Tag Archives: parkway

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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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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Closing it up

To avoid casualties, I finished the fence rails around the parkway rain garden before I started with the excavation. I wanted to collect stormwater runoff from the street and not people falling into the rain garden.

I did, however, leave out the interior fence rails flanking the parkway paths. That allowed me to have free movement between the three rain garden cells, which made the excavation process easier.

As the rain garden excavation was completed and the brick paver edge installed, it was time to install the last fence rails.

This was starting to look good! I was so close to getting the fence panels [LINK] installed.

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