Pondering plants and placement

As a landscape architect, I take pleasure in thinking through the meaning, limitations, structure, seasonality, texture, color, and composition of plantings that I work on. My rain garden in our parkway is no exception.

I had a couple of years to think about this and began to formalize my objectives over the winter months:

  • Don’t solve problems by throwing money at it. Design by being mindful about resources.
  • Rely on native plants that evolved to deal with our natural history and climate and thus provide resilience and longevity.
  • Select those native plants that would be suitable for a rain garden environment.
  • Develop a composition that could be reproduced in variations in other locations.
  • Aim for an end result that communicates care, value, and pride.
  • Keep the planting design simple enough so that it could be maintained without the knowledge of a master gardener.
  • Break some rules.

Why didn’t I mention color, texture or succession? Well, they are not objectives, they are
Prerequisites. And before I get too far along, let’s quickly talk about the big word: Nature.

I will be using native plants, but I’d like to think that I am humble enough to realize that I will not re-create nature or a prairie ecosystem. I intend to borrow from it and demonstrate how to use our native plants successfully in a horticultural context. But that is as far as I dare to aim.

With this framework in place, I could move on to the next one. Let’s call it the…

…Functional framework

To keep the rain garden functioning, I need to maintain the soil’s infiltration capacity – or, even better, improve it. The extensive and fibrous root systems of our native prairie grasses and sedges do just that.

Yet, my parkway doesn’t come close to the vastness of a prairie. And most prairie grasses are tall, which makes them a perfect fit for vast landscapes, but not for my molecular sized rain garden. To achieve a level of proportionality, I will have to rely on a groundcover matrix of sedge species that are smaller, more compact, and a better fit for the space. In this case, I will largely rely on Carex sprengelii (Long-beaked Sedge) and Carex vulpinoidea (Fox Sedge).

The sedges themselves would provide a stunning rain garden for most seasons. Still, I would like to add some structure, texture, contrast, and seasonality.

From color to contrast

Two Baptisa australis (Blue Wild Indigo) that flank the path at the side yard gate will add structure, along with two Amsonia hubrichtii (Blue Star) in the east end and one more at the west end of the parkway landscape. A number of Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’ (Switchgrass) that are spaced between the Baptisia and Amsonia will continue the layering of heights. Yet the upright Panicum will contrast with both, the round shaped Baptisia and Amsonia.

The flowering season is opened with Mertensia virginica (Virginia Bluebells), Geranium maculatum (Wild Geranium) and hybrid Aquilegia (Columbine). May and June would be dominated by the display from the Baptisia. The summer display may vary, because this is where I like to break the rules. Rather than relying on native perennials, I plan on using annuals, which may vary from year to year. This year I will start with a yellow-orange-red collection of hybrid Coreopsis and Dahlia.

Another rule breaker is the addition of two non-native geophytes: Daffodils and purple Alliums.

Autumn will be illuminated by the stunning fall colors of the Amsonia hubrichtii and Panicum virgatum ‘Shenandoah’. To complement the range of golden-red hues, I added Symphyotrichum novae-angliae ‘Purple Dome’ (New England Aster), with its purple flowers and yellow centers. (The purple flowers are actually bracts and the yellow center are the actual flowers).

Native plants have the stigma of delivering a wild and unruly look. That is not surprising considering that a considerable number of homeowners risk cardiac arrest upon the discovery of a clover leave in their lawn.

And this is why color composition, texture, and seasonality are important. They distract – or, even better – re-focus the observer’s attention. They create a new narrative that communicates care and intent, which is a juxtaposition to what is typically perceived as un-tame native plants.

While working with combinations of flower and fall colors is interesting, what really captivates me is textures and contrasts. Yet I can’t take credit for composition, because my inspirations came from stunning scenes I observed in Illinois’ and Wisconsin’s remnant prairies.

One such scene was the contrast between the superbly coarse texture of Silphium terebinthinaceum (Prairie Dock) splattered amongst a sea of delicately fine textured grasses, sedges, or rushes.


A scene that is picture-made for a garden environment, as it can be reproduced even at smaller scales.

The matrix of sedges and solitary Amsonia provide the beautiful yet delicate fine texture that is then interrupted four times by the majestic leaves of the Silphium. And yes, the Silphium has flowers that provide a spectacle on their own – but this is really about the contrast in texture, not the color or towering flowers.

The Silphium continues to draw the eye into the winter season, when its majestic leaves begin to curl and turn gray-brown with white speckles. The Panicum provides a remarkable contrast with its golden-reddish shafts against the pure white snow while the seed pods of the Baptisia with their blackish shell and silvery interior are reminiscent of elegant early 20th century black and white photography.

Committing to a native plant pallet in a design comes with its limitations. And that, as it turns out, can be a good thing. It’s something that keeps driving the creative process. Rather than getting bogged down by what a list of natives doesn’t provide, we begin to discover and explore their unique features and elements, whether it is the eye candy part or the functional element – managing stormwater.

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Finishing weaving and a closing thought

In our trilogy of parkway rain gardens, I had one more cell to go, which is also the largest cell. Snow was looming on the horizon and I was hoping to finish the weaving of the fence panels before I would freeze my fingers off.

Well, I got done just in time, but I had to wait all winter before I could fully vegetate the rain garden cell. This was a test of my patience.


Building the parkway knee fence and rain garden cells took me down memory lane – to our sustainable pilot project, One Drop at a Time, in Elmhurst, Ill. The rain gardens, green roof, rain barrels, and porous pavement at this project caught quite a little bit of attention.


The running joke was that whenever I stepped into the front yard of the Elmhurst project I got no work done because of the questions from, and conversations with, passers-by. Thirty minutes of uninterrupted work was unheard of.

Fast forward to our Chicago project: As I mentioned in the last blog post, I began to enjoy plenty of interaction with passers-by while working on the parkway fence. By my observation, the volume of conversations, the level of curiosity, and number of compliments seemed no different than what I had experienced in Elmhurst.

Yet these two communities, North Lawndale and Elmhurst, have completely different demographics and appear to be at opposite ends in the income spectrum.

To demonstrate the point, I picked data from the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP) Community Data Snapshots and summarized them in the table below.

For complete data set on North Lawndale, see:


For complete data set on Elmhurst, see:


This brings me full circle and back to the quote by the late Charles Leeks, former director of the North Lawndale NHS office.

“People who live in poor communities […] are entitled to good design. I’d love to see good buildings, an aesthetically engaging place. … [A] smart, clever, interesting place to live—and one that looks good.”


In this highly segregated environment, whether it is racial or income related, it is easy to overlook that some things are universal. We all share a thirst for an expression of care in our landscape combined with physical expressions that instill beauty, and a landscape that stimulates.

Just because North Lawndale doesn’t have the resources for attractive landscapes doesn’t mean that they would not be appreciated.

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Talking while weaving

Even though the weather was turning cooler, I just got warmed up weaving the fence panels on our first rain garden cell in the parkway. Now that I had figured out the details and nuances, I was on a roll – or should I say loom?

And with each panel completed, our parkway landscape started to look better, even though I had nothing planted yet.


We are always interested in community outreach, sharing with others what we are doing and why. We use this blog as a community outreach tool. We had several open houses where we invited the community to see our progress for themselves and ask us questions. I still accommodate groups that are interested in touring our project.

Despite all these efforts, we’ve had a hard time reaching the community closest to us, our neighbors in North Lawndale. Interest in and awareness of what we are doing to the house, and why, has grown over the years. But in the busy lives of our neighbors, and everyone’s daily struggle, the deep energy retrofit subject was not a priority. Plus, some of its aspects are rather abstract and eventually hidden behind drywall. There are few visuals that get people excited about, with the exception of our heating bill.

But once I started to work on the parkway rain gardens, interaction skyrocketed. I was doing stuff that was hard to overlook and that nobody expected to see in the neighborhood. Passers-by wanted to know what I was up to.


Interactions ranged from compliments on our work, to questions about what we were doing. Compliments and questions came from grown ups passing by and the kids leaving school down the street from us. A number of times, parents picking up their kids from school took them over to the parkway when I was working and asked me to explain to them what I was doing.

And of course, I mentioned the four brothers who helped me excavate the rain garden. We had some really good conversations, and they riddled me with questions until there was nothing left of me.

This was the fun part of putting the fence together, and I really enjoyed it!

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Not quite a basket case

I need willow branches – a whole lot of willow branches that I can weave into my prepared parkway fence panels.

As it so happens, we live right next to Douglas Park, one of Chicago’s great city parks. And through some mysteriously lucky circumstances, a landscape crew started to clear the invasive brush in the natural areas of the park last fall. That included large stands of willow.

I walked over to the crew supervisor and asked if he would mind if I pulled some willow branches out of the brush piles they cut. He didn’t mind at all, and so began another seemingly endless salvaging project of mine.

To make the weaving work, I had to get branches that were as long as or longer than the panel section. That would allow me to weave it from that start to the end of each panel.

I have shorter panels of four and a half feet (perpendicular to the road) and longer panels of up to seven feet (parallel to the road). The shorter panels require shorter willow branches, which are also generally thinner and thus easier to bend. I subsequently spaced the rebar in the short panels six inches on center. That was almost too tight as I sometimes had difficulties pulling the willow through.

The rebar in the longer panels was spaced 12 inches on center to accommodate the longer and thus thicker willow branches. That spacing made bending and the weaving process pretty smooth.

To get each panel filled evenly, I had to alternate a thick willow end with a thin willow end. And I had to make sure that each woven branch was firmly pushed down.

Once a panel was filled, I cut of the willow ends, pushed them in and locked them in place with a three quarter by three quarter blocking. That gave each panel a nice finish.

If you have read some of my previous posts, you know that I was concerned about the rebar being snatched by scavengers. Well, let me tell you, the friction of the woven willow panel makes it virtually impossible to pull out that rebar. The only way to remove it would be to remove the willow first. I don’t think anyone is going to bother with that.

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Rigging the rebar

I had settled on woven fence panels, using willow branches for the weft and rebar pieces for the warp.

I was finally at the point where I could get started on installing the rebar. All the fence rails were in place and pre-drilled. All I had to do now was slip rebar in each slot, mark it, and cut it to the right length.

I mentioned that anything metal that isn’t firmly attached may start growing legs. To prevent the rebar from walking, I screwed the handrail on the top fence rail, which effectively locked the rebar in place.

At this point my hope was that trying to pull out the rebar was not worth the effort or risk to any potential scavenger.

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