Walk on the Wild Side

By Kimberly Mayer

We were trailing Jenny Harris of Catkin Horticultural Arts around the garden she created at the Family Resource Center on San Juan Island, beginning in the back and slowly winding our way around to the front, for this is a garden on all sides. I’d 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. 

“Marilyn,” I mentioned to my friend. “You could garden like this in Tucson.” Marilyn would be leaving the island soon as she and her husband wintered in Arizona every year.

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 then, and it isn’t mine now in writing this piece. 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. And if our little tour of her garden is any indication, 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 watched 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.” 

Bembix sand waspsI don’t believe we’d ever been introduced before. I now know a little more about you.

Summer bowed out and color is fading fast on island. It was one of those days, a prelude to the gray season. Yet I thought there more color in this garden than anywhere. Goldenrod in all its brilliance, bright orange poppies, the lavender of Douglas Asters, and soft pink Yarrow to name a few. But that too could be the charm and the magic of observing closely. I think that’s it. Children have this relationship with nature, and as we grow older we tend to lose it. 

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 outliar 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. 

For more on Jenny Harris of Catkin Horticultural Arts visit her website.

Photos by Jenny Harris

18 Comments

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18 responses to “Walk on the Wild Side

  1. Val Gauthier

    Wow, You just took me on that lovely garden tour with you!🥰 And yes, children do have it right. Everything is special. Every leaf 🍁 every bug 🐜 every flower 🌺.Along with a Master Gardner we can always learn (and remember) so much more❤️ Absolutely delightful piece Kim.🥰

    • So true. I remember taking our girls when they were very young on a trail overlooking the seashore, and pointing out spectacular views–to which they gave a nodding glance.
      But what I missed in butterflies and bugs was amazing!

  2. Susan Martin

    Beautiful essay. I have to go see the garden for myself. The photos are great but I’m sure the reality is even greater.

  3. Katie Birchenough

    Lovely! I have tried hugelculture in Western North Carolina, but not here in dry Colorado because the logs never decompose. Such a pretty garden. I hope to visit it with you one day, Kim.

  4. Kim, what a beautiful, evocative, thoughtful post. I enjoyed it so much. Gardening in the sand… I’ll now want to consider it. Thank you.

    • Aside from grasses and such along seashores and what grows in the desert, I hadn’t ever considered planting in sand either. But according to Jenny, many are, particularly in Europe. (She’s been doing it since 2004).
      Now, hold onto your hat. Jenny tells me “John Little of the Grass Roof Company, UK, is really pushing the limits and planting and gathering data on gardens planted in nothing but gravel, sand, and building rubble like crushed brick, glass, sinks and toilets, and concrete. It is proving to be remarkable for plants and pollinators. Anyone can do this anywhere, not just dry climates but very good for wet climates… and plants like it. It is a strong voice for the fact that we need flowering plants–all plants, no matter their origins or provenance, for insects and we need them NOW.”

      • zoesammy

        Hi, I didn’t get an email about your response or I would have written earlier. I have not heard of gardens being grown in the environments John Little has chosen. Though, come to think of it, we all have seen weeds — or flowers? — growing in deserted buildings or trash dump. Very interesting.

  5. Beatrice Carla Wright

    A walk in nature with grandson, Hunter Jack Blum, through a child’s eyes, as did Thor’s excursions with Noah, will be the ultimate shared experience.

  6. Judy Cumming

    Thanks for encouraging us to look closer Kim. I’ve enjoyed watching this garden vision coming to fruition. I think there is at least one more just starting in another public place in the Town of Friday Harbor. We are so fortunate here in this place.

  7. This is how it happens, isn’t it? And yes, fortunate indeed.

  8. Tracy Ahrens

    A wonderful tour through a beautiful garden. I hope I can see it with my own eyes someday. I especially love your observations involving children in nature. I remember as a child myself loving to collect colorful fall leaves, acorns and small little wildflowers. My own children spent hours and hours with their nose to the ground collecting bugs, rocks and shells and sea creatures at the beach.
    Beautiful piece, Kim.

    • Thank you. I know we are always recommending books to each other, but here’s another one, Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv. As an educator and a grandmother now, you will find it a compelling read.

      • Tracy Ahrens

        Thanks Kim. I will add it to my list. So many wonderful nature books out there. We are finally realizing that humans, both young and old, cannot survive physically, mentally or spiritually without appreciating the gifts of the natural world.

  9. Marilyn Kline

    Kim, thank you for taking me back on that journey. Made me feel like I was right there again.

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