Story Plants: The McElroy House GardenPosted: September 4, 2016
A version of this column first appeared in ABOUT the River Valley Magazine.
We started our McElroy House pollinator garden during a workday back in the fall of last year. We put down cardboard across a square of the front yard bordering Second and Green Streets. It wasn’t much, but kept down the weeds and served as a marker throughout the winter, reminding us of the spring commitment we’d made.
In March of this year we started removing strips of the cardboard slowly, digging into the loamy soil and planting as we went. For a while it was just a small little row of yarrow and day lilies. But as time went on we pulled back more and more cardboard and dug new patches, being careful to work slowly enough for the plants to take root. Then in April we hosted our flower planting skill share. We pulled back the last layers of cardboard and dug up the entire square. We’d purchased native plants from Pine Ridge Gardens in London and New South Nursery in Roland. We’d brought more yarrow and Black-eyed Susan and Echinacea And we’d put out a call to the community to come bring seedling versions of their favorite flowers to add to the beds. Most importantly, we asked that people bring story plants and share their stories as we put them in the ground.
What exactly is a story plant, you might ask. Well, it can mean any number of things. For starters, plants have their own stories about how they replicate. Plants can live very long lives — especially in the multi-generational sense — and they replicate in a myriad of ways. Take for instance the yarrow, our plant mascot for lack of a better term. It produces by rhizomes, a kind of stem that actually grows underground. Basically, yarrow grows from it’s offshoots. And it’s tenacious and drought-hearty. Cornflower, the delicate blue flowers that covered our garden in the spring, are self seeding. They’ll return on their own next year without our having to do much of anything. Others, like Echinacea, are perennial. They die back in the winter to return in the spring. The day lilies grow by bulbs. They stay dormant in cold weather and shoot forth new growth when it warms up. So first there is the story of how a plant keeps going.
But beyond that, plant stories are about how plants become connected within our own lives. There is the ancient story of people and food—a story we too often take for granted—but there is also the very recent narrative wherein old plants weave their way into our short lives. You may think you don’t know any story plants. Or maybe it’s just you don’t know the plant names. But you still know the stories. Maybe you see an iris and think of a grandmother or grandfather. Maybe a patch of wild daisies reminds you of your mother. In many instances we can write new stories with plants. A sunflower can become a new beginning; a hyssop can mean building community; a yarrow is knitted into a story about persistence. Plants help us learn about solidarity, about who came before, and about what we can do now right where we are. Plants remind us that the world is so much bigger than we can ever imagine and that our interconnectedness is more vast than our language could ever convey.
Everything we planted at the McElroy House garden is there for the butterflies and bees. We worked with native plant and pollinator specialists to make sure that our garden is quite the buffet for them. And these days the garden is crowded. There are little yellow sulphur butterflies and buckeyes and monarchs. The bees are everywhere, too thick upon the bee balm to even begin to count. We’ve got some tall milkweed growing, the only plant where the Monarch will lay its eggs.
But the garden is also for us. It’s there for us to remember people we’ve lost—the ways we’ve lost ourselves, even—and to sit with our grief in a way that gives honor to these struggles and these memories. It’s there to remind us that no matter how many times someone uses the metaphor, it’s fundamentally true that everything in the garden starts as a small, fragile seedling. It’s there to help us have an ever-growing visual image of what happens when hard work meets solidarity. And it’s there to liven up the place, to fill the space with color and wings. Building an intentional place of beauty is never a frivolous undertaking.
Beyond that, the garden is there to help us build up collective stories that are both new and generations old. We are an organization that stands for justice and solidarity–across class, across race, across region. We believe in centering the diversity experiences of our community as the foundation for our work. This doesn’t always lend itself to tightly wound mission statements or bullet pointed lists so readily employed by the majority of the non-profit world. We are an action organization but we are also an idea organization. And we move at the speed of caregiving. We care for babies; aging relatives, and our own bodies with all their struggles and beauty. Most of us live paycheck to paycheck, and there are no paid positions at the McElroy House.
Some people might call our work slow. We’d probably agree. But when we look at the garden we see time differently. And we can begin to see that what we do is root work. Not everything is visible above ground—at least not all the time.
We remember that our work is in everything we do in and outside of the McElroy House: Caregiving, working low paying jobs that seldom make the bills, struggling with mental illness, fighting the destructive world of poverty, teaching in our public schools, teaching in universities, getting PhDs in history, single parenting, struggling with family members who don’t understand us, studying the effects of racism on our population, building rain barrels, speaking up for ourselves or our trans friends in a community that fears us/them, breaking down ideas of race, class, and gender in our communities, sharing stories of how we learned to fight self-hate, forging paths for women in engineering, growing a little patch of food, letting our kids see us wrestle with injustice, writing music, standing up for justice even when we don’t know all the terms our urban friends so readily spout, wrestling with the role of white people in #blacklivesmatter, working to understand immigration and stand with our neighbors facing fear of deportation, fiercely loving our homes—pain and all, refusing to take part in fear of our neighbor, and a rejection of the so-often told stories, that it’s “normal” for all of us to be fearful and divided.
And when we forget this—as we so often do— we can look at the garden and remember.
The world is full of injustice. There is so much work to be done. Plants can help us forge new ways of fighting this—in our own communities with the tools and resources we have right in front and inside of us. It can remind us of the skills that live inside of us. It can remind us that the fight for racial justice, indigenous solidarity, eradicating poverty at the roots, is important no matter where we are. It can help us develop new models for ancient struggles. It can collapse time and connect us to something so very far beyond ourselves.
This fall we’ll put down more cardboard to prepare for the coming spring. Our goal is to slowly add onto the garden each year, filling the yard with flowers (and stories), leaving only a walking path large enough for wheel chairs and feet to pass thru. It’ll take years to get there, but there is no better place to learn patience—and perseverance— than a garden.
We’d love to have you come join us. Bring a plant in honor of a loved one or as a nod to a new story you’re writing. Or perhaps both. We believe in people coming together across differences; we believe in equality and equity, and we are certain that our plants — and our stories — are stronger together.
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