming it down their hatchlings' demanding throats.
My main objection to the swallows nesting on the porch light was the mess on the deck underneath the lamp. The amount of poop generated by five birds is considerable, and it is not my idea of fun to utilize a paint scraper to remove bird doo. Fact is, bird doo sticks better to wood than paint does, which makes me wonder if it would be a good additive to exterior paint on hard-to-keep-covered-with-paint surfaces like the fence that supports one of our rosebushes.
While Ray's loathing of snakes lurking in tall grass spurs him to keep our entire acreage mowed, he will - as a favor to me when autumn approaches - cease mowing a couple of large patches of native grasses that turn red in winter. The red grass sticking up through the snow provides a lovely contrast.
The high grass under our deck once attracted quail, but Ray now keeps it mowed short, and the skittish quail prefer the taller grass in the pasture next door. Turkeys, however, are not bothered by the lack of cover and are frequently spotted under the deck gobbling up the sunflower seeds that fall from the bird feeders. So do pheasants, a gift from the hunting preserve up the road from us. We delight in watching "the prey that got away" strolling through our yard.
Except for discouraging visits by snakes, Ray has done everything he can to make our property critter-friendly - even for raccoons, although that wasn't his intention. I only hope the critters enjoy our presence as much as we do theirs.