‘Getting Shrubby With It’ in the July Prairie Garden

“We might think we are nurturing our garden, but of course it’s our garden which is really nurturing us.” –Jenny Uglow

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How can it be the end of July?

In my backyard, the first thunderstorms in weeks water the parched prairie patch. Queen of the Prairie has weathered the recent drought amazingly well. It showers with us with pink flowers.

Queen of the Prairie (Filipendula rubra), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Queen of the Prairie is a great plant for our “subdivision slope” issue. Our backyard is at the confluence of two properties that are higher. Water drains from neighboring yards into ours. Fortunately, Queen of the Prairie helps soak up water run-off, and is deer and rabbit resistant. Next to its pink, lavender Sweet Joe Pye Weed is coming into bloom.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

I’m not sure the recent rains are in time for the Cardinal Flowers; none are blooming yet this season. It’s still early, but I wonder. Cardinal Flower is capricious. One year, you see red everywhere, the next, zilch. Just when I think I’ve lost Cardinal Flower for good, however, up it pops. My fingers are crossed.

Cardinal flower (Lobelia cardinalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL (2019)

But I do spot a single scarlet flower in my new front yard prairie pollinator patch, which is coming along nicely for its first season. It’s not Cardinal Flower.

Front yard prairie pollinator patch, added this spring, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Yes! The Royal Catchfly, in its first year, gives me one bloom. It’s so low to the ground, I almost miss it.

Royal catchfly (Silene regia), Crosby front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Despite the ongoing battles with the bunnies—and the lack of rainfall until recently— the vegetable garden is thriving. After fencing the raised bed, the chewed-off green bean plants are zipping skyward on their trellis.

Blue Lake Green Beans (Phaseolus vulgaris ‘Blue Lake’) and Cut and Come Again Zinnias (Zinnia pulmila), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

The backyard and front yard prairie plantings both soldier on, despite carnage from the neighborhood bunnies’ prodigious appetite. In the new front yard prairie pollinator patch, the Sky Blue Asters, Blazing Star, and Pale Purple Coneflowers have sustained the worst damage. Although nibbled almost to death, they are still viable. If I was starting this planting again, I’d fence it. Too late! Instead I shoo the rabbits away when I water, and hope the foot traffic during the day is a deterrent.

We live in a neighborhood with a lot of walkers and bikers, so the sign and metal butterfly (below) are an important part of conveying what these wildflowers and grasses are all about.

Crosby’s front yard prairie pollinator patch, Glen Ellyn, IL.

In the backyard, New Jersey Tea, scissored by rabbit teeth, managed to put out a few blooms in early July. It’s now developing seeds for the first time. I feel a real sense of accomplishment, which is difficult to explain to those who haven’t tried growing this prairie shrub in rabbit-ish conditions.

New Jersey Tea (Ceanothus americanus), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

2021 was our “Year of the Native Shrub,” and we attempted to rectify our lack of such in one fell swoop. We planted two Spice Bush, an American Hazelnut, a fall-blooming Witch Hazel , and five bush honeysuckles (the native Diervilla lonicera, not the invasive types). The pair of Spice Bush shrubs went into a sloped flower bed, where they may have to be eventually moved because of their height (ah, well). They are in a prime spot for Spice Bush Butterfly viewing from the patio. None sighted yet, but I live in hope. The Bush Honeysuckle is tough. Despite the lack of rainfall, all five honeysuckles are still alive and kicking.

Native Bush Honeysuckle (Diervilla lonicea), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

We also put in a long-desired Button Bush shrub close to the pond last fall, after first ripping out a bird-planted alder. The shrub doesn’t look like much right now….

Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

…but I’m grateful it made it through the winter.

Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis), Crosby’s backyard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Now, it is putting on growth. Despite the drought. Despite the rabbits. When I see the towering specimens—up to eight feet high in the natural areas where I volunteer—I can dream of what this shrub will eventually look like.

Button Bush (Cephalanthus occidentalis) with Eastern Black Swallowtail (Papilio polyxenes asterius), The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL.

Now I’m trying to decide what shrubs to plant in the deep shade along the front of the house. It currently hosts a few scraggly Japanese Spirea and crowded Hosta plants, all which were here when we purchased our home 24 years ago. Their days are numbered.

Unknown Hostas and Japanese Spirea (Spiraea japonica), Crosby’s front yard, Glen Ellyn, IL.

Countless hours will pass this summer poring over native plant websites like Possibility Place and Prairie Moon, and planning purchases for next spring’s local native plant sales. Reading these plant sale lists is a welcome respite from the latest news cycle. Gardening is an act of hope.

And—any time in the garden and prairie is time well spent.

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Jenny Uglow (1947-) is an English writer and historian, known for her biographies and portrayal of scientific thought. Read more about her here.

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Sign, Sign, Everywhere a Sign

One of the best things you can do for a home prairie is to invest in a good sign for your planting. Neighbors will have a better grasp of what you are up to; a few garden pieces (like my metal butterfly shown in the blog post today) also convey meaning without anyone reading a word. The Conservation Foundation has a great certification program with a sign in the Chicago Region; Wild Ones Native Plant groups, and Monarch WayStation signs are all available across the United States. Browse Etsy and online websites for more unique signs. Or make a sign yourself! Good signs are ambassadors for prairie.

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Join Cindy for a Program in August!

West Cook Wild Ones presents: A Brief History of Trees in America with Cindy Crosby on Sunday, August 21, 2:30-4 p.m. on Zoom. From oaks to maples to elms: trees changed the course of American history. Native Americans knew trees provided the necessities of life, from food to transportation to shelter. Trees built America’s railroads, influenced our literature and poetry, and informed our music. Discover the roles of a few of our favorite trees in building our nation—and their symbolism and influence on the way we think—as you reflect on the trees most meaningful to you. Free and open to the public—join from anywhere in the world—but you must preregister. Register here.

10 responses to “‘Getting Shrubby With It’ in the July Prairie Garden

  1. Ahhh! The bunnies! I suppose your yards are a bountiful buffet for those cute critters… That Queen of the Prairie is lovely.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Genevieve Ryan

    My gardens are full of fenced plants including shrubs. Bunnies galore here in west suburban Mpls Mn. Young bunnies taste everything ! I hoped that they would stick to Violets and some Clover but .. no. Coyotes and Hawks haven’t found them.
    My favorite showy shrub, Shrubby St Johns Wort ( I have 3 planted together) bloomed beautifully. Lots of Bumblebees. Now waiting for multiple Liatris to bloom hoping it will attract Monarchs which have been missing. Rabbits have been cutting down Milkweed too. Drought conditions here is worrisome. The migration generation if Monarchs may not find much nectar except in our own gardens.
    I have multiple berry producing shrubs that bloomed well but did not produce many berries. Sad about that.
    I inherited lots of Hostas.. moved some of them along the trail the deer trail.. they are welcome to the salad bar!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh wow, Genevieve, it sounds like your rabbits are doing well! 🙂 I may need to fence my shrubs for the winter, given the state of rabbit reproduction this summer. I love your note about Shrubby St. Johns Wort — I don’t have that one, but we have it at our Prairie Visitor Station and it’s a beauty. So now, you’ve added to my “must buy” list for this fall or next spring! It’s interesting to hear about your milkweed getting eaten by rabbits — that’s a new one for me. So far they’ve left mine alone. Fingers crossed! We are still in drought-like conditions in the Chicago Region, so I’m hoping for a rainy August. “Inherited Hosta” plants are something we have in common! I figure I’ll give mine away to some gardening friends. I don’t mind them (the hummingbirds like the flowers), but they are taking up space that might be better used by some more wildlife-friendly plants in my small yard. Thank you for reading, and thank you for the great recommendation on the St. Johns! Cheers! Cindy 🙂

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  3. I feel your pain about the rabbits! They particularly love my calico asters and I finally had to make individual cages for each plant. A few weeks ago I had very conflicted feelings when I watched a neighborhood cat dragging one of the baby bunnies up over the top of my fence. But I’ve seen some more young bunnies in the yard this week, so their population will remain stable, I’m quite sure!

    I hope your buttonbush does well. I planted one 3 years ago in my sandy soil in full sun and it’s doing beautifully despite never being watered. Against all odds, LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Kim –Thanks for reading, and sharing the bunny pain! I have resisted making cages for my plants, but I think the time is near. We have a whole family of baby bunnies (so cute! so….destructive!) living next door. I’m so glad to hear your Buttonbush is doing well — I have high hopes for mine. As always, I’m grateful to hear from you! Cindy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I have been meaning to get Aralia racemosa for the north side of my house. You could be a trend setter and beat me to it.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Just signed up for your Zoom session on trees! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, thank you, Esther! The Wild Ones of West Cook County are an amazing group. I’m excited to give this talk for them. “See” you soon! And thank you (as always) for reading and dropping me a note. Cindy 🙂

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