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Home landscaping and tax tips for Earth Day 2021

Rosemary debris 2021-04-21-cropped
We lost all our ornamental rosemary bushes in February's devastating winter storm. This debris pile is all that's left of them. (Kay Bell photo)

February's surprisingly harsh winter storm has done a number on our yard. We are not alone. Major federal disaster areas were declared for parts of frozen Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

I've heard the same stories from my Austin neighbors, as well as friends in the Sooner and Pelican States. While some of our exterior flora made it through the subfreezing temperatures, quite a few of our plants succumbed.

Our line of ornamental rosemary bushes in the backyard took the hardest hit. When we planted them back in 2008, they were tiny, as seen in the top image below.

Rosemary bushes 2018 and a few years later
Photos by Kay Bell

A few years later, as the bottom photo shows, they were thriving. The line of six along our lower terrace routinely poured over the stone fence and filled that area with their wonderful scent.

Then Mother Nature went on a rampage starting Feb. 11, 2021. After the temperatures finally topped 32 degrees and the snow and ice melted, we were left with lifeless rosemary shrubs. The hubby dug out the remains and stacked them, as shown in the photo at the top of this post, at the back of our yard.

New landscaping now, tax break later: Now we're contemplating what goes in their place. We'll likely get some more rosemary bushes, but also are looking for some plants with a bit more color, not only for our visual enjoyment, but to also produce flowers that attract bees, butterflies and birds.

Plus, the new landscaping could help us save taxes when we eventually sell our home. More on this tax component a bit later.

First, though, as a birdwatcher and in recognition of Earth Day on April 22, I want to talk about ways to jazz up your home's exterior with flashy colors, creative melodies and hours of viewing entertainment without staging a Broadway musical in your backyard.

Simply add some of that aforementioned bird-friendly landscaping.

Do your homework: When deciding what flora to add to your yard, start with fauna. Find out what birds frequent your region and in what seasons. This will determine your choice of plants.

Be realistic. There are limitations on what you can attract. We love our backyard's disappearing stream and even though wading birds make Central Texas their home, too, we'll never get a heron in our backyard.

Do some avian homework so that you're not disappointed with what birds do or don't come to visit your carefully crafted habitat.

You always can head to the internet, but I suggest attending your local Audubon chapter's meetings or going on one of their guided hikes. These ornithological enthusiasts will provide you a good overview of your area's winged world.

Also head to the library or nearest bookstore for a copy of a birding field guide; the most popular are compiled by Audubon, Peterson, Kaufman or Sibley. These well-illustrated publications offer maps that give you an idea of what birds are common to your area, both year-round and seasonally, as well as their habitat preferences. And they'll help you identify your bird visitors when they find your backyard.

Go native: Once you've got an idea of your area's birds, pick the plants that they (and you) like and that fit into your natural topography.

Ideally, you want something that doesn't take a lot of pampering. It's less work for you and keeps you out of the birds' territory.

Both ornithological and landscaping pros also agree that indigenous plants are the best bet. Native plant species are what the birds and other wildlife are adapted to, so it's better at attracting them.

Not only are the area's birds already living in the naturally occurring vegetation, it generally is more resistant to the region's insects and weather patterns — unless a freak winter storm arrives! In some places, local governments and homeowners' associations have even gotten into the act, mandating that non-native invasive species be taken out and replaced with native plants.

Your county horticulturist can office guidance on whether a tree or shrub you want belongs in your area. Also check with reputable landscapers or attend a local gardening club session.

Don't overlook nearby nature preserves. The naturalists there can tell you what's good for your area. In fact, many wildlife areas encourage landscape naturalization by holding sales (usually at very competitive prices) of native plants. This way the preserve boundaries are effectively expanded into the adjoining neighborhoods, creating more habitat for the area wildlife.

Roadrunner at backyard stream 081017-2_cropped
No herons, but roadrunners regularly visit
our backyard stream. (Kay Bell photo)

Boost your bird buffet: You'll also want a variety of native plants to provide food and cover year-round. Look into a mix of flowering trees, shrubs, and perennial and annual flowers for the nectar.

Plus, the more diversity you have in plants, the more diversity you'll have in visiting birds.

Also consider planting in clusters. Not only does it look nice for you, birds like it, too.

It also helps if you get your neighbors involved. If both you and homeowners on either side of your yard plant similar plants along your property lines, that creates a wider bird zone.

And don't forget water. The offering can be as simple as a plain stone birdbath or as elaborate as a small pool or stream running through your property.

Just make sure it's available year-round. Water is as important in the dead of winter when natural sources freeze as it is in the mid-summer heat.

Valuable detritus: Even yard debris can be a bird magnet. I must confess, though, that our stack of dead rosemary is getting hauled off later this week.

Still, disarray isn't necessarily bad if done properly.

Pruned tree limbs collected in a section of yard that's not overtly visible can be a good place for birds to escape predators or forage. You always can put plants around it to dress it up some.

Be careful, though, if you live in a fire-prone area. In this case, brush piles are not the best idea. Instead, provide cover by building a rock pile or wall, by densely planting shrubs or by installing roosting boxes.

The dark side of birds: Speaking of predators, be prepared for them when you invite birds into your backyard. They are an unavoidable component of the natural cycle and the most troublesome of the few drawbacks that come with a bird-friendly landscape.

In residential neighborhoods, cats (both your neighbor's roaming tabby as well as feral felines) are the biggest problem. Depending upon how suburban or exurban your home is, you also could have raccoons stealing eggs from temporarily untended nests, as well as foxes, snakes and birds of prey (from kestrels to hawks to owls) looking for their next meal.

Danger also comes from more than teeth and talons and it's not limited to threats against birds. In addition to attracting hummingbirds, nectar-producing plants draw wasps and bees. If anyone in your family is allergic their stings, place these flowers and shrubs away the barbecue pit or the children's play area.

And keep in mind that most bird parents are just as protective of their offspring as you are yours. The aggressiveness of some birds in protecting their territory is legendary, meaning you could be persona non grata in your own yard during breeding season.

Your house as a bird target: Then there are housing issues — yours, not the birds.

Woodpeckers, for example, are gorgeous to look at and wonderful at eating away at the insects in your trees. But sometimes they forsake those snags for your siding or wooden window sills and eaves. The noise, not to mention the damage their sturdy bills can cause, make some homeowners wish they had never extended an invitation to feathered friends.

Many a songbird also has met an untimely end flying into a home's picture window, so be careful about what plants you place in that area.

And don't forget about your human neighbors. They may not be as bird-crazy as you. Don't put a bird-luring plant next to the property line that runs along your neighbors' driveway without talking to them first. They might not like what the birds leave on their autos.

For the most part, however, landscaping for birds is a win-win for everyone. Birds flourish and homeowners get insight into a new environment.

Landscaping's enjoyment and tax value: And ultimately, there's that tax break I teased early in this post.

If you can ever bear to sell your avian friendly nesting place, all your yardwork could help prevent a potential tax bill.

The biggest home-related tax break is the exclusion of profit from taxes when you sell. A single homeowner can make up to $250,000 on a residential sale and not owe Uncle Sam. The tax-free profits amount is double that for a married, jointly filing couple who sells their primary home.

Of course, we're talking taxes, so things are as simple as those exclusion amounts seem. The Internal Revenue Service enforces the tax code rules about other aspects of your homeownership, like how long you (and your spouse, if married) have owned and lived in the house. These requirements are detailed in IRS Publication 523, Selling Your Home.

The bottom line is that many homeowners don't have to worry about taxes when they sell their homes.

A few, however, might exceed or nudge up near that home sale exclusion amount. That's especially true of folks who've owned their residence for a long time or who live in an area where home prices have increased dramatically.

Bigger basis, smaller home sale tax bill: Home improvements can help here. And landscaping is considered a home improvement.

These upgrades add to your personal piece of real estate's value or prolong the property's life. And they add to your home's adjusted basis.

That's the value of the property that you use to calculate your eventual profit on the sale of your home. A larger basis means a smaller profit.

Don't freak out. This tax figuring doesn't mean you'll get less money in hand when you hand over your house keys to the new owners. Rather, larger home basis is good when it comes to the calculation that determines whether the profit on your home stays under the tax exclusion amount for your filing status.

So consider making some backyard or more improvements. They'll be welcome by your avian and other natural visitors. You'll get to enjoy them while you live there.

And when it is time to move on, they also could help you do so with more sale's cash in hand and no tax bill to worry about.

More birds! You can get an idea of some of the birds your yard work might attract at the latest post (and video) over at my tumblr blog, Tumbling Taxes.

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