Tree from hell?

Well, that’s what I like to call them. But their common name is Tree of heaven, while your horticulturist or arborist may refer to their proper botanical name: Ailanthus altissima.

Why don’t I like this species? Because they are the quintessential weed tree. They produce seeds in large numbers that readily germinate. Those that survive and grow on are usually in undisturbed places, right along building foundations, path edges, fence lines, etc.


You blink once and the tender seedling has grown into a small plant. You turn your head away for too long, and the small plants explodes into a small tree. They do this so fast that people often give up removing them because they now seem to big to rip out.


And it’s not just the Tree of heaven. Other common weed tree species that exhibit this tendency are Mulberry trees, Elm trees, and some maples.

We had one massive Tree of heaven and a Mulberry tree at the northwest corner of our house with roots all the way into our basement. Both trees made me real nervous and I had them taken down.

All I had left now was one larger Tree of heaven in the southeast corner of our vacant lot that I wanted to see go too.

Please don’t conclude that I just don’t like trees. I do like them, but they need to be in the right place and a suitable species. Cathy and I were eager to have an apple tree in that back corner, so calling in the chain saw wasn’t a hard decision.

To make sure the Tree of heaven doesn’t grow back from the stump we spent a few extra dollars and had it ground out. I remember digging up stumps like this in the old days. But I have to admit, I like standing near the stump grinder and watching the wood chips fly much better!

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Soothing an itch

Not all decisions are rational.

I finished the hardscape components of our parkway rain gardens just before winter came knocking on our door. The softscape installation, i.e. planting the rain garden, had to wait till the start of the next growing season. That would have been the rational approach.


But my green thumbs were itching so badly that I had to scratch away at rational – at least a little bit. So I went ahead and planted two Baptisia australis for an early summer show and two Amsonia hubrichtii for texture fall interest. Despite the late fall planting, both species came out the gates in a strong fashion in earlier spring.


The one rational panting I indulged in late last fall where my friends the geophytes. Cathy scored a bag of daffodils and alliums, which needed to hit the ground in autumn.

Let’s see how long this will sooth the itching…

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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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