Early May Blooms, Mixing Natives with Other Plants in the Shady Perennial Garden

9259In early spring many of the Midwestern woodland wildflowers bloom before the trees (mostly oaks) fully leaf out and create a shady canopy.  There are also a few garden perennials from other parts of the world that bring color in to the early May garden.  Let’s take a look a few that are at their peak of bloom right now. 

In the picture above, common violets intermingle with Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans).  Violets come in many shade of blue and purple, as well as yellow and bicolor blue and white.  The violets above were propagated from a naturally occurring population that had reddish purple coloration (difficult to capture in an image) that complements many other early bloomers, including Ruby Epimedium (Epimedium x rubrum), seen below.




The leaves emerge a bright chartreuse green on the Ruby Epimedium – planted where the morning sun highlights this stunning color.  The leaves turn a more standard green as they mature.  Epimedium sulfureum, a similar species, flowers  in yellow but does not seem to be as robust.  At a foot or so tall and wide, epimedium works well in part shade in groupings of five to nine (or more)  interplanted with other perennials. 

Trilliums, such at the White Trillium (T. grandiflorum) seen below, are often collected from the wild and sold in garden centers, there are, however, some ethical nurseries that propagate their plants from seed or divisions – easy to do, and should be purchased from those sources.  Timing is critical when collecting the seed, generally eight weeks past flowering, since the pods will eventually shatter and the seeds will drop to the ground – as long as the seeds are turning brown, they can be collected and planted in seed flats to expand a population of plants.


White Trillium, aka. Large Flowered Trillium – a easy to grow shade plant


Toad Trillium, T. sessile can have dark purple/black leaves as they emerge in the spring.

Trillium plants will fade after flowering and go dormant until reemerging the following spring, therefore it is best to plant them where the soil will not be disturbed – such as near the base of trees or large rocks.  Other native woodland plants such as Hepatica, seen below, actually send out their new leaves for the season right after flowering, and look great all summer, and stay green through the winter season, only fading the following spring.  Flowers, which range in color from pink, to white, to purpley blue, sometimes emerge as snow is still on the ground in late April.


Hepatica acutiloba now known as Anemone acutiloba, showing seed clusters

Rue Anemone, like hepatica, is a member of the short flowing buttercup family.  The flowers are pure white to slightly pink, with blue green leaves that remain throughout the summer if the soil does not dry out for an extended period.  Rue Anemone looks great tucked into nooks and crannies throughout the shade garden.  Leaves turn yellow in the fall months.



Rue Anemone, Anemone thalictroides aka, Thalictrum thalictroides.

Lenten Rose (Helleborus sp.) is native to Europe and blooms along with the native woodland flowers.  The large, coarse flowers can be an interesting complement to the other finer textured flowers in the shade garden.  These easy to grow perennials can be divided after flowering, by cutting apart divisions with a bread knife, to create more plants.


The flowers of Lenten Rose, ‘Ivory Queen’ last for several weeks

The low groundcover Sweet Woodruff (Galium odoratum) is widely found growing in moist woods throughout Europe and Asia, it also mixes well with our Midwestern natives as seen below with Woodland Ginger (Asarum canadense). The leaves of both the Woodland Ginger and the Sweetwoodruff wil stay green all summer if the soil is kept moist during dry spells.


Wood Shield Fern (Dryopteris marginalis) and Christmas Fern (Polystichum achrosticoides) are two easy to grow evergreen ferns native to the Midwestern woods.  Wood Shield Fern’s, upright vase shaped growth, can reach two feet tall, while the Christmas Fern is more low spreading.  Below both are seen mixing well with Woodland Ginger (Asarum canadense), Wild Ramp (Allium tricoccum), and Woodland Geranium (Geranium maculatum) with its pink flowers just coming into bloom in Mid-May.


Christmas fern at lower left and Wood Shield Fern at upper right

Jacob’s Ladder (Polemonium reptans) is a neat low mounded woodland plant covered in sky blue flowers for a week, or so, in May.  The rest of the summer, the pinnate foliage looks great and work well, planted along the edge of the shade garden as a nice transition to lawn or other pathway materials.  The Jacob’s ladder often found in garden centers is a taller European variety, with variegated foliage – inferior in appearance to our Midwestern plants.


Polemonium reptans halfway through its bloom cycle

 Blue Wood Phlox can be found blooming at the same time as Jacob’s Ladder, and slightly after Jacob’s Ladder is finished blooming.  In May wiry flower stems shoot up a foot above the low evergreen foliage and put on a bright blue display that works well with other more sun tolerant Dutch bulbs such as Grape Hyacinth (Muscari sp.) and Tulips.  9453A mix of blues and whites in a rock garden I constructed at my home, gets plenty of sun in the spring, but is somewhat shaded by the overhanging Silver Maple in the summer:


9462In one part of the rock garden, the shade tolerant Sedum ternatum, native to Midwestern woods and limestone bluffs is just starting to put out its white, star shaped flowers.  The sedum stays evergreen the year around and works well as a groundcover in the shade garden.


Illinois Stonecrop, can be found on limestone bluffs as well as floodplains (Swink & Wilhelm)

Most sedums, this one included, can be propagated by pinching off a short stem and pushing the base of the stem into the ground where more plants are desired.  Occasional watering of the cuttings will promote quicker rooting.


Sedum ternatum with Blue Wood Phlox in the shade garden

Virginia Bluebells (Mertensia virginica) is such a ubiquitous old fashioned perennial, that many gardeners are unaware that it also is a American woodland native – mostly found in flood plains, but very adaptable to well drained garden soils.  The charming bell-shaped blue flowers only last a week, then the plants begin to wane, turn yellow, and go dormant for the summer, it is therefore a good idea to note where these plants occur, so that the plants are not inadvertently disturbed while gardening in the summer months.  Interplanting Virginia Bluebells with others perennials that will help mask the fading foliage is something to consider as well.9438Virginia Bluebells can form large colonies by dropping its seeds in bare soil surrounding the mother plant, these volunteers are easily removed if desired.  The roots are fleshy and can be divided after the plants are finished blooming to create more plants.  Virginia Bluebells will do well in most decent garden soils.


A mass of Virginia Bluebells overtake the low evergreens when in bloom, only to quickly retreat with equal vigor

Another early blooming European native is the old fashioned Money Plant (Lunaria annua.)  Grown for the silver dollar sized papery seed pods (silicles) that are used in dried arrangements.  This plant will reseed around the mother plant, and in some soil types this may be a nuisance.  In my experience, the mother plants have survived many winters (unlike what the name implies) to rebloom in the spring and provided more dried arrangement material the following fall.


German Money Plant in the back of the herb garden – growing in very dry crumby soil


The four petals indicate that the Money Plant in a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae)

For a punch of bright orange in May, Trollius europaeus, or Globeflower, cannot be beat.  The plant, hailing from Europe,  prefers a bit of shade and consistently moist soil but otherwise is a rather carefree perennial.  It blooms at the same time as some of the Giant Purple Alliums  and Chives and the purplely pinks allium blooms could make for an interesting combination with the bright orange blooms of the Trollius.


9479Lastly, we get back to some Midwestern natives for the shade.  Many sedges do well in dry shade, Penn Sedge (Carex Pensylvanica) being one of them.  This sedge is one of the “sod” formers, as opposed to forming neat tufted “clumps.”  Use this growth habit to your advantage by interplanting such shade plants as the trilliums, noted earlier, violets, whose electric blue flowers play well with the bright green foliage of the Penn Sedge.


The course foliage of Ramps (middle right) works well with the grasslike foliage of Penn Sedge

The flowers of the Penn Sedge are a bit underwhelming, but the yellow anthers can sometimes be considered a bit showy in mass plantings.


Penn Sedge spikelet – not showing yellow anthers in this photo – few seeds, seen in front of lower finger, are produced and are difficult to collect, as they drop immediately when ripe

All Violets (Viola palmata shown below) look great interplanted with other woodland plants, especially Penn Sedge.


Palm Violet

  As do specimen plants such as Jack-in-the-Pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum).  While the plant itself goes dormant after bloom, a showy red seed mass forms to catch the viewers attention in late summer, very cool:

9371 Or Sessile Bellwort (Uvularia sessilfolia) whose foliage looks good througout the summer.  The dainty pendulous yellow flowers are curious, if not overly showy.



 These are just some of the interesting plants that come into flower early and can be combined with each other and with later flowering plants to great effect.

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Spring Clean-up in the Garden, Meadow, and Woods


Tools of the trade, pruning shears and a steel garden rake

The Prairie Garden

With rake and shears in hand, along with a pair of leather gloves and a plastic tarp, I was ready to tackle some spring clean-up chores around the yard.  First on the list was the front yard prairie garden.  For most of the winter, it was buried under a few feet of snow:

Feb 2014

The prairie garden to the right of the driveway in February

So by the time April came around the garden was looking more than ready for a trim:


… two months later, in April, it was time to clean things up

The prairie garden is a mixture of colorful, sun loving, Midwest natives, including Blue Baptisia, Orange Milkweed, Paradox Coneflower, Pasque Flower, and Purple Milkweed, along with Little Bluestem, Big Bluestem, and Prairie Dropseed grasses.  The dried remnants generally look interesting throughout the winter, but this winter, the snow came early, and stayed late.  To begin the clean-up I laid out the tarp and started raking the loose debris on to the tarp.  The grasses held tight, so they were  cut back with a pruning shears.


All of this debris was hauled back to the wire bins for conversion to compost:


A pair of 5ft by 5ft compost bins made of 4ft high wire fencing and metal fence posts

After about an hours worth of work, the front garden is ready for spring:


The prairie garden in early April


The garden doesn’t look like much right after its trim, but in another week, or so, the Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris, or Anemone pulsatilla, or A. patens) should be in bloom.  I purchased my Pasque Flower at a garden center, so I’m not sure if its parentage is North American or Eastern European, but its a great early bloomer, no problems, and interesting fluffy seed heads in late May and June. The native Midwestern form and the European form look similar to my eyes.

2009 apr 19

2009 Apr 19a

Pasque Flower in April

The prairie garden is quite lush in June, as shown in the photo below:


The prairie garden last June

The Orange Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) and the Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) really pop, against the blue-green leaves of the Little Bluestem grass (Schizachyrium scoparium, or Andropogon scoparium.)1170

The Meadow


The meadow at the end of a long snowy winter

In the backyard a meadow of Midwestern prairie plants commands the attention of the viewer.  The meadow is always alive with the activities of birds and insects, including butterflies, dragonflies, and others.  The meadow gets mowed once a year, towards the end of March.  This keeps the brush, such as blackberries, Silver Maples, Grey Viburnums, and buckthorn from taking over, that and hand application of herbicide, as needed.  Normally, I have used a heavy duty brush cutter to do the job, but that wasn’t wanting to start this year, so my 15hp Craftsman lawn tractor was called into service.  It did a fine job as well.


A brush cutter was made for this job, shown here in 2012.

The result is a clean slate, not only is the brush kept in check (not killed mind you – that’s where the herbicide comes in later, or before, depending how you look at it) but the smaller plants are not competing with last years growth.  There is nothing that says spring more than a green swath of Pennsylvania Sedge (Carex pensylvanica) with violets blooming among its bright green grass-like leaves.



This year, the 15hp lawn tractor did alright – a clean slate for new growth


The meadow, right after a March mow

The meadow is awash with color during the growing season, always something new throughout the year, and changing, year to year.


The same view in summer



I’m always adding new planting to my gardens, and that includes the meadow.  This year, I decided to spread some seed that I had stored in my refrigerator – collected from unmanaged wild areas, usually along railroad easements or forgotten urban parcels of land with prairie remnants.  The seed was cleaned and placed in paper envelopes, labeled with date of collection, location, and species name.  At the time that these seeds were collected, I was propagating plants to sell.  I no longer do that, so I went through the seed collection, and chose plants that I wanted in the meadow, the others were planted near my parent’s property in the country.


Metal tins and Tupperware helps to keep the seeds viable longer


The packets were sealed with rubber cement so that they could be resealed over and over after opening


I gave the sites names, such as Rincker Prairie, an historic reference to an old farm family.

For the most part, prairie seeds need to go through a cold moist period before they will sprout, or at least more of the seeds will sprout, after going through this “stratification” process.  This is the reason prairies are normally seeded in the fall or very early spring.  Most seeds need 30 to 90 day of cold, moist, stratification.  William Cullina has written an excellent propagation book called Growing and Propagating Wildflowers that explains the treatment that each species needs for propagation.  Hopefully the seeds planted this past March will sprout this spring, and provide added interest in the meadow for years to come.


The selection of seeds that went into the meadow at the end of March

The Oak Woods


Piles of snow are still present as the flames do the clean-up work

Years ago, In my parent’s front yard I planted a small garden with a mix of woodland, savanna, and prairie plants.  Over time, the plants have moved around and spread to form a larger garden.  To help maintain the garden’s integrity and clean out last year’s growth, I usually do a spring burn.  The garden is surrounded on two sides by lawn and by asphalt on the other sides.  It takes all of about 15 minutes to complete the burn.  This year, I was kept company by a Coopers Hawk nesting in a nearby Oak.  I didn’t get a photo of the bird, but the nest can be seen in the center of the photo below:


In the summer the garden is wild mix of many species, coexisting in some form of harmony.  Below, the this west facing garden is seen in early June, with the flowers of Tradescantia showing off their electric blue color.


In the town of Crete, Illinois, where I drop off my recyclables, the Lions Club has a nice display of the same Tradescatia (T. ohiensis) in front of its sign, right along with some red Knock-Out Roses and yellow Sundrops – a bright show of primary colors.



Blue Tradescantia with bright yellow Sundrops (Oenothera sp.) and daylilies

Out back the White and Red Oak woodland was getting invaded by brambles, including multiflora rose, gooseberry, and blackberry.  To knock these back, this area was burned as well, mimicking what naturally occurred over the last several thousand years – burns help keep the woods open and healthy.  Soon, the spring woodland flowers (spring ephemerals) will be up.  Red Trillium, Jacob’s Ladder, Hepatica, Bishop’s Cap, Solomon’s Seal will all be showing growth very soon and the woodland floor will a carpet of green.


The six inch flames burn into the direction of the wind, and towards the lawn in this case.  The Blackberry cames can be seen amongst the flames here.


Leaves are raked back to create a firebreak, marking the end of the burn area


Here, the adjacent lawn acts as a fire break


The completed woodland burn


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Indiana Dunes – Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center Landscape



At the gateway to the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore you can find the Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center, located in Porter, Indiana.  Used by not only the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but also the Indiana Dunes State Park and the Porter County Convention, Recreation, and Visitor Commision, a visitor can find information on all things Indiana.  The visitor center was named for Dorothy Buell (1886-1977), an active proponent in the 1950’s and 60’s for federal protection of the Indiana Dunes.  In 1966 President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that established the national park (reference ). 

The landscaping surrounding the visitor center is mostly inspired by the surrounding natural landscape, including a recreated prairie, a rain garden, bio-swales, and landscape beds with a mix of regionally native and exotic species.  The landscape architects of record for the project are Williams Creek Consulting, of Indianapolis.

The Rain Garden


The rain garden is located along the west side of the visitor center, facing the street (Indiana 49).  This area and other areas were planted with the help of volunteers from Save the Dunes in 2009.  The garden is essentially a vegetated ditch (aka. swale, or bio-swale) that collects rainwater runoff from the adjacent parking lots and roof of the building, helping to clean the runoff of pollutants, including suspended sediment, before it enters the nearby creek and ultimately Lake Michigan, as well as allowing some of the runoff to percolate into the sandy soil.  A nearby interpretive sign explains the process as well a data sheet that can be found by clicking here.


The Rain Garden

Some of the plantings seen below in the rain garden, include the pink flowered Beebalm (Monarda fistulosa), White Pine, Willows, as well as dune grasses and Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium) in the upper portions of the plantings.



Landscape Beds


The designed (more formally laid out) landscape beds are a bit hit or miss.  The Joe-Pye-Weed pictured above was also mislabeled as an aster, which is unfortunate, since part of this garden’s mission is education.  Also the salvia planted in front of it, which has nice blue flowers in June, is native to Europe and Asia; so while very attractive in bloom, Blue Mist Flower, (Conoclinium coelestinum, formally a Epatorium) a native to the Lower Midwest would have been a more appropriate choice for a native plant garden.

3247In the bed pictured above someone felt the need for a sign instructing whomever maintains the site, not to mow beyond the plastic edging.  I’m not sure that it is needed, but it is a bit discouraging to anyone who might want to try these plants in their own yard .. are they “pretty weeds” or are they appropriate native landscape plants?  The Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) in the foreground has awesome, bright orange, flowers in June and July, but can look a bit tired after blooming, (and does not like to be heavily mulched, as these are – their crowns tend to rot out.)  It may have been nice to interplant them with some native grasses, such as Junegrass (Koleria) or Prairie Dropseed (Sporobolis), the fern planted in full sun, next to a brick building may also have been better thought out.  The Mountain Laurel shrubs (Kalmia latifolia), an East Coast native, were is bloom during this July visit and seem to be doing well, however.


The picnic area to the east of the visitor center consists of broad swathes of perennials and shrubs, interplanted with shade trees.  The sweep of Prairie Dropseed grass (Sporobolis heterilepis), seen above, seems to be doing quite well, despite the excess of bark mulch covering their crowns – it’s a beautifull and tough prairie native. 

In a nearby planting, Chinese Silver Grass (Miscanthus sp.)can be found at the base of a Midwestern Redbud tree (Cercis canadensis).  The Midwestern prairie has so many garden worthy grasses, including Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum), that the use of miscanthus seems a bit silly, if not insulting.  I won’t even mention the Russian Sage to the left of the miscanthus (yeah, I know, I just did.)  The Eastern Redbud, is a great choice in the designed landscape.  As a member of the legume family (peas, soybeans, eg.) it is quite adaptable to various soil conditions due to their ability to fix nitrogen from the air through the process of rhizobial symbiosis.


In the same bed, can be found the Asian native, Ural Falsespirea (Sorbaria sorbifolia), next to a European Shasta Daisy.  While both plants are very attractive to the viewer (maybe not so attractive to pollinators), the Prairie Winged Sumac (Rhus copallina) and any number of our Midwest wildflowers, I would suggest Yellow Baptisia (Baptisia tinctoria) or Cream Indigo (B. leucophaea), would have been awesome, not to mention … wait for it …… NATIVE!  Oh, well.  Russian Sage and Ural Falsespirea .. that’s a theme too, I suppose.





Near the delivery bays at the northeast corner (seen below) of the building there is a curious mix of native Fragrant Sumac (Rhus aromatica) along with a magnolia and the shade loving Asian perennial, astilbe.


Fragrant Sumac (rear middle left) can have great fall color

Some Japanese Deutzia near the front entrance; New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), a low growing prairie shrub, could have been chosen, and it has much nicer flowers.

3280While checking out the Japanese Deutzia, I thought I heard the sound of weeping, kind of a sad wailing, really.  I looked around and didn’t see anyone, then I realized, as I got closer, it was coming from the Virgina Sweetspire ‘Little Henry’ (Itea virginica).  They are a naturally low growing shrub with a nice fountain-like branching pattern.  These Sweetspire, however, where traumatized, sheared into little disfiguring gumdrops – I had to walk away, I felt bad for their predicament, but could do nothing but sympathize.


Gumdropified – What not to do to Virginia Sweetspire

Across the way, surrounding the flagpole, was the ubiquitous European ‘Karl Foerster’ Grass – again, like the Chinese Silver Grass, not a bad grass visually, just, well, really?  ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass, a prairie nativar similar in growth habit, with blue/green leaves, would have been a splendid choice for this area. Now I was beginning to weep.


‘Karl Foerster’ Grass


Wiping a tear from my eye, a smile immediately came to my face.  Beyond the wonky ‘Karl Foerster’ Grass, was a recreated prairie – really beautiful.  It turns out, it is also a bio-swale and acts as a floodplain for Dunes Creek, which flows through it.  An attractive alternative to the standard detention basin.


Grayheaded Coneflower (Ratibida pinnata) shows off its stunning yellow flowers in mid-July


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