Plains Folk

The Prairie Garden


Our property is host this summer to a family of serial killers. A Cooper’s hawk raised a clutch of little Coopers in an ash tree overlooking our garden and supervised their hunting lessons in the willows on the creek. Now we have hawks continually wheeling through, seeking targets of opportunity.

This makes songbirds less numerous around the place than usual. Gophers and rabbits, previously legion, now are scarce. On the brighter side, we haven’t had to net the berry bushes this year.

Early this morning I walked out to the garden to check a sprinkler, and there was one of those hawklets bathing himself – perched on the edge of a raised bed, spreading his wings to catch droplets, doing a little dance of delight courtesy of Cass County Rural Water. So now I’m inclined to forgive his murderous brood the shredded carcasses we have found on the property all summer.

Which brings me to the question, what’s a prairie garden for, anyway? In the modern situation, it cannot be for basic nutrition. We would do just fine as to produce with the retail and local markets. Of course, we have some eccentric tastes that have to be served from our own production–ground cherries, for instance, or herbs like tarragon and lovage. But there are plenty of other eccentric notions available for purchase.

I can think of three good reasons, though, for husbanding a prairie garden, all of them contributing to the idea of the good life on the Great Plains.

First, seasonality. There is a complex order to garden transactions that is conducive to human comfort. Right now is a cluttered time on the calendar, as the cherries, raspberries, juneberries, gooseberries, and currants all demand harvest and processing. And when the root crops come out of the garden in tubs, man, that just defines a prairie autumn.

Second, culture. Thoughtful gardening is interlaced with cultural traditions and human relationships. My Egyptian onions trace their lineage to my late mother’s garden in western Kansas. My horseradish came from a sweet upland farm woman in the Flint Hills. My hyssop is a recent acquisition from a good friend who keeps a sprawling garden along the Red River, who in turn captured it from the wild.

The processing and use of garden produce, too, perpetuates tradition. Canning lore and family recipes are called into action. Right now I’m eyeing the green beans, anticipating a skillet of beans and Knoephle. With butter, and savory.

And third, there is the nature thing. Right now I’m in touch with my hawks, but also with the frogs and toads that invest my moist space in a dry summer. I cuss the perennial weeds, and then the annuals, but might miss them if they were gone. I bring captives in from the wild–wild asparagus, Maximilian sunflowers, field mint, native columbine–and corrupt them with the comforts of domesticity. I hope the wood ducks will come back this fall to get drunk again on crabapples.

Sometimes, I confess, I walk Angie the History Dog out to the garden and we sit and have a talk, she and I and the plants. Perhaps I’m hearing things. How fortunate that I can.

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