I always think it was rather cool that we closed all the paperwork on our little house on the Summer Solstice. It sort of became my sign that everything was right about our decision to buy this tiny bungalow we have called home for nearly 21 years, and I’ve never had much reason to think otherwise. But nothing stays still; whether we like it or not, change is constant. The Solstice signals the backward turn of our sun to the south, and what we thought made our home a home often shifts.
During the first visit to the house, I instantly fell in love with the enormous old oak tree in the next-door neighbor’s front yard. When I walked upstairs and saw the tiny front room with north-facing windows that perfectly framed the giant tree’s gnarled and knotted leafy branches, I knew I was home and that this space was going to be my study and studio. And beneath the tree in the front yard, just barely in bloom, was a mature and majestic rhododendron. I felt so lucky. I was home.
For several years, we were blessed with these gifts of nature—red and orange leaves waving at me every October through the study windows and majestic snow-covered arms—the very bones of winter—outstretched in sunlight during the coldest days. The bigger-than-life brilliant flowers covering the rhododendron reappeared every May—sort of like prom dresses. And thereafter, gentle shade, a home for birds and striking structure stayed all summer long.
A few years later, a main branch fell from the oak and cracked the center of the rhododendron. Neither the tree nor the bush was ever the same. Then, the oak (not in good shape after the limb loss) crashed into the street one spring night about a year later. Thankfully, no one was hurt and no property was damaged. This was a miracle, given the size of the tree. But once the shade was gone, the injured rhododendron developed a rust disease, and though we tried for years to save it, my daughter Heather (that’s the gardener) was sounding the death nell long before I finally let it go.
So things had to change whether I wanted them to or not. Although, when the universe closes a door, it never fails to open a window, I have found. Once the rhododendron was removed, Heather promised to help me start a native plant garden. She and her dad did the grunt work in the fall, removing turf, turning soil and establishing a well-mulched patch that would get me started in the spring…all I had to do was fill it.
And that’s how I met Tom Shirrell at the Goshen Community Market. Tom owns Green Thumb Nursery in Godfrey, IL and is a kind, patient, and very bright native plant expert. Just what I needed—the open window! I started buying plants from Tom last summer, and he provided great guidance, including photos of what I was getting, so that I’d know just what things were going to look like, more or less, once the plants got going. It’s been a wonderful friendship.
This summer, my friend Susan and I decided to take a trip to Godfrey and see Tom’s home-based operation first hand. Know your grower, I always say.
But when I came to the corner of Tom’s street, both Susan and I felt that I must have made a wrong turn. Knowing Tom, I guess we both had an image in our heads of Tom’s neck of the woods—woods for one thing, and fields of wildflowers and maybe an old farmhouse or two, with log fence here and there, overgrown with clover. Susan and I both have a tendency to wax romantic.
Nope. We were in the dead center of suburban blight. Rows of cookie-cutter houses, immaculate, thick turf, lots of concrete and nary a tree of any substantial height. This is one of those instances where faith is your friend. Against logic, I turned to the right, and about half a block down, Susan saw the coneflowers dancing on the breeze…and then the stands of butterfly weed, the blue indigo and papery birches. Green Thumb Nursery on the left.
We had a great visit, meeting Tom’s son Tristan, touring around his property—that looks nothing like his neighbors’, by the way. Hundreds of tiny starter plants reside on and around Tom’s back deck, and beside the deck, the beginnings of a stunning waterlily pond.
Farther on a little beyond his property, Tom has managed to fill in some badly eroding landscape with enough native plants to create a mini-marsh for all sorts of butterflies, bees and birds. Whether they know it or not, Tom’s neighbors are incredibly lucky.
In fact, there is a stretch of county road a few miles from Tom’s place that has his “Green Thumb print” all over it. On Seminary Road in Alton, IL, just about a quarter mile north of highway 255 is a beautiful roadside garden that Tom has donated to the area. “It’s a better alternative to county mowing,” explained Tom. “The pollinators like bees and Monarchs have a food source, the area gets a face lift and because the plants are natives and well adapted to the area and climate, little maintenance is required.” Sounds like a plan for many roadsides—perhaps that’s a shift coming in the future, as communities come to grips with climate change and the chronic loss of pollinators, which, as we all know, are the reason we have food to eat. Just sayin’.
With Tom’s help, I am feeling great about my own little roadside contribution. I have yellow coneflowers, foxglove, monarda, yarrow, hyssop, and even pumpkins that I planted from last year’s seeds—remember the pie? There is a continual buzz, constant bathers in the birdbath and even a bird’s nest on my front porch. Home, all over again.
Rules of “Green” Thumb
Thinking about starting your own pollinator garden? Tom has wonderful plants that are guaranteed native and come with his tender loving care attached. Here are some “rules of Green Thumb” to get you going:
The right plant in the right place—If you ask Tom which plants you should buy, he asks about three things: soil, light and moisture. Some plants need wet conditions—like swamp milkweed or Ironweed–and others are happier with dry feet—like my coneflowers and hyssop. Some like a bright sun spotlight—my foxglove and yarrow, while others are shy and shady, like columbine, woodland asters and Solomon’s seal.
How did I get so smart? I asked Tom, of course. And if you are from my neck of the woods and want to start a native plant garden, you should ask him, too. He’s at the Goshen Community Market most Saturday mornings, 8 a.m.-noon, weather permitting. Or you can email him at email@example.com. Visits to his nursery are by appointment only.
My house and property have gone through quite a few changes over the years, but it has always stayed home for me. And now, thanks to Tom and my daughter, it’s beginning to be home for many creatures, who are in danger of permanently losing theirs. I have to say, once I visited Tom’s beautiful nursery and saw his generous planting on that roadside, I felt a great sense of pride in my humble little front-yard garden because, though it is small, it is my contribution to a better planet. And if we all made some space for beneficial insects, bees and butterflies, think of the change we could make to keep our home on Mother Earth.