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Winter Sowing Bee at Fish Creek Preserve

Updated: Nov 5, 2019

On a frigid Friday in December, folks have gathered at Myriam Wood's Fish Creek Preserve to start the plants of future springs and summers. It is the annual winter seed-sowing at Myriam’s home-away-from-Bloomington, a property adjacent to Owen-Putnam State Forest, and now placed in a conservation easement with Sycamore Land Trust.

It’s darned cold outside, but some of us have just returned from taking the dogs for a ramble through woods that have reclaimed most of this land. We now assemble in Myriam’s garage and get down to business: mixing and potting up soil; sifting out seeds from dried flower heads; dispersing seeds among numerous, carefully labelled flats. False indigo, beebalm, liatris, coneflower; blue-eyed grass, goldenrod, alumroot, penstemon: these are just some of the seeds harvested from native plants that grow at Fish Creek. Some were purchased and put in by Myriam; others simply recovered their place here, as this land was allowed to ease back toward its natural state.

Native plant seeds harvested from Myriam's land. Photo by Gillian Harris

Like most of southern Indiana, the land was once farmed, the soil eroded and depleted. Now under Myriam’s stewardship, botanical diversity is returning, and with it the insects, birds and other animals that make up a living landscape. It has taken decades of learning, experimentation, and strenuous labor to get to this point, to the collection of seed-filled jars on the garage windowsill. When Myriam and her husband Jim came to this place in 1973, their first impulse was to replicate their Bloomington landscape, and they set about planting conventional ornamentals around the new cottage.

But while teaching state history at University School, Myriam became interested in Indiana prairies. She also noticed how pollinators thronged to the Joe-Pye Weed growing in her creek bottomlands, and began to seek out other native plants to attract and sustain wildlife. When she retired, Myriam was able to fully devote herself to rejuvenating the ecosystem of Fish Creek. She called upon Spencer Goehl of Eco-logic (a former student), who walked the property with her, drew up a list of native plants for butterflies, and facilitated her purchase of large flats of plants to kick-start her project. She now employs two groundskeepers/gardeners, Anthony Bizzari (another former student) and Andy Marrs, to keep the endeavor growing.

Ramsey Harik, Dottie Warmbier, and Andy Marrs prepare the stratification beds.

Photo by Gillian Harris

And she calls on friends, who are only too happy to be a part of the process. A few especially cold-hardy souls have now left the garage to prepare the winter garden bed. They dig shallow troughs in soil that was covered to protect it from freezing, footprints of the flats we sowed indoors. The pots are transferred from their flats and nestled into these depressions. Here the seeds will bide, undergoing the cold stratification necessary for most wild plants, until the longer days of spring stir them into germination.

Lizz Robb and Myriam Wood mix potting soil. Photo by Gillian Harris

Mary Weeks and Kathy Ruesink sow stratification flats. Photo by Gillian Harris

Just as we run out of pots, Myriam announces that soup is ready, and shedding boots and winter layers, we trail into the house to enjoy the spread she has laid out for us. As we finish, she sets two binders down amongst the empty bowls and Christmas cookies, and we leaf through pages of photos, garden lists, nursery receipts and germination notes. Eschewing herbicides, Myriam has taken a measured approach to planting her clearings, creating “pocket prairies”-- areas small enough to be prepared with a weed-smothering layer of cardboard and mulch, and more easily managed throughout the seasons.

After lunch we follow Myriam as she guides us through the landscape surrounding her house. The ornamentals of yesteryear have been largely supplanted with native flowers and shrubs that support a diversity of wildlife. The scarlet fruit of winterberry pops against a muted December pallet. Neon green moss carpets logs gathered as seedling nurseries, as well as cover for small critters. Since a marbled salamander was discovered in the leaf litter, leaves are no longer “cleaned up” but left to provide free mulch as well as the foundation of a living landscape.

Myriam in one of her shade beds, describing how the fire-pinks (Selena virginica) she planted years ago have thrived and spread. Inset: Fire-pinks in bloom attract hummingbirds. Photos by Gillian Harris

Myriam’s enthusiasm and dedication is infectious. She is constantly amazed at what the land has “in its belly,” as she puts it--if it is only encouraged, or even left to its own devices. She recalls the purple fringeless orchids that dotted the meadows last summer, and the day that her gardener went out to plant bottle gentians newly acquired from Eco logic, only to discover that gentians had already, and freely, emerged on their own.

As we leave, we joke that if our seeds germinate successfully, we may benefit from Myriam’s generosity in sharing extra plants. Ever the teacher and mentor, Myriam has also shared what she has learned from her years at Fish Creek, welcoming to the preserve school-bus-loads of children, surveying botanists, local plant and conservation groups, and, today, a community of friends—to partake in the ongoing work of bringing plant diversity, ecological function, and life back to the landscape.

Midsummer pay-off: One of the pocket prairies in bloom. Photo by Dottie Warmbier

Hit the slider arrow below to see more native Indiana plants at Fish Creek Preserve, a Sycamore Land Trust conservation easement in Owen County, Indiana.

Thank you to Myriam Wood for her hospitality, generosity, and enthusiastic dedication.

(all photos © Gillian Harris).

Dobbie, in the creek. Photo by Gillian Harris


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