Habitat for Humanity homeowner Nora Skiver has resided on a quiet downtown Cambridge street for the past five years.
Now retired following 40 plus years in nursing, Skiver began volunteering in 2009 with Habitat Choptank, which serves Talbot and Dorchester Counties, eventually becoming Volunteer Coordinator.
When she heard that the group would partner with Pickering Creek Audubon Center to help homeowners create gardens to enhance their property’s curb appeal and attract pollinators to shore up the Shore’s fragile ecosystem, she “jumped at the chance” to take part, she recalled.
She’d been ecstatic about the Habitat home she helped build and has lived in since 2014.
But the grass which had covered the property’s front yard was utilitarian at best, and not especially attractive, she remembered.
Seeing a way to address and alleviate the eyesore, Skiver signed on, joining five other Mid-Shore participants agreeing to contribute “sweat equity,” i.e. labor and instruction which is applied towards a home down-payment.
Each homeowner was provided with native plants, mulch, soil, and other fundamental needs, gardening basics workshops, and one on one consultations with Pickering Creek outreach educators, courtesy of a Chesapeake Bay Trust Outreach and Restoration Grant and Audubon.
One of those educators is Samantha Pitts, who for almost 10 years, has brought her passion for nature education to schools throughout the Shore, and welcomed visitors of all ages to Pickering Creek programs she initiates at the Center.
This summer, serving as coordinator for Pickering’s part in the cooperative gardening partnership, she’s paying a “house call” to each homeowner, to look, listen, and learn what worked and what didn’t from last summer’s plantings.
Inspired by what she termed “our fairly unique trust here on the Shore” Pitts finds the Habitat program a perfect fit for Pickering Creek’s overall mission of providing targeted outreach via informal, down to earth help for community members throughout Talbot, Caroline, Dorchester, and Wicomico counties to learn practical, proactive ways to protect the environment.
Striving always to follow the organization’s undertaking to “meet people where they are” Pitts’ skills in communicating gardening know how in down to earth, understandable language has been especially helpful, as the homeowners’ experience runs the gamut, with one having none whatsoever, another having a “fantastic” amount, and others somewhere in between.
Primarily, Pitts personalizes the gardening experience as much as possible, from finding out color preferences to explaining why native plants are so beneficial, and invasive species, which crowd them out, detrimental.
The program had kicked off in March 2018 with a workshop open to current Habitat homeowners or others wanting to find out about landscaping for wildlife and birds with native plants.
Nearly 40 Habitat Choptank participants and coaches attended, gleaning basic fundamentals for success including how to prepare a planting site, select the native plants successful at a particular site, how to use which tools and why, plus the proper methods to plant, weed, and maintain a landscaped yard.
The six individuals selected to plant native habitat gardens were then assisted by Pickering Creek staff individually in surveying their sites for size and location of the garden area, sunlight, soil moisture, and plant selection based on personal color preferences, and whether they wished to attract primarily birds, bees, or other pollinators.
Stiver had loved to garden during her earlier married life, living on three acres outside Annapolis with a landscaped yard featuring maple trees, flowers, and an in-ground pool.
Now 68, having been through life changes which brought her to the Eastern Shore, she’s happy to be able to once again create an outdoor oasis, though it hasn’t been easy getting there.
Prior to joining the program, she took initial steps at improvements, assisted by family members and friends, installing a sidewalk, decorative and privacy fencing, raised bed backyard vegetable gardens (initially constructed with salvaged materials and later revamped for durability; this year housing raspberry and tomato plants), and a backyard deck.
“Last year my son and a friend of his helped me dig up the grass and put down topsoil and compost. On planting day, it was incredibly hot but also rained, and we were all soaking wet,” she laughed.
Despite the hard work and wild weather, the memory remains enjoyable for her.
“The mailman would come by and compliment me on how nice the yard looked, and how much he looked forward to following its progress,” she added.
Though attractive last year, the plants were still tiny.
This year, they’ve really taken off, she beamed.
During her recent visit, Pitts presented her with 12 new plants to add to the mix. Except for normal weeding and already needing to thin the profusive clusters of Black-Eyed Susans (coneflowers), which she shared with her daughter, the garden has been easy to maintain, “and the Pickering Creek staff has been wonderful,” she emphasized.
Her own finishing touches abound throughout, including eclectic bird houses, wildlife sculpture, even a natural looking fountain fixture.
This summer the gardeners will also be getting additional muscle power for extra digging and planting from four or five school-aged students, who will in turn receive hands on experience, and firsthand knowledge, that their efforts will impact someone’s life for the better.
“This way, the whole system ties together,” Pitts pointed out. “It’s all about community.”
For more information on the Native Habitats for Habitat program, visit www.pickeringcreek.org or call the office in Easton at 410-822-4903, and www.habitatchoptank.org or call the office in Trappe at 410-476-3204.