Touring Our Gardens
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years ago (1994) in the late fall I went to the library looking for a book
called Noah's Garden by Sara Stein. I didn't find that book, but I
did find a book called Requiem for a Lawnmower, by Sally Wasowski,
and read it from cover to cover. I was enchanted
by the idea that there something other than grass and day lilies to grow,
something that might grow with more vigor and less effort, and benefit the
wildlife in the process. When I returned Requiem, Noah's Garden was
waiting for me and I was even more inspired to do something different in
this garden. Mind you, I live in farm country, where nearly every stretch
of land not in crops is
mowed to the hilt, so my notion was definitely out of the ordinary. I
guess the farmers are afraid a weed might show up in the field if they let
the byways grow, which they do anyway, barring decimation with
herbicide. In my early days in Nebraska, the roads were all lined
with wild flowers and grasses, so I know the child's delight they can provide. One
day one of the local Germanic types even commented
how beautiful the clear mowed grass was along the road. My response,
"But where will the birds and bees live?"
That started me on a saga of mulched grass and expanding meadow beds. There was little of interest growing on the property when we arrived 25 years ago, so each garden bed has evolved gradually with much digging and hauling. The meadow project began with lots of newspaper and cardboard laid down in a section of the backyard to smother the grass. I even tried cooking the grass in the hot sun of summer with a large clear plastic bag that our mattress came in. That worked partially, followed by more newspaper.
Planting the garden was more of a challenge. Northwest Ohio is not noted for its ecological sensitivity, and I did not know of a place to buy local native plants, there are few places in the area where you can collect seeds, nor did I know anyone who had a garden of native plants. I finally located a young man who was going to help me plan my wild garden. He came out to the house one time, and even brought me my first wild flowers, a joe pye weed, a swamp milkweed, and a swamp sunflower. I had explained to him that the land was heavy clay, and quite swampy in the spring (This area was once the Great Black Swamp), so I wasn't sure what would grow well. But he lost interest and never came back.
So I was on my own, and catalogues were the way to go. I studied the lists of flowers that grow in Oak Openings, which is sandy, made some selections and ordered seeds from a Wisconsin company. I wasn't patient enough to wait for the grass to be completely dead, so Bill knocked together some flats from weather resistant lumber that had been laying around, and I filled them with garden soil, planted the seeds, and set the flats outside in late winter, to get the benefit of winter chill and moisture to induce them to sprout. They did well, and by summer I was making holes in what remained of the newspaper and planting my little babies - hundreds of them!
The next summer, when I was visiting Mother in Minneapolis, I visited a native plant nursery to see what they had to offer. They advised me to look for plants that tolerated wet conditions, and pointed out that all their plants were marked as to the soil conditions they would grow in - very helpful information. I bought a goodly number of little 6-packs of forbs and grasses, packed them carefully in a small suitcase, and brought them home on the plane!
And so the garden grew. The bare grass is now alive with forbs (the flowers and herbs), grasses, insects and birds. Unfortunately as an island in the midst of fields farmed chemically, the birds are a disappointment. My regulars are pesty house sparrows, house finches, gold finches, blue jays. I have had chipping sparrows, song sparrows, cardinals, juncos, but I have seen them rarely this year (2003). I wonder if the massive use of genetically engineered crops that are laced with insecticides and completely mowed field edges have made this area totally inhospitable, perhaps even deadly, to many native birds and the insects they feed on. Unfortunately there is little understanding of the fact that a well-run organic operation has little problem with pests and disease, and is more profitable to boot. I hope our farmers learn before they find that their fields are deadly to humans also!