The Self-Taught Gardener: Leaving the prairie

As we move through life, what things do we carry with us to make us feel whole? Our Self-Taught Gardener Lee Buttala shares his own choices.

When I first moved to Iowa to run Seed Savers Exchange, many friends were surprised that I could uproot myself from my community of friends and the charming countryside of the Berkshires and set off, maybe not in a Conestoga wagon, but in a VW Tiguan, for a new land. I remember both the excitement and nervousness I had when packing, with the premise that I would only bring what I could fit in my car, as I was keeping my house in Ashley Falls, imagining that I would return some day, perhaps at retirement, to the wonderful community that exists in this special corner of the world.

Professional organizer Marie Kondo would have been proud of how I managed to reduce fifty years of living into the back of an SUV, and I felt a little like the Ingalls family leaving the house in the Big Woods, carrying with me what mattered most, along with some necessary clothing. Well-used pots and pans, bowls, a pasta machine, and my favorite poaching spade and pruners sat cheek by jowl with my dog Fred’s most beloved possessions: a miniature chair that he liked to curl up in and gaze out the window, a dog bed, and his yellow ware water dish. A few plants and cuttings made their way with me as well, including a division of a beloved peony from my old homestead in Connecticut and some seeds from a native meadow rue and a favorite orange-hued cosmo.

Prairie clover will always remind me of the cheerful, stalwart friends I made during my sojourn in Iowa.

This winter, as I prepared to leave Iowa for whatever adventure comes next, I had to think about what got added to the mix in the two years that I lived on the prairie, just a few miles from one of the towns where Laura Ingalls Wilder spent her childhood. And it was not a surprise that what I wanted to add to my wagon-load would not be hard to fit in with the assorted pots and pans, and a few newly purchased old yellow ware bowls bought at markets in the Midwest, because the seeds that I cherished would easily fit into an envelope in my glove compartment or a coat or shirt pocket.

Roadsides filled with a native bee balm welcomed me when I arrived in Iowa and their seeds will find a place in my garden in the years to come.

For gardeners, plants and the seeds from which they come are memories and connections to those we have met along the way and to the places that have come to fill our hearts. And while some of the selections were practical, such as the ‘German Pink’ tomato that inspired the creation of Seed Savers and was even better tasting than anticipated, and a collard that was as weather-resistant as it was tasty (and would probably grow well wherever I went next); others were selected for their connection to a time in my life that I will always cherish and the landscape that I had inhabited during this time. The coneflowers and bee balm that filled the roadsides had come to mark the seasons and passage of time for me and to embody some of the traits I liked most about some of the friends I had made in the region. They were cheerful and sturdy, native, and seemed to belong here, in ways that I imagined that I never would. They were of this land and belonged to it, but I hoped, like myself, that they would adapt and perhaps be at home in some new place as well. For this reason, I packed up seeds of purple prairie clover and butterfly weed that thrive not only in the local soil but will do well in the sandy silt of my garden at Ashley Falls, if, or when, I return east.

Purple coneflowers will always define summer on the prairie for me and connect me not only to my time in Northeast Iowa but to my childhood in Chicago. They remind me of the summer explosion of color that takes place in the Midwest on the prairies that, as I leave them now, are covered in snow.

These packets bear great meaning to me and connect me not only to this brief time in my life and the special people that I have met, but to our forbears, no matter where or from whom we came into being. Like the immigrants and indigenous people of this country who have carried such seeds forward, I too head bravely forward into the wilderness that lies ahead, excited and perhaps a little apprehensive at the prospect of a future that is new and undefined, but comforted by a touch of the familiar, safely held in my shirt pocket and in my memory.

A gardener grows through observation, experimentation, and learning from the failures, triumphs, and hard work of oneself and others. In this sense, all gardeners are self-taught, while at the same time intrinsically connected to a tradition and a community that finds satisfaction through working the soil and sharing their experiences with one another. This column explores those relationships and how we learn about the world around us from plants and our fellow gardeners.

3 thoughts on “The Self-Taught Gardener: Leaving the prairie

  • I grew up in Chicago as well.
    A lecture at the Botanical Garden by Joyce Powers was the
    most impactful information about the work I have done now for 25 yrs, my
    tall grass prairie in lower Michigan and here on my Spencertown property.
    I now share seeds and visits from the Garden Conservancy twice a yr.
    Please come visit. Linda Horn

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