The Tennessee Native Plant Society tries to protect the environment and educate

  • The Type Set is a weekly column as part of journalist Keith Sharon’s Project 88.
  • The project is named after the 88 characters produced on a Smith-Corona typewriter.

She has flowers in her blood.

Karen Hill’s great-grandfather, Peter Murray, came to the United States from Scotland and designed the formal garden at Niagara Falls.

Hill learned gardening from his grandmother Agnes Selby, whose family farm in Maryland was filled with colorful gladioli, lilacs and forsythia.

“People ask me if she had a green thumb,” Hill said. “She had green hands. She could take a twig, stick it somewhere, and you’d have a beautiful plant.”

Hill, a former science teacher, is now the president of the Tennessee Native Plant Society, which has 500 members. She is 75 and lives in Thompson’s Station. She and I exchanged letters and recently found out that we live a few blocks from each other.

To meet her and walk with her in her garden is to receive an education. She’s moving a little slower these days after three bouts of Lyme disease. She walks so much through plant life that she is vulnerable to ticks. She said she once discovered 100 tick bites on her calves and ankles.

“They won’t arrest me,” she said.

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Amazing back garden

Native plants, she explained, don’t need tending. They grow naturally in the Middle Tennessee environment. She guided me through her garden of black-eyed Susans, copper irises, blue-eyed grass, beard tongues and black aronia.

She has 125 native species growing on her property. All grew wild in this area with or without it.

However, Hill tells me, in the world of native plants, there is a problem…people.

“Most people don’t know much,” she said. “They don’t understand the damage they cause to the environment.”

In their effort to get the greenest lawns, they use chemical-filled fertilizers. In order to get rid of weeds, they use chemical weedkillers.

Karen Hill is the president of the Tennessee Native Plant Society, which has 500 members.

Chemicals are bad guys for members of the Native Plant Society.

“Fertilizers kill our earthworms,” she said. “Chemicals kill our bees. We lose our fireflies. If you don’t have bees, you don’t have plants. If you don’t have insects, what will the birds eat?”

On weekends, members of the Native Plant Society gather for hikes throughout Tennessee.

In the Central Basin (what we call Middle Tennessee), they walk through the cedar glades where they see Tennessee Coneflowers and Nashville Breadroot. Hill’s favorite thing to spot is a Pink Lady Slipper orchid.

Tennessee Coneflowers were recently on the endangered species list (recently delisted). The bottom line: we need more to protect our ecosystem.

“I’m trying to do my part to save the world,” Hill said.

Mountain mint is his favorite

She likes to point out that her maiden name was Ripple. And she wants to be the ripple of a metaphorical pond that impacts its surroundings.

Hill let me in on a little secret. She is about to start a jam in the neighborhood where she lives. Its homeowners association recommends growing a plant called Burning Bush around local suburban homes.

Burning Bush takes on a beautiful red color in the fall. However, it produces berries that kill birds (and are dangerous to dogs).

“They’re going to get a letter,” she said with a smile. She tries to win battles without anger or finger pointing. A sparkle in his eyes is his best weapon.

She shows me her favorite plant on her property: the Mountain Mint. It produces white and pink flowers.

“Simply beautiful,” she said. “And aromatic.”

She takes me to her garage and grabs a trowel. She takes me back to her garden, where she bends down and picks up two sprigs of native plants.

She hands me small pieces of red and yellow wild columbine and purple pink verbena for my garden.

She tells me what I need to know about native plants. The first year, they sleep. The second year, they crawl. The third year, they run.

I have the perfect new home for these native plants. My garden is flourishing. I don’t know how it happens. I have as much skill in gardening as in ice skating. Miraculously, my roses from last year multiplied. They are thicker than I could have imagined.

And I don’t use chemicals.

Contact Keith Sharon at 615-406-1594 or [email protected] or on Twitter @KeithSharonTN.

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Project 88

This story is part of Project 88, which is named after the 88 characters produced on a Smith-Corona typewriter. Tennessean’s Keith Sharon types letters on his 1953 typewriter and mails them to people around the world with an envelope and a stamp so they can reply. This story originated from a letter received by Keith. The question Project 88 tries to answer is: Will people communicate the old-fashioned way, through heartfelt letters about the best and toughest days of their lives. This project is not intended for political ranting, and any type of postal mail (typed, handwritten, or computer-printed) is acceptable. Please include a phone number.

You can be part of Project 88 by writing to:

Keith Sharon

The Tennessian

1801 West End Ave.

16th floor

Nashville, Tennessee 37203

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