We asked our founder, Patti Ragsdale, to tell the story of how Botanical Belonging came to be. Here’s her story, lightly edited for length and clarity.
The first idea was to step away from suburbia. I had met my husband Brent, and we wanted to live somewhere that was more real to us than a suburban setting. Somewhere less manufactured, somewhere wild.
We landed on our property totally by accident. All we knew going in was that we wanted a south-facing slope. We had been out looking at a different one when we ended up in the driveway of this foreclosed property. We came up over the rise, and found that it was perfect.
It had this old shed on it — which is now our greenhouse — and the only other structure was this shack, which was not livable. When Brent stood on his toes, he could touch the ceiling with the top of his head. And so we built our dream home: a small, extremely energy efficient, custom house. We designed it, so everything wrong with it today, we did on purpose. (Ha, no, it’s really awesome.)
But when we moved out here, I realized how little I actually knew about prairie plants, about native plants. I come from the Missouri side of things, and had had a very much garden-focused upbringing. I didn’t know anything about the native ranges of plants. I didn’t know grasses, even ones I saw all over my new yard. So here I was, now responsible for this piece of Earth, and I didn’t know anything about it.
So I went on a search. Where do I learn? How do I find out? How do I get somebody to come hold my hand and tell me what’s rough dropseed and what’s broomsedge bluestem? But I didn’t have anybody to tell me that.
The first people you talk to when you buy land like this are the guys that hay your grassland to make money. But they have different priorities. They’ve overseeded with things that are not native, which to them are good plants. People would come out from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and say, “oh, that’s pretty good pasture, you’ve got lots of good brome out here.” But I would think, “wait a minute, is brome something I want?” [Smooth brome is a non-native grass that’s commonly seeded into pastures and hayfields, but is invasive in natural prairies.]
Then I started finding books. And then I started meeting the people that write the books. And I became connected with a whole group of people that love walking out into a pasture like mine and telling you exactly what you’re seeing all around you.
Then I found pussytoes. And wild strawberries. And stiff goldenrod. And catclaw sensitive briar, right in the front yard. And wild prairie petunias in the driveway. And all these plants that I’d been thinking, I want these in my garden, but I could never find them — and here they were, growing everywhere.
Then one day, I found orchids. I knew they were Spiranthes orchids, lady’s tresses orchids, from the spiral of the flowers. I remembered that little detail from plant taxonomy.
All that time, I’d been thinking, where do you find prairie? And I realized: It’s here. It’s in my backyard. I found it here on a foreclosed piece of property, on this nasty land that could never be farmed, so it had never been plowed. It had only been planted over with non-native pasture grasses.
A native plant nursery
So that’s what started me on this path. It was as we were here just tending the land and building the house, thinking about what we were going to do, that I decided I wanted to grow native plants for myself, and I wanted to put native gardens all around the house. And edible plants, too — which are not necessarily native but are a part of a bigger habitat that hosts people along with everything else that lives in this world.
So I started growing native plants, and started thinking about selling them, too. I approached some farmer’s markets, thinking I’d have to be growing vegetables for them to want me, but they didn’t. They didn’t even want the native plants. But I had this idea that alpacas would attract people, and they did.
People would come to my little booth at the farmer’s market to feel alpaca fiber and talk to me about alpacas, and they’d go home with a plant. That’s really how the native plant nursery got started. It was honestly interesting how quickly people would gravitate towards the plants. They’d always come stop by because of the alpaca fiber, but they would almost always take a plant. If I could get a plant to market while it was blooming, people would take it home.
Once my gardens at the farm had matured, I found the opportunity to have people come to me. We got the retail space put together so people could come shop. I think it was 2017 we first had people coming here. And from there, I just kept building gardens so that I could show more and more different species of plants and how you might use them in landscapes.
I was still learning the whole time. I learned about sedges. Craig Freeman from the KU herbarium came out and walked with me, and showed me so many sedges. It’s so fun to find something, be able to identify it, and really recognize that, wow, this means I have a pretty nice piece of remnant prairie. I have some degraded prairie, too, but that comes with its own batch of cool plants that are still really beautiful in garden settings.
And growing the plants taught me so much. Craig told me this, too: There are botanists who study plant taxonomy and research these plants, but they have no idea what the seedling looks like. They’ve never seen it at that stage. But after growing it myself, and working with it, I’ve seen this plant for its whole life, from the time it emerges from seed all the way to the time it produces seed of its own.
As I grew familiar with my own land, it became so much fun to go out any time of the year and walk in the prairie, because I started to be able to know where I was and what was supposed to be there. And I’d get curious and start to wonder, how did this invasive sericea lespedeza get here? Did it come in on a tractor tire? You start to learn a lot about what happens on a piece of property, a piece of land that you live with every day, when you’re really interested in knowing the plants that are there. It tells you a big story. A big, long story.
This is our big, long story.
Happy Apple’s Farm
A lot of people ask us why we named the place Happy Apple’s Farm. It’s Brent’s story, and it’s a story that brings a lot of meaning to the names of places and the way people leave legacies with you.
Brent lost a daughter. And this place is named after her.
A rough translation of Vivian’s Chinese name is “happy apple.” When we bought this place, we planted three apple trees — not knowing what we’d do with the apples — and called the place Happy Apple’s farm. Her farm. As a memorial to her, and to keep her in our thoughts and in our discussions with people. So we named this place for Vivian Ragsdale, Brent’s late daughter, because her Chinese name was Happy Apple.
And we began to think about legacies, and plants. Because I think the history of people hasn’t until very recently been removed so much from plants. People have always carried plants with them, and used plants for a lot of things — for eating and medicine and all kinds of sustenance. And they’ve managed lands for other animals that they depended on.
And we began to think about how much I’ve learned through growing plants to share with people, just by caring for them from the point when they come out of a seed until they’re blooming and ready to go into someone else’s garden. I’ve learned so much from these plants about what they do in a community, about how they work in prairies and in woodlands. The familiarity with them really gave me comfort, and a sense that I am a caretaker, a nurturer of the Earth. I’m a person that knows this place, and it appreciates me back. It gives me so much enjoyment to interact with the plants in this way and have this relationship with them.
And I thought, I’d like to be able to share this sense of familiarity with these native plants with other people.
So when Brent and I started to really think about, what will our legacy be? We came up with the idea that this place might not always be ours. The legacy of Vivian’s memory would always be where we were, but we wanted this place to have another name that talked about people learning by caring for plants. A name that, if it wasn’t happening at Happy Apple’s Farm, what would we call it?
A sense of botanical belonging
There’s a chapter in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass in which she takes some pre-med students [not renowned for their interest in information not expected to appear on their MCAT exam] on a field trip to a local nature reserve.
“I’d never wanted to live in the South,” the chapter begins, “but when my husband’s job took us there I duly learned the flora and tried to cultivate affection for the drab oaks when I longed for fiery maples. Even if I did not feel fully at home, the least I could do was help my students develop a sense of botanical belonging.”
When I read that, I thought, botanical belonging, that’s exactly it. I would love for people to get that, to feel that. That’s what’s given me this sense I’ve always had, that everywhere I go that’s different, I have this need to get to know it, to feel familiar with it, to belong there.
So I wrote to Dr. Kimmerer, and she was really happy to hear that we had chosen some words from her book for our organization. And I can’t say enough about the book, how much it made me happy to know that I wasn’t the only one, that there were all of these people out there that really had a connection to plants, and to the land through plants.
So that’s how Botanical Belonging came to be. It’s because Happy Apple’s Farm gave me a real sense of familiarity and closeness to the plant communities in this area, and I had a strong need to be able to share that with others, and leave it behind even when I’m not here anymore. If I could just start a movement, or a group of some kind, that would work to foster this relationship, this reciprocity with the places we live. That we wouldn’t be so dependent on making it exactly the way we want, but understand the way it was historically and could be again.
So Botanical Belonging is about giving people access to a welcoming place to get to know plants. A place to talk with people about plants, to work in the garden together, to walk in the prairie together. Where we’ll all learn alongside each other.