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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Hunting the Wild Skunk Cabbage


Woods 1976sEven as a young boy, that’s me in the photo above in 1976, I enjoyed walking to the nearby forest preserve in Lansing, Illinois.  I’d always go with my older brother and/or my dad, sometimes we’d bring a can of pork-n-beans and a few hotdogs to cook over an open fire.  Three years later, in 1979, my family moved to Crete, Illinois, to a home surrounded by oak woods and near a small creek.  By then, I was old enough to go into the woods on my own, and explore.  And explore I did!  Last week, while visiting my mother, I decided to take a walk and see what the Skunk Cabbage was looking like – it’s one of the first signs of spring’s arrival, or rather, the close of winter, as it is often seen flowering in February in wet woodland seeps.  So I put on my boots and set out for a winter’s hike.


Looking back, towards the old homestead

The snow was deeper than I was expecting – at least a foot deep, and deeper in some places, but the sun was out and the temps were in the low 30’s.  Maybe I need to invest in some snowshoes.7340 The woods were so pretty with all of the pure white snow covering the ground – not a hint of green on this early March day. 7332 In less than a month, this sandy flood plain (the creek is just off to the left in the picture above) will be covered with spring ephemerals – woodland wildflowers that come up, flower, set seeds, then go dormant by early summer, not to be seen until next spring.  On this day’s hike, however, it was all about the snow. 7335 The creek is not that far from the house, maybe 500 feet or so, standing in the floodplain, the house can just be seen in the distance, with its snowy roof.

7336b The creek was still covered with ice.  As kids, we would go down in winter and ice skate in a wide part dug out by the land owner.  Today, there was too much snow covering the ice for that – and I was not brave enough, as an adult, to test the integrity of the ice anyhow.  Kids are fearless. 7330 In summer, I’ll sometimes see wood ducks paddling along the creek – they often see me first, however, and fly off, or if I see them first, I’ll stay still – they notice me there anyhow, standing along the shore, keeping a weary eye on me,  but still going about their business.  On one winter hike, I observed a family of beaver – I watched them work for some time, lying flat on my belly, high on an overlook (shown, two pictures above).  Soon enough though, a beaver swam parallel to where I was, looked up and slapped his tail on the water, warning the others of my presence – they all took off for cover.  No signs of beaver this year – except remnants of chewed trees from years past.7342 7347 7350 I kept walking to where I used to ice skate long ago – the wide spot is now silted in and overgrown with invasive reeds – Phragmites, which can be seen in the upper right of the photo above.  In the lower left of the photo can be seen a hole – one of the few signs of life that I saw on my hike – very few fresh animal tracks to be had that day. 7351 The hole was actually pretty deep – as the snow was deep, about 18 inches, or so.  Did the animal that dug this hole sense, or hope for, a meal for all of its effort? 7356 Alas, as I made it down to the area, shown above, that normally would be covered with the hooded flowers of the Skunk Cabbage plant, there was nothing to be seen but a thick cover of snow.  I left the snow cover (and the flowers that it hid) undisturbed.  But I WILL be back, when the snow is gone, I’ll be back, searching for the first signs of spring. 7357

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