Meet Maxwell and Clara of Bashavia Gardens: a Green Business Network conversation

Will Eley, Green Jobs Program Manager at PEA, interviewing Maxwell Nottke and Clara Reitz of Bashavia Gardens

WE: So, Maxwell and Clara, in full transparency, I first learned about Bashavia Gardens on Instagram, as millennials do. Y’all have created a really beautiful, engaging presence there.“Nature” is never more than a thumb scroll away! And I say this half-ironically because when we first sat down to chat about further collaboration between Bashavia and PEA, we talked about how “nature,” as a lot of folks imagine it, is actually not something happening somewhere else. Basically: this common understanding that nature is only what is happening at your closest state or national park is false and harmful. It’s like the restaurant world during the pandemic: “Sure, you can eat inside, so long as the inside is outside…yeah, that airy cabin on the sidewalk.” We are all always outside in “nature,” regardless of our respective suburban, urban, and/or rural locales, right?!

Fortunately for those of us in the Greater Winston-Salem area, Bashavia Gardens is literally and philosophically closing those gaps, those barriers to our understanding that we are part of something much, much bigger. 

So, with all of these metaphors flying around now, tell us more about a light bulb moment, or even a string of events and observations, that sparked y’all’s business and the core principles behind it. 

M & C: The lightbulb moment came from reading Doug Tallamy’s Bringing Nature Home. We had always loved horticulture and gardening as a career and were aware of the growing trend of native plants within the industry, but reading Tallamy was eye-opening in regards to the importance of insects to the rest of life on Earth and how essential native plants are to supporting them. We’ve gone on to do a lot of research in ecology, specifically plant communities of the Piedmont, in order to incorporate these principles into our garden designs and management. We are always observing and drawing inspiration from nature and we use these observations of plant and wildlife interactions to guide our designs – our goal is to create gardens that are not only legible and beautiful to humans but recognized by wildlife as habitat as well.

WE: Maxwell, I was really struck by something you said during our first coffee meeting: you were speaking more generally about native gardening aesthetics, then pivoted to talking about the importance of listening out for silences in a landscape, how hearing much of nothing is, shall we say, a bit of distress signal from the natural world. An absence of native plant biodiversity equals no pollinating insects equals no birds… and the silences grow. And I am bringing this up again because there is so much there there. 

As a career environmental advocate and organizer, I think there is a lot of connective tissue between your ears and those of so many motivated activists: the silences you hear sound a lot like the corporate and political silences we “hear” in response to too many environmental injustices in our rapidly changing climate. With that thought on the table, what is one thing you hope your current and future clients hear, or better understand, before you and your teams arrive on site? Something that will prepare us all to fully receive the expert guidance y’all provide, either personally, culturally, and/or ecologically.  

M & C: The most important thing we urge clients to do is to maintain an open mind in regards to gardening differently than how they traditionally may have done it. Plants have been doing just fine for millions of years without humans and we often have to remind ourselves and clients that. We do not typically amend soil, we discourage deadheading, we let plants self-sow and move around garden spaces as they please, we move clients away from annual mulching and towards leaving leaves instead. Contrasted to traditional landscapes – which typically have individually spaced plants with large open areas of mulch – there is little or no exposed soil in most natural plant communities. With this in mind, we design and plant our plantings densely with the goal of complete vegetative cover within the first year or two. While there is more of an initial plant material cost up front, this is offset in the long-term by the absence of yearly mulching and reduced maintenance costs – weeds have a much harder time establishing in a garden when there is no space to do so. We encourage plants to grow together, which allows the plants themselves to determine where they belong in a garden. 

This is all an important shift from traditional gardening where plants are kept in their individual spots, staked, deadheaded, divided, overwatered, and generally over-fussed about – it’s much more about a planting as a whole than the individual plants.

Learn more about Bashavia Gardens here, and give them a follow on Instagram