My wife and I recently purchased two parcels of 36 acres total adjacent to the beautiful Haw River in Alamance County, NC. Our intent was not only to retire near our son in Durham, but to have a small oasis of nature in the larger whirlwind of development that swirls around so many areas. Such “backyard parks” are coming to be increasingly important in the attempt to preserve as much as possible of our rapidly diminishing natural world. Even a small lot can be managed to contain native plants and to foster only exotic species that are minimally invasive and beneficial to birds, butterflies and other animals. The river corridor along the Haw River is especially well preserved due to the periodic floods that inundate a broad strip of bottomland floodplains adjacent to the river. But there has been a long history going back to the middle 1700’s of severe exploitation of the land and water for agriculture and industry (primarily textile mills).
We have worked hard to develop a system of walking trails (note from the map that the area is almost entirely forested) so that we can host groups such as those from the local Reid Chapter of the NC Native Plant Society. For example we have led two field trips on Sept. 10 and 22, 2022. This photo shows part of one group standing at the base of an old growth American elm. This huge magnificent tree is growing along a dike immediately adjacent to the river, illustrating how a tree of about 100 years old can show the recent persistence of this sandy structure. I believe that 300 years of European human occupation of this area have had a massive negative impact which has been remarkably healed by recent abandonment of intensive farming and industry. The presence of an Indian fish weir (likely mainly to catch shad in the spring) reveals a much longer human occupation of the area extending back thousands of years possibly.
There are many plants of interest including a locally rare waterleaf, Hydrophyllum virginianum, known only from this site in Alamance county. This species blooms in the spring but is also quite evident throughout the summer and fall along the riverside trail that extends along the northern area. In a strange twist of fate the ability of this plant to compete with exotic summer growing stilt grass is enhanced by our trail maintenance activities.
We are particularly interested in encouraging plants that produce flowers and fruit that feed animals and the dogwood is a good example. The red fruit are available in Fall and Winter to feed a wide variety of birds such as this male scarlet tanager.
It seems likely that the property was entirely cleared for agriculture at one time and the presence of large old loblolly (and Virginia and short leaf) pine trees reveals that the presently heavily wooded areas were previously open. Pine trees are generally shade intolerant and will only grow in sun. This large loblolly was about 65 years old and the core reveals a substantial contraction in growth the last 10 years. There is an impressive variety of large hardwood trees also which have steadily grown and replaced the early successional pines within the last 50-100 years. We are very fortunate that the recent owners did not cut the woods for timber.
There are several problem areas that face us in managing this wonderful mixture of woodlands and wetlands. Some exotics are wide spread and difficult to control. Olives, privet, tree of heaven, Oriental bittersweet, and beefsteak mint (see photo of bottomland pasture area) and others will always be problems. We considered removing the beefsteak plant and replacing it with a wildflower meadow but were advised by NRCS that this would be impractical. Instead I am now thinking of planting an orchard of paw paws which are toxic and not eaten by deer. The woodlands are very heavily grazed by deer which eat almost everything that is not toxic to them. This poses a huge problem for the future of the forest ecology.
We have found a wonderful ally in protection/education of the Haw River floodplain ecosystem- the Haw River Assembly: https://hawriver.org/
So take stock of whatever pieces of nature that you have control of and make them as natural as you can. Even a small lot can be a wonderful refuge, including the lawn; cut infrequently and high, use no chemicals, and leave the leaves.