Community project grows food for birds, bees and more

Friday, July 26, 2019
Native Plant Garden volunteers take a break from their work in downtown Eureka Springs. Pictured from left are Chris Fischer, Mike Shah and Sharon Roberts.
David Bell / Carroll County News

By Samantha Jones

Downtown Eureka Springs has been home to the Native Plant Garden for four years — an ever-growing project that feeds the birds, bees and everything in between.

Volunteer Faith Shah described how the project began, saying she and her husband Michael were very active in Save the Ozarks. At an event celebrating the initiative’s success, Shah said, she learned about the importance of native plants. Native plants are vital to the cycle of life in nature, Shah said.

“We hear a lot about pollinators but we don’t talk about host plants and the fact that caterpillars eat a lot of these plants and trees,” Shah said, “and our birds feed on the caterpillars. We went about it not only from the bees and the butterflies but the birds too.”

It takes 6,000 to 9,000 caterpillars for an average nest of birds to reach adulthood, Shah said.

“There are moments where you learn information and it changes your life forever,” Shah said. “That changed my life forever. I had no idea.”

That’s when the Native Plant Garden was born, Shah said. Today, the garden contains many native plants including Rattlesnake Master, Bee Balm, Common Milkweed, Shining Blue Star, Beauty Berry, Yarrow, Yucca, Red Buckeye, Wild Indigo and Leatherwood.

“It has food for caterpillars,” Shah said. “It’s only four years old.”

The nice thing about native plants, Shah said, is they can be shown in a formal garden or more wild. She said the Native Plant Garden is a mixture of the two.

“Ours is going be sort of a blend of a formal garden and then letting it take over, because that’s what it does,” Shah said.

She pointed out Rattlesnake Master, saying it is a favorite plant for bees. There are native grasses in the garden, she said, with several native varieties. The Milkweed plant is especially important to the garden, Shah said.

“That is one of the reasons we got a monarch waste station,” she said.

The garden features flowers big and small, Shah said, and for a good reason.

“Tiny bees need tiny flowers,” she said. “They can’t get the pollen from the big flower. One of our goals down the road is to possibly think of this as an herb garden. It already is –– native plants are used in many different ways –– but we want to have an intentional medicinal workshop here.”

Yarrow is deer-resistant, Shah said, but that doesn’t always mean the dear will stay away.

“We’re now putting up this deer netting, because they are getting some of the things we wish they wouldn’t,” Shah said.

The Leatherwood plant is a special feature of the garden, Shah said, because it is the namesake of the popular Lake Leatherwood City Park. There are about eight Leatherwoods in the garden, Shah said.

“Native Americans used these as leathery thongs,” she said. “You can feel how leathery it is.”

The garden is the first of its kind in Eureka Springs, Shah said, and she hopes the idea catches on with more people in the city. Many people are using native plants in their home gardens all over the country, she said.

“This is such a growing movement. People are learning we don’t have endless resources,” Shah said, “and they have to set aside a special place for pollinators.”

Once the garden is a bit more contained, she said, volunteers plan to buy stone and fix the walls to give it more structure.

“The walls are falling down. We’re raising the money to buy stone,” she said. “We are 100 percent volunteer-driven. We have support from the preservation society, and we rely on fundraising.”

The project fits perfectly into Eureka Springs culture, Shah said, and she wants everyone to see that.

“We want to make people aware that they can bring nature to their own back yards,” she said. “I’m hoping people will say, ‘Oh, I can do that in my back yard.’ “

Volunteers are already doing yard consultations with those interested in bringing more native plants to their home gardens, Shah said.

“People are using this as an inspiration to create a native plant garden in their back yard,” Shah said. “What we put in our yards makes a difference. When we take plants out and put lawns in, those are sterile. Nothing eats it.”

She continued, “We’re looking at it through a different lens of feeding all the pollinators and birds. A hole in a leaf is actually a good thing. It’s like you put food out for a hungry guest and they eat it, rather than having a sterile garden. We’re trying to teach people to think about their choices of plants.”

Volunteer Chris Fischer said the project shows how plants can be practical and beautiful at the same time.

“We’re trying to up the game of the ornamental quality of native plants so they’re more embraced as inventory and in more typical gardens in the area,” Fischer said. “This is an urban habitat restoration project, where we’ve transformed a former garden maintained by parks and others into a form of food for pollinators and other creatures.”

Shah agreed.

“It’s an insect food pantry,” she said.

Shah thanked everyone who has helped out with the project, from city employees to dedicated volunteers. She has loved seeing the garden evolve over the past four years, Shah said.

“The first year they sleep, the second year they creep and the third year they leap,” she said. “With all the rain we’ve had this year, it’s leaping lizards.”

She encouraged anyone interested in volunteering to stop by the garden on Friday mornings. And for those who just want to see what the garden looks like?

“Come back any time,” Shah said. “It changes weekly.”

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