Khabira Wise’s gardens in northern Albemarle County are a stunning example of the Center for Urban Habitat’s (CUH) unique approach to landscaping through native ecosystem modeling. When planning a garden, CUH considers factors such as geology, elevation, aspect, and lighting in order to decide which native plant community is best suited to each exact location. The plant communities modeled in Khabira’s gardens are acidic oak-hickory forest understory, piedmont prairie, low elevation acidic outcrop barrens, and alluvial floodplain swales.
I visited Khabira’s Gardens on Thursday, August 31, and was amazed by their vibrancy and beauty. In front of the house lies a large, colorful prairie entrance bed, with gravel trails leading through it. If you follow these trails around the house, you come to an alluvial floodplain garden, where water from the roof supports a diverse and thriving community of wetland plants. Behind the house lies the site for another planned local native prairie, called the megafauna meadow, and a swimming pool. Below the megafauna meadow and pool is a vegetable garden and a small shed.
I explored the entrance beds, enjoying the small, feathery, yellow spikes of gray goldenrod as they blended into larger clumps of mountain-mint and tall, white billows of hyssop-leaved thoroughwort. Species like hyssop-leaved thoroughwort, short-toothed mountain-mint, gray goldenrod, early goldenrod, common yarrow, spotted bee-balm, butterfly weed, and New-England aster were most striking at this time of year. Underneath these, grew many other less obvious prairie species, such as Pennsylvania sedge and Carolina rose, adding to the richness of the garden. The plants in this section, as well as those in the uncompleted mega-fauna meadow, were closely modeled after the nearby acidic prairies at Albemarle County’s Preddy Creek Park. Indeed, the mega-fauna meadow project will attempt to mostly use seeds gathered from Preddy Creek Park, making it a true extension of that local native ecosystem, whereas the entrance prairie beds use plants from a wider region.
Walking through Khabira’s gardens, I felt like the air was alive with the vitality of native insects. As they zipped by, their tiny air currents brushed my skin. Glistening, iridescent, colorful wasps and beetles, glittering like gems, crawled on flowers. A bright yellow clouded sulphur butterfly sipped nectar from an orange butterfly weed. I saw more than six species of wasps, eight species of butterflies, and innumerable hoverflies, native bees and beetles. When I looked around, at any given time, there might have been more than ten bugs on any tiny bit of flower. Native ecosystem modeling leads to this abundance by carefully selecting native plants sourced as locally as possible, and by creating the conditions needed for the plants to thrive, such as periodic disturbance and the reduction of invasive weeds. Such careful attention to detail allows the natural community, in this case, Piedmont prairie, to establish, laying a firm foundation for maintaining and increasing biodiversity.
I walked around the side of the house, to the next garden area, the alluvial floodplain-modelled garden, a water catchment system from the roof. Khabira told me this was her favorite part of the gardens. Rachel, the CUH employee who designed and planted this section, said that when she does an installation, she first chooses plants based on their tolerance or need for the varying moisture conditions present in swale gardens. Within those habitat parameters, she enjoys considering “growth form, bloom time, and color, and painting with the plants on the ground.” She also pointed out that over time, new native species arrive on their own and add tremendously to the planned richness of the garden. Looking at the alluvial floodplain garden, I could easily see how her skill has payed off. Massive clumps of hollow joe-pie weed, cardinal flower, blue mistflower, white turtlehead, and cut-leaf coneflower created explosions of reds, blues, and yellows. Behind the intense wildflowers, thick mats of bottlebrush grass and various other sedges and rushes formed a solid backdrop.
Khabira heard about CUH from a friend who had hired them in 2012. She was very impressed with her friend’s beautiful wildflower garden, and with how CUH provides a plant list specific to each location’s needs. When she moved into her new house two years ago, she decided to plant her gardens for their beauty and ecological value as thriving native plant communities. I asked her if she had had any early experiences in life that led to her love of nature, and ultimately contributed to her decision to plant the gardens. She said that she would never forget a particular afternoon when she was about 8 years old, and really noticed the life and environment around her. She called this “an indelible experience with the interconnectedness of all things,” and said that she could “feel the pulsing of the earth and how we were all really one being.” Khabira’s gardens serves as a visual and living symbol of her deep love of nature and desire to contribute to the greater world.