When Charlotte Ekker Wiggins first moved to her forested lot in 1982 to build a house, her neighbors told her nothing would grow. Today Bluebird Gardens, named for the local winged residents, is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, Monarch Way station and apiary. It is also Rolla Floriculture Club's May 2020 Garden of the Month.

How would you describe your one acre hillside garden?

It is basically a giant cutting garden. Lots of flowering and edible trees, shrubs, perennials and native tenants, the frogs are the noisiest. It can be a very busy place. No grass. My goal was to have enough flowers that I could cut and still have my garden look like nothing was missing.

What do you primarily grow?

Typical of a Missouri garden, I’m sitting on limestone so I grow mostly rocks. My favorite gardening tool is a pickax. I’m also on an incline. Once or twice a year I head to the hill bottom and escort wayward strawberries and other plants back to their flower beds. I use a variety of strawberries such as Ozark Beauty, Everbearing and June Bearing as border plants.

I also have some of my mother’s favorite Blue Bearded Irises; daffodils I gave my brother 15 years ago for his Virginia garden now back home for a vacation, and my sister in law’s New York hostas, which are edible. Herbs and vegetables are intermingled with flowers, that’s how the pollinators easily find them. I also hope it’s a little more camouflage from visiting deer.

For years I have also had a pot garden, growing herbs and vegetables in pots. The pots make it easier to place them in flower beds for pollination and to move herbs inside for winter.

How do you use native trees, shrubs and flowers?

When I first started this garden, I incorporated existing native trees and flowers. I built garden paths around native Eastern Redbuds (Cercis canadensis) and just a few days ago moved a lovely patch of Germander (Teucrium canadense) away from foot traffic. If it’s already happily growing here I see no reason to toss it.

I also added dozens of native seedlings from Eastern Wahoo (Euonymus atropurpureus)

to Beautyberry bushes (Callicarpa americana L.)Emerald Ash Borer-damaged Elm trees are getting replaced with native Pawpaw trees (Asimina triloba).

What do you do about weeds?

After a considerable amount of research, I have banished the word “weed” from my vocabulary. I have found most “weeds” growing in my garden are herbs that at one time had medicinal and culinary value. Some still do, we’ve just forgotten about them or pulled them without checking what they were. They grow on their own and add value, what’s not to love. Did you know chicory coffee tastes like chocolate?

How do you keep your garden healthy?

I compost and mulch, two critical steps to make hillside flower bed top soil and keep it fed and happy. Many people don’t realize soil is a living ecosystem all on its own. I also use a variety of ground covers and ground ivy to retain soil from Perinwinkle (Vinca minor) to Creeping Charlie (Glecome Hederacia).  

Complimentary plants help to minimize bug damage. If you find it on your plate you know it’s a good garden mate. Basil is an excellent bug deterrent around tomatoes.

My garden is also full of birdhouses for natural pest control. I have resident Pileated Woodpeckers, hummingbirds and a variety of other birds taking up residency including Summer Tanangers, also known as the “bee eaters.” The birdhouses provide homes to other pollinators including paper wasps and the periodic tree frog or two.

You also have a bee garden?

I already had native bee houses and wanted to give my 30 plus dwarf fruit trees a little help. About 10 years ago I added two bee hives and now have an apiary, run a bee club, write beekeeping books, lecture on keeping bees and planting for pollinators. Bees pollinate the dwarf fruit trees and increase flower production and fruit yield. One out of every three bites of food we eat are courtesy of honey bees. That is, if I can get to the fruit before the squirrels and other wildlife do. And then there’s the added bonus of delicious, quite local honey.

What advice would you give beginning gardeners?

Take a basic soils class; understand that soil is an amazing interdependent ecosystem that is the foundation to, and of all of our plants. Once you understand soils, keep learning. The master gardeners offer an excellent core course. The core course will teach you the basics of gardening, then your volunteer time will give you exposure to other more experienced gardeners and ideas. 

Before you plant anything, have your soil tested through University of Missouri Extension. They not only will tell you what kind of soil you have but how to amend it for what you want to grow.

As you daydream about your garden, start withnative trees, shrubs and lots of flowers; no turf grass. The natives already have an interdependent relationship with the soil, bugs and birds. They will also grow more readily although you do need to water them in their first year. If you want a green carpet look, opt for micro clovers that grow low and still feed pollinators. For more on why bugs matter and how you can develop a healthy garden, see my April 2019 TEDx talk: https://tinyurl.com/yae5a4qr

Charlotte is an advanced master gardener and provisional master beekeeping instructor.

The Rolla Floriculture Club was established in 1934. The Yards of the Month are chosen May-August. They are floral gardens inside Rolla city limits chosen at the discretion of rotating club members. Aesthetic appeal in the front yard is the biggest factor; getting to know the story behind the plant choices is a bonus. Edible gardens were recently made eligible as long as they are in the front yard and there is both a floral aspect and aesthetic value.