Reforesting in the Bluegrass
For several years after 2015, when I had begun to periodically visit Hisle Park in northeast Fayette County, I was mystified by a property along Briar Hill Road where a very large number of young oaks grew in a dense plantation. In the winter and early spring, a house became visible at the end of a long curving driveway. What contrast to the surrounding pastures where horses grazed in expansive fields! Who created this planting and for what purpose?
Then, in the summer of 2020, I met Ann Whitney Garner, the owner, and she invited me to her farm. On that first visit I drove through the opened gate with intense expectation and followed the driveway in awe at the extent of the plantation. The trees growing in rows stretched almost up to the residence. Ann Whitney showed me the garden, chicken coop, barn and tree nursery behind the house, then took me through a small natural woodland to a substantial creek, David’s Branch, that forms the rear border of the property.
She and her husband Allen Garner bought this 20-acre lot in 2006. In 2008 they moved with their three school-aged children into their newly constructed home and engaged a landscape contractor to design and install the plantings typical of Bluegrass residences: many boxwoods, cherry laurels which are now dead, and more than 500 liriope plants which Ann Whitney has since dug up and discarded.
The Garners do not come from farm backgrounds, yet they wanted to use their land for some kind of agrarian activity that would reduce the amount of mowing on their empty space. They knew that they did not want horses. They considered a vineyard but found out that their land was too alkaline. They played with the idea of growing corn or organic tobacco but had to acknowledge that they would get no return on their investment of money and effort.
They knew that they cared about nature, and Ann Whitney anticipated the moment when her children going to high school and then college, which would free up time for a new kind of work. She couldn’t exactly define what it would be, but she wanted to work on her property. In 2010, she had an epiphany: “Why don’t we grow what’s supposed to be here,” she asked herself and her family. She had walked her property almost daily pondering what she observed: the way bush honeysuckle and winter creeper intruding from the perimeter suppressed the regeneration of plants, and the possibilities offered by the large expanse of open space. It occurred to her that the property called for trees, because that is what Nature would plant on it. Trees would create wildlife habitat, beauty and – in the very long term – financial value.
The Kentucky Division of Forestry helped her move forward with her project providing several forest management plans, offering tree seedlings for a very reasonable price and eventually loaning her a mechanical tree planter. During the first year she ordered and planted 100 trees: many redbuds, some pecans, sycamores, and bur oaks. Then she put in an order of 300 trees, including many bald cypress for a low lying area.
Then, in 2013, the Garners took a big plunge ordering 5000 oak seedlings, 1000 each of swamp white, bur, northern red, Shumard and chinquapin oak. They chose oaks knowing that they would be slow-growing and not immediately overwhelm them with labor-intensive management tasks. They also assumed that an investment in oaks can provide a financial return in the distant future when selective harvesting for some kind of a niche market may become feasible. Also, Ann Whitney had taken note of Doug Tallamy’s argument in Bringing Nature Home, that oaks are immensely valuable as habitat trees and a food source for a huge variety of caterpillars thereby sustaining a large bird population.
When they ordered their 5000 oaks, the Garners knew from experience that this number could not be planted with shovels, and that is where the mechanical tree planter came in. Hitched to a tractor, it carves grooves in the ground where individual workers riding on the machine place bare root plants at regular intervals. The entire Garner family participated in planting the oaks which turned into a surprisingly efficient and gratifying project.
Encouraged by their success with the oaks, they embarked on their last large planting endeavor two years later by installing 1000 tulip poplars in a remaining empty space behind the house. Ann Whitney had observed how fast the poplars grew and decided she wanted to speed along the development of a canopy cover on at least part of the property.
With the restoration of the Bluegrass underway, birds became more abundant and the soil began to absorb water more readily due to the expanding roots that channel it into the ground. But with the planting done, new questions arose: How does one live as a good steward on a property into which one has invested so much time, energy and money? Does the property lend itself to other uses that are still compatible with the goal of sustaining Nature?
In 2019 Ann Whitney started a tree nursery. Having handled thousands of tree seedlings over almost ten years, she concluded: “I can do this myself.” She studied up on propagation techniques and collected seeds of native trees growing in the Bluegrass. She wants to inspire other property owners to follow her example restoring the Bluegrass, creating habitat for wildlife and helping the soil heal. She would like to make resources available to help them get started, and first and foremost among these are young trees. At this point her nursery has a number of native species available in 3 and 5 gallon containers. Her website is https://www.fieldstoforest.com/.
Many landowners in Kentucky live on properties that they do not imagine ever returning to agricultural use. In Fayette County a single residential house can be built on 20-acre lots outside the urban service boundary with the official explanation that it serves agricultural activities, even though there is rarely any evidence of it. Instead, one drives past large lots with a house in the distance, possibly a few trees here and there, but otherwise with the ground covered in turf grass subject to a relentless mowing regime. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Ann Whitney Garner let her land speak to her. She walked on it and she worked on it. And she reflected on what she saw. She considered agricultural ventures. She became interested in ecology reading about plants and the animals they sustain. She sought professional advice and consulted with local arborists and biologists. Now, more than ten years after the big decision was made to reforest her land, she says: “I just know this is what we are supposed to do on this kind of property.”
The Bounty of Nature
Every year, at our chapter’s plant exchange in May, we benefit from, and – I like to think – participate in, the extraordinary liberality of Nature. Annie Dillard, in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, asserts that “Nature is, above all, profligate.” Nature, in her endeavor to assure the survival of life, routinely produces an abundance of seeds, suckers, rhizomous roots and vining branches, all of them in fierce competition with each other for space, nutrients, sunlight and water.
The vast majority of these plant elements never amount to anything; they die long before reaching a state resembling maturity. But if we bring a viable piece of plant into our garden, it has a much better chance at survival. For a garden, by definition, limits competition; someone exercises control over the available resources. To an extent! For Nature still does her profligate thing in our gardens, giving us an abundance of seedlings and suckers to weed out and to share. This, I assume, explains why we love to exchange plants: we can be generous simply by following Nature’s lead. We can give freely, because what we give is free to us.
Among the plants in my own garden that beg to be shared, purple phacelia (Phacelia bipinnatifida) ranks first. It’s a biennial flower of our forests that covers the small woodland behind my house with patches of purple carpeting that last for a month or more from mid-April to mid-May. It has moved into the sunnier front yard where it seems to do equally well. I know I shouldn’t just let all those seeds drop to the ground; they might smother everything in sight by next year’s summer. But its survival strategy seems fine-tuned to my infatuation with floral beauty: it gets ready to drop its seeds while it is still flowering. How can I possibly rip out all those phacelias, while they are still busy extending the spring wildflower season in my garden?
Purple phacelia is best shared in the form of seed during a narrow window in mid- to late May. It is true that the seedlings which emerge in early spring for the following year’s bloom can be transplanted, but since it’s a biennial plant they require some pampering. Not so with some of our other prolific self-seeders: smooth beardtongue, black-eyed susan, aromatic aster. These perennials can be easily dug up when they are small, plunged into their new location, watered once or twice, and left to assert their will to live. Smooth beardtongue is a fairly short-lived perennial, but the other two form persistent and widening clumps in addition to cropping up from seed everywhere in the garden.
Our plant exchange thrives on such steady performers in the native plant landscape. But our participants always bring a great variety of plants. Every garden seems to have its own unique over- abundant species to share, so that we can feel bountiful and generous.