From Gardener's Supply (

2003 Garden Crusader Awards

Winner: Beautification
Steve Hiltner

Steve Hiltner
Steve Hiltner
Steve Hiltner is passionate about native plants. Trained as a botanist, he worked on plant inventories and prairie restorations in Ann Arbor, Mich., before moving with his family to Durham, N.C., in 1995.

When Steve moved, he brought his enthusiasm for restoring urban spaces and saving native plants with him. By chance, his new home was just a few blocks away from Indian Trails Park. Like most parks in Durham, Indian Trails was dominated by trees and turf grass. There were few native wildflowers. "You'd have to go to a botanical garden or out into the wild to see native wildflowers and grasses," says Steve "They've really been marginalized in the city."

Being new to the area, his first task was to learn about the native plants of the Piedmont Region. Steve spent time at Duke University's Blomquist Gardens and the North Carolina Botanical Garden identifying native species. Once he had the knowledge, Steve approached the city about reintroducing native plants into the park. The city agreed as long as he'd do the work. The first summer Steve was a one man bucket brigade trying to keep the newly planted natives alive. Noting that the plants growing in drainage areas fared the best during the drought he decided to concentrate his efforts on restoring those wet areas with native species.

Steve's first garden was a 50- by 15-foot drainage ditch area that he transformed into a native plant habitat. Since it had high visibility right next to the playground, many park users could enjoy the flowers. "Not only would people enjoy the flowers, but birds and butterflies would frequent the area too," he says. "We started to recreate a natural habitat," he adds. Steve helped create four other wetland gardens in the park, then set his sights on a nearby abandoned woods.

Indian Trails Park
Native species grow in profusion along a paved trail through the city.
Across the street from Indian Trails Park was a little-noticed, 17-acre woodland corridor along an urban creek. It was a jumbled mass of invasive species such as Chinese wisteria. In 1999, Steve helped found the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association to restore this area to a native habitat. With the help of other neighborhood volunteers, landowners, and Durham County grants, the Ellerbe Creek Watershed Association purchased the land. The city already had plans to build a paved trail through this corridor connecting two neighborhoods. Instead of planting the traditional fescue grass along the trail, Steve and his association convinced the city to let them restore the trailsides to native plants. Now more than 90 species of native plants and flowers adorn the trail and the visitors include butterflies, birds, and other animals. "It's so rare to see nature in abundance in the city," says Steve. "We put up signs identifying the plants and we hold seasonal plant and bird walks," he says.

The wildflowers and other native plants along Ellerbe Creek are transforming for people as well as wildlife. "One man on business from Birmingham, Al., staying in a local hotel happened to take a walk on the trail one morning," said Steve. "He was so struck by the beauty and thoughtfulness of what we had done that he has decided to volunteer in Birmingham to help create a similar creek-side trail there."

Steve is now working with the city of Durham to identify other urban areas where native plants can be reintroduced. He's making a difference in his community and creatures of all kinds -- four-footed, winged and warty -- are thankful!

For more information about Steve's project, visit

Last updated: 10/24/15