Garden description: Six years ago, Small Wonder Urban Garden was created under the idea that a large impact can be achieved even in a small urban space. It was built as an oasis for pollinators and humans in the center of a busy city. The garden brings to light the very important connection between insects, nature, and humans. Small Wonder Urban Garden is an example of a no-excuses outcome, as it has overcome a variety of common excuses people give for not having a garden. It was created by tenants who do not own their home, in a very small space in the city, with zero direct access to ground. The raised gardens and containers rest entirely on a tiny 500 square foot concrete area, but nonetheless have shown that a seemingly small and useless space can become the visual feature of a neighborhood and the ecological footing for insects and wildlife to thrive. The core concepts of the garden are: -Creating an oasis for pollinators -Connecting people to nature -Urban beautification -Utilization of space
Who are the gardeners? The gardeners are twins Jason & Eric Hoover, who are also Delaware Natives. The Hoover twins are ever-evolving environmental scholars, who continue to reassess their own values, and share their joys of horticulture with the community.
Why do you garden? We garden because we find an inherent joy in creating life. Our gardening creates life through the plants that grow in it, the insects that thrive in it, and the rippling effects that they have on the rest of the ecosystem. Additionally, we create life by making a beautiful space that brings people together, seeing its beauty from outside the space, and the rippling effects that these positive interactions have on the rest of the community. We also garden because we love teaching people about the wonders of nature. For example: each summer monarch and swallowtail caterpillars grace our garden, and each year we watch them become larger and larger until they turn into beautiful chrysalises, and ultimately in the fall transform into stunning butterflies. Witnessing this process is an experience that can inspire a non-gardener to bring home their first milkweed seeds to start a pollinator garden of their own.
How has gardening impacted you during this time? Gardening has always been a great way to disconnect from the busy world around us and find solace by reconnecting with our natural world. In times of high-stress, uncertainty, and isolation, this reconnection is more important than ever.
What do you have in your garden? Our garden is almost exclusively comprised of native species which benefit insects and pollinators. Because the garden is so tiny, just over 500 square feet, we realized native plants are the best way to maximize the ecological impact of our small space. Upon entering the garden you will see an abundance of high-impact pollinator plants such as Joe Pye-Weed, Milkweed, Bee Balm, Hyssop, and Queen Anne’s Lace, with a fury of pollinators hard at work. These pollinators range from almost microscopic native bees, to bumblebees, and of course, monarch and swallowtail butterflies. The blooms are beautiful, and the support it gives the native pollinators is clear.
A variety of native trees and bushes give dimension to the tiny landscape, which include a beautiful volunteer Honey Locust, two Sycamores, planted from seed, a Viburnum Bush, a White Pine, a Serviceberry, and a cluster of River Birch trees. Each tree houses other plants and flowers at its base, including a tiny Fern grove, a small Current bush, a Fig bush, and Foxglove. A large Walnut looms over the garden, from the house next door. The space strives to be as 3-dimensional as possible, from garden bed to tree canopy, and everything in between.
Nestled in between these feature plants, you can find several other native, ecologically beneficial plants such as Purple Cone Flower, Butterfly Weed, Lupine, Coreopsis, Sunflowers, and Black Eyed Susan. Interspersed throughout the garden are tiny pawpaws nursed under shading plants until they can gain a foothold.
The remaining plants mostly comprise of house plants which are easy to take cuttings of, split, or root, and which have been brought outside to recover from the winter. These plants include Spider Plants, Coleus, Tradescantia Pallida (Wandering Jew), and a variety of succulents. These plants are not native or ecologically beneficial, but they bring people together and expose them to the wonderful world of gardening. These plants are our master indoor specimens, which provided hundreds of cuttings to friends, workplaces, schools, and students over the years.
In addition to plants, the garden focuses on people. A feature backyard table sits in the very center of the space, which hosts many backyard meals and late night get togethers. String lights add a warmth to the space and allow it to be used into the night. A large compost tumbler attempts to blend in with the plants, and reliably processes all kitchen scraps, paper, and garden litter throughout the year. It is the source of all of our supplementary fertilizer and potting soil, and allows us to drastically reduce our contributions to the landfill. A few small logs with holes drilled in them provide shelter for pollinators. A drip system efficiently delivers a few minutes of water three times a day. A home-made bench and a repurposed bench sit perpendicular to each other, tempting the passerby to sit and enjoy the space.
From the very beginning we have done everything we can to provide food for insects with an emphasis on pollinators. The efforts include planting Hyssop, Bee Balm, and Joe Pye Weed for the native bees, Milkweed for monarchs, and Queen Anne’s Lace for swallowtails. However, this year we ramped up our efforts by bringing our insect support inside. We regularly collect caterpillar eggs from the underside of Milkweed and Queen Anne’s Lace and bring them to our indoor nursery. Because there are so many dangers and predators to a wild caterpillar, bringing them inside can increase their chances of survival from 5% to 95%. We meticulously clean the eggs and Milkweed in a 5% bleach solution to rid the plants of pests, parasites, and viruses such as OE. We raise them in cages, being careful not to overcrowd, and keeping similar-age caterpillars together. Once they emerge as a butterfly we take a scale sample, inspect under the microscope, and once they are confirmed to be free of OE we release them. We then catalog our samples for possible future reference. We make this effort for several reasons, the first is that the butterfly population has been in rapid decline over the years because of habitat destruction. The Western Monarch is about to be declared extinct and has reached a population size that is impossible to rebound from. This emphasizes the importance of keeping the Eastern Monarch population strong. Secondly, we believe that the monarch is an incredibly charming insect that makes a perfect ambassador for the importance of supporting native insects. We believe that sharing the joy and wonder of the incredible monarch will open people’s eyes to the concept of planting native, and we have already seen dozens of friends and family take to planting Milkweed and other native plants to attract butterflies of their own. To date we have released 10 monarchs, have 20 chrysalises waiting to finish metamorphosis, 20 more caterpillars munching on Milkweed, and 12 more eggs. We have also set several friends up with caterpillar raising kits so that they can learn proper rearing techniques and spread the joy to their family and friends.
Do you have any problems with disease or pests? If so, how are you dealing with this problem? Yes – pests are often a challenge because we strive to be a 99.9% organic garden. Our main priorities are to provide a safe home for pollinators and to create a beautiful space to exist and feel good in. Spraying chemicals and pesticides would only help us accomplish the second of the two goals. We only use non-organic pesticides as a last resort, and when we do use them we are extremely targeted and use them extremely sparingly. For example, our River Birch cluster has been plagued by a bronzed birch borer for several years, which has shown major impacts on the tree. Pruning back dead and damaged branches, fertilizing the soil with compost, and watering regularly was not enough to save the tree, so we used a very small amount of permethrin to save our beloved tree. It has since recovered and we haven’t touched chemicals in a year and a half. Our base line of defense is through garden layout and design. We keep plenty of airflow in our garden to prevent stagnation of spores and disease – this is a challenge when trying to maximize a garden and fit lots of plants into a very small space. Additionally, we keep our plants healthy through regular watering via a drip system and hose, through appropriate sunlight exposure, and through bi-annual applications of our home-grown compost soil. Anything that cannot remain healthy must be cut back so that it does not harbor disease. Typically though, our first line of defense is to use beneficial nematodes in our soil. We spread them in our compost pile and our garden beds, which helps eliminate pests such as small flies, grubs, weevils, and borers. We have also provided the habitat for lacewings and have seen many lacewing eggs on our plants, which look like small white pinheads floating on long wiry hairs. Lacewings east aphids, mites, flies, and thrips, so we welcome them into our garden. Our next line of defense is manual inspection and removal. For example: in the spring we often have to combat anthracnose on our Sycamore trees. Manual inspection and pruning of infected leaves and branches helps the tree stay healthy and strong. Infected foliage never goes in the compost. Powdery mildew often visits our garden, which is best controlled through pruning. A quick hit with our “bug blaster”, a garden hose attachment, is a surprisingly effective way to organically remove pests. The third line of defense is through the use of soap water, which we often end up using for aphid and mealybug control. We like to give ladybugs time to take control of the situation themselves, but will intervene if necessary. In order to save a favorite tree, this year I climbed up a ladder and meticulously sprayed the underside of every leaf. The task was repeated every other week until the population was finally under control. I did the same thing last year, but the tree has finally recovered. As you can see, every effort is made to keep the garden as organic as possible.