In the three years that I’ve been gardening for wildlife, I have adopted many of the practices recommended by experienced wildlife gardeners. I’ve planted flowers beloved by pollinators, allowed undergrowth to proliferate and avoided chemicals considered harmful to insects, birds and other creatures.
As a result, my suburban lawn is now filled with large tangles of brush and several limb piles, small native plants competing with established non-natives and a patchwork of lawn, weeds and groundcover. As this long winter season went on, I became seriously discouraged by a lack of charm in my surroundings.
Fortunately, in mid-March, I was the recipient of an upbeat e-newsletter distributed by professional gardener Dale Batchelor of Gardener by Nature, which inspired me to keep my chin up and look for inspiration at an open garden event at the Margaret Reid Garden in Raleigh, where Batchelor and other members of the N.C. Native Plant Society would be attending.
I learned that the 1.5-acre Reid Garden was the work of a visionary gardener who moved into the house just off Dixie Trail with her husband, an N.C. State University chemistry professor, in 1943. Bucking the era’s trend toward cookie-cutter lawns of manicured grass, Reid aspired to create a woodland garden reflecting the natural landscape of the region. And so she did.
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Margaret Reid aspired to create a woodland garden reflecting the natural landscape of the region. And so she did.
Amy Mackintosh, who now lives in the Reid home and helps care for the surrounding garden, which is owned by Triangle Land Conservancy, led me on trails winding through woods and wetlands and across a small stream bathed in dappled sunlight.
As we walked, Mackintosh explained how Reid learned about native wildflowers from her friend, B.W. Wells, former chair of the N.C. State biology department and one of North Carolina’s earliest ecologists. Reid saw native plants being bulldozed almost daily on construction sites throughout rapidly developing Wake County and set out to save as may as she could. At times literally stopping bulldozers in their tracks, Reid rescued dozens of plants.
Her garden still showcases many of the ferns, mosses, wildflowers and shrubs she collected – some 400 plants in all. There are purple Skullcap (Scutellaria), twin leaf Jeffersonia, native hawthorns, Bladdernut (Staphylea trifolia), Toadshade (Trillium sp), Serviceberry (Amelanchier) and many others, creating a peaceful woodland oasis in the suburban setting.
Walking through the garden with Mackintosh helped me understand Reid’s vision. She made paths based on trails used by her dogs and other animals, inserting points of interest along the way – rocks, garden statuary and collections of found objects help to draw guests farther into the woods. While preserving the natural environment, these paths and other hints of human intervention seem to encourage exploration and shift focus away from layers of leaves and branches that are kept in place for composting.
As you might imagine, the Reid Garden attracts plenty of non-human visitors as well. Though not specifically created as a wildlife garden, it has become “a great place for semi-urban wildlife,” Mackintosh says, with rabbits, mice, squirrels and the occasional fox venturing forth. “It can be quite a Disney scene when we refill the feeder, especially on a winter day.”
After the tour, I felt more upbeat about my struggles and began to understand that developing a suburban wildlife garden isn’t going to happen overnight. And I was especially thankful that there are so many good and generous gardeners in the region willing to share their years of knowledge and expertise.
My visit to the Reid property gave my spirits a needed boost and helped me reconnect with what I am looking for as a wildlife gardener – and that’s not a neatly manicured landscape.
As for my troublesome patchwork of a lawn? Batchelor sent me home with some excellent wildlife-friendly advice: Stop the worrying and simply mow what grows.
Anyone looking for new gardening ideas or simply interested in swapping stories should get to know the N.C. Native Plant Society (ncwildflower.org). There are eight chapters across the state, with the Margaret Reid Chapter covering the Triangle. They have monthly events during the school year.