Gorgeous, rugged perennials attract nectar-loving insects

Posted July 24, 2009, at 7:24 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:57 a.m.

Peter Beckford and I are standing in the middle of one of Rebel Hill Farm’s production fields, looking down on a small bed of native coneflowers, discussing their importance as nectar plants for bees and butterflies. Peter points to a broad patch of common milkweed flowering in the distant corner.

“We saw a monarch there yesterday,” he says. “They are moving north with the flowering of milkweeds and soon we will find their caterpillars on those plants.

“I took a single pot of those milkweeds to our camp on the lake and placed it near the water where it grew through the summer. One day in late July I found 14 monarch caterpillars on that one plant. It doesn’t take a large garden to connect to the natural community.”

Peter and his wife, Julie, have been living on Rebel Hill Farm in Clinton for 20 years, growing a variety of herbaceous perennials, many of them native to central or eastern North America. The farm has been carved out of the mixed deciduous forest that surrounds their homestead. You would not know it was there but for a small sign at the top of the driveway and a roadside stand offering carefully labeled potted perennials for sale on the honor system. This stand, along with plant sales by appointment (call 843-6916), composes the retail side of the business. Most of their time is spent supplying garden centers across Maine.

“Milkweeds and the monarch butterflies that depend on them are symbolic of Rebel Hill Farm,” says Julie, “of how people can enrich the ecology of their place by landscaping with native plants.” She describes their business in terms of “helping people create landscapes that serve wildlife and enrich biodiversity, replacing lawns with butterfly gardens, pollinator gardens and lively meadows.”

As we walk through the woods between production fields, Peter continues to reflect on the joy of finding connections between the garden and the natural community. “If you are canoeing in a wetland and come across a stand of swamp milkweed — the same plant that you have growing in your garden — it is a thrill. You have made the connection.”

Peter talks passionately about the quality of his field-grown plants. “We sell rugged, gorgeous plants grown with care on land that is carefully tended. Every plant we sell or plant in someone’s garden has been through at least one Maine winter. These are the qualities of Rebel Hill Farm’s perennials that set them apart from the mass-produced plants trucked in from other regions of the country.”

Julie speaks equally passionately about the gardening services she and Peter offer to people who want to connect their landscape to the local ecology. While not garden designers in the traditional sense, they love to help customers with concepts, plant suggestions and inspiration.

The Beckfords grow approximately 100 different species of herbaceous perennials, more than a third of which are native to Maine, a depth of offerings matched by their knowledge of each species. They tend every plant as it grows from seedling to sale.

Consider the following words on milkweeds from a recent plant list. “A lot of people think common milkweed is too aggressive to consider as a garden plant. We suggest thinking of garden as habitat and placing common milkweed appropriately for how it behaves, where you can control it by mowing around it, for example, or incorporating it in a conversion from lawn to meadow.”

We need less lawn, I think, and more meadows.

Look for the Rebel Hill Farm label on perennials at garden centers throughout Maine. It is your assurance that the plant you have chosen has already been tested and found to be both rugged and gorgeous.

If your local garden center does not yet carry plants with the Rebel Hill Farm label, ask them to start. After all, the farm is just up the road.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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