This article was originally published in the August 2018 Princeton Echo.
This is all for you, little bee.
Hilary Persky reaches down to the milkweed flower where a fat bumblebee is busy gathering pollen and strokes it gently with her index finger, as if petting a tiny dog. The bee ignores the distraction and continues its work.
This is all for those pollinators: this tiny patch of land at 100 Cuyler Road in Princeton, no more than a third of an acre, where Persky lives in her ranch house with her partner. The lawn, which was a typical golf-course like suburban patch when she bought the house in 2013, is now covered in the lavender explosions of milkweed and Joe Pye weed, purple-and-white asters popping up here and there, a flashing stalk of red lobelia, a hummingbird hovering around it to feed.
Persky stands on a path of wood chips as she explains her gardening philosophy. A woodpecker buzzes through the shrubbery, darting between the low trees and shrubs that make up one layer of the wild garden that sprawls across the lawn and provides a home for birds and insects, especially the pollinators. Perskey says she wants her yard to provide a home for all those bugs and birds, including the little loved ones such as wasps.
Persky has covered the property in native plants suited to the unique climate of central New Jersey. As a result, the plants maintain themselves with no pesticides, no watering, and no maintenance other than keeping the grass away. The plants provide food and shelter for wildlife.
Persky says the garden is her way of helping to forestall the “insect Armageddon” that scientists have warned us of. Humankind has tamed too much of the world. Our campaigns to kill the insects that spread diseases among us and eat our crops have been too successful, and the insects are now dying in their billions, threatening to leave us deprived of all the unseen work they do to keep the ecosystem healthy.
Persky grew up in the Bronx, where her father was an academic and her mother was a librarian. She grew up living in apartments,and did so when she first moved to Princeton — as a student earning a master’s degree in political theory. She stayed to work at ETS, developing assessments.
In her Linden Lane apartment, Persky had a biologist upstairs neighbor who was obsessed with native plants, and the enthusiasm proved contagious. “Over time I’ve educated myself,” Persky says. She has attended workshops, read numerous books and articles, and confers with experts.
She is heavily influenced by Sara Stein, the author of “Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own backyards.” Stein advocated a less manicured style of lawn that she called “ungardening,” which allows nature to take over to a large extent.
When Persky moved into her own house, she got the chance to put her knowledge into practice. Native plants also gave her a way to solve one problem she had with the house, which she had bought from TerraCycle founder Tom Szaky.
To the apartment-raised Persky, the big picture window was a bit much. “I felt like I was in a diorama,” she says. “I couldn’t take it.”
The multi-layered garden serves as a green privacy wall. She planted in serried ranks, from low flowers to shrubs of different heights. “It’s not like I made a plan, really, I just put things here and there if I felt like they would create cover,” she says. The lawn is not completely “un-gardened.” Paths provide a place for humans to walk between the plants. “It is a garden inhabited by people,” she says.
From Cuyler Road, it’s hard to see Persky’s home peeking out from behind the greenery. But Persky’s wildlife habitat is not the only way to manage a native plant garden.
Just up the street at 66 Cuyler, another neighbor has taken a very different approach. John Jameson, a web developer for Princeton University, has a wildlfower garden in his own front yard. Unlike Persky’s, it is neatly confined to several flower beds. He planted it eight years ago to attract butterflies for his daughters.
“I had no idea what I was doing when I got started,” he says. So he did what any good programmer would do and made a giant spreadsheet of all the different types of native plants, noting when each of them flowered, carefully planting a variety of them that ensured that something would be in bloom at all times during the year. He has since shared the list with his neighbors, some of whom have also planted native plants.
“Gardening with native plants is just easier,” Jameson says, noting that they are uniquely well adapted to the local environment. “They drop taproots. I don’t have to care for them, which is lovely.”
He tries to keep his plot looking orderly. “I’m very sensitive that I’m a front yard gardener and not everyone would appreciate something that looks crowded and overrun,” he says.
Jameson shares Persky’s interest in encouraging native birds and insects. But he is not a purist and has a few non-native varieties. For example, he added Chinese Witch Hazel, which blooms in January, to add some color to the winter months.
Jameson says his daughters, who attend Community Park, appreciate the wildflowers and butterflies almost as much as they do the blueberries he has planted elsewhere in the yard.
Princeton is rich with resources and experts for those who want to give it a try. Princeton resident Patricia Taylor, a former New York Times writer and occasional Echo contributor, literally wrote the book on the subject: “Easy Care Native Plants” (1996). It’s long out of print, but available on Amazon.
To beginners, Taylor recommends butterflyweed, oak leaf hydrangea, and coneflowers. She says that despite native plants being easy to take care of, a garden ought to be carefully planned, with color and textures for different times of year kept in mind. “A garden is an artistic creation,” she says. “If you use native plants, it’s also an environmentally correct one. On the other hand, it is a garden, and you don’t want it to just be a mess.” A native plant garden will never need pesticides, Taylor says.
The native gardeners of Princeton all agree on the importance of thwarting invasive species, which can displace natural wildlife all too easily.
Back in Persky’s garden, she is examining an interesting moth that has landed on a flower when her eye catches something: a flash of iridescent green and blue on the underside of a leaf. She picks it up and examines it. It’s a Japanese beetle, a foreign pest that is taking over large areas of the East Coast. “Sorry,” she says. “I know this isn’t your fault,” and she crushes it between her fingers.
Native Plant Sale, D&R Greenway Land Trust, 1 Preservation Place. 609-924-4646. drgreenway.org. Perennials, shrubs, trees, grasses, ferns and sedges from $4 to $20. Fridays, August 3, 17, and 24, 3 to 5 p.m.