When author Stephen Brown and his wife Anne Milligan bought their first home together nearly 13 years ago, the couple decided to do something about the traditional landscaping around their Louisville home.
With a yard full of gravel and coy ponds, the couple set out to create a rain garden using plants native to Kentucky. The couple recently published a book about their adventure called “Let the Earth Breathe: Gardening with Native Plants.”
“We weren’t expert gardeners, Ann is a fine art painter who works in oils and I write detective stories,” Brown said during a recent presentation at the Daviess County Public Library. .
Brown said the couple didn’t really know what they were doing at the time.
“We took the coy ponds out and got two big holes,” Brown said. “However, Anne and I had gone to a half-day seminar on rain gardens, and more specifically rain gardens using native plants”
Brown said it’s mind-boggling how much rain falls from rooftops, which can then be directed to a rain garden and used to support plants.
While Brown used a downspout to direct water into his first rain garden, which is essentially a garden that sits lower than the rest of a property where pools of water for plants can be taken in, he quickly learned to make French drains to more efficiently direct rainwater.
Regarding soil conditions, Brown said that while Kentucky is known for having a lot of clay in its soil, native plants have adapted over the years to thrive in those conditions.
“Native plants adapt to local conditions, so we didn’t alter the soil,” he said. “They can tolerate a lot of rain; they can tolerate long periods of drought. Plus, they come back bigger and stronger every year.
Now, with several individual rain gardens in her garden, Brown said, “Every window is set to nature’s channel and the view is magnificent.
It’s only a small part of our yard. Each window is tuned to the nature channel, as we like to say, and the view is magnificent.
Flowers that make up the gardens include coral honeysuckle, which is known to attract hummingbirds.
“We see the leaves start to vibrate due to hummingbirds flapping their wings before we see the birds,” Brown said. “We always have nesting pairs.”
Ferns are another favorite of Brown, who said they provide a nice shady area in her rain garden.
“Ferns grow well in the shade; they are survivors,” he said. “They’ve been around for millions of years.”
Brown said that because his yard doesn’t exactly look like a traditional suburban front yard, he may get questions from neighbors and passers-by, but that’s fine with him.
Becoming a monarch butterfly station, a certified location known to attract colorful butterflies, and posting a sign to that effect increased those conversations, he said.
“As we put up the sign, our neighbors started stopping by and telling us about it,” Brown said. “If you don’t know what’s going on but you learn, you’re a little more tolerant. So native plants have their own beauty, people just need to be trained in them somehow.