Hope Taft Champions Native Plants

One of Hope Taft’s favorite garden chores is caring for the Heritage Garden’s water garden.

By Michael Leach

Those of us at Heartland Gardening have long admired Hope Taft, Ohio’s visionary former first lady. Debra has worked with her for many years in the Heritage Garden at the Governor’s Residence in Columbus. Teresa met her while they were wading the Olentangy River observing concretions with a mutual friend. Michael interviewed her about the garden at its inception when he was working as garden reporter for The Columbus Dispatch. The venerable house is America’s only governor’s residence with a landscape showcasing the state’s native plants and vignettes of its five major natural areas.

As Hope has been instrumental in bringing Ohio Native Plant Month into reality, we thought it a good time to for a Q&A session. Her replies have been edited for space considerations. 

Why do you garden?

Gardening to me is something that takes your full concentration and attention. When I am working in the yard, all consideration of worries or time go away. I find it very refreshing to come in tired from pulling invasive plants and weeding. Instead of the hour I had planned to spend, three have passed, and the area looks so much better! More important, the worries I had before venturing into the yard are so greatly reduced in size, or a solution to the situation has emerged. In our present home, I view what I do as gardening, but it’s more restoring its natural habitat. Wildlife has been nice enough to let us share their home, so I am trying to create a space where all can live in harmony. I recently heard the term “conservation gardener” and think that is what I am.

How do you find time to garden?

Even a few minutes outside, picking herbs for supper or looking for a gift of nature to bring inside for the table, can refresh me. But it’s hard to limit the time to a quickie, so the dinner doesn’t burn! On hot summer days, I find the best time is early in the morning. When I come home tired, if I can walk in the yard and pull a few weeds before I open the door, I am a much happier person.

The prairie garden at the Heritage Garden of the historic Ohio Governor’s Residence

What inspired the Heritage Garden?

When I was fortunate enough to be the first lady of Ohio (1999-2007), we gave many tours of the historic Governor’s Residence. Guests always wanted to know what was from their part of the state. We could do that with artifacts throughout the home. While traveling the state, I realized Ohio is made up of many different regions that favored different plant communities.

One day it dawned on me, we could highlight Ohio’s special topography and plant diversity in the yard and let people from all parts of the state find a spot they could relate to. And it would provide blooms from early spring to late fall!

(A master plan, featuring the five major regions and some of the plants that grow there, was drawn and planted. The small areas around the back lawn include a water garden representing a tiny cranberry bog, sand dunes from Lake Erie shores, and a boulder from Appalachian, which supports a host of plants.)

To further promote Ohio’s natural heritage, Hope helped develop the Geologic Walk Through Time at the Ohio Expo Center and State Fairgrounds in Columbus. 

Why continue working in the Heritage Garden?

Gardens, yards, nature and environments are continually changing. It is that change that is exciting to me. We sometimes call the residence and grounds a “living museum” because its occupants, furniture, colors are always changing, just as the plants and landscape do outside. I feel blessed that first ladies who have come after me have allowed me to stay involved, so it can be maintained, nurtured and protected. Wonderful volunteers under the leadership of our native plant habitat curator help us maintain the garden, as well as learn the value of, and how to care for native plants. It has become a test area of what works well and what doesn’t, and why it doesn’t.

Protecting nature

“I now believe that by saving or restoring our natural areas and the life that lives in them, we are saving ourselves,” Hope said. To that end she’s currently promotes Ohio Native Plant Month, protection of the Little Miami River, a state and national scenic river;  the Ohio Scenic River Association; Tandana Foundation, a nonprofit started by the Tafts’ daughter, Anna; and works to win designation of the Hopewell ceremonial mounds found in three major clusters in Ohio as a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).

A passion for people 

Long before becoming Ohio’s first lady, she  was active  for many years in the campaign to end drug abuse.  People have always seen me as an organizer or networker. So when the mayor of Cincinnati (where the Tafts once lived) asked me to help with the emerging crack cocaine crisis in 1986, I said yes. As a young mother at the time, I could see the havoc alcohol, tobacco and other drug use was having on youth and families, so it was easy to work on preventing the problem. 

While serving as Ohio’s first lady, she helped start Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free in 2000. After her husband’s term of governor ended, she became executive director to this nonprofit of first ladies and traveled the country, helping the U.S. Surgeon General release his report on Underage Alcohol Use. The organization disbanded in 2013. 

At the request of Gov. Ted Strickland and Gov. John Kaisch, she served on the Ohio Chemical Dependency Professional Board. Now I am on the retired, senior list of several organizations still involved with this issue.

Time management tips

I learned from a wise woman many years ago to deal with a piece of paper or email when you first receive it. Now my policy is to read all my emails for the day before I go to bed. It makes for some late nights sometimes, but this helps me sleep. (She also recommends, rest, good diet, enthusiasm for the work, keeping your calendar up to date, and having good friends who have special knowledge in your areas of concern that you can depend on to help.)

What’s next?

“As one interest leads to another, it will be exciting to see how my passions evolve in the coming years,” she said. “What other ways can I work towards leaving the world a better place?”

“But,” she added, “I am realizing that others need to be encouraged to take up the efforts that matter to them, because none of us lives forever! I am realizing the importance of planting seeds and mentoring their growth in the next generations.”

Hope Taft at the Heritage Garden with Debra Knapke and Ed Marriman.

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