Opening Words from Sun. April 18 by Cathy Pickard

“If you build it, they will come.” That thought ran through my mind a lot last summer, as Bob and I spent countless hours working in our expansive backyard. And, no, we did not create a ball field, expecting to see the ghosts of baseball’s past emerge from the mist. For those who don’t have any idea what I’m talking about, the reference is to the 1989 film “Field of Dreams”, starring Kevin Costner as an Iowa farmer, who, hearing voices, interprets them as a command to build a baseball diamond in his corn fields, hoping the infamous Shoeless Joe Jackson and the 1919 Chicago White Sox will come and play.

But this is not about baseball and I did not hear voices. Let me go back about ten years to an Ethical Society silent auction, in which member Jane Schaefer offered the service of a landscape consultation. Bob and I had been thinking about adding some prairie plants to our backyard and really had no idea how to go about it. So we bid on and won Jane’s expert services. It turns out we didn’t really understand what a prairie was and what it takes to create and maintain one (which typically involves controlled burning—not something our homeowners’ association or the city of Ballwin would look upon favorably). Rather, as Jane explained it, what we were really looking to do was something simpler—native gardening. And so, with Jane’s design in hand, we began simply, that year planting only three different sun-loving species, mixed in with some tomato plants. Jane also recommended a local gardening club called the Wild Ones, a group dedicated to educating home gardeners about native plants.

Every year since that initial consultation with Jane, we have removed small areas of turf grass, replacing them with beds of native plants. In addition to plants we’ve purchased, we have been the grateful recipients of free transplants from the Wild Ones who generously share their extras at their monthly meetings in members’ yards. We now have well over a hundred different species of native plants, shrubs and trees—sun-loving, shade-loving, rain and water garden plants, spring, summer and fall bloomers. It is a source of great enjoyment and, frankly, it kept us sane in the early months of the pandemic. Our yard has been a refuge!

But it turns out, it is not just a refuge for us. As we’ve added more and more species of plants, we’ve begun to notice more and more pollinators—bees and butterflies. Our milkweed plants brought the monarchs; the blazing star attracted the swallowtails, the buckeyes, the sulfurs. We found the stunning giant luna moth on our nine bark.

Butterflies, of course, start off as caterpillars. And caterpillars are the main source of food for baby birds. So as our butterfly population has grown, so has the volume and variety of birds that frequent our yard. Did you know that bluebirds travel in groups, and they’ll fight for their turn to splash vigorously around in the bird bath?

Then there’s the other major group of pollinators, the bees. As a result of participating in a couple bee studies last summer, I’ve mostly lost my fear of getting stung. The Shutterbee study compelled us to go out in the yard with our cameras, taking pictures of bees and uploading them on the app iNaturalist. It wasn’t until that exercise that I recognized the richness of buzzing activity in our yard. Before that, I could identify a honeybee or a bumblebee. But there’s so much more diversity out there. The creamy white flowers of the native wild hydrangea made four different species of bumblebees practically drunk on nectar and pollen, and Joe Pye Weed and Rattlesnake Master were portraits of constant motion as smaller species of wild bees, like sweat bees and miner bees, swarmed the blossoms.

Our yard has become a habitat. The box turtles and toads buried under the mulched leaves, the newborn fawn parked behind some tall grasses while its mother looks for food, crafty raccoons that figured out how to steal not only peanuts but the entire peanut feeder—these are the living things that share my home.

This year, for the first time since we started gardening with natives and planted native pawpaw trees, host plant for the zebra swallowtail, we saw that beautiful black and white-striped butterfly fluttering near the patch. It turns out that, “If you build it, they will come.”

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.