Grow with what we’ve got

Native plants, classic neighborhoods . . . Fort Wayne has all the makings of great gardens

Photography by Issaac Rickenberg
Photography by Issaac Rickenberg
Photography by Issaac Rickenberg
Photography by Issaac Rickenberg

As you think about your garden, especially during these early days of spring, it’s tempting to think big, new and different: Let’s clear out this space. Let’s pull out all of that and bring in something new, anything new, maybe some flowers like in that garden we saw on vacation in – well, wherever that was. Let’s remake every square inch and turn it into something else.

What if, instead, we took a good look around . . . at the rich variety of native plants in our area, the “bones” of our older neighborhoods and at the very real need to protect pollinators. Can we take what is here, respect and cultivate it, and create something not only beautiful but sustainable?

We looked at the beautiful gardens of the West Central Neighborhood, the educational display gardens at the Allen County Extension Office and even a repurposed boot or two. May you find similar inspiration here, and perhaps right in your backyard.

Wild with intention

At first glance, the Ehle-Ford Prairie Garden at the Allen County Extension Office looks like something wild and untended. With a focus on educating people about native grasses and wildflowers, it’s actually the product of much intention.

The garden was started in the late 1990s by Ricky Kemery, horticulture extension educator, and named in honor of the late Ruth Ehle, a Master Gardener who was particularly helpful to Kemery; and Bob Ford, a member of the community who shared Kemery’s interest in prairies. It is the largest of the display gardens.

“We’ve enlarged it four times,” said Advanced Master Gardener Kathy Lee, one of about eight Master Gardeners now responsible for the Prairie Garden. Lee is the longest-standing member of the team.

It’s big enough to split into several areas, with sub-teams responsible for each. “We can all kind of go off into our own part, and yell every now and then when we want to show somebody something,” Lee said. As an introvert who has learned to play to her strengths, that works well for her.

While working in a high-stress nursing management position, Lee used to go to the Prairie Garden around six or seven in the evening and sit on a bench and just listen to the rustling of the wind through the grasses and the sounds of the birds and bees. This would be her retirement project, she decided, and it has been ever since.

The Prairie Garden seeks to replicate what European settlers to the area would have found or brought with them. The main part includes several native grasses such as big blue stem, little blue stem, prairie dropseed, switch grass and Canada wild rye. There are three kinds of milkweed (common, butterfly and purple). Some Prairie Garden plants, such as prairie dock and compass plant (which orients itself north and south so it always gets sunshine) have flower stalks that grow eight to 10 feet high.

A concrete slab was incorporated into a niche demonstrating what a prairie settler might have planted around her home, and another part of the garden demonstrates how native plants such as prairie dropseed, little blue stem, big blue stem, tall iron weed, Joe Pye weed and Queen of the Prairie can be incorporated into the landscape. A windmill adds a vintage touch.

Farming and development have taken away much of the region’s prairies, but the Prairie Garden team is giving it back and showing others how they can do so, too. Where the other display gardens are about watering and deadheading, the Prairie Garden requires little to no watering after the initial spring cleanup. That’s the beauty of sustainable gardening. Using native plants – something that naturally belongs here – means less watering, fertilizing and amending to make it work. It just works.

They do have to simulate some controls once imposed by Mother Nature, such as “stomping” the garden to break down grasses as foraging buffalo and antelope did. There is also some weeding – and a weed, by definition, is simply a plant in a place where you do not want it to be.

“Prairie plants, when they’re emerging, all look alike. They’re like babies,” Lee said, adding she’s gotten better at identifying the shoots – especially interlopers like hen bit and purple dead nettle. “I’ve got their identity down flat,” she said.

The collaborative process

Every September, visitors tour the West Central Neighborhood’s enthralling mix of what is and what was – large, finely crafted older homes and gardens amidst 21st-century traffic and homeowners who want both classic beauty and modern convenience. Making those pieces come together over time is a challenge; hence the beauty when it happens.

Tom Cain knows exactly what it means to take something from the past and make it work here and now. He bought his first West Central property in 1984 and renovated the three-bedroom Arts & Crafts-inspired double. Bothered by the run-down condition of the surrounding area, he would go on to purchase other neighboring properties – including a home, a carriage house and a cottage – and fix these up as well.

One might expect, from this, a well-intentioned but awkward patchwork of urban lawns. Not in the hands of Cain, a landscape architect who formerly worked for the City of Fort Wayne.

The result, instead, is three botanical “rooms” based on the work of Gertrude Jekyll and Sir Edward Lutyens, English garden designers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, whose work was popular at the time many of the houses were built. Hedges and walks delineate the three areas, lending not only the structure of a formal English garden but a serenity felt even as the lavender along the walkways turns silver in winter. In the center of one of the “rooms” bubbles a small fountain.

Cain is fond of old-time perennials – irises, daylilies, phlox, peonies and even ornamental onions, whose globe-shaped purple flowers’ bloom time falls in between that of the irises and peonies. He pays careful attention to flowering sequence, aiming to always have something in bloom. Flower structure is important, too; interspersing plants with spiky leaves with plants with broader leaves keeps things interesting even if nothing is blooming at the moment.

In a way, it’s as if every person who ever walked or lived on those properties got together and came up with what is here, beneath our feet and before our eyes.

Gardening with what you’ve got is the very thing landscape architects are trained to think about, Cain said. They have to look first at context – climate, exposure, soil content and structure, the way the wind blows at any given time of year.

People are part of the context, too.

“It’s a collaborative process,” Cain said. “It’s always about collaborating, discovering a property’s potential and how clients see themselves living there. It’s about helping them discover their relationship with the landscape and gardens.”

He was once asked by a local client to create a New Orleans-style courtyard garden. The banana trees and other tropical greenery you’d find in New Orleans wouldn’t be practical here, and the client wanted flowers she didn’t have to fuss with. She said she wasn’t a gardener.

Cain made some modifications and came up with something that not only pleased but engaged the client. “She’s a gardener now.”

Repurposed objects add pop

New adventures can grow – literally – from the oldest and oddest things you either already have or fortuitously find. Sure, Grandma planted geraniums in Grandpa’s old boots (after they had absolutely, positively outlived their usefulness as boots), but there are plenty more possibilities.

The Patio Garden at the Allen County Extension Office has a small, kettle-shaped charcoal grill painted green and overflowing with flowers. Before, the grill had sat unused in someone’s garage. Nestled into the ground next to it is a blue gazing ball to “spark up the color,” said Patio Garden team member and Advanced Master Gardener Barbara Gibson. Leaning up against the side of the building is a well-weathered piece of wood, rescued from behind the display garden shed, that probably started out as a pallet. Now it holds decorative old garden tools – rusted to perfection – and a pretty blue metal flower made from what was probably a watering can.

Dryer vent elbows attached to a lattice serve as planters for sedum. These came from The Wood Shack Architectural Antiques, garden team member Cathy Jones said. “Jerry (Vandeveer) and his late wife Linda were very helpful in helping dig through all the good stuff they have to find them for us,” she said.

Stuckey’s Greenhouses has made a specialty of what Julie Stuckey, manager of the Tyler Avenue greenhouse, calls vintage gardening – using antique pieces as planters. It started with custom plantings for customers who wanted to repurpose a particular antique piece. Before long – inspired by Pinterest, estate sales, garage sales and more – she was creating pre-planted pieces to sell.

One of her customers, a grief counselor, even thought repurposing objects for garden use could be therapeutic. Say you’ve just inherited your late mother’s funky-looking old ceramic bowl, and it doesn’t go with your kitchen (it never really went with hers, either). Plant her favorite flowers in it and place it on your patio for a colorful new reminder of her. 

Repurposed objects may not have drainage holes as planters do. It’s why Stuckey likes to use succulents, which have a shallow root system, can live in a small area such as a teacup or seashell, and use less water.

Sometimes adaptation requires caution. Stuckey has also done plantings in antique typewriters lined with moss. Included on the care card are instructions to protect the area underneath from any rusty water that might run out.

But don’t let that stop you. “If you have a piece you love, don’t throw it away – plant it,” Stuckey said.

Plant it and they will come

The beauty of Birds, Bees & Butterflies – one of the display gardens at the Allen County Extension Office on the IPFW campus – is in its simplicity, according to Advanced Master Gardener Nancy Torkeo.

Torkeo is part of the nine-member team that tends the garden, which is all about attracting pollinators: birds, bees and butterflies. Also an Indiana Master Naturalist, she was drawn to working in this particular garden because of her interest in pollinators, particularly the monarch butterfly.

Overwintering monarch butterfly populations saw an increase last year in Mexico – more than 3.5 times greater than the previous season, according to the Christian Science Monitor. However, the numbers are still down from where they were 20 years ago. Much work remains to build on these successes.

Fortunately, complex problems don’t always have complex solutions.

“I love this garden because it’s a very doable garden. People can look at it and say, ‘I can create this,’ Torkeo said.

All plants in the Birds, Bees & Butterflies garden come from locally owned garden centers. “We really want to support local nurseries. And you really want to have local plants. That’s what makes pollinators happiest,” she said.

Bees are partial to blue and yellow flowers. Butterflies like yellow, red and pink. Make these guys happy and you’ll have a pretty cheerful garden for yourself. Scent matters too, Torkeo said, although contrary to what you might think, it’s the delicate fragrances, not the heavier ones, that attract bees.

Good plant choices for pollinators are flowering shrubs such as quince, beauty bush and weigela, which offer shade and protection from the wind.

For flowers, “something I like a lot is bee balm,” Torkeo said. “It comes in so many different shades now. It’s a spreader, so you have to be careful, but it’s long-blooming.” Another favorite is the perennial “Black and Blue” salvia, with cobalt blue flowers emerging from black stems.

An important requirement for a pollinator garden is balance, especially when birds, bees and butterflies are all on the guest list (birds, after all, eat caterpillars). That means providing plenty of what all of them need – the Birds, Bees & Butterflies garden is expanding this year – then stepping back and letting nature take its course. It also means no pesticides are used.

Other assets are trees, of course, and hollowed-out logs are great for bees and other insects.

“It’s great to have a water feature – even just water in Frisbees,” Torkeo said, adding the water needs to be changed daily in order not to become a breeding ground for mosquitoes.

The Birds, Bees & Butterflies garden team also makes use of containers, in part to emphasize how simple attracting pollinators can be. “If you have a small container, they will come,” Torkeo said.

“It’s a very easy garden. Think bright colors. Think variety,” she said. The main restriction is sun, she said; plants in a pollinator garden generally require six to eight hours a day.

Great opportunities for further learning and inspiration are coming in the form of the annual Master Gardener Plant Sale (May 20-21) and Garden Walk (June 17). For more information, visit extension.purdue.edu/Allen or call (260) 481-6826.

First appeared in the April 2017 issue of Fort Wayne Magazine.


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