Every time I drove through the neighborhood, I went a little out of my way to cruise past the especially beautiful old house with the generous front porch, tile roof, and lush garden full of flowering trees and shrubs. The genteel loveliness of this house at the corner of 5th Avenue and Polk Street made me feel proud, glad I had bought a small fixer-upper cottage a few doors away.
Then one day the house was a smoldering pile of rubble. The owner lost everything in the fire and eventually moved out of state. The empty lot sat on the market for years. The trees and flowers remained, ringing an empty spot in the center where the house had stood. A bamboo groove grew densely in one corner. Raised beds and brick paths lay under the vines and over grown bushes. After a while, the sick feeling from the loss of the house faded, and I began to appreciate the lot for what it was, a valuable patch of trees and plants filling in a gap in our fragmented ecosystem. It was an oasis for wildlife surrounded by a desert of asphalt and mowed lawns.
I feel lucky this column provides me with the opportunity to seek out individuals dreaming up small community-building projects in their own niches of the city. Usually, they are doing all the work themselves, attempting to affect positive change with the tools at hand. Sometimes writing about these creative people inspires me to try a project of my own.
Last summer I wrote about Knoxville Botanical Gardens horticulturist Brian Campbell’s goal to restore several acres of the property to a wildlife meadow. He stopped mowing the area, started eradicating invasive plants, and establishing natives food sources for butterflies, bees, and other pollinators. He called it the Butterfly Conservation Meadow.
In February, my husband and I bought the lot at the corner of 5th and Polk, and created the Parkridge Butterfly Meadow, directly inspired by the KBG Butterfly Meadow. I owe a debt of gratitude to Campbell for sharing plants and knowledge, and to the owner of the lot, who sold it to us for a low price when we told him our intentions. Many times I have I stood on a piece of wild available land wishing I could rescue it from future development. I could never afford acres of wilderness, but I could afford this lot.
We spent several months pulling out invasive species like Bermuda grass, privet, Japanese honeysuckle, and Johnson grass. We planted blue stem grasses, nectar-rich flowers, fruit trees, and specific plants for certain specialists, like milkweed, essential for the monarch caterpillar.
They are called “butterfly” meadows after the most charismatic pollinators that visit the meadow, but they are intended for more than just butterflies. According to Attracting Native Pollinators, a guide published by the Xerces Society, native bees are the most important pollinators to native ecosystems, though often overlooked.
Pollinators are important to human well-being. Around 75 percent of all plants rely on pollinators to reproduce, including one-third of the food we eat. Bookending the block is the Parkridge Community Garden at the corner of 5th Avenue and Olive Street, where participants grow vegetables in raised beds. The meadow and the garden compliment each other.
The meadow is for people, too, and we mowed paths and clearings in the hope of inviting visitors to explore the mini-urban wilderness.
The meadow is a work in progress. But I am happy with it now when I spot a rare bird, or bright flower in bloom. I was happy with it before, when it was muddy and choked with invasive weeds and trash. Birds used it even then. There are several abandoned lots in the area, and while not intentional wildlife areas, the birds use them too.
Once, I heard a flutter and scuffle in the bamboo grove. Investigating, I found a young blackbird in the middle of the path, half-eaten, opening and shutting his beak in silent agony.
I blamed a cat, but you never know, it could have fallen prey to the legendary Parkridge Coyote. There’s death in the meadow too, as it should be. It’s the circle of life and all that, adding to the health of the community.