Diggin’ In: A couple’s passion for gardening spans more than 40 years

May 16, 2016

Gardening is an addiction — the more you fail and succeed, the more passionate you become about plants and the wildlife that comes with them.

First, you have one camellia, and then you have two or three.

First, you have one birdhouse, and then you have several. Birdfeeders come next.

That is how it’s been at the Menke house in southeastern Virginia, where Mathilde’s passion for the outdoors has turned her 43-year-old yard into a botanical paradise.

"Garden work never ends," says Mathilde.

"There is always something that needs to be done."

All those "something" chores add up to year-round beauty.

In spring, Virginia bluebells, tulips and peonies bloom and beehives wake up. An azalea garden flowers with red, white, pink and orange blossoms. A 40-year-old lilac bush is still there, going strong in spite of the heat and humidity that often plagues vigor.

In summer, it’s the 100 or more Eastern black swallowtail eggs Mathilde and husband Hans save before birds get them, and later release as beautiful butterflies. Lavender, salvias and milkweeds are also there for the benefit of other butterfly species.

In fall, asters, goldenrod and zinnias continue the colorful show and wildlife benefits.

In winter, hollies, camellias and hellebores brighten the cold days.

"It’s not easy to pick three favorite plants for each season from the nearly 200 plants I care for in our backyard habitat," says Mathilde, when asked to name them.

"All my ‘dirt babies’ are special and thrill me."

To maintain the garden as a wildlife habitat certified through the National Wildlife Federation, Mathilde planted dozens of common milkweeds, as well as swamp and whorled milkweeds.

"In this case, more is better," says Hans.

"In the past two years, we saved more than 50 monarch eggs, cared for them to make it through caterpillar stage and then released the emerged butterflies.

"We hope for a successful season this year, and will add tagging to our program as a certified Monarch Waystation."

While Mathilde waters, feeds fish in the pond, lays out plans for new plants, removes old growth as needed, Hans helps in other ways. He makes and maintains garden structures, including three copper tubing arbors for roses and purple hyacinth bean. He lays out pathways and borders them with recycled wood planks.

Most importantly, he photographs their garden in all its trials and tribulations, including the trees that were downed and removed after Hurricane Isabel in 2003.

"When we cut the last pine tree that survived, we left about 18 feet standing to provide a place for woodpeckers and hung a bat house on it," he says.

"The pine removal increased the sun exposure, and we were able to add a vegetable garden plot for parsley, strawberries, cucumbers and a variety of herbs to flourish."

Even though both are in their 70s, the couple has not stopped doing what they love doing in their garden. They just do it slowly and methodically.

"We enjoy doing it together and pace our daily tasks so the garden remains a joy and not a chore," says Hans.

"We recognize that even with limitations placed upon us with advancing age and health issues, gardening can be and is part of the therapy to health."



Learn how to get your garden certified as a wildlife habitat through the National Wildlife Federation at and as a Monarch Waystation at



— More than 20 different kinds of birds feed, nest and visit the garden, according to the Menkes.

— Raccoons occasionally raid the couple’s 12 birdfeeders.

— They turn lavender stems into fragrant sachets and bundles to give to friends or stash in drawers; bees love lavender, and deer avoid it.

— Lady Jane and Cynthia tulips come back every year, and multiply for a "glorious mass of early color."

— The mauve flowers of common milkweed come with an added bonus — a strong old rose fragrance, and a "food not on any deer menu."

— Zinnia Zahara start flowering in summer, and really shine in fall. Butterflies and bees adore the low-growing flower, and deer leave them alone.

— Native Virginia bluebells produces pink buds that turn "the most exquisite blue."

— A beekeeper’s hive resides in their yard as part of their effort to help vanishing bees.

— They created a pond framed with goldenrod, lavender and daylilies; an adjacent bog that helps biologically filter pond water is home to native plants such as pitcher plants.

— Salvias in all shades of blue, lavender and purple "keep going and going," providing food for bees, butterflies and hummingbirds. Black and Blue salvia is one of their favorites.



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