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A walk on the wild side | Guest column

By Kimberly Mayer.

We were trailing Jenny Harris of Catkin Horticultural Arts around the garden she created at the San Juan Island Family Resource Center, beginning in the back and slowly winding our way around to the front. I had watched it come into being from the Master Gardener Demonstration Garden next door. I don’t know that any of us had ever seen anything like this, a garden planted in sand.

Why sand? Jenny anticipates everyone’s question, “Sand is permeable, it is weed free, it is warm. It holds moisture without being waterlogged. It is low fertility but can still host good soil elements. It is nice looking, clean, and will not go away or be digested like organic matter. Most plants love to germinate and grow in sand and gravel.” A layer of gravel was placed over the sand after planting to prevent erosion from rain. The only mulch being sand and gravel.

“This is the final stage of mineral mulching,” adds Jenny. And there you have it. A self-described “grower of plants, teacher of gardening,” Jenny had something to teach her neighbors peering over the fence, the Master Gardeners. But that wasn’t her intention. What Jenny sought to do in her garden at the Family Resource Center was more along the lines of creating a healing place.

“The people who seek the services (of the Family Resource Center) are struggling in one way or another,” notes Jenny, “quite possibly without a lot of joy, hope or beauty in that moment and it was our goal to create something lovely, colorful and immersive…”

I don’t know how long we were there that day. Four mature women, spellbound, looking at bees’ behinds—their bottoms bright yellow as they clambered upon blossoms feeding on nectar. And watching solitary sand wasps burrow to their nests in the sand. It had been a long time since I had observed the comings and goings of insects close-up like that. As another island treasure, Thor Hanson, wrote in Buzz: The Nature and Necessity of Bees, “Much depends on us — taking notice, taking heed, and taking action.”

Summer bowed out and color is fading fast on island. Yet I thought there more color in that garden than anywhere that day. Goldenrod in all its brilliance, bright orange poppies, the lavender of Douglas Asters, and soft pink Yarrow to name a few.

Camas, allium, narcissus and fritillaria bulbs, native bare root perennials, native wildflowers and grasses — like a meadow planting, wrapping around the Center. Jenny had in mind “a self-sustaining kind of garden design that is supportive of all the natural processes and biological organisms involved, such as insects, birds, mammals, and pollinators as well as the plants themselves.”

Here and there are tidy log piles, much like firewood stacks, in shady spots. I assumed they’d been placed about as environmental art, but they’re there for biodiversity. “Log pile waves,” Jenny calls them. The deadwood logs simulate fallen trees on a forest floor growing moss, fungi, and lichen, as well as hosting frogs, birds, beetles, and bees. The Wildlife Trusts considers log piles “a minibeast village.” Jenny turns a log over and smiles knowingly.

Thistle may be the emblem of Encyclopedia Britannica, but it was always an outlier in my book. So why should I be surprised to see the native Indian Thistle (Cirsium brevistylum) growing proudly, standing as stately chocolate brown stalks this time of year? Jenny tells me “It is not so common here but maybe once was… The stems are eaten by humans and the flowers and seeds beloved by birds and insects… This one is very soft and not aggressive. Lovely.”

I have everything to learn in gardening.