Skies were dreary and heaped with slate-colored clouds, but all was bright in Sandy VandenBerg's garden, near Fremont, Michigan, when I stopped by for a tour last week.
The 75- by 80-foot flower plot, criss-crossed with paths and accented with garden ornaments, is the result of a decade-long labor of love, Sandy told me. The plot started out as a vegetable garden, edged with a border of flowers. Somehow, over the years, the vegetables disappeared, and the flowers took over. Even the flower mix evolved over time, as Sandy added more and more native plants—about 50 in all—and those plants thrived alongside the 100 or so non-natives she acquired from friends and family members who helped her get the garden started.
"The natives, they just flourish, they go crazy," Sandy says. "I let them be where they want to be."
As a native plant gardener, Sandy is part of a (pardon the pun) growing trend. Many green-thumbed growers are adding native plants to their landscapes, for a variety of reasons.
Once established, native plants generally don't need to be fussed over. Because they're adapted to local conditions, they typically require less water—a big plus for gardeners accustomed to lugging around a hose or watering can.
The gardens attract some lovely visitors, too. Native bees, butterflies, moths, bats, hummingbirds, and other pollinators flock to the flowers. The seeds, nuts, and fruits of the plants offer an enticing buffet for wildlife, and the whole plants provide shelter—all important for critters whose habitats have been fragmented or destroyed by urbanization and other factors.
As natural gardening pioneer Ken Druse writes in The Natural Habitat Garden (Potter, 1994), "a habitat-style garden of native plants welcomes the whole food chain—not just flowers, birds, and butterflies, but also a magnificent decaying tree stump teeming with life, ringed by otherworldly fluted layers of fungi."
In contrast, many of the flowers and ornamental shrubs and trees sold in nurseries are exotics from other parts of the world. While wildlife may utilize some of these plants, they aren't the plants these animals evolved to use. What's more, some exotic plants become invasive, outcompeting native species and degrading remaining habitat, the Audubon Society maintains.
Sandy's interest in native plants began when her children were small. "On walks through the woods with the kids, I started noticing wildflowers, and I wanted to learn their names." As her love of local plants grew, she thought she'd like to have some in her own garden. She started shopping at the Newaygo Conservation District's annual native plant sale and attending the workshops offered during the sale each year.
Now, she not only tends her own burgeoning garden, she also shares seeds and plants with friends. It's not unusual for her to show up at our Monday morning yoga class with a carload of coneflowers, wood poppies, and other treasures.
On our recent walk through her garden, we admired wild petunias, rattlesnake master, pink coneflowers, yellow coneflowers, false sunflowers, bee balm, queen of the prairie, boneset, wild ginger, native phlox, and maidenhair ferns, as well as a few non-native perennials.
Especially impressive: a towering cluster of cup plants. The basin formed by their large leaves catches rainwater that birds, insects, and small mammals imbibe.
The garden refreshes Sandy, too, and aligns with her yoga practice.
"I practice a yoga nidra called, interesting enough, “Moving into the garden of your heart,” by Betsy Downing, one of my yoga instructor heroes," she says. "I attended Betsy's workshops for several years in Grand Rapids. On the practice tape, she asks you to visualize moving through a garden. She refers to it as the garden of your heart, and it is there to return to anytime you need peace and tranquility. When I open the gates of my actual garden, all worries are left at the gates. Sometimes the time spent there is hard physical work, and other times I'm just spending time appreciating all the beauty of nature. I always walk back out the gates a more grounded and peaceful being."
As we wrapped up our garden tour, I asked Sandy for tips to share with gardeners who'd like to give natives a try. Matching plants to soil and site type is essential, she said. Prairie plants won't prosper in a boggy area, and woodland plants will wither in a sandy, dry site.
Druse concurs. "Never have the words don't fight the site held so much meaning," he writes. "It is the habitat gardener's guiding principle."
Another thing to keep in mind: while native plants don't need a lot of pampering, they're not exactly maintenance-free. They can grow very tall and sprawly and may need to be staked or moved to roomier sites. And while they don't need fertilizer, adding compost can give a boost to plants that like rich soil. Sandy keeps four compost piles working and adds composted material periodically.
Also important: where you get your native plants. Plants that are propagated by a nearby native plant nursery or sold by a native-plant society or legitimate plant-rescue operation are all fair game. Digging up wild plants on your own is a no-no.
As a gardener who abandoned exotic perennials in favor of native plants when we moved to our woodsy setting six years ago, I can tell you that the joys of going natural far outweigh the challenges. Since I began planting and encouraging native plants, I've been delighted to see trillium, wild geranium, columbine, lupine, butterfly weed, black-eyed susans, cinquefoil, evening primrose, bee balm, horsemint, coneflowers, blazing star, prairie smoke, wild petunia, marsh marigold, blue-eyed grass, mayapple, spiderwort, and many more make themselves at home on our property. And along with them, a colorful assortment of butterflies, bees, birds, bats, and other creatures with whom I'm happy to share our space.
For more information on native plant gardening:
Wild Ones native plant organization
Michigan Native Plant Producers Association
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
Landscaping with Native Plants of Michigan, by Lynn M. Steiner
Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy
The Natural Habitat Garden, by Ken Druse with Margaret Roach
All photos by Nan Pokerwinski
In winter, our outings are mostly mission-driven: venturing out to the store to stock up on groceries, returning books to the library, braving the elements to go to yoga practice or to a monthly writers' group meeting. Summer, on the other hand, is a time for aimless wandering.
Lately, we've been taking drives through the countryside with no particular destination in mind—sometimes only for an hour or two, other times for a whole day. A couple of Sundays ago, we headed out with the vague intention of ending up somewhere around Pentwater, a lovely little village northwest of here, bordered on one side by Pentwater Lake and on another by Lake Michigan.
But we had all day, and we really cared more about along-the-way than about getting-there.
After driving through forests and rolling farmland, we came to Cherry Point Farm and Market and couldn't resist stopping. I'd heard about the farm—one of the oldest operating farms in Oceana County—and its lavender labyrinth. We could see from the road that the lavender was in bloom.
We parked and headed straight for the field where the labyrinth winds around and around a raised, circular herb garden. Labyrinths date back to ancient times and have long been used in garden designs. Unlike a maze, which offers bewildering choices of path and direction, a labyrinth typically has a single route to the center.
Many people use labyrinths for meditative walking; the spiral pattern suggests a spiritual journey or one's path in life. Lavender, with its calming scent and medicinal properties, seems a perfect fit for the design.
We didn't walk the labyrinth—my recovering foot was still in the boot, and I was avoiding uneven ground—but we did wander through the Stone Circle Herb Garden. The garden is designed in accordance with principles of sacred geometry, with a pattern of overlapping circles defining 36 herb beds. Bee balm, calendula and a full palette of other flowers were blooming, and the air was perfumed with minty-grassy-earthy scents.
The farm also hosts special events during summer--Tuesday Tea, with sweets and lavender tea, and fish boils on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings. And on Sunday mornings, Flapjacks and Fruit breakfasts. Just writing this paragraphs makes me want to go back and sample the fare at one of those gatherings.
Lunch left us satisfied, but not quite ready to leave. We strolled toward the market—where fresh cherries, cherry pie, cherry turnovers, cherry strudel, cherry jams and jellies and other goodies and gifts are sold—but we got sidetracked at the Word Garden. Scattered about the sunken rock garden are smooth stones painted with words. Visitors can arrange the word-rocks into evocative or humorous combinations.
I guess it's not surprising that the farm has a Word Garden. Cherry Point owner Barbara E. Bull spends winter months writing books—one children's book, two historical tributes to her family farm, and three novels so far. Just one more manifestation of Cherry Point's imaginative spirit.
I left there thinking about how a touch of imagination can elevate the ordinary and create something memorable. From the spiraling paths through lavender, to the serene design of the herb garden, to the lanterns on the Board Room tables, to the Word Garden, this wayside stop was a rich reward on a summer day.
Where have you found imagination at play this summer?
Cherry Point Farm and Market is at 9600 W. Buchanan Road, Shelby, Michigan, 1.5 miles south of Silver Lake on Scenic Drive (B15). Open daily from April through October. Current hours are 8am to 9pm (shorter after Labor Day).
Break out the honey cakes and raise a glass of mead—it's National Pollinator Week! You probably won't find the observance pre-printed on your wall calendar, but it's worth penciling in as a reminder to honor those buzzing, fluttering, hovering creatures whose efforts are essential to so many plants we prize.
I learned about this celebration of pollination from an item in the summer issue of Michigan Nature, the magazine of Michigan Nature Association. From there I went on to find out more from Pollinator Partnership, a group devoted to promoting the health of pollinators through conservation, education and research.
Bees and butterflies usually come to mind when we think of critters that flit from flower to flower, sipping nectar and distributing pollen in the process. Those are important pollinators, for sure, but birds, bats, beetles and other animals also do the job.
And a vital job it is. Globally, some 1,000 plants grown for food and drink, fiber and pharmaceuticals depend on animal pollination for successful fruit and seed production. If you fancy chocolate, coffee or blueberries, if you have a passion for pumpkins, potatoes or peaches, if you're an apple or almond aficionado, if you treasure the tequila in your Margarita, praise pollinators!
But pollinators need more than praise. They need protection. In many parts of the world, including this country, pollinating animals are suffering the effects of diseases, parasites, harmful chemicals, habitat loss and invasive plant and animal species.
How can you help?
One of the biggest ways is by making your piece of the Earth—whether pocket garden or multi-acre spread—pollinator-friendly. Reduce pesticide use, install bee and bat houses, and cultivate native plants that attract pollinators and provide nectar and larval food. (You can find a guide to appropriate plants for your area by entering your zip code here.)
For several years, I've been buying native plants from our local conservation district's annual sale and encouraging the native species already growing on our property by saving and scattering their seeds and clearing away invasives that would choke them out. The lupine, coneflowers, columbine, prairie smoke, bee balm and black-eyed susans have rewarded me with floral displays and the entertaining antics of their winged visitors. I'm hopeful the milkweeds and blazing stars are mature enough to bloom this year.
I'll be sure to share the results when they do. And once my broken foot is healed and I'm more mobile, I hope to take you on a tour of my friend Sandy's flourishing native plant garden—a delight for pollinators and people alike.
Learn more about pollinators by visiting Pollinator Partnership's Learning Center.
For more about native plants and native landscapes, connect with the national, not-for-profit organization Wild Ones.
Useful books on native plants and their role in sustaining wildlife:
Bringing Nature Home, by Douglas W. Tallamy (Timber Press, 2007)
The Natural Habitat Garden, by Ken Druse, with Margaret Roach (Clarkson Potter, 1994; paperback Timber Press, 2004)
All photos by Nan Sanders Pokerwinski
Written from the heart,
from the heart of the woods
Read the introduction to HeartWood here.
Nan Sanders Pokerwinski, a former journalist, writes memoir and personal essays, makes collages and likes to play outside. She lives in West Michigan with her husband, Ray.