Cultivating Wild Beauty

Artist M.I. Rolape transforms old farm fields into a living, growing garden canvas
Writer and Photographer: Conni Leigh James | Fall 2021

As a young girl, Mary Ida Rolape loved to roam the secret corners of her family’s Southern Maryland tobacco farm, delighted by the unruly tangle of colors and textures of native flora. In late summer, her artist’s eye was drawn to cascades of yellow cosmos, marshes filled with the violet of Joe Pye weed, intense purples of New York asters, splashes of scarlet from cardinal flowers, and whites and pinks of wild hibiscus and marsh mallows.
Decades later, Rolape returned in 2000 to this plot of family land, set against the backdrop of Whites Neck Creek in St. Mary’s County, and began to make her home here. She discovered that the farm had been “tamed” through the use of chemicals and modern farming practices, much of the natural beauty replaced by flat, featureless lawns and fields.
“I missed my wild places,” Rolape said.
Over time, she began to transform the acres surrounding her house into lush pockets of colorful wilderness, linked by graceful, curving paths and highlighted with her own mosaic sculptures and art.
“I began the garden by creating ‘mulch islands,’ where I grouped trees and bushes into expanses of land that eliminated the need to mow between them,” Rolape explained. “After being mulched, the soil underneath changed, became softer and more nourishing to flowers that began to fill the empty spaces. Over time, these islands evolved into mini gardens that grew in size and complexity.”
Rolape’s gardens are a mix of native and cultivated plants. In the winter, the gardens are flat, dormant expanses punctuated by occasional trees or bushes that provide seeds or dried berries for winter wildlife. Spring starts slowly. Bulbs that have survived the squirrels and voles burst into color, but the emerging green of perennials hint that more is coming.
From late spring through autumn, the garden is a living, growing, changing canvas. A progression of flowers bloom and go to seed, feeding birds, bees and butterflies, and sowing seed for the next generation of flowers, which range from tiny, fragrant ground covers to Joe Pye weeds and hibiscus that grow 7 to 10 feet tall.
“I have learned to let the garden do as it will,” Rolape said. “When a species gets too aggressive, it is pulled out to let others grow. Some species are too delicate for a wild garden and die out. Others, such as black and blue salvia that are labeled as annuals, thrive in this environment and behave as perennials blooming on established roots summer after summer.”
Rolape enjoys not only the beauty and peace the gardens provide, but also the satisfaction of knowing some of the wild beauty she remembers from her childhood is being restored.
“When I first started, starlings, blackbirds, mosquitoes and flies were the dominate backyard denizens,” she said. “Now the garden swarms with hummingbirds, orchard oriels and goldfinches. Butterflies, dragonflies and native bees of every variety flitter through the flowers. The sound of native bees on thyme can be so loud as to sound like a motor.”
What is the biggest challenge with the garden?
“Knowing when to stop,” Rolape says with a laugh. “Each wild pocket of the garden suggests ways to expand. There are new plants to introduce and old friends that need to be re-planted. Always changing, Always interesting. Always needing to be weeded.” ▪