The Last Plant Standing: Native Plants in the Winter Garden

Native plants have a variety of texture, color and shapes that make the winter garden shine, even in the darkest days. Which native plants stand up to the snow and look great in a winter garden? Plants that bloom at the end of the season such as asters and goldenrods, are good contenders for ‘Last Plant Standing.’ Being late bloomers gives them an advantage. But there are others with strong stems that continue to stand through the winter, with their seed heads available to birds.

Above, Wild White Indigo (Baptisia lactea). The dark color and complex texture stands out against the light color and simpler texture of grasses. In the foreground, the fluffy silver seed heads of an aster add another element.

Ironweeds (both vernonia fasciculata, above, and vernonia altissima) have super strong stems. Ironweeds bloom later in summer, but they continue to stand through the winter, their stems are lines on the winter canvas:

Little Bluestem. Schizachyrium scoparium, below, is low in stature, but very sturdy in the winter garden. It’s a perfect backdrop for other plants, but also stands out on it’s own with great color and texture.

Stiff Goldenrod (Solidago rigida), below, has the late season advantage for being Last Plant Standing. It also has very rigid stems, as the Latin name implies.

 A wide variety of Asters bloom in fall and continue to stand strong – their fluffy seed heads are charming. Birds love the seeds:

These are just a few that I noticed this weekend, following an early season snow in Wisconsin. What’s in your winter garden? We’d love to see. Show us the native plants in your winter garden by posting on our Facebook page!

Rudbeckias: Black Eyed Susan and her sisters

Walking out in my backyard over the weekend, I was once more amazed by the profusion of blooms so late in fall.  Though we have experienced several killing frosts, and despite the chill in the air, there amongst the remains of summer in the garden I find Sweet Black Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia subtomentosa and Orange Coneflower, Rudbeckia fulgida still blooming in mid October.

Sweet Black Eyed Susan-Rudbeckia subtomentosa in mid Summer

Nearby are the faded grey remains of Black Eyed Susan, Rudbeckia hirta, succumbed to the frost, and long since moved from brilliant blooms to seed production.  The flower heads are backyard birdfeeders filled with seed for the clouds of Goldfinches, and enough left over  to reseed my prairie and gardens.

My relationship with Black Eyed Susan is complex.  I love the quick results of this short lived biennial.  Black Eyed Susan will bloom in the first year after planting seed or plants, and produce profusion of beautiful yellow blooms and cute brown/black centers.

Stars in summer gardens and prairies, Black Eyed Susan fulfills its role as an early successional flower brilliantly; a placeholder if you will, filling a newly planted area with blooms.

A biennial’s life is indeed short, and in a garden setting, relying on biennials to drop their seed, (and the unpredictable randomness of where the new babies emerge each year) can be a bit frustrating.  Fortunately there are some great perennials in the Rudbeckia family to choose from.  Sweet Black Eyed Susan and Orange Coneflower, the perennial Rudbeckia, “sisters” of the Black Eyed Susan are fantastic options to add to gardens. Long lived and long blooming, both plants are considered well behaved, one statuesque and the other compact.

Orange Coneflower-Rudbeckia fulgida-Blooming in July


At 4-6 feet tall, Sweet Black Eyed Susan is almost shrub-like, and a nice addition to the background of any garden.  Blooming late, from mid July until October, Sweet Black Eyed Susan is a source for pollen and nectar for butterflies and seed for Birds. An excellent cut flower, it grows in virtually any soil.  Sweet Black Eyed Susan will tolerate medium to moist conditions in full to part sun.

Lower growing and compact, at 2-4 feet tall, Orange Coneflower (Rudbeckia fulgida) is the native from which the familiar cultivar Rudbeckia “Goldstrum” is derived. Orange Coneflower has a lovely form, bold yellow color, and deep green leaves makes this mid summer to fall bloomer, a great plant for borders. Happiest in any well drained garden soil including the worst clay in full to part sun.

Consider these “Sisters” of Black Eyed Susan for your garden as options or supplements to your garden!

Creating a Shallow Water Wetland

Making It Happen
Creating a Shallow Water Wetland in Parma Heights, Ohio

Jim Wohl has always loved nature and the outdoors. A long time ago his dream of becoming a Forester was set aside when his immediate life needs won out over the lack of available jobs in Forestry. Eight years ago, shortly after retiring, his discovery of Prairie Nursery added inspiration to his natural enthusiasm for the
environment and he went to work creating his own backyard wildlife garden. There he experienced the transformation that native plants could bring to an environment.

Diving In. The desire to make a contribution to the health of the environment – that person who wanted to be a Forester – was still part of Jim’s calling. Sitting in the Valley Forge High School courtyard after an alumni meeting, Jim watched a mother duck and her babies drink from a plastic pool. “The ducks are already here,” he thought, “why not a wetland?” He shared the idea with the high school biology teacher, who said he’d always wanted to do that but didn’t know where to start. Jim knew.

There were times when he thought that the project would never happen, but he stuck with it. Tenacity is one of Jim’s stand-out qualities. A year after starting the project he finally got the ‘go-ahead’ from the school board. “I’m not a giver-upper, I just want to make things happen.”

Bringing it to the Community. Building the Valley Forge High wetland took the cooperation of many people – the School Board, Health Board, Sewer Association, plumbers & biologists. At the project’s beginning, a series of phone calls to the Cleveland Metro Parks led Jim to Terry Greathouse – at the time an assistant professor of biology at Cuyahoga Community College. Terry turned out to be an invaluable resource as a project consultant and contributor.

The shallow wetland was a labor of love and the project’s reach extended deep into the community. During construction Jim and Terry were on site everyday from 7am to 6pm. Valley Forge High School students helped when they could. Terry’s students from the Community College participated and gained points in their biology class. This was a big project and Jim wanted the world to know – plus, he needed funding to purchase plants. Local news sources reported on the project, and the Mayor and fire department also pitched in.

Today, the shallow wetland located in the high school courtyard is certified “Wildlife Habitat” by the National Wildlife Federation. The habitat area benefits ducks, 10 varieties of dragonflies, songbirds, hawks, herons, turtles, toads, frogs, butterflies, bees as well as the school’s students. The flora and fauna are the subject matter of inspired art class assignments; chemistry classes check water quality; and biology students study the plants and wetland ecosystems.

“These projects are not easy to make happen,” Jim says, “but anything is possible if you really want it to happen. Step up and let’s make a difference in this world of ours.”


Gardening for Monarchs

The northward spring migration of Monarch Butterflies from their wintering grounds in Mexico is well underway. By this time they are crossing Texas and Florida and hopefully moving into the lower Midwest.

In 2013 the Monarch population was reported to have declined to it’s lowest level, ever. Increasing losses in both Mexico and the US has put the survival of Monarch Butterfly in a perilous position. The American Midwest is a critical feeding and breeding ground in the life cycle of Monarchs, and the rapid expansion of farmland – more than 25 million acres since 2007 ­– has eaten away at the habitat and native plants that support them. The over-winter habitat in the forests of Mexico are also disappearing:

What Can We Do?

1. Plant Asclepias (Milkweed) plants. Plants of the Asclepias genus, such as Milkweed and Butterflyweed, are the only plants on which Monarchs lay their eggs, as a host plant for their caterpillar stage. Asclepias (Milkweed) Plants:
Butterflyweed for Clay
Sullivant’s Milkweed
Red Milkweed
Common Milkweed

2. Provide Nectaring Plants. Monarchs need nectar during their adult phase. Provide enough nectar sources so that you have blooms throughout the season, and each generation of monarchs has a food source. Fall-blooming asters fuel their fall migration to Mexico. Here’s a list of some favorite nectaring plants for Monarchs. Or, take a look at our Pre-planned Monarch Habitat Gardens…
New England Aster
Purple Coneflower
Pale Purple Coneflower
Prairie Blazingstar
Dense Blazingstar
Smooth Penstemon
Ohio Goldenrod
Stiff Goldenrod
Meadow Blazingstar
Smooth Aster
Rough Blazingstar
Scaly Blazingstar
Downy Phlox
Showy Goldenrod
Joe Pye Weed
Tall Joe Pye Weed
Queen of the Prairie
Marsh Phlox
Tall Ironweed
Wild Blue Phlox

3. Build Awareness through Certification Programs. Many good Monarch programs exist that help build awareness, spread the word, share information and educate the public about the decline of the Monarchs.

 4. Learn More, Raise Monarchs, Get Involved: Additional great resources, educational materials, tracking and research, and citizen science.