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The Humane Gardener: Indiana’s Sharon Patterson

The ducks have eaten the water lilies. The chickens have eaten the vegetables. Raccoons and hawks occasionally try to eat the chickens. And dogs help keep them all in line in this garden oasis for domestic and wild animals alike. Learn more about this peaceful coexistence in the latest dispatch of the Humane Gardening Heroes series.
Image of Chicken dinnertime in Sharon Patterson's garden
Meet the girls: Chickens Zuri, Pansy, Mavis, Sandy, Cora and Barbie show up for a corn-on-the-cob happy hour, with their duck friends trailing behind. (Photo: Nancy Lawson)

It’s almost dinnertime at Sharon Patterson’s house, but if she’s hungry at all, she’s not complaining. Besides, her own belly will have to wait. There are too many other mouths to feed here.

Image of Sharon PattersonAs she peels corn on the small deck overlooking the garden, the chickens at her feet squawk and trill in anticipation. Golden retrievers Sadie and Waldo wander among the flock protectively. Elderly Max, a Rottweiler mix, shyly keeps his distance inside on his bed, while ChaCha, one of two sister cats, perches on a chair on the front porch. In a pond behind the deck, there are also fish to be fed.

By far the most demanding gourmands are the ducks, who get the royal treatment as soon as they wake up. Today’s breakfast for all the big birds included oatmeal mixed with seed and lettuce, as it does every day, Patterson explains. Whenever they don’t receive such delicacies in a timely manner, they let her know.  “I put their bowl of food by the pond because they like to eat and then jump in the pond,” she says. “And so if I don’t feed them this now, they’re so spoiled that they’ll run out to where the food should be. And if it’s not there, then I’m hearing ducks: ‘Honk, honk, honk, honk, honk. Where’s our breakfast?’ ”

Image of duck pond in Sharon Patterson's garden

Image of ducks in Sharon Patterson's garden
Ducks in a row: Diamond and Duck-Duck, both rescues, follow Callie down the garden path while one of the chickens races to cut corners (above). Patterson made a separate water feature for the ducks (top) after they ate her water lilies in her first pond. (Images: Nancy Lawson)

Despite the hand-delivered meal service, the animals on this quarter-acre farm in Indianapolis also enjoy foraging for their own treats. “Good girl!” Patterson says encouragingly to one chicken scratching the ground. “Mavis, come out!” she calls to another who has gone into a prohibited area of the vegetable garden. But Patterson laughs about their haphazard cultivation skills: “I always have so much ‘help.’”

Image of bee balm and ferns in Sharon Patterson's garden
Chicken wire keeps bee balms, ferns and lilies from being yanked out by foraging birds. (Photo by Sharon Patterson)

Listen closely, and beyond the contented murmuring of the domesticated birds, you can discern the soft songs of wilder feathered friends and the chirping of crickets backed by a low airplane roar overhead and the splash of the ducks’  waterfall. Lining paths that wind their way to the vegetable gardens and ponds are elderberries and pokeweed, hibiscus and bee balm, black-eyed Susans and sea oats—a buffet for all the wild visitors to this urban oasis.

It’s a scene Patterson couldn’t have imagined when she first moved to her house in 1987 and planted a few hostas passed along by her mother. Growing up in Chicago, she relished the evenings spent on the front porch with her dad as he proudly watered his small patch of grass. But Patterson didn’t come from a gardening family and was too busy to think much about plants in her earlier career. She worked for IBM, raised a daughter, Erin, and eventually started a medical transcription company. Once an avid runner, she also completed three marathons and 25 half-marathons.

Image of straw bale garden in Sharon Patterson's garden
Patterson likes to experiment in the garden, using straw bales to grow cabbage and other plants (above). She also dabbles in hugelkultur, the practice of making beds filled with decaying wood; her first hugelkultur bed included green beans and butterflyweed. (Photo by Sharon Patterson)

Since finding her new calling as an urban farmer, she says, “I’ve learned stuff I had no idea I would want to learn.” She knows how to cure chickens of a common foot disease, and she can grow kale in straw bales. She sometimes uses blackberry leaves from her garden in her soap making—a craft she studied so intensively that she now has a company named after her granddaughter, Azure’s Secret Handmade Soaps.

Image of sunflowers in Sharon Patterson's gardenThe gardening adventures started after Patterson left the corporate world in 1993 and began planting a few tomatoes and greens and peas. “And then one thing kind of led to another, and eventually I started thinking, I really need to be more serious about this because I want to take care of myself and I want to be responsible for what I’m eating. So that ultimately led to finding more ways to grow stuff.”

When Patterson learned about the plight of hens in factory farms, where the birds are squeezed so tightly into cages they can’t even turn around, she could no longer countenance buying eggs at the grocery store. “It just made me very, very sad,” she says. “And I thought, this can’t be good. You can’t be getting something good out of something so horrible.”

Patterson’s first chicken took an instant liking to her, sitting in her lap for naps and even jumping onto her head. That sealed the deal. “She was the sweetest girl. That’s when I fell in love with them.”

Image of Barbie the chicken in Sharon Patterson's garden
The dogs help protect Barbie and other chickens from hungry raccoons, but everyone is welcome in this garden. (Photo: Nancy Lawson)

Seven years later, “the girls” are her beloved pets. Each morning, after she and the dogs walk a few miles, Patterson lets all the birds out to have the run of the yard. She takes her morning coffee to sit with them for a while; in the winter she bundles up and brings along a heat lamp to keep warm. Sadie serves as mother hen, protecting the birds from would-be predators and barking when danger is in their midst. “These are her babies,” Patterson says.

Juvenile raccoons have twice found their way into the coop while it was being remodeled to make higher perches. But with the help of the dogs and a broom to bang on the outside walls, Patterson humanely evicted them. She doesn’t blame the raccoons and even laughs about the time she failed to fully secure the birdseed container, finding a mess on her hands the next day. “He ate some of the peanuts, and there were sunflower seeds everywhere,” she says. “He must have been sitting inside, just eating, so he had a great time.”

Everyone is out to eat something or someone here, so Patterson finds a careful balance between open invitations and humane exclusions. Fencing surrounds many of the plantings to keep the chickens from pulling them out of the ground, but at the end of the season, she opens up parts of the vegetable gardens so they can chow down: “I say, ‘Have at it, girls!’ ” The ducks made short work of the water lilies in the pond when they first arrived, so Patterson fenced them out and built a new water feature just for the birds.

“It’s not up to me to decide whether they have the right to be here or not,” says Patterson of the local wildlife. “Of course they have the right to be here.”

Squirrels have tried Patterson’s patience from time to time, eating her hazelnuts just as they’re ripening. But she’s made a game of it, trying to time the harvest so she can enjoy a few nuts too: “Whoever gets there first gets them.”

“It’s not up to me to decide whether they have the right to be here or not,” says Patterson of the local wildlife. “Of course they have the right to be here. This is where they were first, and we’ve taken their space. Many of them, of course, have acclimated so that they’re OK working alongside humans. But it’s got to be tough for them.”

Image of Sadie on sofa in Sharon Patterson's garden
Sadie rules the roost. Rescued by Patterson as a stray, she’s a mother hen to her bird “babies.” (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

All creatures find empathy and safety here: Fun-loving Sadie wasn’t always so happy; when a friend found her at 6 months old with a rope tied around her neck, Patterson took her in. Max the Rottie mix still bears emotional scars from his puppyhood; Erin discovered him abandoned and nearly dead in a neighbor’s garage. “He was so emaciated,” says Patterson. “I looked at him and thought, this dog’s not going to make it through the night.”

Max is 14 now, timid but happy and often snoring through the household’s busy days. In the years since he joined the family, Patterson’s packed schedule includes active involvement in organizations that teach food self-reliance. She joined a community garden and is president of the Marion County Master Gardeners Association, where she’s hosted speakers like Jonathan Lawler, who is addressing an urgent need for access to healthy food. Once the owner of a for-profit farm, he transformed his operation after hearing about his son’s classmate who couldn’t afford lunch. A young visitor to the farm provided further inspiration. “There was a little black girl who was out with her school. And [Lawler] said, ‘Would you like to be a farmer?’ And she said, ‘Well, I can’t be.’ And he said, ‘Well, why can’t you be?’ And she said, ‘Well, because I’m black.’ ”

Brandywine Creek Farms now helps other organizations start urban farms amd donates produce to food pantries. Lawler is someone who makes things happen, says Patterson, and it’s part of her mission to spread the word. “There’s so many really cool people out there doing so many different and cool things,” she says. “It’s exciting to be able to share that.”

Image of Front_Yard_Sharon_Patterson
Canna lilies mingle with goldenrod, snakeroot, bloodroot, sea oats, passionflower vine, and other bee- and bird-friendly plants in the front gardens. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)
Image of sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes dry near the deck (above) while pumpkins ripen on the pergola behind Patterson (below). The pergola also supports coral honeysuckle vine, a favorite of hummingbirds. (Photos by Nancy Lawson)

All the animals have eaten their evening meal now, and it’s almost time for the annual potluck dinner at the community garden. Patterson has prepared a pie made of homegrown sweet potatoes. More sweet potatoes are drying on a rack by the deck, awaiting winter storage. On the pergola—which was built by a neighbor in exchange for an old camper Patterson was giving away—six Long Island cheese pumpkins will will soon be ready to harvest, too. Coral honeysuckle vines wind up the posts and invite hummingbirds, who also enjoy the canna lilies in the front yard. Over the course of the season, blue jays, cardinals, finches, red-winged blackbirds, rose-breasted grosbeaks, and Baltimore orioles will come through to feast upon insects and seeds of Joe Pye weed, goldenrods, and other wildflowers.

Image of Sharon Patterson

A blue parakeet even makes an appearance every year with the same flock, and Cooper’s and red-tailed hawks visit. The neighborhood is in a flight path for more than airplanes, situated only a half-mile from Indianapolis’s Monon Trail, a tree-lined wildlife corridor that follows an old railroad.

Patterson’s small but lush property stands as an example of how easily that corridor could be extended across neighborhoods and entire communities. “My yard is not something anyone would consider beautiful except for me, possibly,” she says. But it’s exactly what she intended. “I knew what I liked. I knew what looked pretty to me, and I wanted to do something that was beneficial, too—not a tulip but something that was beneficial for the environment and for the other critters.”

Image of stream in Sharon's yard
A stream beyond the deck provides more water for wildlife. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

The neighbors also get to share in the bounty; when the sunchokes grow so robustly they start pushing up bricks lining her beds, Patterson digs some up and puts them in a bucket on her front porch, posting messages for anyone who wants some tubers. She shares her divided canna lilies, too, spreading the goodness of the Earth well beyond her own backyard.

Resources for the Indianapolis Region
Image of the Monon Trail
Owls hoot at dusk along the Monon Trail, which follows the path of an old railroad. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Native Plants and Wildlife Gardening: Learn about Indiana flora by joining the Indiana Native Plant and Wildflower Society (INPAWS) on hikes, at native plant sales, and at annual conferences. Check out the habitat programs offered by the Indiana Wildlife Federation, which has suggestions for creating an oasis for animals in your own backyard. Share ideas and knowledge with other gardeners by joining the Marion County Master Gardener Association.

Image of Bill Brink Memorial Garden sign
Dedicated to a beloved photographer and naturalist, native plantings along the Broad Ripple section of the trail beckon wildlife. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Parks and Natural Areas: A gem for nature lovers in the heart of the city, the Monon Trail follows the path of an abandoned railroad, inviting runners, bikers and many wildlife species into its canopy. A walk from the Broad Ripple neighborhood toward the river feels like a hike into a hidden forest, where owls begin hooting at dusk. The native plantings of the Bill Brink Memorial Garden, named in honor of the wildlife photographer and naturalist who cofounded INPAWS, are an inspirational addition to the trail.

Image of garden at Public Greens
Kale, chard and corn constitute a mini-food forest outside Public Greens. (Photo by Nancy Lawson)

Community Gardens: Indianapolis has a number of urban agriculture programs to help increase access to nutritious food. Public Greens, a restaurant that grows produce on-site and donates all profits to the Patachou Foundation, aims to feed healthy meals to food-insecure children. Growing Places Indy creates and manages urban farm sites, while local endeavors like the Keystone-Monon Community Garden in Patterson’s neighborhood strive to grow community connections by growing and harvesting food together.

Find more profiles, tips, and inspiration in my book, The Humane Gardener: Nurturing a Backyard Habitat for Wildlife.