BY JANE BLOODWORTH ROWE
LAGO MAR — As a child growing up in East Greenwich, R.I., Joyce Williams created her own little park by transplanting wildflowers into her family’s shady yard.
“I didn’t know what I was doing then,” she said, “and I didn’t know what any of those plants were. They were just growing wild, so I just got them and put them into my park.”
Now, Williams does know exactly what she’s doing and, with the help of her husband, Dave Williams, she’s transformed her Lago Mar yard into a lovely, shaded garden that’s home to countless native and cultivated plants as well as butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and rabbits.
Their half-acre yard is registered as a Certified Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation and as a Monarch Watch Station by Monarch Watch, a group of volunteers who track and report Monarch sightings.
None of this happened overnight, though. It took years of hard work and a lot of knowledge gleaned from a lifetime of gardening. Joyce and Dave Williams lived in several locations, including Florida, Texas, Maryland and Tennessee. Everywhere they went, Joyce Williams had a garden.
When the couple moved to Lago Mar in the early 1980s, they decided to leave the native trees, including several pawpaw trees, and they became invaluable in their landscaping. In the late 1990s, a couple of things converged that prompted Joyce Williams to decide that she wanted to transform her yard into the park that she’d dreamed of as a child.
“My mother died,” said Williams, “and I decided that I wanted to do something before I died.”
She was also recovering from an illness, and the gardening proved to be good physical and emotional therapy. She became a Virginia Beach Master Gardener in 1997, and her gardening style was influenced by Bringing Nature Home, a book about the value of native plant gardening by the scholar and author Douglas W. Tallamy.
Over the years, Williams began composting and vermicomposting, and she’s planted a plethora of plants – some for aesthetic reasons but many to provide food or host plants for butterflies or to harbor wildlife. She has several types of milkweed, which serve as host plants for monarch butterflies, and she also has herbs, malva, viburnum, and climbing aster. Her favorite plant, Williams said, is the glorybower, a small tree with white blooms and leaves that smell curiously like peanut butter.
Showy bright blue hydrangeas adorn Williams’ shady backyard, but she shrugs when she sees them.
“I didn’t know what I was doing when I put them there,” she said. “Butterflies won’t drink their nectar, and nothing will feed from them.”
Now, she prefers the native oak leaf hydrangeas, and she’s recently added the little honey, a dwarf oak leaf hydrangea with light green leaves.
Williams has so many species of plants that she filled three pages when she tried to list them all for a garden tour. That was a few years ago, and she’s added more plants since then. The close plantings make it safe for rabbits, snakes and other animals to move around without being seen.
“For a wildlife habitat, you don’t make a lawn,” Williams said.
Don’t ask Williams how many hours she spends in her garden each week because she has no idea. She does, however, use pine straw and leaf mulch to help control weeds, and she’s started growing some plants in containers because they’re more manageable this way.
To remove weeds and aggressive invasive plants such as English ivy, she recommends whacking rather than pulling. When you pull, she said, you just scatter the seeds and encourage more weed growth while if you repeatedly whack them back to ground level, eventually they give up and don’t come back.
While Dave Williams isn’t quite as fascinated by gardening as his wife, he’s become interested in the butterflies. Each year, he tags two monarchs so that butterfly watchers can track them. Two of their hatchling butterflies were later seen in Mexico, and, in 2005, two monarchs overwintered in their yard.
This marked the northernmost post for Monarch overwintering that has been recorded by Monarch Watch. So far this year, Joyce and Dave Williams have observed a swallowtail laying eggs on their spicebush and a tiger swallowtail laying eggs on their tulip poplar.
This year, Joyce and Dave Williams decided to cheer people up during the pandemic by opening their garden to neighbors. Joyce Williams also gives plants, including milkweed, and bookmarks displaying the monarch butterfly to area children and adults. “I’ve had some neat people in here,” Williams said.
And Joyce Williams is not finished yet.
“I don’t like empty spaces” she said. “If I see one, I have to put a plant there.”
© 2020 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC