Some people worry that if they garden with plants too tall and dense to see over or through, their yard will become a haven for snakes, scorpions, rats, and other unwelcome critters.
(In fact, some homeowners in Arizona fear that they will attract snakes and scorpions by eliminating their water-guzzling lawns in favor of desert-style landscaping with almost no plants at all. Change is scary.)
The idea that natural yards harbor rodents can be dispensed with quickly: rats and mice are attracted to human habitation. Regardless of what is growing in your yard, they are not interested in searching for food among the plants. Instead, they will scavenge in garbage cans. And while it may be true that rodents will nest in brush piles, providing no shelter for them in the yard simply means that they will find a place to nest in the house. The bottom line is that it’s impossible to get rid of mice, and anyway we shouldn’t want to: humans and mice live in the same kind of habitat, and if the mice can’t survive somewhere, it’s probably not a great place for us either.
As for snakes and scorpions, it depends where you live. In some areas, there are small, hard-to-see creatures that can deliver a nasty bite or sting. On the other hand, in Wisconsin, there are no venomous animals, and no predators larger than coyotes (which, contrary to popular belief, only very rarely carry off pets or small children).*
Part of the preparation for establishing a natural yard is understanding what kinds of wildlife live in the area, whether they are actually dangerous to people, and how we might gently discourage them from coming too close to the house. Often, the best solution may simply be to watch our step. After all, they were here first – and while we can stick to pavement or indoor areas, they may have nowhere else to go. It is our responsibility to be respectful of our non-human neighbors.
*Shortly after this topic was posted, there were confirmed sightings of a cougar in the suburbs of Milwaukee. Cougars used to be found across the entire United States – including Wisconsin – until they were eliminated from much of their former range. While it may seem scary to have a large wildcat roaming our cities, this has been going on for some time already in Los Angeles, where the cougars avoid people and are almost never seen. The presence of a top predator in an urban area is not a reason for fear, but rather a cause for celebration – it means that our local ecosystem is functional enough to support the highest level of the food web.