Transition in the Heat: Reclaiming a Corner for the Birds & Butterflies

This past weekend I completed my first native plant installation in the Urban Lawn Reduction Project. After preparing and planting vegetable beds this spring I decided to tackle the most needy area first, and convert it to native plants. There wasn’t any lawn in the approximately 20 x 20 foot Northeast corner, just a garden disaster in need of attention.

Originally, a Boxelder tree occupied the far reaches of this area — down by the alley. Distorted by repeated pruning around electric utililty wires, it hung threateningly over the neighbors garage. Last fall I had it removed. This spring I moved back to Milwaukee to find a humongous pile of wood chips left from the stump grinding. The noxious Bishops Weed had invaded the area, and the tree removal exposed about 35 very large Hostas to the crazy hot June sun.

I won’t go into painful detail, but I do want to say that after clearing and preparing this area I fervently hope and believe that replacing the ‘lawn’ areas will be easier than digging out and repairing this area was.

The large old Barberry was removed to help open the flow of the yard, and to better included the back area into the overall landscape.

Friends and neighbors were the Hosta beneficiaries.

Hosta removal underway.

Native Garden Design and Plant Selection
This area receives full sun for most of the day. Early morning is shaded by the neighbors garage along the East side. Next to the garage the soil is often moist, while a few feet away the soil is medium-dry. One design objective was to minimize the view of the neighbors garage and the trash cans in the alley, with tall plants. Another objective: to use the space for both fruit and native plants.

I consulted with a friend who has extensive experience designing and installing native landscapes. She recommended using Sweet Joe Pye Weed as the backbone to a garden that would be a flowering highlight. Keeping the soil’s high clay content in mind we chose a group of plants that would rise up and have a strong visual presence in the back corner of the yard, as well as provide food for birds and pollinators.

Another main factor in plant choices was simply adaptability –  plants that are sure to grow easily in clay, without any soil amending or extra watering. (Of course I will water them while they are getting established, but that’s about it!)

Here’s the plant list and planting design:

Heatwave: Plant now, or wait?
I decided to go ahead and plant during a lull in the heatwave. With three trays full of beautiful plants from Prairie Nursery on hand I figured they’d be better off in the ground, getting watered everyday, than in their small plastic containers. Last Saturday we had a slight break in the weather and into the ground they went:

My sister helped with the planting. Here she is adding cocoa hull mulch after watering this morning.

It’s so good to see a bed of native plants in the yard! And the birds are thrilled with all of the watering that is taking place between this and the vegetable garden.

What’s next? Selecting the areas to start “smothering” process for next years plantings. Also coming up: A patio plan for the backyard. Eco Harmony, ecological landscaping will design and install an artistic stone and gravel patio later this year.  I can’t wait to replace all of that lawn, which, incidentally has been mowed only once this summer, due to the drought.




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