Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Appreciating Nebraska's wildflowers in the city and the country

It doesn’t matter whether you grow wildflowers in the city, as John Dietrich does, or on acres of restored prairie, as Peggy Fletcher does. Both gardeners describe their dedication to maintaining the natural beauties as a “passion.” It is a passion that takes some time to develop and has long-reaching roots -- just like a good stand of wildflowers.
Fletcher started painstakingly restoring 20 acres of the family's land from scratch, three acres each year. It was a labor of love, she said, and something she and her husband, Larry, knew they wanted to do when they purchased the land at 105th and A streets. Working from the ground up, they began creating a wildlife refuge, complete with prairie grass, wildflowers, birds, insects and animals.
Fletcher knew what a hayfield was as a child and loved the wildflowers that bloomed there; she even minored in botany in college. But it wasn’t until later in life, while working at a nature center, that she finally used a name -- prairie -- to describe the landscape she had known and loved all of her life. “It made me sad that we didn’t really recognize the ecological beauty of it,” she said.
Fletcher collected by hand seed from virgin prairie, as she and her husband converted their three acres a year. “We started from scratch,” she said.
With permission and on private property, they would collect three varieties of flowers at a time, taking “at the most” one-quarter of the seed from plants. Each person helping wore a cut-out gallon milk carton around their waist and was careful not to mix grasses and flowers. Staying true to the “range” to keep the right ecological flora, they collected within a 50- to 100-mile range of their home.
“There are all kinds of books on this now, but we only had one, Jon Farrar’s first edition “Field Guide to Wildflowers of Nebraska and the Great Plains.”
Only 10,000 copies of that were printed in 1990 for the Game and Parks Commission, where Farrar was a senior editor. They sold out in a year and a half, said Farrar, now retired.
Twenty years later, the second and updated printing of that book was published by the University of Iowa Press with great reviews from plant enthusiasts.
At one time, the Fletcher prairie had 80-plus varieties of wildflowers, but that number has gone down as nature takes its course on the land. Although they planted only six kinds of grasses, they often crowd out the flowers.
Walking the prairie -- where the deer make a path -- continues to be one of Fletcher’s favorite things, as is photographing the wildlife and flowers. Fletcher has passed her love of the prairie onto the next generations by teaching classes there. And the Fletchers donated a conservation easement of their prairie to Wachiska Audubon Society; it was dedicated in 2008.
John Dietrich knew the practical restrictions he was facing -- his wildflowers would be growing in his urban backyard -- then went about sowing his favorites and waited to see what would come of it.
Like Fletcher, he got interested in the prairie concept decades ago and looked to a book for guidance. “I got a packet of seeds from the Wisconsin Horticulture Society and got started,” he said. Over the years he has collected seeds -- with permission -- and ordered others.
When he moved to his current home in 1999, he had “lots of lawn,” he said. Slowly, he began turning the turf in the backyard and was able to transplant some of the wildflowers he brought with him.
Most notable in his urban collection are 60 varieties of false indigo or Baptisia australis, ranging in colors from light gray to blue to blue gray. These wildflowers have long, deep roots and normally don’t like to be moved, but Dietrich has figured out when and how to move them successfully.
He also has several penstemons, gayfeathers and columbines. Coneflowers happily reseed in his yard.
Dietrich said he is “not a landscaper” and doesn’t spend a lot of time designing his backyard. Instead, he plants more “haphazardly,” looking for sunny spots for his wildflowers and puts sedges in his shady areas.
“In my neighborhood, the front yard has to be more formal,” he said. “But the backyard is another story.”

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