The abundant backyard

ONE dictionary defines backyard as ``an area that is one's private domain.'' Such an area is precisely what I had in mind after buying a new house with spacious grounds in the lower Rio Grande Valley of Texas. Retired after many years in the classroom and reams of theme grading, I did not intend to settle down to a rocking-chair life. I wanted a backyard garden that would also be a sanctuary for birds. I enclosed the yard boundaries by a chain-link fence, not an attractive feature in landscaping. So I concealed the unsightly but protective construction in shrubs and vines, chosen mainly for their usefulness to birds. After setting out carpet grass, I transplanted citrus trees - grapefruit, orange, and lemon - and the native ebony, anacua, wild olive, and cut-leaf mulberry. For the yard's centerpiece I set up a birdbath and encircled it by clumps of liriope, which produces flowers resembling grape hyacinth. Digging beds for roses, flowers, and vegetables completed the project.

Within several years, Mother Nature helping, my dream of a backyard became a reality. Fortunately I never supposed that a yard could be given a final shape, permitting me to just sit back and enjoy the handiwork. A garden is a growing thing requiring attention in all seasons, and joy comes from a labor of love.

Watering beds and basins around trees is a pleasant task in garden care. Done by hand, it is a restful pastime. There are happy surprises and wonders of nature's mysteries. Out of the blue a little Carolina wren comes unafraid to drink from a running hose. You ask why one cosmos is a deeper red than all others. How will the opossum, rarely seen, fare this winter, now that my nocturnal visitor has eaten the last of fallen citrus fruit?

Recently a fellow gardener dropped by to ask, ``What have you been doing in your garden?''

I began a narrative account of ordinary, progressive events. ``Yesterday I mowed the lawn, front and back. Today I pruned a pittosporum spreading close to a geranium bed bordered by petunias. Tomorrow I'll share a surplus of okra and tomatoes with a neighbor.''

``Very good,'' he said, smiling, ``but I detect an ulterior motive in your story. Certain words suggest that you want me to notice that new plant at the corner of your patio. Am I right?''

``You are indeed perceptive,'' I admitted. ``My very fine shrub, as you evidently know, is called yesterday, today, and tomorrow. I bought it because the flowers are sweetly scented and - ''

``They change colors on three successive days: purple yesterday, lavender today, and white tomorrow. The scientific name is Brunfelara calcycino floribunda.''

``You may now go to the head of the class,'' I said, ending that particular rap.

The new addition to my garden, however, is its only specimen plant; other shrubs furnish food for birds. After bursting out in tiny white flowers, yaupon makes edible red berries. Nectar for hummingbirds comes from scarlet-orange tubular flowers of the hamelia bushes. They also help to cover the fence. Perhaps the favorite bird food is a vigorous pepper bush, chili piqu'in. Feisty mockingbirds seem to get the first hot serving.

As a boy growing up in an agricultural area of cotton and corn, I usually enjoyed oranges only at Christmastime. What a delight today when I pick the ripe fruit for breakfast! Not to mention the flowers that perfume my backyard. I can say the same for grapefruit. I first tasted this delicious fruit in the 1920s at a high school banquet.

Appreciation for oranges and grapefruit notwithstanding, a small problem is posed by one of my garden companions, namely the grackle. Now this diligent bird, in dark plumage gleaming with iridescent hues of deep violet, is ever at my heels while I dig in the soil. It scrounges for grubs or runs about to catch insects on the wing. Useful without a doubt. But grackles have a mean habit, riddling holes in ripening fruit, which causes rot. Unable to control their ravages by placing plastic snakes or cans of mothballs in branches, I have adopted a philosophical attitude. Since I harvest more than an adequate supply of fruit, I take to heart an assertion by Emerson in his essay on compensation: ``... for every benefit you receive, a tax is levied.''

Birds of exotic beauty in my backyard are green jays and kiskadees. The green jay has a brilliant green body, golden tail feathers, blue head, and black throat. This feathered friend often examines the patio furniture for spiders and pecks in a pot of ferns. The kiskadee, a stocky flycatcher that calls its name, has a black-and-white face, brown wings, and bright yellow breast. Neither of the two rivals the mockingbird in singing. All birds, whether the bronze Inca dove feeding on the ground or the large white-wing dove swooping down to confront grackles at the feeder, add a lively charm to the yard.

I think the ultimate gift from year-round care of bird, tree, and flower is the contemplative life. The idea is found in ``The Garden,'' by Andrew Marvell: ``... all flowers and all trees do close/ To weave the garlands of repose.''

Even so, my backyard garden does not transcend all human concern suggested by the poet. Private domain, yes, but also a meeting place for acquaintances old and new. On numerous occasions my wife has answered the doorbell to find a visitor asking for me. Her reply is generally, ``Oh, he's in the backyard. Just follow the hose.''

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