My grandma Julia Stende Weflen loved flowers. Plant stands lined the south-facing windows of her kitchen and all-seasons porch. They held potted begonias, African violets, a gigantic Christmas cactus, and geraniums in Butter-Nut coffee cans. Outside in summer, she grew gladiolas, peonies, lilies, and geraniums. On the east side of the farmhouse, four big lilac bushes formed a square with an inner space we grandchildren claimed as our playhouse and furnished with peach crates and bushel baskets. Lilacs, floral-print dresses, and Sunday hats bedecked with silk flowers always bring Grandma to mind. I inherited cuttings from her Christmas cactus and bulbs from her tiger lilies.
This issue lauds another kind of heritage gardening—growing native wildflowers, grasses, sedges, trees, and shrubs alongside edible fruits and vegetables. I wonder if Grandma had ever considered the possibility of growing prairie phlox, asters, purple coneflowers, or Maximilian sunflowers—all native to the glacial hills of the family farm in western Minnesota. If she had read "Gardens for Conservation" in the July–August 1950 Conservation Volunteer, she would have been urged to care for the soil and plant vegetable gardens. The author, Pulitzer Prize–winning conservationist Louis Bromfield, did not mention planting native species. But he did offer gardening encouragement: "It is possible to have just as much fun out of a 50-square plot as out of fifty thousand acres—if you know what you are doing and take an interest and a pride in it."
In 1971 Leon Snyder, then director of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum, wrote "Growing Food for Birds" for the Volunteer. In 1983 retired biology professor May Wright wrote "Grow Wildflowers in Your Back Yard." In recent decades, this magazine has published a variety of garden stories. Writers have offered advice on growing native plants for bog, woodland, prairie, and rain gardens.
Our latest gardening advice and encouragement comes from plant ecologist Hannah Texler. Her story "Home Is Where the Habitat Is" paints a clear picture of the abundant appeal of raising plants native to your region. Though Texler has 30 years of experience digging and planting in her city yard, she shows that you can begin with little or no experience, learn slowly, and count on trial and error to teach you.
Gardening is engagement with nature—ever-changing nature. Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho calls a gardener's life a great adventure because of the constant demands of the garden. Part of the adventure is also simply watching, as Texler does, the wild creatures that visit and live in the cultivated habitat. Even small gardens, she says, offer food and shelter for birds, insects, reptiles, and mammals.
If Grandma's garden had retained plants indigenous to dry upland prairie, then regal fritillaries and other butterflies might have sipped nectar from the wildflowers. Grasshopper sparrows might have skittered among little bluestem, side-oats grama, and other prairie grasses. They might have perched in willow thickets to sing. Today, as wildlife biologist Lisa Elliott's story tells, this humble little songbird has become a kind of ambassador for grassland conservation.
Anyone can be an ambassador for habitat conservation. If you don't have a garden, you can volunteer with groups such as Great River Greening in the Twin Cities and the DNR's Scientific and Natural Areas program statewide. You can learn about native plants from groups such as Wild Ones and the Minnesota Native Plant Society.
Concluding his Conservation Volunteer story, Bromfield wrote: "Whether you have one acre or fifty thousand or live in the heart of the city and own no land at all—be a conservationist. Nothing will pay bigger dividends." That's timeless advice.
Kathleen Weflen, editor