Wildflowers signal spring
A retired neurologist in Worthington nurtures wildflowers in his backyard ravine.
Hawk, a retired neurologist, seeks refuge in his woodland ravine where he artfully arranged obsidian and basalt stone pillars in the stream.
Michael A. Foley/MAF Photography
Spring has arrived at Tom Hawk’s woodland wildflower garden. From the deck of his hillside home in the Linworth area of Worthington, Hawk looks out to see what new blooms are coloring his landscaped ravine, a plot that is a little bigger than one acre.
On this particular morning, a fading golden carpet of winter aconite flowers meets up with vivid patches of newly opened celandine poppies and Virginia bluebells. Hawk grabs the binoculars from his sailing days for a closer look. Dainty trout lilies rise above mottled gray-green leaves, and trilliums unfurl their trios of tissue-thin flower petals. Unsatisfied, he eagerly slips on his Muck boots for a firsthand check on the latest blooms.
“I take a walk every day to see what’s poking its nose up,” he says. Heading down a timber-lined path, Hawk points out a bloodroot flower. “I love this delicate little flower,” he says. Later, he spots a similar white flower, this one a twin leaf. “It only lasts a day, so I have to visit daily or I’ll miss it.”
When he was a child hiking the woods near his home in Mentor, Hawk became familiar with these early spring arrivals. He discovered hillsides of trilliums, Dutchman’s breeches and Jacks-in-the-pulpit—all wildflowers that he now grows in his backyard. Spring ephemerals are native plants that thrive in the spring sunlight when his property is not yet shaded by the ravine’s oak, walnut and maple trees. Each quickly sends up shoots, flowers, then sets seed before disappearing in a few weeks.
According to Jane Rogers, wildflower adviser to the Heritage Gardens at the Governor’s Residence, there’s a growing movement in landscape design toward more naturalized looks. “Native plants do well in Ohio’s landscapes and support backyard wildlife, plus their wider use helps conserve these plants for future generations,” she says.
These spring treasures played a big role in first attracting Hawk to his residence in 1984. “Jody [his wife] loved the modern redwood house, but I was drawn to the ravine setting and the woodland plants,” he says. Twenty-eight years later and now retired from a 40-year career as a neurosurgeon, Hawk is fully enjoying his spectacular garden—a culmination of two decades of weekend projects and after-work chores.
In the garden’s early years, Hawk fought to retain the spring rains that flooded the ravine’s basin. He initially tried to control the flooding with dikes, by stacking 1,000 bags of topsoil and 500 sacks of sand. But the “ravaging stream” eroded the 30-foot ravine within three years, he recalls. His next strategy was to build walls. Working with Mike Moulton of Five Seasons Landscape, he started with a single row of walls, and over the next 15 years added second and third tiers to retain the water. “I certainly learned how to appreciate the power of nature,” he adds.
Also, in the beginning, Hawk worked to clear many of the nuisance plants, such as bush honeysuckle and garlic mustard that were invading the property. “I’d fill a paper sack full in five to 10 minutes,” he says. As he thinned the woods, he discovered a stand of Paw Paw trees and several native wildflowers such as mayapples and Jacks-in-the-pulpit.
Over the years, he added daffodils, crocuses and other spring bulbs, mixing them with truckloads of more wildflowers, shrubs and shade-loving perennials. His skill is apparent, as they are arranged along the ravine’s slopes for a sequence of blooms.
“I’m like a plant-aholic,” he says. “I just can’t say no. I hardly plant any if it’s not six or a dozen.”
Each spring, a trip to Cory’s Wildflower Gardens in Chillicothe fills his Ford Ranger with wildflowers. One season, an 18-wheeler from Klyn Nurseries in Perry pulled in front of his house with an order of 70 spice bushes.
“So many gardens are contrived and structured,” says Debra Knapke, a garden consultant who Hawk frequently calls upon. “Not Tom’s. His is a made garden, but [it] subtly echoes nature.”
With nature as his guide, Hawk mass-plants several favorites, including winter aconite, an early spring bulb with buttercup-like flowers. He remembers a winter storm two years ago that threatened to sabotage these early bloomers’ show. When he went to lift off a patch of ice-encrusted snow to check on the “imprisoned” plants, Hawk says he was delighted to find the buds safe. Within a week, as the snow melted, they opened.
“This is the magic of the winter aconite,” he says. “And when it blooms, all is well with the world.”
Hawk says he first tried planting the plants’ pea-sized bulbs in the fall, but later had more success in the spring, transferring plants that were invading a friend’s lawn and salvaging others from a property destined for a highway project. Over the years, he’s added 75 to 100 plants annually.
The hellebore is another early spring bloomer and favorite. After trying a few of these perennials from Oakland Nurseries, Hawk was hooked on the “sturdy, beautiful, all-purpose plants.” Once a connoisseur’s plant, hellebores now are one of the hottest shade perennials, thanks to their early, long-lasting blooms and rich evergreen foliage. “I like the foliage as much as the blooms,” says Hawk.
A flagstone path leads into the Hawk garden, bordered with four trillium varieties including the state’s official wildflower, Trillium grandiflorum. Hawk says this white trillium is his favorite of the four because its showy white blooms fade to pink as they mature.
More recently, he has added perennials for fall color, lining a garden path with toad lilies so their orchid-like blooms can be viewed up close. He also created an attractive planting of Japanese anemones and hardy begonias that bring a show of pinks to the woodland garden from August until the first frost. Turtlehead Hot Lips, with its spikes of pink snapdragon-like flowers, is another perennial he included in this fall display.
Hawk says many of his new finds are end-of-season bargain plants. “I’m a scavenger,” he says. “In late fall, I circle around (the area’s garden centers) and see what I can come up with.”
Besides collecting plants, Hawk also collects garden sculptures. Consider the totem pole carved on-site from a dead red oak by the driveway, a bronze centaur by sculptor Ernst Neizvestny in a front bed and some stone pillars of obsidian and basalt that he artfully arranged in the ravine’s stream.
Over the years, Hawk says that he has learned a lot from gardening friends, plant suppliers, seminars and, of course, plenty of trial and error. Today, he generously shares these experiences and opens his woodland garden to others, including horticulture classes from his medical school alma mater, Ohio State University. It is here that associate professor Pablo Jourdan brings his students to see the ravine setting and its spring ephemerals. “There’s wonderful diversity, and he’s created beautiful aesthetics,” says Jourdan. “You can read all the textbooks, but you have to, like Tom, let the place tell you what works.”
Teresa Woodard is a freelance writer.