To say that love bloomed between wildlife gardeners John Thomas and Dale Batchelor is not much of an overstatement.
Thomas, who designed and built theater sets for a living, was already a serious Orange County gardener with a penchant for dramatic and often high-maintenance ornamentals when he met Batchelor, an adult literacy teacher who cultivated native plants at her home in Raleigh.
When the two decided to marry in 1992, they searched for a place that would accommodate their similar outdoor pursuits.
“My goal all along was to have a really low-maintenance garden,” said Batchelor, who, along with Thomas, was quickly sold on the flat, semi-wooded lot accompanying a neat single-story home on Swiftbrook Road near Raleigh’s Lake Wheeler.
Aware of their differing gardening styles, Batchelor adopted the front yard and Thomas the back to begin their gardening forays.
Still working full time and accommodating her teen-ager’s busy schedule, Batchelor started her garden slowly. She pulled English ivy from the shaded front lawn and kept an eye out for existing natives. As she worked, native groundcovers, including running cedar ( Diphasiastrum digitatumand) and partridgeberry ( Mitchella repens), emerged.
“The more ivy I removed, the more the groundcovers flourished,” Batchelor recalls.
Soon, she stepped up her efforts, removing Japanese hollies and other non-natives from the front of the house and replacing them with plants recommended by the N.C. Native Plant Society.
On her birthday, Thomas gave Batchelor a special gift, replacing the straight-laced concrete walkway through the lawn with a curving ribbon of Chapel Hill gravel.
Meanwhile, Thomas, whose free time had expanded with retirement, was hard at work constructing a koi pond, installing walkways and adding other formal garden features to “his” garden out back. But as experienced gardeners know, best laid plans don’t always stay, well, laid.
Thomas’s koi pond struggled and failed. Then, in 1996, Hurricane Fran took down 30 trees from their nearly two-acre lot, changing the landscape considerably.
“When I built (the pond) it in 1994 I wasn’t thinking about wildlife,” Thomas said. “I wanted to have water lilies and some colorful koi fish. Neither of those projects worked out well, but I threw in some goldfish and added pots of blooming native water plants. Wildlife began to arrive at the water almost instantly after the pond was filled. Birds were attracted by the sound of the small waterfalls. Squirrels and rabbits quickly began to come for a drink.”
Thomas adapted his original plan to meet the requirements of nature and, together with Batchelor, has redefined the home’s outdoor space. Now known as Swiftbrook Gardens, the site is an appealing outdoor environment that is both a certified National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat and a native plant habitat recognized by the N.C. Native Plant Society. The couple also formed a consulting company, Gardener by Nature, to spread the gospel of wildlife gardening.
For Thomas, the backyard pond became key to his garden’s invitation for wildlife, along with an affinity for deadwood – killed or damaged trees that have been cropped to a height of 10 to 15 feet but remain standing.
“This deadwood is attractive and rustic and also quite dynamic as it decomposes,” he says. “The logs fill with insects and the birds come after them. After a couple of years the standing spires, or ‘woodpecker hotels,’ are full of nesting cavity dwellers.”
Batchelor left her job with Wake County schools and now spends much of her time hosting native plant workshops and offering consulting services largely focused on gardening for wildlife. She also is a member of the N.C. Native Plant Society’s Speakers Bureau and writes for Triangle Gardener magazine.
While her early experience as a native plants enthusiast once seemed unusual, Batchelor says today’s gardening environment is much more open to a sustainable, wildlife-friendly orientation.
It’s easy to see why during a walk along the log-lined gravel path at Swiftbrook Garden surrounded by shade columbine ( Aquilegia), Indian pinks ( Spigelia marilandica), St. Thomas’s wort ( Hypericum perforatum) and woodland ruby ( Illicium). You don’t have to look hard to enjoy glimpses of woodland creatures, from bees, to squirrels, butterflies and bugs – a natural evolution of something that could have been there all along.
As Thomas and Batchelor can attest, the path to wildlife gardening may be a winding one but more often than not, one that brings great rewards for committed gardeners who are willing to watch, wait and work with what nature has in store.