For the Love of Nature

A seasoned Corcoran master gardener creates a wildlife habitat—and coddles her begonias—on a large scale

Photos by Andrea Rugg

Purple coneflower, brown-eyed Susan, purple maiden grass, highbush cranberry, several native grasses, and garden sculptures that surround a pond and waterfall add life and excitement to Diana Straate’s wildlife habitat.

As a young girl, Diana Straate spent her summer days trekking around the gardens at her grandparents place next door. “I would sit in the middle of the vegetable garden and eat peas from the pod,” recalls Straate, who often watched her grandmother plant, weed, and harvest. “All of that made an impression on me early in life. I fell in love with gardening as a child.”

Decades later, she hikes around her own 6 acres of wildlife habitat, which houses vegetable gardens, shrubs, perennials, fountains, a pond, and more than 90 potted begonia plants. “During my treks, I think about my grandmother and hear her Czech accent,” Straate says. “Eventually, my husband will call out, ‘When are you coming in?’ I could be out there all night with my headlamp on. Gardening is so healthy, invigorating, and inspiring.”

But what did it necessarily take to create 6,000 square feet of National Wildlife Federation-certified habitat integrated with annual and perennial flower gardens, including 4,500 square feet of vegetable gardens? Almost 20 years of hard work and dedication. In the spring of 2003, Straate and her husband moved from the city to Corcoran to give their boys more room to play outside. “The house was a huge fixer-upper, so we took care of that first,” she says. But the need for a new septic system on the west side of the property wiped out the tree-filled backyard, leaving a bare 6-by-15-foot dirt mound. Straate started there, planting clusters of lilac, weigela, and Diablo ninebark. A year later, her older son suggested a pond, so the family rented a backhoe and dug and filled the hole with water. Straate installed a fountain, koi, and plants. Soon after, needing more room, the family dug a larger pond so Straate could overwinter her wet-footed selections. Then, she began thinking about creating a wildlife habitat.

A stone path meanders underneath a wooden pergola and leads to a lone bench that encourages moments of peace and contemplation.

As a master gardener, Straate is deeply committed to providing food, water, and habitat to the creatures she shares her gardens with. “I have a personal obligation to be a good steward of and provide healthy ecosystems for wildlife and pollinators,” she says. “I take it very seriously, and as we all know, there’s a huge decline in pollinator populations. I give pollinators huge credit and accolades for helping sustain our food supply and my gardens. The least I can do is provide a large variety of their favorite plants!”

A wrought-iron gazebo surrounded by lush greenery and pops of colorful plantings adds a decorative focal point to the Corcoran property.

After testing and amending her soil, drawing a 12-hour sun-cycle diagram, and planning for four seasons of color, texture, and habitat, she laid out her backyard garden spaces with rope. “After that, I worked in sections,” she explains, “covering the whole area with five layers of wet newspaper and 3 inches of mulch.”

Into this rich stratum she planted pollinator-friendly perennials, including native clematis (“the hummingbirds make nests out of the dried flower heads”), datura (“which attract the night pollinators”), and pearly everlasting (“because the mama monarchs lay their eggs there, and the larvae eat the leaves”). The gardens also include spiderwort, cleome, verbena, liatris, purple coneflower, brown-eyed Susan, purple maiden grass, highbush cranberry, and several native grasses. Straate also sculpted the backyard with water features for the birds, and laid bricks and pavers to outline paths for meandering.

But Straate plans her gardens year round, looking beyond the peak summer season. In the fall, for example, she doesn’t cut her backyard plants lower than a foot and a half, she says. “The stems hold the snow to make a great insulated habitat for pollinators to hibernate.” In the spring, the layers of last year’s stems and leaves “keep the deer from eating new growth.”

When planning the front yard’s gardens, Straate considered leaf shape, texture, and height—all elements that are reflected in the 16 varieties of tree lilies among peonies, hydrangea, mums, and more.

While “some people might call my gar- dens unkempt,” she says, “I don’t agree. It’s a cottage-y look, and it works here.” Her front yard gardens are neater, she adds, and there, she has interspersed day lilies and 16 varieties of tree lilies with anemones, fern-leaf peonies, hydrangea, mums, chokecherry, allium, echinacea, and a pillar clematis. The bleeding heart and peonies are from her grandmother’s garden. “The criteria in the front are leaf shape, texture, and varying heights,” she explains.

Straate’s signature plant, however, is an annual she overwinters every year: trailing begonia. (All 92 of them, but mostly the Bonfire, Santa Cruz, and Bossa Nova varieties. One is 12 years old with a tuber that’s 9 inches long.) “That’s Burt,” she says, laughing. “He was my first one. He has a designated pot.” The begonias, she explains, “are my orangey-red anchor plant on all sides of the house. They flower from beginning to end of summer, and they create gorgeous mass plantings.”

Straate doesn’t use any chemical fertilizers and prefers her homemade compost. She also doesn’t have a sprinkler system, but that’s OK since since she “chooses plants that don’t require a lot of water.” Because she gardens on such a large scale, she prefers self-seeding annuals and perennials. She loves to mix in herbs and other edible plants with her flowers. She saves and shares seeds. And she has even incorporated more than four dozen native pollinator-friendly plants into her gardens, including on the shady north side.

“In 2017,” she recalls, “the painted lady butterflies came through during a mass migration, and I had all the right plants for them. I would trek by my gardens, and clouds of butterflies would lift off. It was the most magnificent thing I’ve ever seen. There’s nothing better than nature.”

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