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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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

There was an amphibious machine called the “Marsh Master” on display.  Pretty cool.  It can be used to spray or mow invasive plants, such as Phragmites or Cattails in wetlands, with the proper attachments.  It even floats in open water.  It would be fun to that that baby out for a test drive!


The greenhouses were full of plants in different stages of maturity. Some plant plugs in flats were about to be potted up to larger one gallon size pots.


Others were just starting out in flats that contained 200 small seedlings…


Such as these flats of Marsh Blazing Star planted at the end of June.


Others like these Prairie Dropseeds, in 50 plant trays, …


..and these Penstemon sp., looked ready to be sent out to restoration sites.


An automated irrigation system ran along tracks hung above the plants.


The growing fields full of Cardinal Flower and Rattlesnake Master will be ready for seed collection at the end of summer.


Purple Coneflower must also be popular in seed mixes, if this field is any indication.  Every area of the nursery was incredibly well maintained and the plants looked great.  It was all very impressive and I was  amazed at the growth of the nursery (no pun intended!) over the last 14 years since I visited last.  


During the mid-day break (the open house ran from 9am EST to 4pm) a lunch of BBQ pork and side dishes was served.  The food was tasty and, overall, it was a good day of hearing new ideas and gathering information on natural areas restoration, seeing how the plants are grown and bioengineering materials are used, as well as, meeting new people and reconnecting with old friends.  Congratulations to all the folks at Cardno JFNew involved in organizing such an enjoyable day.


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