Story and Photo by Alice Gerard
Senior Contributing Writer
A 5-year-old boy sat on rocks and poured fish food into a small koi pond on East River Road during the Grand Island Garden Walk on Sunday. As soon as the food hit the water, the fish swam excitedly to the surface.
Edwin Shelp Jr., who tends the garden with his wife, Kimberly, and their son, Grayson, 13, said, “One of the things that I like the most is the koi fish. You can see that the natural environment is so nice that the fish have multiplied. I like watching my fish grow, and I like to watch people come here and feed them. Children love feeding the fish because the fish will eat right out of their hands. These fish have been well fed today. The kids like to take handfuls of fish food and give it to them.
“I think one of the great things about gardening is being able to share it with other people and to teach it to your children. I’ve got a 13-year-old. He’s out here working with me in the garden all the time. I’d rather have him out here learning how to take care of God’s creatures than being inside on his computer.”
Grayson shared his perspective of gardening: “What I like best about gardening is how your work really pays off in the long run. You plant a plant, and, in a few years, the plant just grows so much. It makes the yard so much better, even though you put in only a little effort at one point. It’s a great long-term investment, in my opinion. Regarding the fish, it’s so nice to see the fish grow and to see the engineering behind the pumping system. I find that very fascinating. I love feeding the fish. It’s so enjoyable to run a functioning pumping system and to make a garden and a yard go from just grass. It’s so nice to see it evolve into a full flourishing garden.”
On Timberlink Drive, Peggy and Paul Koppmann shared a garden they had been building for the past 27 years.
“We started out small with trees, and then we built a bed. And then, we think, ‘Oh, we need another bed, and another bed,’ ” Peggy said. “And the beds get bigger, and the trees get bigger, and you continue to expand. I think it’s a good example of a garden over a period of time, how a garden evolves. What we have now is hugely different than what we had at the beginning, which was predominantly a sun garden with very little shade. We have so much more shade than when we started out.”
Peggy talked about the process of designing gardens and planting that brings her the most joy.
“I think there’s the creative process that’s a part of it. There’s the physical labor, the fact that it keeps you moving. It keeps you bending and stretching and hauling stuff around. But for me, it’s the creative part. It’s finding plants that look good together, finding combinations of colors that work together. Finding tiny plants that are just beautiful on their own. It’s a creative process of how you bring this together. Long-term gardeners will tell you it’s like painting. It’s like sewing, where you put something together and make something larger that’s beautiful. The same thing in a garden. You plant hundreds of different plants, but it’s the totality that brings you pleasure in the process.
“So now, I have a lot more than our woodland plants. Our native plants are jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, blood root. The native plants that are pollinator attractors. That’s been the big switch in the past few years. What we’ve noticed is that it’s had a tremendous impact on the bird population in the yard. That’s expanded dramatically.”
Over on Whitehaven Road, Nicole Gerber and Dave Reilly have been working on creating a nature center, while preserving the historic qualities of land that had belonged to the Alt family for generations.
“This is one of Grand Island’s original farmsteads,” Gerber said. “This is Grand Island’s history here. The original farmhouse, the barn from the 1800s. We’ve got an icehouse that was used in the farming days. My great grandpa moved Schoolhouse No. 8, and that’s where we started. We’ve turned it into a nature center. As we’ve preserved the buildings, we’ve developed ecological gardens. This is a place that’s for the people and animals of Grand Island. Our goal is to open it up to the community as we work on each building and preserve it. We’re also making it ready for the public to enjoy because we’re putting in native plants. We’re enhancing what’s already here. We’re taking out invasives. This is a fun place to be because there’s so much to see and do.”
The thing that has brought the most joy to Gerber is opening the garden to the community.
“Seeing everyone enjoy the plants and the outdoors and getting excited about what they can do in their own space to create an environment that’s good for insects, that’s good for birds. I see children petting deer right now. It’s showing everyone that we can enjoy nature and we can help nature,” she said. “In the nature center, which is going to be a resource for the community, we will have environmental education, learning how to coexist with wildlife.
Gerber said she appreciated her family, the Alts, “for having saved the history. We’ve got family photographs and things from the farming days. We have the family to thank for building this and keeping it in place. Windkanter Construction understands old buildings. It takes someone who likes working with old buildings. They had to redo the barn. And then the schoolhouse. Because it didn’t have a floor, it was not stable. By them putting in a floor, it gave stability to the entire structure. There’s a picture of the original schoolhouse when it was at Bedell and Baseline, with the kids in front of it. Then Great Grandpa brought it here and turned it into Alt Chevrolet.
“Then, Windkanter put on the addition that incorporates some of the old barn features. If you look inside the addition to the schoolhouse, you’ll see the barn boards and the barn beams. They came from the original 1800s barn. We even repurposed the old features of the barn into the nature center. When you look inside, you’re going to see history. You’re going to see sustainability. It’s all about enjoying your environment from history to nature.”
“We’ve had a steady stream of people from the minute we opened this morning,” Peggy said. “They’re all interested, and they ask great questions. They’re incredibly open to learning. The idea when we started this garden walk was that it wouldn’t be a tidy bunch of suburban back yards. We were going for a wide variety of gardens. We have everything from tidy suburban gardens to the big pond down on Staley Road to the Alt Farm. You’ve got that diversity. A garden is authentic to the people who garden in it, not because somebody says that’s what Better Homes and Gardens told you it should look like. That kind of freedom to create a different kind of garden is what we’ve been striving for in the Grand Island Garden Walk. It’s quite different from many of the ones you’ll see around.”
Altogether, nine gardens were on display during the Grand Island Garden Walk.