by Chadd Guimond Hippensteel, NHCLP
Leslie Herd at Riverside Gardens is as lively as a sprig of willow, as vibrant as the Monarda covering her property, and is a boundless source of sage advice for growing and maintaining native plant gardens. A former organic farmer with experience growing, selling, and teaching others, she has set her roots down in Dover, NH, and since 2017 has transformed Riverside Gardens into a mecca of flora and fauna.
We met on an overcast Friday morning at Riverside Gardens. She wore a dark blue hat from Prairie Moon nursery to match her canvas shorts and wry smile. She started talking at once. Showing me the plants intended for the “western meadow” garden, a small plot created by reclaiming land from the invasive Oriental Bittersweet Vine, she talked me through the process of overwintering seeds like Milkweed before transitioning them into full sun growing conditions.
Beyond the raised bed nursery, a row of St. John’s Wort sat heavily laden with bees. When I expressed my love for a similar species that grows by the road, she agreed, gesturing at the colorful row and saying, “they’re great, the bees love them and the deer don’t eat them.” For the next hour, Leslie took me through the trials, tribulations, and payback of growing native plants. A process that, she says, is starting to give back.
Many of her plants are grown from seed (1), from plugs (2), from pots (3), and still more from bare-root saplings. (4) “I love these saplings,” she explained, tending to a group of ankle-high Fragrant Sumac, “you buy them and they’re this high (about 6-8″ typically), and after spring, they’re this big (14-16″ high). And they cost about $1.50.” That is bang for your buck. A group of Scotch Pine, now 6-8′ high, planted during the pandemic, stage the area she would like to make into an enclosed space for her grandchildren. “The woman next door wants the central plant, and so she’ll have it,” Leslie said. That is the kind of person she is, not surprisingly. More nuanced is the rate at which the garden’s fruits and vegetables are growing.
Now retired, Leslie and her husband Ken sell plants, honey, fruits, and vegetables at their farmstand. The long grass, healthy soil, and steady flow of bees help the veggies grow faster, naturally. Adding compost5 to her plant beds each year, keeping clover in the paths between rows, and using waterflow to her advantage is all part of a low-maintenance, highly productive garden. Winding mowed paths lead guests from one plot to the next. The couple’s cooperative dynamic is evident in the self-engineered watering system they have designed.
Situated on a rolling hill adjacent to the Cocheco River, Leslie and Ken use the topography to their advantage. On the side of the greenhouse are white plastic gutters used to collect rainwater. Those lead to two 300-gallon water tanks which feed the blueberry bushes through drip irrigation. A half inch of rain is 500 gallons, says Ken, based on the footprint of the greenhouse. Solar panels power the 1/8 hp drip irrigation pump. They occasionally clear the gutters, one of the many jobs they’ve agreed to do together. Both independently minded, they realized the need to work together and so conceived of the idea for “Team Tuesday’s” to be the day they collaborate on projects. Others are invited to join Riverside Gardens through one of the many workshops they host each year.
Leslie has found a balance between dealing with the challenges posed by rabbits, deer, groundhogs, and birds – and getting to a place where she can relax and watch nature unfold. Ken shares her sympathies. A lifelong engineer, he pointed to Thistle in the middle of the greenhouse entryway, saying, “Random mercy on volunteer plants,” with a grin. Leslie has elected to keep Thistle “for the Chickadees who favor the spines to build their nests.” Ken and Leslie cleared away European Buckthorn at the base of large oaks to create space for native groundcovers in which caterpillar species can pupate. Now they can see the stone wall bordering their property as well as the foraging birds that visit it. That’s a win-win.
1 Wild Seed Project, No. Yarmouth, ME
2 Prairie Moon Nursery, Winona, MN
3 Van Berkum Nursery, Deerfield, NH
4 NH State Nursery, Boscawen, NH
5 FEDCO, Clinton, ME