A New Way of Gardening

front parkway

Traditionally, the way plants were organized in parks and gardens reflected a culture that liked to order and discipline nature.  Contemporary planting design is not only freer, but also seeks to reflect nature.  It also addresses our concerns about how we garden sustainably and in partnership with nature.

 Piet Oudolf & Noel Kingsbury

Planting: A New Perspective

 Piet Oudolf is the hottest landscape designer on the planet at this time.  A native and resident of Holland, he designed the Lurie Garden in Chicago and the High Line in New York City among others all over the world.  (He also designed the garden around the Prairie Style administration building at Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles.)

While I have always designed and planted forbs and grasses in drifts (in odd numbers, of course), I realized that native plants would go their own way and intermingle freely with other plants.  As every other designer and gardener did, however, I always featured more flowers than grasses, even though in nature, grasses dominate the prairie.

Schulenberg prairie ppcfSchulenberg Prairie, Morton Arboretum.

roots poster

Conservation Research Institute

 Take a good look at this poster:  The roots of the forbs are long and fleshy, while the roots of the grasses and sedges have a dense, fine root system.  1/3 of these grass roots die every year, providing channels for water to infiltrate the soil, but as they die, they decompose and become humus and food for the plant.  Every plant on earth requires fertilization, but we fertilize our vegetable gardens and perennial beds with fertilizer–drugs–spread on top of the soil.  If we intersperse our native forbs with grasses or sedges, the grass roots will provide it from below.  The grasses also provide a living mulch.

This was explained to me by Dr. Gerould Wilhelm, Director of Research  for Conservation Research Institute.   You can read more here: http:www.conservationresearchinstitute.org

Use Prairie Dropseed, not only as an edging, but as a matrix in which to plant forbs.

Prairie dropseed w: pale purple coneflowerRiver Park in Geneva.

Landscape Architect Susan Conant,  St. Charles, IL

 Pale Purple Coneflower (Echinacea pallida) in front row and Butterfly Weed (Asclepias tuberosa) in second tier all in a matrix of Prairie Drop Seed (Sporobolus heterolepis).

 More River Park

mountain mint & prairie dropseed riverwalkMountain Mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) with Prairie Dropseed and the seed heads of Pale Purple Coneflower.

river park topPale Purple Coneflower and Butterfly Weed in a matrix of  Side-Oats Grama (Blouteloua curtipendula), a denison of dry hill prairies.  Its seeds are arranged on just one side of the stem, like ship’s flags flying in the wind.

little bluestem and sky blue asterThe lavender blossoms of  Sky Blue  Aster combine beautifully with the copper blades of Little Bluestem.

June's entrance A matrix of Prairie Dropseed next to a stairway.

my entrance walkBoth Prairie Dropseed and Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) provide a matrix around my entrance walk.

lead plant HHThe forbs at both Horlock Hill Prairie in St. Charles (above) and Schulenberg Prairie at Morton Arboretum (below)  grow out of a matrix of Prairie Dropseed.  This is Lead Plant (Amorpha canescens), a small prairie shrub.  Conspicuous vivid orange stamens decorate the bright purple petals on the 6” flower spikes, set off by silvery green leaves

lead plant schulenberg


Even the best planned perennial-based planting will experience a decline in species diversity–highly persistent and the most vigorously self-seeding species will be the survivors.

Piet Oudolf & Noel Kingsbury

Planting:  A New Perspective

 Sadly that is what happened to my west sidewalk prairie gardens that I planted 10-15 years ago that I told you about in my last post.

So I have decided to remove the Rosin Weed and False Sunflower, and the Indian Grass and Switch Grass.  I’m in the process of cutting down the overly aggressive plants now, and will deal with them next spring.

I will add a short grass prairie matrix–groups of Prairie Dropseed here and an aggregation of Little Bluestem there,  then intersperse them with new forbs.

I will tell you of its progression from time to time.  Stay tuned.


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7 Responses to A New Way of Gardening

  1. chris darbo September 16, 2014 at 4:48 pm #

    Lovely pics. Thank you! Oudolf, not Rudolf.

  2. Pat Hill September 16, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    Damn spellchecker! I had fixed it.

  3. Suzanne Massion September 16, 2014 at 8:53 pm #

    This is one of my favorites, Pat, with so much valuable information and the beautiful images of River Park, Geneva. The park finds its way into a lot of my oil paintings. Jens Jensen’s quote goes to the heart of why I choose subjects from the land where I live to paint. It will be very interesting to follow what you do in re-planting your west sidewalk garden.

  4. Monica September 17, 2014 at 8:57 am #

    I have found, over a few years of working with Art and Linda’s Wildflowers, that you don’t always know which plants are going to take over, though certain plants, as Pat mentioned, are almost guaranteed to do that. Certain other plants, because of their root systems/seeding habits, pretty much just stay put or spread only slowly, such as Prairie Dropseed and the Wild Indigos…but sometimes it’s surprising what becomes dominant. Soil type, slope, neighboring plants, and perhaps many other variables come into play. I’ve sat with Art in gardens where the owners did not contract for maintenance or take care of the gardens themselves and the strangest things were dominant. One such garden had about 75% Senna hebacarpa–Wild Senna!

    • Pat Hill September 18, 2014 at 5:23 am #

      I planted Senna (Cassia) hebecarpa near a downspout at my house and it went crazy–I’ll send you a photo. I cut it back to the ground every year.

      • Monica September 18, 2014 at 7:25 am #

        That’s right, it’s Cassia; thanks for the correction, Pat. I’m looking at those photos now, wow!

  5. Susan Moynihan September 22, 2014 at 10:01 pm #

    Your photos are lovely and encourage me to plant more Native plants. I really enjoyed your lecture at Bertold’s. I spoke to another Native flower enthusiast and told him of my fear of things “Taking over” and he said to treat them as I do perennials and deadhead as I see fit. This might help me . I shall keep in touch.

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