Villagers build prairie nursery
- Published: November 20, 2023
As the weather grows colder and Yellow Springs moves through fall and toward winter, one hope for future spring and summer is already planted and waiting in the Thistle Creek development, on the edge of the Glass Farm Wetland and Conservation Area.
Over the last few months, villagers and Thistle Creek neighbors Pat Brown and Philip Bottelier have been working to create a small prairie plant nursery that will raise native plants. The duo aims to both distribute the plants to local residents and donate some to help populate the prairie at Glass Farm.
Once a farmer and then a longtime gardener — as well as a nun and a teacher at various points in her 83-year history — Brown said she had originally decided not to plant a garden when she moved to the village with her husband, Joe, in 2008.
“Then my husband got sick, and after he died [in 2010] I just started a garden because I needed to do something,” she said. “But I never could do anything small.”
And small her Thistle Creek garden is not — in spring and summer, it blooms with hundreds of native wildflowers. Many of those plants she started growing at her previous Stewart Drive home. When she moved to a rental while her Thistle Creek home was being constructed, she kept her native plants alive by moving them both to Greenleaf Gardens nursery and into the woods.
“They all survived — and I had hundreds and hundreds of plants,” she said, adding that they were so numerous she couldn’t plant them all at her Thistle Creek home once it was finished and had to give many away.
Her stock continued to explode in volume after villager Corinne Pelzl taught her how to save wildflower seeds — previously, she had bought new seeds to sow every year.
“I needed to put them somewhere,” she said. “So I came to [Bottelier] a while back and said, ‘Would you mow a piece of that space over there?’”
She referred to a patch of mostly goldenrod at the back of Bottelier’s yard that abuts the Glass Farm land. Bottelier said he quickly obliged her.
“She just kind of barreled into it with both guns blazing — that’s the way she’s lived her life,” Bottelier said. “This is a woman who is unlike anybody I know — except for me. That’s when I knew we were going to be a duo.”
Brown and Bottelier got to work, covering the freshly mowed ground with black garden tarp, building garden beds and filling them with soil. Or rather, Bottelier said, the last task was Brown’s.
“She moved all the dirt and filled up the beds by herself,” he said. “I didn’t do a damn thing.”
There was a minor hiccup in the process after Bottelier and Brown found that a portion of the land they had mowed and were using for the beds was actually on the Village-owned Glass Farm property. However, after speaking with Village officials who came out to look at the work they’d done and hear about the project, they were given the go-ahead to continue.
In a separate interview, the News spoke with Michele Burns of Tecumseh Land Trust, which holds the conservation easement on Glass Farm and helps maintain it through volunteer work days. (Brown and Bottelier’s Thistle Creek neighbor, Kim Iconis, has been instrumental in weeding and maintaining Glass Farm as well.)
Burns said the land trust and Village have now “established a process of what we need to do moving forward” with Brown and Bottelier’s prairie nursery.
“The idea is that the native plants support the purpose of the easement, which is a native habitat,” she said.
She added: “They want to grow the native plants and then incorporate them into the conservation area and perhaps other Village-owned property, like the parking lot on Cemetery Street — we’ve talked about trying to revegetate that a little bit.”
Part of the reason Brown and Bottelier said they’re focusing on native prairie wildflowers is because the prairie portion of Glass Farm is currently dominated by tall, wild grasses. It’s a natural part of prairie succession, they said, for wildflowers to be edged out by grasses, and then for grasses to give way to shrubs and trees.
“If you leave it alone, it turns into forest,” Bottelier said.
“But if you want to keep a prairie,” Brown added, “it has to burn.”
Periodic prescribed burns are common for conserved prairies — they rid the land of dead vegetation, tall grasses and shrubs that would otherwise block sunlight necessary for more varieties of plant life. The Village, Brown said, hasn’t burnt the Glass Farm prairie land in about a decade, but plans to do so in the next year.
“That’s part of what motivated me to build the prairie nursery — they’re going to need seeds,” Brown said.
Until the burn happens, she added, she’s been growing prairie natives such as cup plants, compass plants, prairie dock and tall coreopsis. These flowers, she said, are hardy and can stand up to wild grasses.
“Many of them are aggressive enough that you would never want to put them in a small space — but for the Glass Farm, they’ll be fabulous,” Brown said.
Bottelier, a 14-year science teacher at Dayton Regional STEM School when the idea of the prairie nursery was beginning to germinate, had also envisioned the nursery being integrated into his students’ studies on nature and sustainability.
Looking more deeply into sustainability, he said, was his students’ idea. Studying climate change and loss of species diversity decades prior had instilled a certain amount of hopelessness in him, he said — but his students inspired him.
“It was the first time in the history of my career teaching that I have heard kids really concerned about the future of nature and mankind,” he said. “I have never been so hopeful for the future, because of those students.”
Bottelier said Thistle Creek — with several energy-efficient homes and proximity to Glass Farm — is something of an ideal classroom for learning about environmental sustainability. He added that Thistle Creek residents agree to a covenant with their homeowner’s association that no more than 40% of their yards will be covered in lawn grass.
“Lawn grass serves no other purpose than to look pretty,” he said, but the native plants he and Brown are propagating now will doubtlessly attract pollinators such as bees, wasps and hummingbirds. Though pollinators are essential to the continued existence of flowering plants — including much of the human diet — they’re now at risk due to dwindling numbers of native plants, which have been replaced by roads, lawns and monoculture crops.
Though it’s no longer part of the plan for Dayton STEM students to visit the prairie nursery, Brown and Bottelier said there will still be educational opportunities offered there. Beginning in spring, the two aim to begin holding monthly Saturday educational workshops on native plants and prairie propagation in the nursery. They said anyone who’s interested will be welcome to attend.
“We’ll put a lesson plan together — but mostly it will be [Brown] teaching,” Bottelier said. “I’m a teacher, too — but this is a passion I didn’t know I had until I met Pat Brown.”
The prairie nursery will also be open in spring and summer for those who want to propagate native plants in their own yards to take young plants home. To that end, Brown and Bottelier have built a raised berm around the nursery beds where Brown has planted mature native perennials from her own garden. When they leaf and flower in the warmer months, visitors to the prairie nursery will be able to see what the young plants they take home will eventually grow into.
“I have everything documented — what kind of soil each plant needs, wet or dry — so that people will know where and how to plant them and where they’re going to do best,” Brown said.
Owing to the name of the neighborhood she shares with Bottelier, Brown said she’s dedicated a good portion of the space of the prairie nursery beds to a particular kind of plant.
“We’re in Thistle Creek — so we need thistles,” she said.
Knowing that many of the thistles that grow wild in the village are non-native — such as the invasive Canadian thistle — she said she chose to grow the native, biennial tall thistle and prairie thistle. While the latter of those plants can grow to about five feet, the former can grow as large as 12 feet in the right conditions.
Brown said she and Bottelier will be keeping themselves busy this fall and winter tending to the nursery.
“Hopefully, if all goes well, in late spring little plants will be coming up,” she said.
Until then, the two have placed a bench at the edge of the prairie nursery, near where the thistles will grow. They look forward to the time when folks will come rest on the bench and enjoy watching the prairie flowers grow, and listening to the buzzing of bees and hummingbirds that followed the blooms.