Photo by Dennis Buchner on Unsplash.

I saw my first wood duck when I was about 10 years old. A tartan-colored drake led a hen on the water before flying off into the woods with a startled whistle that pierced the morning air. In my youth, I spent a lot of time at Sand’s Timber, a county recreation area and lake near my grandmother’s farm, birding and botanizing, sleuthing out nature’s next mystery. At 10 years old, everything about nature is a mystery, though nothing a magnifying glass, a field guide and a good set of binoculars can’t solve.

This memory rushed back to me last weekend when I heard a pair of wood ducks flying over the backyard into a stand of trees south of my house. They landed in a dead oak just down the hill. The female darted into a hollowed limb. Apparently aware of my gawking, the scouting lasted only a minute before they dashed off deeper into the trees. I live a quarter of a mile from the Des Moines River, a local flyway for birds migrating inland from the Mississippi River. The floodplain woods are home to herons and bald eagles. Soon, in my hilltop garden, the warblers will arrive, leading the songbird parade. I eagerly anticipate their antics as they alight the canopies of the hackberries and oaks. I could watch them for hours. As prone as I am to ornithological day dreaming, I wonder if I would’ve missed the coming of the wood ducks had life been normal. Would I have had those unscheduled few hours to roam around the yard and pick up sticks last Sunday afternoon? Would I have made time to do it?

“As prone as I am to ornithological day dreaming, I wonder if I would’ve missed the coming of the wood ducks had life been normal.”

Like all of you, I’ve spent the last month adapting to new routines in light of coronavirus. My work travel schedule is nonexistent, nothing like the weekly itineraries of January and February, which seem faraway and distant memories. I’m cooking more again, a pleasant intervention with the transactional relationship I’ve developed with UberEats and GrubHub even as I still try to support my restaurant friends who need the cash. All of this coincides with the return of the growing season, the green glimmers of which bubble up with each passing day. Snowdrops and witchhazels came early at Three Oaks this year, the lambs of spring’s early arrival, but no bellwethers for the lion of March: the arrival of a global pandemic.

Sticks from my left hand last Sunday afternoon.

In the last year, I have added “ecological artist” to my identity, a markedly different self assessment than I would have made only a few years ago. It helps me explain my approach to making gardens, honoring the early influence of Aldo Leopold and A Sand County Almanac on my education, and my curious examinations of plants in photography (and occasionally paint). As my professional life powers ahead at full speed, I’m grateful for the lenses of ecology and art to refocus my practice on its roots. And its sticks.

Hackberry trees (Celtis occidentalis) are notoriously soft-wooded. Each winter they scatter small branches in a fleeting act of arboricultural dishevelment. Last year, I strung them together into loose, curving lines to form the path I use between the Long Look Prairie and hedgerow. The gist of that sinuous pattern still exists, so I decided to add to it, expanding the outline of the hedgerow for a future planting project into a sixty foot long, double file line of fallen limbs. As I drug hackberry sticks and limbs with my right hand, I sorted smaller stems and seed heads into my left almost unconsciously (shown above). For a short hour which seemed like a few long minutes, my attention was absorbed by the task of collecting and making. I observed the fallen by giving shape to life. Then there were wood ducks.

Against the seeming enormity and uncertainty of it all, a garden, if you’re lucky to have one, is a timepiece of the seasons and a refuge for the spirit. I’ve been absent from this blog for some time, like most blogs I’ve struggled to keep in my life. I write almost daily, but not usually for public consumption. I’m in the final throes of another book that I’m so excited to share with you in the coming months, along with longer form essays like this one. I’ve fallen into the convenience of quick and quippy posts on Instagram in the last few years, but amid this slowing down, I’ll commit to sharing more of the view from Three Oaks. Even when that itinerant lifestyle returns, I hope the memories of now will underscore the sanctuary of home and the joys of keeping it.

Reading time: 4 min

I haven’t written, really written in months. Summer seems a distant memory. The first growing season at Three Oaks Garden was a pleasureful chore, about which I intend to share many thoughts. I’ve never been a particularly good blogger (the term is practically foreign to me), even as I do a reasonably good job of sharing quick little posts on Instagram or Facebook. My writing lately has been perfunctory at best as deadlines come and go for projects small and smaller. The most productive writing cycles in my life are iterative—a compositional feat like a book, for instance. I have an itch to really write more often than I actually have time—my creative self has more outlets than it wants most days. This self-awareness is my creative vulnerability, although I don’t know if I want to spend much time unpacking it. I really write when I have something to say.

Photo by Ryk Naves

Last night, while planting a last-minute assortment of Epimedium, a lone male Carolina wren interrupted my thoughts with a series of alarmist vocalizations as he glided from the branches of a hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) to the railing of my deck. I stood up and found him perched within 10 feet of where I stood, muddy shovel in one hand and a tray of two unplanted plugs dangling from the other. If it wouldn’t have disturbed him, I’d have let it all fall to the ground as I focused with rapt attention on his performance, an innocent spectacle. His raspy, guttural call emanated from him with the full force of his body. He had something to say.

For starters, he was the first of his kind I had observed since moving here to Three Oaks. I owe the sighting to my neighbor who keeps a row of bird feeders in front of his living room window. On a quiet and contemplative autumn night, amid the senescence of the landscape, his call gave me great joy, another moment for the tally of reasons why I’m so in love with this place. With so many leaves now fallen and only the final crackling ember from oaks and hickories in my viewshed, I finally took stock of my first full growing season here. November 2 yielded this Dylan Thomas moment amid the landscape’s final flourish against the dying light, a biological act of defiance before a requisite season of dormancy. This Carolina wren, a new year-round resident of central Iowa only in the last decade, offered a salvo.

His earnest and repetitive calling soon stirred his mate, whose appearance softened his demeanor. His shrillness gave way to something more songful, doting. They flitted as a pair, dancing first through the seedheads of my Joe Pye weed (Eutrochium purpureum) and then chased across the Long Look Prairie to the burning hot cranberrybush viburnum (Viburnum trilobum) at the corner of the property. I lost sight of them for a few minutes, only to hear them scratching and foraging in the leaves accumulating beneath the viburnum’s twiggy infrastructure. They were good company, chattering in the background as I traced my own path back and forth across the prairie, hastily determining where I might plug in these last few plants. I was their benign audience.

Here on this late date, I found myself still planting (let’s not even start on the list of bulbs still to go in the ground). Planting is my purest and most earnest gardening act. It’s what I do best. I don’t mind weeding, in fact it can be quite therapeutic. But I don’t do it well, at least not thoroughly. I give too much license to natural growth and am too lenient with pruning. I regard it as an art in which I’m personally unpracticed, even as I study and admire those who have more training and intuition. Planting, however, I excel at. It’s commitment in horticultural form and my preferred form of engagement with the world. Against all sensibility, I planted perennials on November 2, although I think that Epimedium are relatively safe bets given their nearly evergreen nature. It’s all conditional, but I’ll take the risk. Anyway, the weather looks uncharacteristically wet and milder than average for the next week and the leaf cover is heavy.

I’ve always been inclined to stop and stare at land, to take in its contours and subtleties, its trees and weeds. I noticed absent the distraction of leaves on the box elder (Acer negundo) that a wild grape (Vitis riparia) has jumped the road and abounded the leader, apparently almost 18 feet tall now. Golden strands of this native, aggressive vine entwine the full height of the street light across the way—it’s perhaps the only ornamental moment the plant has all season. I suppose it was only a matter of time before it joined me south of Riverview Drive. I wonder if Carolina wrens forage those withering berries and how they compare to the sparsely clustered drupes on the viburnum they’ve taken shelter in. What’s palatable to a wren?

I don’t yet have any birdfeeders on my side of the hedgerow, something I probably should fix soon. I’ve had a long relationship with birds in my life, and I intend to plant a biologically productive landscape in which they can thrive in accordance with their own ecological instincts. Feeding birds feels a bit selfish, otherwise. But I’m not an ornithological purist. I’ll put out a feeder in hopes of stealing a view onto the courtship of my newfound winged friends, cohabitants of this place I’ve come to love so much in the last 15 months. I’ll also keep planting for their benefit in hopes I’ll have an ear again to whatever they have to say.

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Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. pilosum seedlings emerging

A gardener runs the risk in long winters that the anxious sowings of January, February and March yield far more plants than s/he knows what to do with come April and May. I’m not far from these circumstances, and I still seem to be sowing. Against all advisable best practices, I’ve sowed seeds of things I don’t even intend to plant should they emerge, at least this year. What nursery will they grow in until they have a garden home? I haven’t figured that out yet. Against any wisdom I probably should have by now, I’ve sowed more seeds of certain things I intend to plant than I have room, space or energy to deal with. Every seed of Salvia azurea ‘Nekan’ appears to have germinated. Why did I sow three cells of it? The same is true of Pycnanthemum verticillatum var. pilosum, which is vigorous enough to account for any deficit of seedlings I might have had. No worry now.

I suppose I can’t entirely blame the long winter. With this new house came a finished basement, which I’ve appointed with all the trappings of an indoor seed-starting operation. I last did this when I was all of 11 or 12 years old, retrofitting basement beams and rickety tables in my parents’ rather primitive, farmhouse basement. I sowed heirloom sweet peas and morning glories, tomatoes, peppers and even tried my hand with Phlox drummondii and daylilies (from a cross I’d made the summer before). There were probably more, but these were the few sun-faded, stained packets I found tucked tucked away into a journal while unpacking boxes last week. I don’t recall much from the daylilies and phlox, but do remember some pretty spectacular showings of sweet peas and morning glories (see Ipomoea ‘Mt. Fuji Mix’). The memories of plants grown from seed linger longer for some reason.

There’s something about sowing seeds and raising plants that cultivates a deeper understanding of the subject than simply digging holes. It may not be much, admittedly, but it’s just a little more time and insight into their growth and tendencies that’s all old news by the time you find it on a bench at the garden center. It also feeds the ego of the human experience to cosset small living things which we feel emotionally invested in and watch them grow. Plus, it’s a good way to garden on the cheap or to grow exactly what you want–so often the treasures aren’t on nursery benches or in mail-order catalogs anywhere.

What else am I growing from seed? Here’s a list of highlights, most of which will end up in the Long Look Prairie or Meadow Nord:

Helianthus helianthoides var. scabra ‘Bleeding Hearts’, a new selection from Jelitto dangerously similar in name to ‘Burning Hearts’, which seems to be earning most of the commercial attention. ‘Bleeding Hearts’ offers semi-double orange flowers against purple foliage. I’m fascinated.

Stipa extremiorientalis from seed given to me by Panayoti Kelaidis. A new Stipa to me! I think it will be interesting to see how well this central Asian species fares on my clay soil with its handsome flowering display somewhere between wispy and spiky.

Asparagus verticillatus, also from Panayoti, is a hardy stalwart and climber (every family has one). The late great plantsman Harlan Hamernick popularized this plant through Bluebird Nursery for its beautiful foliage and ample autumn fruiting; totally head-turning when appropriately draped over an arbor.

Silphium albiflorum  is something I grew and flowered at the farm for awhile until it bloomed and died. I’m eager to get plants going here at Three Oaks and at Greater Des Moines Botanical Garden. It’s alluring and almost hauntingly white flowers are etched in my memory.

Sanguisorba canadensis is our native North American member of the highly popular genus.  It loves wet feet, as so many do, so I’m hoping to incorporate it at the transitional edge of the prairie and the bioswale to the west.

I often get asked where I procure seeds. While I often trade seeds with other plantsmen or swap through plant society seed exchanges, here are four seedhouses I frequently patronize:

Gardens North (although 2018 will be Kristl Walek’s last year in business, unless it sells to a new owner)


J.L. Hudson

Prairie Moon Nursery

Reading time: 3 min