The Backyard Meadow – Mid-Summer Blooms and Bugs


The meadow in my backyard is getting better every year.  In 2006, just after I moved in, this area was mowed on a weekly basis.  I could see, though, that this area was never planted to turf, like the areas closer to the house.  There were Pussy Toes blooming in spring, asters, Poverty Oats Grass, Wild Strawberries, and other things just waiting it out – for about 50 years, until I came along.  I stopped mowing, herbicided the weeds, and seeded in and planted native tallgrass prairie species.

This past week, the Prairie Blazing Star (Liatris pycnostachya) started blooming.  In the photo above, it is blooming with the white flowered Wild Quinine (Parthenocissus quinquefolia) and on the right edge of the photo, Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) with its strappy, yucca-like leaves.  In a few weeks, another blazing star in the meadow will be blooming, Rough Blazing Star (L. aspera).


Almost all of the white in this photo below, is Mountain Mint (Pycnanthemum tenuifolium) mixed into a matrix of Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium).  The tall yellow flowers in the distance are Gray-Headed Coneflowers (Ritibida pinata).  Walking through the Mountain Mint is a sensory experience – on a warm summer day, the clean mint smell will rise around you.


Little Bluestem Grass really puts on a show in fall, when the blue-green foliage turns a coppery orange, and stays nice throughout the winter.  Even in summer, however, it is an attractive grass, growing to 18 inches high and wide, and a bit taller when it is in flower.


Walking through the meadow, some pretty interesting pollinators were seen, including this Buckeye Butterfly.


Another visitor to the meadow was this Dragonfly, busy sunning itself on a dry twig. 


Gray-Headed Coneflower, Wild Quinine, and Prairie Dropseed Grass make for an eye pleasing combination.


Purple Prairie Clover is just about to finish it’s bloom cycle, starting from the bottom up, just the opposite of the blazing star.



The Wild Sweet Potato (Ipomoea pandurata) was rambling over the Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis).  Wild Sweet Potato grows from a large, underground tuber, as you may have guessed from its name.  Its vines grow quite a long length in a short time, dying back to the ground each winter.  The plant does not spread by roots or seeds, making it a good garden plant, as well.


The large white 3 to 4 inch blooms last only a day each.


Marsh Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)- shown below- can get 3 to 4 feet tall and wide, sometimes that’s a bit too big for the home garden.  Purple Milkweed (A. purpuranscens) is more upright with a less open habit, but similar purple-pink flowers – a better garden plant than Marsh Milkweed.


Gray-Headed Coneflower at the rear of the meadow enjoys its sunny location.  Its bright yellow flowers, on 4 foot tall (or more) stalks, can be seen from a long distance away.


On the much shorter side of things (at approximately a foot tall), Partridge Pea (Cassia fasciculata) and the purple flowered Heal-All (Prunella vulgaris) seem to be getting along together, just fine.  Partridge Pea generally can be found in colonies while Heal-All is often found singly, and seemingly randomly, throughout an area.


Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) has just begun to show some color – with all the yellow flowers in the meadow, this bright royal purple is a welcome addition to the color palette.   At 5 feet tall, or more, the flowers can not hardly be missed.


The delicate looking, but quite tough, Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) makes a great accent plant, and is wonderfully adaptable in the garden, as well as being quite nice here in the meadow.  It can take part sun and damp soil, to full sun and dry ground.  It has a coarse root system that helps in this durability.


It would look great in any garden – with similar flowering heights, it works well planted with Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida).  As the coneflowers wane and only the dark seed heads remain, the euphorbia comes on strong, and complements the coarseness of the coneflower.


The Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) likes full sun and good drainage. It can be slow to get established, but puts on a great show.  A terrific garden plant as well.   Its coarse root system can make it a little more difficult to dig and move in the garden, but it can be done, if necessary.  Of course butterflies are attracted to milkweeds and Monarchs rely on them to reproduce.


Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum) has a great coarse leaves – big and bold, among more modest foliage.  The 3 inch bright yellow blooms provide nectar to a host of pollinators.


Cup Plant is true to its name, by holding water at the base if its leaves.  Insects and birds will come to drink.  And later the birds will fight for the oil rich seeds.


All the flowers and grasses find and make space so that they can put on their best show.  The variety of colors and shapes boggles the mind in their diversity.  Who could possibly want a lawn of monotony?


The meadow is a colorful place at all times of the year, even in winter with shades of orange, rust, and gold, but summer is simply amazing, not only for the flowers, but all the forms of life that take advantage of the flowers and leaves, seeds and nectar, shelter and perch. Magic … seemingly anyhow.


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Trains, Trees, and Trails at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens

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For the last few years, I have been wanting to visit the 360 acre Taltree Arboretum & Gardens in rural Valparaiso, Indiana.  I finally got my chance this past week.  This wonderful place was established in 1998 by Damien and Rita Gabis as a non-profit, educational institution.  The arboretum has several “areas” of interest which include: a new railway garden, woodland garden, children’s garden, native plant garden, as well as restored natural areas. Thirty acres of restored tallgrass prairie, surrounded by mature oak/hickory woods, as well as wetlands, brought back to life after many years of being part of agricultural fields, await the visitor.  Approximately 16 acres of former farmland was planted to oaks, and other trees native to the area, to create “oak islands.”  The natural areas have trails of varying length winding through them.  Some are paved, others have a natural surface of wood chips.  A map of the arboretum, available at the entry gate, provides information on trail locations, and length.


Trails and Natural Areas

I hiked a half mile trail around one of the wetlands.  At the head of the trail is a butterfly garden, then a short distance on, some naturalized plantings surround a large pavilion, with limestone columns and a massive stone fireplace, overlooking the wetland.  Weddings are sometimes held under the shelter of the pavilion’s cedar shake roof.



The Visitors Center and Railway Garden

My first stop, however, was at the visitors center/ Taltree Depot – the gateway to the railway garden and the location of restrooms, some food, and a giftshop.  The plantings surrounding the depot are young.  The model railway garden opened in 2011, and is quite impressive in its size and detail.  The attention to detail of this one acre, G-scale, model railway garden is truly amazing.  Scaled creeks, with rapids and waterfalls, run throughout the garden, with trestle bridges crossinging over them.  All along the way, small towns appears, a limestone quarry, even a Civil War Battle is tucked among the scaled down plantings and stonework.








The Native Plant Display Garden

One of my interests was in checking out the native plant garden.  I always like to see how other designers utilize native plants in a garden setting.  What was interesting about this garden was its scale, both the garden itself, and the plants in it.  The raised portion of the garden included plants that did well in dry, sunny conditions.  All of these plants were, on average, shorter than two feet tall, and the small size of the garden made it easy to see how these plants could be used around a home, along a driveway, a patio, or even a sunny parkway bed.



The garden is approximately 40 feet across and raised 18 inches above grade.  The garden is edged in quarried limestone and the paths consist of packed decomposed granite.


Below, Leadplant (Amorpha canescens) is planted in combination with Little Bluestem Grass (Schizachyrium scoparium).  The blue-gray leaves of both plants exude an almost desert feel, as does the whole garden, which was fun, and different from most native plant gardens that I’ve seen.


Next to another Leadplant was our Midwest native Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia humifusa).  The Opuntia has tissue-like lemon-yellow flowers in June, followed by red fruit, or “pears.”  The fruit, which is edible, is still green in the picture below, but can be seen at the tips of the cactus pads.


Prairie Dropseed Grass (Sporobolis heterolepis) lined one part of the pathway in the garden.  Prairie Dropseed is a great “facer” plant.  It provides a neat, elegant, transition from taller plantings to lawn, or in this case, the stone pathway.


The Large Flowered Penstemon (Penstemon grandiflorus) is another blue-gray leaved plant used in this garden.  While I’ve seen it growing in the sandy dunes along Lake Michigan, it is a native of the shortgrass prairies to the west of Illinois and prefers well drained soils.  True to its name, it has large, one inch, tubular, pink flowers in June, making them attractive to hummingbirds.


Rough Blazingstar (Liatris aspera) had a very interesting airy form with round, knobby, flower buds, that will be opening in the next week or so; starting at the top, and working its way down the flower stalk over many days.


Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis) is an under utilized plant.  It was doing well in this dry, sunny garden, but I have also seen it grow, and have grown it, in much shadier gardens.  In flower, it looks good planted in a mass, however, it is probably best used informally throughout the garden, tucked among other plants, such as coneflowers or blazingstars.


A close-up of the Wild Petunia:


Just beyond the raised native plant garden, were beds of taller wildflowers, including this Cup Plant.  This had got to be the number one bird and butterfly attracting  wildflower.  It is also one of the most adaptable.  It is named Cup Plant, because of its ability of hold water where the leaf attaches to the stem.  I have seen goldfinches use this feature and come back again, once the seed that is produced is ready to eat.  Full sun or part shade is fine for this plant.  Use it where you need something big and bold, and place it in the garden where it can be seen from the house, so that the visiting wildlife can be viewed while sipping your morning coffee.


The is a lot more to see at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens, than what I have shown here.  Many areas, including the children’s garden, with goats and chickens, are designed specifically to entertain and educate the younger crowd while being surrounded by sights and sounds of nature.  There are also music concerts throughout the summer months, yoga classes in the morning, and educational classes throughout the year.  This hidden gem is only a short drive from many large cities, including Chicago, and is a great way to unwind and experience nature’s wonders.


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Cardno JFNew Nursery Open House 2013

On a warm, windy day in Mid-July, I attended the Cardno JFNew Nursery Open House, located in Walkerton, Indiana.  The last time  I visited was in the year 1999, when I was still a graduate student in the University of Illinois’ MLA program.  Well, a lot has changed in 14 years!  JFNew was founded in 1989 by Jim New as J.F. New & Associates, it currently goes by the moniker of Cardno JFNew.  JFNew is a restoration contractor, native plant nursery, and so much more that it may be best to visit their site to check out all that they do. The nursery is 130 acres in size, during my visit, I saw about five acres.  Throughout the day, there were speaker presentations in the air-conditioned conference room, guided tours of the growing houses and fields, and a native plant sale.

The event was held in the pole barn where the seed cleaning equipment is held, with attached office space where the presentations, including one on permaculture by Dr. Katherine Kent, of Ivy Tech Community College, were held.  Other presentations concerned grant writing, invasive species control, natural areas restoration techniques, and The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

The building holding the indoor events, was surrounded by growing fields, including this large stand of Purple Coneflower.

The plant sale had trays, of 38 or 50 plants each, preselected for rain gardens, prairie gardens, and other conditions as well, or plants could be purchased individually in plugs or gallon pots.

 Demonstrations included a discussion on how air spades, in conjunction with a large vacuum, are used to identify the depth of utilities in work zones.

Another area displayed bioengineering products used in slope retention and restoration along the shores of water bodies including lakes and streams.

The bags are filled with a mixture of gravel and growing media

Other bags were seen in one of their shade houses, along with other emergent wetland plants…

..including Swamp Milkweed and Blue Flag Iris in one gallon pots.

Out in the fields, they were growing emergent wetland plants in “RootCarpets.”  RootCarpets consist of 15ft long by 3ft wide sections of coir (coconut) fiber, encased in woven coir blankets.  The blankets are 2.75 inches thick and wetland plants are installed approximately 12 inches on center.  During installation, the blankets are held in place with 12 inch long steel staples or hardwood stakes.  Live stakes (dormant woody cuttings) can also be driven into the carpets in spring or fall installations.

RootCarpet production beds