Victory Over Lawn!

The rush of spring and early summer has passed and it seems we’ve landed smack in the middle of a drought. The weather’s been pretty strange since last March. There’s been but one good rain that I can remember since mid-may.  Some plants, probably sensing the situation as emergent, are blooming a month or more early.

Since my last post, the vegetable garden has been a big focus. I cleared the area around the driveway and leveled the ground. This was accomplished by hand and shovel. The area was full of Barberry, Hosta, Weeds and Russian Sage. Most of these were given away. I still have the Russian Sage in a nursery area, but will probably give that away, too. Then, on May 26th, the Milwaukee Victory Garden Initiative delivered three raised beds and filled them with soil! Victory, indeed.

Victory over lawns happens one square foot at a time – in this case it was 156 square feet in one month. That’s not so bad. The next phase (not going to call it a battle) is the North East corner, where I’ll remove about 50 hostas to prepare for the first installment of natives!

May: Clearing the Land.  Cleared enough space for three 4 x 8 raised beds.

May 26: New raised beds from the Victory Garden. Trellises devised by me.

June 20. Growing strong after three weeks!

Victory over Lawns! Here’s the slogan for the Victory Garden Initiative.

…and Native Plants.

Lawn Reduction: the Planting Areas – Part 1

A couple of weeks ago I drove out to pick up a pear tree at Johnson’s Nursery. On the way I passed through suburban Menomonee Falls and was treated to a miles long expanse of lush… green…lawns. Just lawn. All that life-giving soil and space, dedicated to supporting grass! That was all I needed  to stoke my commitment to the Lawn Reduction Project.

I have a couple of project updates to report. First, I collected soil and had a general soil consultation/analysis with Neil Diboll; and second, the areas for native plants, food and hardscape are defined.

Soil analysis. The good news is it’s good soil! I only went down to a depth of 10″ so this may be an optimistic conclusion, but most of what I have planted in the past has done well with zero soil amendment. Neil examined by sight and feel, the soil from a few different areas in the yard and then roughly projected his insights onto a soil analysis triangle. The technical description is ‘silty clay loam.’ I knew it was clay, as is all Milwaukee soil, but there are many variations of ‘clay’ soil.

Since looking at the soil samples with Neil, I’ve done more digging. Examining soil from other areas of the yard  – and deeper – I found that much of it has a higher clay content than the samples I brought in for Neil’s analysis. Particularly on the East side, between houses. I was not thorough enough in collecting samples. The soil variation at different areas of a property, even a city lot, can be pretty wide.

-images of dirt to come!-

Based on that analysis, I’ll be selecting native plants from the ‘clay busters’, ‘medium soils’ groups on our website — also from ‘shade to semi shade,’ and grasses & sedges that do well in medium & clay soils.

Defining the areas for planting. This planning sketch shows general areas designated for food producing, hardscape, No Mow Lawn, and the Native Plant installation areas.

I really enjoy the planning part. Maybe even a little too much. I could labor endlessly on minute details. But thinking about it isn’t gonna get ‘er done.

Actually, I have already started moving existing plants and preparing areas for the food gardening areas. It’s not all fun and sketching.

I’m listening to the buzz of the neighbors lawn mower as I write… adding fuel to the fire.

Coming next time: Stop planning and get to work! Actual photos – ‘Before’ Images: Yard in Chaos.



Anatomy of a Woodland Shade Garden

While a woodland garden is not as showy as prairie garden, the depth of layers, texture and variation in green hues create a tranquil yet vibrant space. If you are setting out to create a woodland inspired shade garden, a little understanding of the woodland environment can go a long way. The key is to think in layers. The woodland environment is built up in layers: Herbaceous (floor) layer, Shrub (understory) layer and Tree layer.

If your yard has a tree and few nearby shrubs you have the framework to create a woodland garden. Trees are the structural backbone. They provide the shade and create the framework for your planting environment. The side of a building, a wall, or a hill can provide part of the shade and framework, as well. If you are working without large canopy trees, a woodland shade garden can be created around understory trees and shrubs on the shady side of a building.

Early Blooms
In the spring, before the trees leaf-out, the bulbs and spring ephemerals on the woodland floor get all the light they need to bloom, which makes springtime the highpoint of the woodland flower display. These early blooms are among the most popular woodland natives and they put on a spectacular show. But many will disappear completely with the seasons progress.

ostrich fernThe “Floor” of Your Woodland
To avoid a bare ‘forest floor’ after the spring blooms are gone, choose a few favorite cover plants as a foundation/base. In the woodland these plants often form colonies and mass in larger groups. After the early blooms are finished these covering plants will provide height, color and texture that remains mostly consistent across the seasons. The different textures and colors of the cover plants will show up best in massed plantings. Massed plantings that vary in height also give structure and shape to this foundation layer of  the woodland shade garden.


Mid and Late Season
Native plants from the woodland floor range widely in both bloom time and height. Generally, the later the season, the higher the plant. These taller late season plants can standout against a low-growing foundation and add colorful points of interest as the season progresses.

Whether you’re creating a forest replication or evoking a woodland feel in a small area, consider the natural succession of woodland plants, along with shape, size and color in your planting/design. Your shade garden will look best when it includes a diversity of plants to provide structure, texture and blooms throughout the season.

Here’s a short list of native woodland plants to help you build a luscious herbaceous layer:

Spring ephemerals: Trillium, Bellwort, Jack-in-the-Pulpit, Shootingstar.

Low-to-medium ground covering plants: Wild Ginger, Stonecrop, Ivory Sedge, Plantain Leaved Sedge, Pennsylvania Sedge, Ferns, Foamflower, Maple Leafed Alum Root, Wintergreen.

Medium to high ground covering plants:  Ferns, Bearberry, Maple Leafed Alum Root, Mayapple (foliage dies down by the end of summer).

Early-to-midsummer blooms, low to medium height: Dutchmen’s Breeches, Wild Bleeding Heart, Columbine, Wild Blue Phlox, Wild Geranium, Virginia Bluebells, Jacob’s Ladder, Early Meadowrue, Golden Alexanders, Blue Cohosh.

Mid-to-late summer blooms, medium to tall height
Golden Alexanders, Culvers Root, Black Cohosh, Heart Leaved Aster, Big Leaf Aster, Tall Bellflower, Bottlebrush Grass, Sweet Joe Pye Weed, Maple Leafed Alum Root, White Woodland Aster, Calico Aster

Butterflies Prefer Natives!

Nectar Plants

There are many foods one can “survive on,” but we do have our favorites. Butterflies are no different. Many flower types will attract a few dining butterflies, but the dinner fare offered up by native plants for both butterflies and their caterpillars is tops! Studies have shown that native blooms and leaves attract many more butterfly species and individuals than their non-native counterparts.

The nectar sipping apparatus of butterflies and other pollinators are well matched to the native plants with which they have co-evolved. Highly modified horticultural varieties can lose characteristics that originally guided a pollinator to its food, or they may lose their nectar and pollen entirely.

Among the most well known and popular plants for Butterfly Gardens include Blazingstars (Liatris) and Milkweeds (Asclepias) for Monarchs, but there are numerous other choices. To create your own butterfly restaurant, choose nectar plants with bloom times throughout the growing season: Lupine and Phlox in spring through Asters and Goldenrods in the Autumn.

Host Plants

While many native plants serve as general nectar sources, host plants for butterfly caterpillars can be absolutely specific.

Providing host plants plays a role in attracting these colorful pollinators to your landscape. Here’s a butterfly-centric list with prefered and/or exclusive host plants. Add host plants to your butterfly garden and see who shows up for dinner!

Monarch Butterfly:  As a nectar source, Buttterflyweed, and Milkweed attract butterflies of all kinds. Plants in the Asclepias family are the exclusive host food source for Monarchs.

Karner Blue Butterfly:  Lupine (Lupinus perennis) is the only known food plant for caterpillars of the Karner Blue Butterfly, a federally-endangered species native to the Great Lakes region.

Columbine Duskywing: Columbine (Aquilegia canadensis). Besides being a great nectar plant for early season butterflys, Columbine is a host food source for caterpillars of the Columbine Duskywing.

Pearl Crescent : The caterpillar of the Pearl Crescent butterfly prefers Smooth Aster (Aster laevis). The fabulous Smooth Aster produces a profusion of blue, star-like flowers in late autumn after most other plants are long gone.

Summer Azure: New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus). Host plant for the Summer Azure butterfly, New Jersey Tea is a popular nectar source for both butterflies and hummingbirds. Luxuriant glossy leaves and bright white flowers of make this durable shrub a real winner!

American Painted Lady: Ironweed (Vernonia fasciculata) is the prefered host plant for the stunning American Painted Lady. A favorite for adding late season color to the landscape, Ironweed is Named for its tough stem, which helps it keep an upright posture all season long.

Eastern Black Swallowtail: Golden Alexanders (Zizia aurea) is a food source for Eastern Black Swallowtail Butterfly Caterpillars. Brilliant golden flowers decorate this late-spring bloomer that grows one to two feet tall. An excellent choice for heavy clay soils in semi-shade to full sun.

Eastern Tiger Swallowtail: Yellow Poplar, Black Willow, Black Cherry, American Hornbeam, Red Maple, Spicebush, American Elm, and Sassafras trees are known larval food sources for the Eastern Tiger Swallowtail.

Explore for a wealth of information on these colorful pollinators.