Nurturing a Healthy Garden Community

I often refer to our garden as a community, as in the conservationist Aldo Leopold‘s sense of community: an interacting web of lives that includes people, and in which each life plays an important part. It’s true that we planted many of the plants in our yard, and we do some judicious weeding of invasive species, but many of the members of the thriving community of your wild grassland, kitchen garden, and the adjacent public demonstration garden returned on their own, as we nudged our formerly blighted industrial property back to life.


The desert Indian paintbrush blooming like scarlet flames in the photo above of our front yard grassland (with Richard’s sculptural mailbox) is a great example: Indian paintbrush wasn’t in the seed mix that Alex and Suzanne of Western Native Seed designed to restore the native grassland on our site. The weedy, trash-dotted site did not look like a good home for this most characteristic native wildflower. Yet as soon as the two species of plants that Indian paintbrush depends on for its most important relationships–blue grama, a native grass, and fringed sage, a small creeping sagebrush species–sprouted from our seed restoration area, desert Indian paintbrush appeared along with them. The seeds must have been waiting in the soil–perhaps for decades–for their companion species to return.

As we’ve nudged our bit of land back to health, other species have moved back too, dozens of them, from the western terrestrial garter snakes that nosh on slugs, snails and tender insect larvae in the kitchen garden and the tree swallow pair in the photo above that visited the bluebird box earlier this summer, the male burbling away the whole time, to the least chipmunk that dashes through the garden now and then and the the mule deer that eat anything they can reach. (The latter are the bane of any gardener’s existence, but I have to admit that this is their land and their community, too).

For us, the key to nurturing a healthy community on this piece of land that was so hard-used before it came to us lay in recreating as best we could the web of native plants that nurture the soil, and provide homes and food for the other lives, large and small. Their interactions are what have given the place back its natural balance. Take our kitchen garden, which thrives without synthetic fertilizers and pesticides in part because of the healthy community of insects–bees, parasitic wasps, ladybeetles, butterflies and others–attracted by the native plants.

When we began the accidental ecological restoration project that is now the place where we live, I understood in theory that if I could get enough of the key species of native plants to return, the signals they sent out in terms of the chemicals they produce and diffuse through air and soil and the habitat they create with their very forms would call the rest of the community back over time. But I didn’t have the experience of watching it happen. Nor did I realize what a joy it would be to see the place revive, and to welcome the returnees home.


Just this week, we identified a bumblebee species we’d never seen before in the yard, Bombus nevadaensis. (That’s a big queen in the photo above, gathering pollen from a sunflower.) She brings our bumblebee species count up to four for the yard, plus several dozen other native bee species (all much smaller and quicker, and thus harder to photograph and identify).

The walkingstick in the photo above appeared in the strawberry bed on Friday morning, clinging to the side of the raised bed in the morning breeze, “hunting” by holding still and looking like an innocent, dried-up stick. And the fat swallowtail caterpillar in the photo below is helping me by munching its way through the forest of dill that always volunteers among the tomato plants. 

Now that we’re walking this difficult journey with Richard’s brain cancer, I realize how much restoring a healthy community of the land right here on our formerly
blighted industrial property nurtures our health as well. As we welcome each member of the community home, our spirits and our connection are restored too.

As for Richard, he’s weathering the grueling cycles of chemotherapy as well as could be expected. He tires more easily, and naps a lot more. But overall, he’s happy and healthy–and we hope, on his way to being whole again. (There he is in the photo below, after “resting his eyes” along with Mac ‘n Cheese, the rescued Scotty mix we were dog-sitting for the afternoon. Thanks, Gay, for lending Mackie as Richard’s napping buddy!) And thanks to you all, for the love and support you send our way. It matters more than you can know.