Native Rock Gardens!

The concept of Rock Gardening was something I learned at an early age. Our backyard was situated on a sandy dune on an island between the Mississippi and the Black Rivers. On the highest point of our yard, facing west, there was a very large pile of rocks, tossed there by the neighboring farmer, cleared from his potato field.

No need to have it removed…a pile of field stone = future rock garden.

My Mom and Dad decided to take advantage of the rocks, constructing beautiful rock gardens which combined artful grouping of rocks with slabs of limestone from a local quarry. Planted among the rocks were the rock garden plant choice of the time (it was the 1970’s), creeping phlox. Phlox crept within and over the rocks and made a nice carpet of color in spring, and was followed by low growing perennials including herbs such as mint, creeping thyme and oregano, and a few brave annuals tucked into pockets of soil in between the rocks.

Flash 40 years forward, and I have a similar spot on a slightly sloping, south facing hill on our property. We have decided to transform a portion of this spot into a rock garden this year, making use of drought tolerant native plants from Prairie Nursery. Unlike the limited plant choices of the past, I have so many amazing native plants to choose for my new rock garden!

Due to the shallow soil that will be present among the rocks choosing native plants that are drought tolerant is the first step. Choose shallow rooted plants that can be tucked in between the rocks, or used in groupings around the rocks. Among the species we hope to use are Prairie Smoke, Lanceleaf Coreopsis, Ivory Sedge, Lavender Hyssop, Brown Eyed Susan, Prairie Blue Eyed Grass.

Coreopsis lanceolata – Lanceleaf Coreopsis is a superhero of xeric gardening .

We plan on piling the rocks across the middle and base of the hill, to take advantage of water/moisture that flows down the hill after a rain. Rocks will be strategically placed to not only form the base for our garden, but to help hold the soil in place. Pea gravel will then be spread to add interest around the rocks.

A few other native species that will tolerate the dry, lean, shallow soils:

Prairie Onion, Purple Prairie Clover, Downy Phlox, Western Spiderwort, Broad Leaved Penstemon, Hoary Vervain, Sky Blue Aster, Prairie Dropseed and  Little Bluestem.

Dalea purpurea – Purple Prairie Clover has a native range that covers a large portion of North America including not only all of the Midwest states, but deserts of the SW, and mountains of Colorado as well. An excellent rock or xeric garden choice.

Sharing links to several great sites with tips on constructing your rock garden, thanks to Garden Brief and E-How:

Rock gardens using native plants chosen for drought tolerance, require very little care; perhaps a little weeding, and possibly adding soil over the years if needed. Rock gardens can be constructed on any scale;  a small front yard garden, or an expansive back or side yard. It all depends on how much space, time and energy you can devote to the project. A rock garden, regardless of size, adds structure and beauty to any landscape!

Featured Plant: Pasque Flower

Common name: The name Pasque Flower refers to the religious holiday of Easter, when the flowers are often in bloom. In South Dakota, where it is the state flower, it is referred to as the May Day Flower, Prairie Crocus or Wind Flower.

Scientific name: Anemone patens (also known as Pulsatilla patens). Anemone: an ancient Greek name from anemos, “wind.”  patens: Latin for “spreading.”

Pasque Flower

Flowers on a Hilltop

With less than two months to go until the official start of spring it still seems a long way off. But when the snow finally clears and the hilltops warm in the ever higher sun, the Pasque Flower will be one of the earliest signs of life on the spring prairie.

Last spring Neil Diboll let me in on a great location, not far from Prairie Nursery, where native Pasque Flower adorns a hilltop every spring. Neil gave me directions and we were to meet up there late in the afternoon, as he was returning from a consulting job.

I arrived first and found the spot with no problem. My approach to the designated hill was by the Northwest side and as I began to climb upwards and out of the woods I was happy to find several Pasque Flower groups blooming along the hillside. Wow. What a find. I turned on my camera and started clicking away. The light wasn’t the best there, so I kept angling up the hill, shooting as I went. Upon cresting the hill I realized I had been on the fringe! The large domed hilltop was strewn with flowers. And the light was beautiful. After about 10 minutes of giddy Pasque Flower photo-taking, Neil showed up and we continued the photo shoot together.

Here are some photos from that afternoon, March 22, 2012.

Anemone patens

One of the earliest perennials to bloom in a prairie, Pasque Flower is an uncommon plant
that has been extirpated from many areas because of modern development.

Pasque Flower

Native to both North America and Eurasia, it inhabits hill prairies and gravel prairies.
Barrens with scant woody vegetation are preferred as this reduces competition from other plants.
The preference is full sun, dry conditions, and a gritty soil containing gravel or rocky material. Root rot can be a problem if the soil becomes waterlogged from poor drainage.

pasque flower

Pasque Flower is only about 6” high with a delicate, near transcluscent petals
that can range in color from white to lavender.

pasque flower

The flowers emerge before the leaves, often just after the snow has melted.
The delightful furry leaves remain well into the summer.

pasque flower

The silvery plume-like seedhead is also a treasure.

We have a limited quantity of Pasque Flower in 3″ pots, available this spring.


Featured Plant: Solomon’s Plume

AKA: Feathery False Lily of the Valley, False Spikenard, False Solomon’s Seal
(Smilacina racemosa – also Maianthemum racemosa)

Smilacina racemosa colony – photo by Neil Diboll

If you’re looking for a great plant for lightly shaded areas of your garden Solomon’s Plume is a beautiful choice for home landscaping in shaded settings, and a good food source for birds. It spreads by rhizomes but not aggressively enough to ever be invasive. Multiple arching stems 1-3′ long grow from a single parent plant, making it a good option for a taller ground cover.

The unbranched stems bear a many-flowered raceme at the tip of the stem (the plume) made up of tiny white flowers. The plumes appear in late spring and are followed by bright red berries, sometimes speckled brown or purple, which last through late Summer and into the Fall. Birds will be attracted to the berries.

Solomon’s Plume – photo by Walter Siegmund (wikimeda commons)

Solomon’s Plume is widely-distributed and native to Eastern North America. Found growing most often in deciduous woods, on shaded banks and ditches, Solomon’s Plume should be grown in well-drained, medium to moist, slightly acidic soil – in light to medium shade.

Solomon’s Plume – At home in the woods. (wikipedia – photo: jaknouse)

Solomon’s Plume seed – photo by Mary Evans

Dry to Medium Soil Alternative
Jason, at, reminded me that a dry soil alternative to Smilacina racemosa is Smilacina stellata, Starry Solomon’s Plume. It’s a bit shorter than Solomon’s Plume at 1-2′, and is very tough – thriving in dry, sandy soil in the shade. It also spreads slowly by rhizome and is excellent for stabilizing around/under oaks and pines.

starry solomon's plume - smilacina stellata

Starry Solomon’s Plume has cool berries – mid summer. This photo was taken in early August along a bike path near Crystal Lake in Michigan.

Starry Solomon’s Plume – smilacina stellata flowers from May – June. Great in dry soil, under the trees! Photo was taken at Prairie Nursery in late May.

Working through the Plan

Working through the 2013 summer project plans

Like many gardeners, I use winter as a time to plan our garden projects.  Our kitchen table will be laid out with garden books, (my recent favorite is Landscaping with Native Plants of Wisconsin by Lynn Steiner, Voyageur Press).  I will make use of a sketch pad for drawing and making notes and many garden catalogs that start filling our mailbox in January are my inspiration.  The native perennials from Prairie Nursery are the foundation of our gardens (I am a little biased…we offer so many great plants that love our sandy soils).  Next year’s plans include adding more native shrubs, and I am itching to try shrubs we’ll have available next year; Low bush Blueberry and Snowberry!

Lowbush Blueberry-Vaccinium angustifolium

The grand plans afoot for our gardens and landscape next year:

  • Take out the remaining stand of thirsty Ox Eye Sunflower and replace it with Downy Sunflower, a plant happy to live in our sandy soil
  • Move the millions of volunteer Lanceleaf Coreopsis that have migrated into the adjacent lawn,
  • Add more Little Bluestem and Prairie Dropseed and asters to the hillside garden
  • Take out the section of garden overtaken by Norway maple tree roots…
  • Revamp woodland gardens, move and transplant Columbine, Wild Ginger and the ever spreading Woodland Sunflower in the shade garden
  • Move Oak tree saplings from the Prairie gardens next to the towering 50 foot oak tree

My winter planning this year also includes adding a new butterfly garden.  I am using the Pre-planned Karner Blue Butterfly garden from Prairie Nursery.

Our part of Wisconsin is home to the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly, and this garden is chock full of plant they use for food and habitat. This kit is perfect for a spot next to our garage, a south facing site that needs plants that can take the heat!The list above is a long one, but my winter enthusiasm for summer projects is boundless and optimistic!

I truly believe gardeners are inherently optimists.  We plant our perennials (and annuals) with a hope that they will thrive and grow to be beautiful specimens in our gardens.  When a plant does not live up to our expectations, most gardeners I talk to, will say, oh well, let’s try another plant and hope it works out.

We start every garden year with the same sense of purpose and hope most farmers embrace:  Yes, the rains will come, the pests and diseases will be few and I will achieve a great crop this year.  The joy of seeing newly transplanted perennials gradually forming a beautiful garden is rewarding, and when planting native plants the return our investment sustains native wildlife, and work to preserve soil and water conservation.  Knowing these simple native plants attract a myriad of creatures; pollinators, butterflies, birds, insects and animals to our backyard is my motivation.

Swallotail on Blue Flag Iris-Iris versicolor

Now, get to it!  As a recently crowned 50 year old, I realize that I don’t have the energy and “get-to-it-with-it-ness” (my Grandma Millie’s old saying) that I had in my 30’s!  I am undeterred however; yes, projects happen at a little different pace than they did when I was 30.  I look at the gardening a little differently now.  My time in our gardens is such great exercise; good for my joints and my psyche, allowing me time to process and ponder life, and reducing stress.  As for keeping up, well, I have a partnership strategy, thankfully, my garden helper in my Husband Wayne.  He is retired, and when not fishing on the Wolf River or nearly Lake Puckaway, he has the patience and time to spend in the gardens carrying out the plans when I am off to work at Prairie Nursery.  As a team we accomplish our projects at a reasonable pace, and it is a gift we have spending time together.

So, we have the winter to rest up, re-energize and, with my plans in hand, I am ready, optimistic hopeful for a great garden year ahead!