McElroy House Story Plants
This piece was originally published in ABOUT the River Valley magazine and the Boiled Down Juice site for the McElroy House: Organization for Cultural Resources.
We started our McElroy House pollinator garden during a workday back in the fall of last year. We put down cardboard across a square of the front yard bordering Second and Green Streets. It wasn’t much, but kept down the weeds and served as a marker throughout the winter, reminding us of the spring commitment we’d made.
In March of this year we started removing strips of the cardboard slowly, digging into the loamy soil and planting as we went. For a while it was just a small little row of yarrow and day lilies. But as time went on we pulled back more and more cardboard and dug new patches, being careful to work slowly enough for the plants to take root. Then in April we hosted our flower planting skill share. We pulled back the last layers of cardboard and dug up the entire square. We’d purchased native plants from Pine Ridge Gardens in London and New South Nursery in Roland. We’d brought more yarrow and Black-eyed Susan and Echinacea And we’d put out a call to the community to come bring seedling versions of their favorite flowers to add to the beds. Most importantly, we asked that people bring story plants and share their stories as we put them in the ground.
What exactly is a story plant, you might ask. Well, it can mean any number of things. For starters, plants have their own stories about how they replicate. Plants can live very long lives — especially in the multi-generational sense — and they replicate in a myriad of ways. Take for instance the yarrow, our plant mascot for lack of a better term. It produces by rhizomes, a kind of stem that actually grows underground. Basically, yarrow grows from it’s offshoots. And it’s tenacious and drought-hearty. Cornflower, the delicate blue flowers that covered our garden in the spring, are self seeding. They’ll return on their own next year without our having to do much of anything. Others, like Echinacea, are perennial. They die back in the winter to return in the spring. The day lilies grow by bulbs. They stay dormant in cold weather and shoot forth new growth when it warms up. So first there is the story of how a plant keeps going.
But beyond that, plant stories are about how plants become connected within our own lives. There is the ancient story of people and food, but there is also the very recent narrative wherein old plants weave their way into our short lives. You may think you don’t know any story plants. Or maybe it’s just you don’t know the plant names. But you still know the stories. Maybe you see an iris and think of a grandmother or grandfather. Maybe a patch of wild daisies reminds you of your mother. In many instances we can write new stories with plants. A sunflower can become a new beginning; a hyssop can mean building community; a yarrow is knitted into a story about persistence.Plants help us learn about solidarity, about who came before, and about what we can do now right where we are.
Everything we planted at the McElroy House garden is there for the butterflies and bees. We worked with native plant and pollinator specialists to make sure that our garden is quite the buffet for them. And these days the garden is crowded. There are little yellow sulphur butteries and buckeyes and monarchs. The bees are everywhere, too thick upon the bee balm to even begin to count. We’ve got some tall milkweed growing, the only plant where the Monarch will lay its eggs.
But the garden is also for us. It’s there for us to remember people we’ve lost and to sit with our grief in a way that gives honor to the people we’ve lost and the people we’re growing to be. It’s there to remind us that no matter how many times someone uses the metaphor, it’s fundamentally true that everything in the garden starts as a small, fragile seedling. It’s there to help us have an ever-growing visual image of what happens when hard work meets sharing. And it’s there to liven up the place, to fill the place with color and wings.
This fall we’ll put down more cardboard to prepare for the coming spring. Our goal is to slowly add onto the garden each year, filling the yard with flowers (and stories), leaving only a walking path large enough for wheel chairs and feet to pass thru. It’ll take years to get there, but there is no better place to learn patience—and perseverance— than a garden.
We’d love to have you come join us. Bring a plant in honor of a loved one or as a nod to a new story you’re writing. Or perhaps both. We believe in people coming together across differences; we believe in equality and equity, and we are certain that our plants — and our stories — are stronger together.