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discovering the wild in your garden (want to learn how 9/15?)

THOSE OF YOU who have been around here awhile know I am increasingly obsessed not simply with plants for plants’ sakes, but with what the plants do—and who they do it with, and why. Plants as food for beneficial bugs, or birds, for instance, and also how plants, and insects, protect themselves from being eaten with clever tools like chemicals and crypsis. Plants as places to nest or raise one’s young.

Plants as a window into the mysteries of science, nature, the world.

AT THIS STAGE in my long garden career—I’ve been digging holes 30-plus years on this piece of land—I find myself frequently conducting self-styled madcap experiments to learn more, more, more, and meet more living things.

  • Like “un-mowing” areas I’d treated as “lawn” for years to watch what pops up;
  • like plugging in small divisions (or seedlings) of natives to the unmown areas to try to make them into thriving pollinator communities;
  • like figuring out which “weeds” to pull out of those unwown mini-meadows-to-be;
  • like handling the decline or outright demise of big trees in the garden differently;
  • like cleaning up less obsessively in fall, especially, to support more overwintering insects, spiders, birds, other animals;
  • like intervening less, and just watching more.

In other words, in some areas of the garden I’m getting a little wilder.

I’M NOT a botanist or entomologist or ecologist, though—just one solitary gardener with a giant pile of field guides and a lot of curiosity—so to decode these experiments and figure out what is working or not, and what to do next, I needed help.

I invited Claudia and Conrad Vispo, a field botanist and wildlife ecologist, respectively, who direct the nearby Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program in Ghent, New York, to walk around with me and look through their skilled eyes. (Their full bios are farther down this page.)

I thought I knew this place of “mine” but wow: what they saw, and alerted me to! How could I not have seen all that they noticed? I thought some of you might like to ramble with us, too, and examine some of my experiments and learn how to bring more pollinators, birds, and other beneficials to your place.

Want to up the ante of wild in your garden?

YOU CAN, even if like mine, it began as a collection of unusual plants in formal beds (not very wild!), Come root around and explore with me and Claudia and Conrad on September 15 for half a day. Bring all your questions, and let’s all learn together. Read more about the event, or order a ticket below.

about Claudia and Conrad Vispo

Claudia Knab-Vispo is the field botanist of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program. After working on plant-animal interactions in Borneo and on ethnobotany in Venezuela, she has spent more than a decade documenting and teaching about plants in and around Columbia County. Her research and educational work are guided by questions such as: How has the flora of Columbia County changed since it was first documented in the 1930s? Which are the rare and vulnerable native plants that currently share the landscape with us, where are they found, and how can we protect them? What importance did/do the wild plants have for people? Which resources do they provide to animals? How can we make our farms and backyards more friendly for pollinators and other beneficial insects?

Conrad Vispo is the wildlife ecologist of the Hawthorne Valley Farmscape Ecology Program. Before returning to Columbia County, NY, where he grew up, Conrad conducted ecological research on a variety of organisms, including mammals, birds and fish in a variety of places, including the woods of northern Wisconsin and tropical Venezuela. Conrad’s recent focus is on agroecology — what habitats can farmland provide for native species and, in turn, what can those native species provide to farming? How does the composition and management of the landscape surrounding the farms influence the ecological services that can be provided by beneficial insects. Conrad’s passion is understanding historical and modern patterns of animal (including human) ecology on the land.

  1. Kathy says:

    This sounds wonderful Margaret! I must say my garden is extremely “wild” more due to neglect than anything else. I designed this garden to grow into itself and it certainly has and now it offers so many surprises since I haven’t time to tame it. I will leave it behind in just 11 days for 6 acres of woods where I definitely want to embrace the wild at my doorstep. I love learning from your endless curiosity and I’m sure some of the bugs and plants you embrace I, too, will come across.

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Kathy. Apparently neglect is good for creating habitat, so you can pat yourself on the back! :) Nice to hear from you.

  2. Linda B says:

    So on the same track with you, Margaret. I feel compelled to be an environmental oasis. Part of our yard is dedicated to chickens, and they are an interesting force in the environment. But my biggest boon is rain tubs close to the house that have had tad poles in them last year and now this year again. I am not sure what kind of frogs, but think tree frogs. Maybe like your mascot?? I use those somewhat shallow concrete mixing tubs to catch overflowing water. Have lots of rocks in one corner where they can crawl out when they get to that stage. I have not observed them leaving, but it does seem like there is more frog singing than in previous years. A small contribution but it feels like a reward for our stewardship! Love your posts and podcasts! Thanks so much!

    1. margaret says:

      Hi, Linda. If you have any pics I can probably ID them for you (also would need to know what region you are in). :) My email address is awaytogarden at gmail.

  3. Laurie A says:

    This is something I’m becoming more interested in as well. We live in the middle of the woods, and I’d love to better learn how to handle the borders between, among other things. I’d also love to learn more about ways to work with permaculture principles here, growing more communities of things, more understory plantings and such. Wish I wasn’t so many states away, or I’d be taking that class. Thanks for sharing your garden and experiments here.

    1. margaret says:

      I feel as if many of us are craving this expanded knowledge, Laurie. Email me at awaytogarden at gmail with where you are located in case I know any permaculture people near you or anything along these lines.

  4. Really going to try to get my dad to get up for this event. He would be in complete heaven! I’ve penciled it on the calendar (along with bagels at CrossRoads for breakfast, 44 Specials at CGS for lunch) … just need to make sure it works for Old Bill!

  5. Leslee says:

    Love this! Alaska is a long way from you so won’t be attending but so glad you are helping others learn about being a good host to the beneficials. When folks despair at the decline of bees, I want to point their focus to their own yard plantings…are you being a good host? Most generally are not.

  6. Jane R says:

    Sounds very interesting, wish I could attend. My very small garden in Chicago not far from O’Hare Airport can’t be considered wild, but I try to grow plants that birds and insects can use. Because I’m getting older, I intervene in the garden less – less in this case is more.

  7. Connie says:

    I love that you highlight the great role of experimentation in gardening. I enjoyed hearing about your ‘going wild’ no-mow lawn section is progressing on the Joe Gardener podcast. I can’t wait to see what you learn from your experimentation!

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