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The Humble Gardener

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If You Build It, They Might Come

If you build it, they will come. If this is true of baseball fields, I figured it was applicable to gardens for pollinators as well. In an effort to eliminate grass mowing coupled with a wish to provide habitat and food for bees, butterflies, and birds, I decided to plow part of a side yard that was difficult to mow and boring to view. I had to do some fast talking to my gardening partner, but eventually I wore him down.

Chip helped to till the new garden in early spring, relinquishing the tiller to me after the first pass. He commented that manhandling the heavy tiller would develop my upper body strength. Is "womanhandling" a word? It should be.

Finally, the tilling was finished; I removed the clumps of grass that resisted the tiller's tines and headed off to the Knox County land fill to buy compost. I had ordered native plants from Knox County Soil and Conservation and a couple of nurseries, all of which would need a welcoming home.

Instead of spreading the entire garden area with compost, I dug holes and put compost in each hole. Then I used the spade as a one bladed mixer and mixed the compost with some of the soil I had removed from the hole. I wasn't sure if this would work, but I made sure to dig a bigger hole than the small seedlings required so the roots would have soft and rich soil to grow in. I have a Mantis tiller that is easy to hold and blends the amendments with the soil, but the silly thing is on strike so it was back to a single shovel and some elbow grease. Time consuming but effective nonetheless.

The result was a rich base for the seedlings to start their new life. The spring rains helped. Soon I had plants that were happily settling in to their new home. Despite my enthusiastic over ordering of plants during bleak February, I still had some gaps in the garden. I shifted some purple coneflowers that were overcrowded in another garden and some black eyed Susans to provide some yellow color. A friend suggested planting some Joe Pye Weed, which is a tall plant with large blooms that last from late summer to fall. The plant is fairly tall but it does come in a dwarf (3-4') size. The pollinators, she promised, would love it.

Spring and summer blooms were covered but I needed something that would bloom in fall. In British novels, the main character is often going out in blustery weather to stake Michaelmas daisies. In my research for native plants, I had an "Aha" moment when I discovered that Michaelmas daisies are also known as New England asters. These plants provide nectar for butterflies as well as bees in late summer to early fall. (If you don't want to be like the English heroine, you can pinch them back in July so they don't get so tall.) I planted the purpley-bluish plants, smug because my new garden was heavy with pink and yellow plants; the New England asters would provide a different hue.

After consulting with gardening friends throughout the summer, we all reported the lack of Monarch eggs or caterpillars on our milkweed. Last year, Chip and I raised and released 80 Monarchs from eggs we found on our garden's milkweed. This year we saw three Monarchs and found zero eggs. Other gardeners who also raised Monarchs last year have reported finding few eggs as well. These discussions reaffirmed the need for the garden for other creatures besides me. I happily mulched the garden as the plants grew tall and bloomed. I marveled at the magic of planting a tiny seedling and seeing it emerge into a gorgeous plant.

As the summer merges into fall, the garden is fulfilling its promise. The best part of the daily garden tour, of course: the visitors. Bees are thick on the blooms. Admiral and swallowtail butterflies-not very many but a few- visit. And one magnificent day, I opened the door and saw eight Monarchs hanging from the Joe Pye Weed. I grabbed the dogs by their collars before their boisterous exit could disturb the butterflies. Seeing the pollinators snacking and resting in the new garden made the tilling, hauling, planting, watering, weeding, and mulching totally worth the labor. One does, after all, what one can.

By Sandra DePalma-Odell

Master Gardener

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