For Montclair Local

For the last 43 years my wife has worked conscientiously in our relatively small backyard to create appealing garden beds. It was never an easy undertaking because beneath a minuscule amount of soil, our property rests atop what I believe is an undiscovered rock quarry. 

I have no idea how many tons of rock reside just below the soil waiting for us to turn our backs so they can jump to the surface. But I do know that when asked to help enlarge a small bed, it involves a sturdy pickax and probably someone 30 years younger than I am to heft it. 

For decades, new rocks steadily ascend from the depths, and each year, for unknown reasons, we are astonished, and fool ourselves into thinking it can’t possibly happen again. In retrospect we should have known this would be an eternal boulder battle because we live in the Fieldstone section of town.

My opinion on what should be in a garden does not extend much beyond the simplistic notion that color is good. But I did tell Kathy that I believe the success of a garden is measured not just by the effort that goes into it, but also by what it attracts. 

Attracting humans is relatively simple and amounts to planning a party with hors d’oeuvres and wine. However, attracting wildlife such as birds requires more planning, consideration and attention to detail. 

Birds are mostly searching for food and shelter, and at other times simply want to hang out with the flock. Striking a seasonal balance with plantings to attract birds can be challenging because some diets change by season, and other birds are extremely limited in what they will eat.

The effort has paid off handsomely. Over the years, in addition to small birds, we’ve seen groundhogs, possums, foxes, turkeys, skunks, rabbits, chipmunks and the cutest little snakes. I probably should also count the mice, rats, voles, wasps and pseudoscorpions, and take special notice of the stunningly beautiful butterflies and moths.

A garter snake — once mistaken for a “green rattlesnake” — likes to sun itself atop the boxwoods in the author’s yard.
A garter snake — once mistaken for a “green rattlesnake” — likes to sun itself atop the boxwoods in the author’s yard.

The cute green snakes were garter snakes. They are not plentiful and don’t show the least amount of aggression. Their objective in life is to find food and avoid being eaten by anything bigger than they are. 

Our resident garter snake typically enjoys basking on top of the boxwood bushes. It makes a cute snake an easy target for the resident red-tailed hawks, but a quick plunge into the bush almost always stymies the hawks.

There was an incident many years ago when a garter snake met the man cutting the backyard grass. We were always happy with his grass cutting, and never thought to question his relationship with backyard wildlife. 

On a late afternoon, we returned home from shopping to find garden tools strewn across the backyard and no one cutting grass. Within minutes the phone rang, and it was the grass-cutting man calling to alert us to his serious concern when he discovered the yard infested with green rattlesnakes. 

He told us he only saw one but knew there had to be more. He also let us know that all of our neighbors were safe. He had gone door-to-door alerting everyone on our end of the block to the dangers of getting anywhere near our house. 

The lesson in all this is that if you live in the Northeast, green rattlesnakes can change your neighborhood relationships.

My judgment as to the success of the garden is uncertain. I’ve learned from my wife that hosta doesn’t attract birds, and that there is apparently a deer hotline that deer call to find out where their favorite food is waiting for them. 

Rabbits pose a similar problem. They have an aversion to letting a crocus flower bloom for more than one day. Then, to my dismay, the grackles turned on us. They purposely walk into the garden and find young shoots to clip at the base and carry away. The aromatic clippings do wonders for nest ambience. Even the beautiful goldfinches have the annoying habit of plucking all the petals from the coneflowers.

I don’t want to sound like the complete curmudgeon when it comes to what we see and hear in the yard. I enjoy the early morning songs and watching the backyard birds change with the seasons. And I think I can still laugh when the red-bellied woodpecker lets us know it is 6 a.m. by pecking on a window shutter.


 In “What’s in Your Backyard,” Sanford Sorkin and David Wasmuth write about the birds and beasts you may see around your house. 

Sorkin, a Montclair resident since 1978, is currently president of the Montclair Bird Club. An experienced bird watcher and accomplished nature photographer, he is the co-author, with Rick Wright, of “Watching Birds in Montclair,” “Feeding Birds in Northern New Jersey” and “Watching Birds in the New Jersey Meadowlands.”