It began with Bed Number One. I was eager to garden. I’d lived in cities all my adult life and had not had a chance to plant anything since my Mother set aside plots in her garden for her children to grow what we wished from seed. My brother and I excitedly toured our first harvest of carrots around the neighborhood. So much sweeter than store-bought! My older sister chose flowers. So lame. You can’t eat flowers!
Now as an adult I wanted to grow flowers—so that birds and insects could eat. But how to do it?
Big box stores sold native perennials as “easy to maintain.” And I found some plants there, but I wasn’t sure if the showy hybrid varieties were as beneficial as the non-cultivated wild types. Every time I went plant shopping, I’d check their tags for a species name (the scientific name usually listed in italics underneath the common name). On my smart phone I’d google Echinacea purpurea (common name: purple coneflower). End of season sale: $3 each! Native New Jersey plant? Check! They looked half dead, but I couldn’t resist that price. I put them right in the lawn (an experiment that became Bed Number Two). Back in the city, helpful New Jersey neighbors phoned offering to water our “dying” flowers.
I’d tag along whenever Dave had to run an errand at a big box store. With a new, old house we had a lot of errands. Already checked out, he’d find me in the garden center on my smartphone confirming that Rudbeckia hirta (Black-eyed Susan) was local. Yes! Or that Calamagrostis x acutiflora ‘Karl Foerster’ Feather Reed grass is not invasive. Turns out feather reed grass—a hybrid of European and Asian grasses— is safe because its seeds are sterile. But it probably doesn’t have as many benefits as local switchgrass (Panicumvirgatum) which grows up between cracks in the pavement and along hundreds of miles of railroad tracks that crisscross New Jersey. Ready to get on with his day, Dave was not as excited as I was to know we could probably source Panicumvirgatum from an abandoned lot for free.
Local nurseries that specialize in native plants survive by selling wholesale. They offer native plants sales to the public a few times a year, but it can be hard to plan a garden with limited chances to buy. Then I found Prairie Nurseryout in Westfield, Wisconsin. They only sell native. Never use neonicotinoids. They ship across the United States to ordinary homeowners and provide excellent customer service. Their website allows you to search for native plants from your area and zone. A pre-planned 64-plant Pollinator Garden developed with the Xerces society made it super easy to get started.
Our side lawn was a boring rectangle of grass in full sun. Let’s turn it into a meadow! I placed the order for our pollinator garden in late May, 2015. The next weekend, Dave and I set out to dig the proscribed 15’ x 9’ bed before the 64 plants arrived.
Unbelievable hard work. Turns out it’s really difficult to dig up your lawn. We shoveled out blocks of sod then held them up with one hand while trying to knock out, rake and retain as much of the soil with the other hand. In all, we dug out about 67 cubic feet of lawn. Replacing all of that with bagged garden soil would be super expensive, so we saved as much of the original soil as we could. Sweat poured down my brow and into my eyes until I couldn’t see to work. We worked in stages, separating the bed into three parts so we could celebrate hitting mini-goals. Wheelbarrows full of grass and roots were hauled to a newly designated compost pile. Hauling was a welcome break from digging. Exhausted, I researched better ways to dig out lawn and learned about the cardboard method for smothering grass and preparing a garden bed. We now use this lazy and smart way of preparing a bed.
The 3” plant pots arrived by FedEx in early June. We carefully unpacked the boxes labelled “Live Plants” and followed the instructions to give the plants 24 hours to re-hydrate and recover. Compared to preparing the bed, planting was easy.
Bed Number One Plant List:
New England Aster
Purple Prairie Clover
Sweet Joe Pye Weed
By August, the Wild Senna, New England Asters, Ironweed and Blazing Stars were already 3-feet tall!
In early September a monarch visited the garden. It loved the Meadow Blazing Star, a plant described in the Prairie Nursery catalog as a “monarch magnet.” It did just as described—but we were astounded. We had never seen a monarch in our garden before. We had seen monarchs each September hugging the ‘Jersey shoreline on their way to Mexico. But the garden is more than a mile from the ocean.
How the hell did the Monarchs find us? I actually knew the particulars (I’d produced a video on insect chemical receptors).
Still, it felt like we were witnessing a miracle — a natural miracle. Dave and I became hooked on native gardening.