Mercy and Tim are members of the Stony Brook STAR Neighborhood and have been converting the majority of their yard into a meadow. We recently visited Mercy’s Meadow to learn more about their process, what’s growing and find out how other residents could create mini-meadows of their own.
What interested you in gardening? Why is it important to you?
I think my interest in gardening may originate from the challenge. For many years I lived in Phoenix, Arizona where Square Foot Gardening worked great for me. Obviously, I now have a lot more possibilities in the Garden State.
Gardening is all about variety and possibilities. I like being more observant of the wide range of plants, insects and birds around us. I like being outside even when it’s hot or cold. As a gardening friend of mine says, a cool breeze will come along when you need it.
How long have you been gardening?
I have been gardening for a long time but my interest in native plants started about 8 years ago. I attended a Pinelands Preservation Alliance dinner where I won a native plant and that started my exploration of this type of gardening.
How do you choose what to plant?
We started with plants that chose us when we stopped mowing. We have gorgeous violets that bloom early along with Virigina Spring Beauty (claytonia virginica). These two are low plants but they create a wide sweep of purple and white color in the grass. Philadelphia Fleabane has been dependable each year. It’s a weed to some but so are a lot of native plants. Bushy asters have been able to establish themselves where we don’t mow and they bloom in the summer. Goldenrod started coming in more last year for later summer and fall color. Princeton, however, is naturally a forest, not a meadow. We have hundreds of oak saplings that we won’t be able to keep. Some will be transplanted to the backyard. We’ll leave a handful to replace trees that are dying in the front yard.
The first plants we chose to purchase and plant in the meadow were mainly to help butterflies and birds. We have milkweed for the monarchs and coneflowers that the goldfinches love. We also have bee balm. We were inspired by the meadow in front of the Institute for Advanced Studies so we planted ironweed plugs the first year. I chose some, like New York Asters, just because I like them.
I am now choosing plants so that something is blooming each month. Golden ragwort started blooming in April and the Columbine will bloom in May. The coneflowers should start in June. Then once we are into full summer, the sunflowers, asters and ironweed will put on a show.
What tools and equipment have you used to help you with your gardening work?
I mainly use hand tools to weed, divide plants and to plant. I have a shovel with a full length handle but about a quarter sized blade. It’s perfect for planting and easy on the back.
The most helpful item that I found are plant markers that really make it through the winter. I found them at Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve. Bowman’s Hill is a great place to learn about native plants. They have walking paths and a well-stocked nursery. The markers that I found are galvanized metal with a grease pencil. These really last through the winter. The ink always fades on the other markers and leaves me guessing about what I planted last year.
My husband absolutely loves his riding electric mower. These are hard to find and pricey but we are happy with this investment. Since we’re not on a regular mowing cycle or pattern, we don’t fit with the services of regular landscapers. Tim is able to do exactly what we want and the mower is just darn fun to ride. He also has an electric leaf blower that is powerful and quiet.
In addition to tangible tools, I really like the website of Jersey Friendly Yards. Searching the internet for information can be overwhelming. I find myself going back to this website because it’s easy to use and it has a ton of information. The plant identification app that I use is iNaturalist.
How much time do you spend on garden maintenance?
I often spend three or four hours in the yard on weekends. I’m able to work for an hour or so during the work week. At this time of year, I spent my time dividing the plants that I have and moving them around. I also weed and pull grass.
What would you say to someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to spend gardening?
Just go micro. You can have a lot of fun with a very small space. An elevated planter box can be perfect for flowers or vegetables.
What’s your favorite gardening “hack”?
Since poison ivy is everywhere, I often use masking tape to make sure my sleeves and gloves protect my skin. Of course they make gloves with long cuffs which I highly recommend.
My other hack is to leave plant stalks up through the winter. I know everyone says to clean up but these are the best markers. You don’t have to guess about what plant is growing in the spring because the stalks will identify the plant for you. Also, the birds love them and seem to find seeds when we think everything is gone.
What challenges have you experienced during your gardening journey and what advice do you have for others?
Set small goals, especially if you have a large yard. For example, there are a lot of invasives but you won’t be able to get rid of all of them. We pull garlic mustard every year but we then pick one other invasive each year to target. This year we are going to remove Amur Honeysuckle from the property. We probably have twenty of these bushes that need to be taken out.
What advice do you have for homeowners who hire landscapers?
If you have something in mind, don’t give up on it. Keep talking to different landscapers until you find one who understands what you want to do.
Watch a short video of Mercy’s Meadow on our Instagram and let us know if you’d like your yard to be featured next!