By Nina Koziol
If Mother Earth had a full-time assistant, it would be Kay MacNeil. For more than 25 years, the Frankfort resident has advocated and gardened for those with no voice — Eastern bluebirds, butterflies, hummingbirds and many other struggling creatures that most people take for granted.
Many of the homes in her subdivision, which surrounds the Prestwick Country Club’s golf course, sport manicured lawns and neatly trimmed shrubs. That look is a far cry from her garden, tucked away on a cul-de-sac where native wildflowers, trees and shrubs mingle with flowering vines and passalong plants from her late parents, grandmother and friends.
When choosing plants, Kay thinks first about what might benefit the birds, insects, animals and other wildlife. “I still grow roses, but not tea roses. And I do have many native plants because there are many insects that rely on them,” she says. Insects are an important food source for many birds as well as the toads, dragonflies and the occasional bat that frequent the front yard pond in summer.
For more than 20 years, Kay has been responsible for promoting, installing and monitoring nesting boxes for Eastern bluebirds in her neighborhood. These iridescent blue beauties are one of the loveliest birds to make their home in the area during the summer. She was motivated to take action when she discovered that bluebird populations had been declining for decades because of habitat destruction, as well as competition from sparrows, wrens and other birds, disease and predators.
“These birds once nested in the cavities of dead trees or in old fence post holes, but people cut down their trees so we need to provide nest boxes,” she says. With the help of many Scout troops, she has set up nesting boxes in her subdivision, throughout the golf course, at local schools, along Frankfort’s Old Plank Trail, in the Frankfort Square wetlands, and in many other spots.
She jokingly calls herself a dead-tree advocate. “I like to arrange dead trees like sculpture. You need to have them for wildlife habitat.” She says the dead trees (some of them left standing while others are branches and trunks piled on the ground) provide habitat or food for mason bees, woodpeckers, mice, chipmunks, toads and beneficial insects. When a neighbor’s 200-year-old oak tree came down, she had large pieces moved into her shade garden where native perennials such as trillium, spring beauty, Virginia bluebells, wild geranium, Solomon’s seal, green dragon (Arisaema dracontium), ginger, bloodroot and woodland phlox carpet the ground.
Her greatest gardening challenge was discovering that the previous owners of her property had placed heavy plastic topped with several inches of gravel in many areas of the front yard. “We couldn’t remove all of it so I began adding soil and chopped leaves so I could plant on top of it,” Kay says. All of the soil additions and amendments have paid off. “I have some Jack-in-the-pulpit that gets some honkin’ huge flowers,” she says with a chuckle.
Besides native hawthorn and serviceberry trees, she has planted paw paws, persimmon and osage orange. Giant zebra swallowtail butterflies lay their eggs on the pawpaw (Asima triloba), and luna moths use the persimmon as a host plant. She once alarmed, but then convinced, her husband Don to bring home a nearby road-killed squirrel so she could place it under the pawpaw trees. “It attracts the carrion flies, which pollinate the flowers.”
She grows pipevine (Aristolochia), a shade-tolerant vine with heart-shaped leaves and inconspicuous saxophone-shaped flowers because it’s a host plant for the pipevine swallowtail butterfly. When she spots the caterpillars munching the leaves, she puts the stems and larva in a jar and brings them indoors. This requires adding fresh leaves every few days.
“I like to grow caterpillars in big pickle jars and then release the butterflies. There were eight caterpillars in another jar last summer chomping like crazy. I love how you can hear them eating!” Elsewhere in the garden, she grows large clumps of dill, a host plant for other swallowtail butterflies, and milkweed for monarch butterflies.
Dawn Steinman has known Kay for several years. Both women are active in Frankfort’s Prestwick Garden Club. “She has greatly impacted my gardening,” Steinman says. She is the go-to person when someone doesn’t know a specific plant or flower. Because of her, I have tons of butterfly weed, butterfly bush, bee balm, and anything else that might draw in butterflies, honeybees and hummingbirds.”
Kay credits her parents with her interest in gardening and wildlife. “My father was always working on his Victory Garden during World War II but continued it long afterwards, and my mother was always curious. She loved mushroom hunting and they were big birders. The first thing my parents and I did when visiting each other was the garden march — a walk through our gardens. You don’t realize how much you pick up from your parents.”
A sunny part of her garden, which she calls “my roots garden,” is devoted to many plants from her parents and grandmother. Her mother’s queen-of-the-prairie and pink New England asters grow near the pond. She has her father’s Concord grapes, which he grew from a cutting, and her grandmother’s ostrich ferns. In a dark, dry spot, yellow-flowered corydalis thrives alongside her mother’s blue bellflowers. In another bed, she grows plants from a friend who has since passed away. A stone path, called “the friend’s path” runs alongside.
The backyard holds roses and lemon dayliles from her mother and poppies once grown by her grandmother. There’s baptisia, Rudbeckia maxima, liatris, and a catalpa tree that was grown from a seedling given by her father.
Prickly pear cacti, concolor fir, wisteria and hibiscus are some of the ornamental plants in her backyard. She also grows the annual hyacinth bean vine and salvia to attract hummingbirds.
“It would be too hard to name favorites. I have one of everything. I’m a plant collector,” she admits. Two types of climbing hydrangea and several clematis vines scramble up trees, walls and arbors. A former art major, Kay designed an iron trellis that provides support for ‘Mrs. Cholmondeley’ clematis.
She grows a collection of miniature hostas and her most recent adventure is a little moss garden. “One year I decided to embrace mosses and lichens. The library got me a reference book from Canada because I couldn’t find one locally. And I have friends who bring over branches with moss growing on them. When the sun comes across the moss in the morning, it just glistens.”
Some plants appear on their own. “Ants carry seeds of bloodroot, and now they’re growing alongside the house. Scillas and spring beauties appear in the grass. There’s meadow rue that just blew into the backyard about 15 years ago, and a now-large, blooming tulip tree seeded itself there 17 years ago. I also get lots of violets in the grass and I move them into the rock garden.” Violets are a host plant for the fritillary butterfly.
“Kay is very involved,” Steinman says, “and if a volunteer is needed, you can always count on her.” And so can wildlife.