- Associated Press - Saturday, September 12, 2020

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - When Kim Pecha can’t immediately find her husband, she knows exactly where to look.

Michael Pecha will be outside in his prairie garden, bent over to study a caterpillar or butterfly.

“Behind 3- or 4-foot tall flowers, she will see my head pop up,” Pecha told the Omaha World-Herald.

Pecha has plenty of tall plants to hide behind. After lots of thought, this spring he expanded his two garden beds to cover 3,000 square feet of his front yard.

Little did the veteran Omaha police officer know it would be a saving grace in a tumultuous summer.

“It has brought me joy and stress relief and has had a bigger impact than I ever expected,” he said.

Pecha has planted about 90 species of native grasses and flowers on his Elkhorn property. He meticulously records everything he grows on a spreadsheet, including where it’s planted, if it’s native and where it originated.

Purple coneflower, butterfly milkweed, anise hyssop, snow-on-the-mountain, blazing star, cardinal flower, Illinois bundleflower and sideoats grama are his favorites.

“I’ve gone a little overboard with 3,000 square feet of my lawn converted to prairie,” he said, “but anyone can set aside a little section of their landscaping and plant native plants and play a role in protecting and benefiting the planet.”

Pecha’s show-stopping display is all because of a tree that fell in his front yard several years ago, leaving behind a huge pile of sawdust and wood chips. Pecha couldn’t decide what to do with the area, so he purchased seed and scattered it. He even used the Save the Bees packets from Cheerios cereal boxes.

He collected seeds from those plants at summer’s end, and the next year, he tossed them in a second plot. Last spring, he decided to dive in completely. He switched to planting plugs and brought in more native species with seeds from Stock Seed Farm in Murdock, Nebraska, and Prairie Moon Nursery in Minnesota.

“It became more than being outside,” he said. “I wanted to do something for nature. The bees and butterflies and birds.”

Pecha always has been an outdoor enthusiast. But with the arrival of two children, exciting mountain hikes turned into easier trips to Glacier Creek Preserve in Bennington and nearby state parks.

He started to develop a deeper connection to and love for the prairie and its plants and what people consider flyover country.

He connected with “A Sand County Almanac” by Aldo Leopold, “A New Garden Ethic” by Benjamin Vogt and writings by native plant guru and author Doug Tallamy. Pecha also was inspired by the photographs of Michael Forsberg and Chris Helzer of the Nature Conservancy.

“I just kind of decided I felt like being part of the solution,” Pecha said.

Now his mini-prairie is flourishing - and a home for local wildlife. It brings joy not just to him, but to his family and people in his walker-friendly neighborhood, who often stop to take pictures.

“My daughter, Ruby, and her friend set up a curbside flower stand this summer instead of a traditional lemonade stand,” Pecha said. “They sold bouquets of flowers cut from my yard. They raised $80 that we donated to the Xerces Society and Monarch Watch, so it was great to give back to groups that are involved in pollinator conservation.”

When Pecha arrives home after a long day of work and coaching cross country at Mount Michael, he loves to head outside.

His garden survived a late start and a June heat wave. It’s always evolving, and he’s constantly learning something new.

“When I see bumblebees, butterflies, beetles and other critters using my garden, I feel like a proud father, knowing that I provided something beneficial to them,” he said. “It’s been really rewarding.”

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