Weed It and Reap

Eileen Metress: ‘Native gardening is about a community of life’

  • Weed-It-And-Reap-Eileen-Metress

  • Seamus and Eileen Metress
    Seamus and Eileen Metress

    Name: Eileen Metress, retired University of Toledo professor of public health, living in southwest Toledo, an area that was formerly Adams Township.

    Garden specs: Two acres; some flat, some on a hillside leading down to Hill’s Ditch. There’s sandy loam in some parts and clay in others.

    PHOTO GALLERY: Eileen Metress' native garden

    When did you start gardening? Growing up in the Dayton area, I bought a pack of four-o’clock seeds, planted them, and was spellbound. Then, from about 10 to 14, I made little rock gardens. When we bought this house in 1975, we had tons of grass to mow and just a few trees but I was teaching full time. I put in a traditional English border garden and that grew into a cutting garden with vegetables and perennials. And then I began wondering why all these plants had their origins in Asia or Europe and I thought, have we no plants here? About 10 years ago I came across Noah’s Garden: Restoring the Ecology of Our Own Backyards by Sara B. Stein and realized it is our challenge to plant our native plants. I began reading and reading about native plants. It’s a global problem, but if everybody just planted a little bit of natives in their yard, it all adds up.

    Wild bergamot and guest.
    Wild bergamot and guest.

    What do you grow? There’s some leftovers from the former gardens, such as hydrangeas, daylilies, and hostas. For the last 10 years, I’ve planted natives. Some of the most important berries for migrating songbirds are spice bush, sassafras, and native dogwood. We also have Joe-Pye weed, arrowwood viburnum, compass plant, daisy fleabane, bottlebrush grass, wild bergamot (lavendar colored), ironweed, prairie dropseed grass, little bluestem and big bluestem (the favorite of the buffalo) grasses. New England asters, native columbine (red with a yellow center), brown-eyed susan, sawtooth sunflower, butterfly milkweed, rattlesnake master, Indian grass, many goldenrod varieties, nodding wild onion, purple prairie clover, cardinal flower, northern sea oats, oakleaf hydrangea, anise hyssop, hoary vervain, American hazelnut (once the most common shrub in the United States but now hard to find).

    Trees include striped maple (an under-story tree also called moosewood), pawpaw, tulip tree, pines, and hemlocks. We also have hedgerows, a thick combination of trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers, and vines, which provide resting places, shelter, and food for a variety of creatures.

    Years ago, I brought in lots of good soil, but natives usually prefer relatively poor soil and get flippy if the soil’s too rich. Before planting a bed I eliminate grass by putting down newspapers (layers of 6 to 10 pages) and/or cardboard, then dumping wood chips on top. In some areas, we simply dumped wood chips I snagged by flagging down tree-trimming trucks and asking for their chips.

    Favorite plant: Gray-headed coneflower, which starts out with a gray disk (head) in the center that turns brown. It’s lacy, it’s graceful, it’s loved by gold finches. The flower bends over when a goldfinch sits on it. A lot of gardeners wouldn’t like that look, but to me it’s a sign that the gold finches have been there.

    A purple coneflower, left, with wild bergamot.
    A purple coneflower, left, with wild bergamot.

    Give us a gardening tip: Plant for the seasons and wildlife that are active in Northwest Ohio. For color in spring and early summer, plant native columbine and common blue-eyed grass (it’s in the iris family and has blue flowers; a white variety also exists). In midsummer, consider wild quinine also called American feverfew, and sweet black-eyed susan that grows 4 to 6-feet-tall. For late summer and fall color, there’s smooth aster with blue flowers and tall joe-pye weed topped by mauve-pink flowers.

    Hours spent gardening per week: In spring about 20. Many plants are tall and have stalks that are a little woody, so I cut most of the garden back in the spring. In nature you would have fires every so often that would burn the old growth back. This takes a good month using a machete and hand clippers. My husband, Seamus Metress, helps and he also rips out invasive species, which is a huge problem. About 10 hours in summer and fall.

    Annual expense: About $200, mostly for new plants

    Challenges: Weeding out exotic invasive vegetation. Some of the worst are oriental bittersweet, porcelain berry vine, honeysuckle bush, buckthorn bush, autumn olive, Siberian elm, and multiflora rose with white flowers and a yellow center, originally from Asia. Along with invasive plants come invasive insects which often don’t have predators here, and invasive microbes.

    I’m proud of: Providing a home and habitat for butterflies, songbirds, hummingbirds, toads, etc.

    What I’ve learned: Native gardening is about a community of life, akin to a symphony orchestra. Each plant is an important part of the whole, serves a purpose, and its bloom time is vital to creatures that have co-evolved with it.

    A section of the Metress' land.
    A section of the Metress' land.

    Note: Weed It and Reap is looking for gardeners who love what they do, whether in plots large, small, or with unusual content. Tell us what’s unique about you or your garden in a sentence. Contact tlane@theblade.com or call 419-724-6075.