Lower Midwest

BY MARTY ROSS / Kansas City, Missouri, USDA Zone 5


It’s tempting to shed your jacket and spend the first warm, sunny weekends in the garden pruning shrubs, cutting back the old stems and seedheads of perennials, and pulling mulch away from the crowns of the roses—but don’t get in too much of a hurry. A hard frost (and there are sure to be several more) will kill new growth if it is not protected. Now might even be a good time to replenish the mulch around tender plants.

Prairie Revival

One hundred years ago, Jens Jensen, the great Danish-American landscape architect, extolled the quiet eloquence of the midwestern woods, prairies, and wetlands in his writings and filled his designs for great public and private gardens in the Chicago area with American native plants. It was quite a departure, but native plants, he insisted, uniquely expressed our horticultural identity: they evoked the poetry of the land in ways that exotic garden plants could not.

Jensen and other members of what became known as the Prairie School walked the woods and meadows, gathering along their way the seeds of the ideas and plants they needed to give their landscape designs a rich regional character. Their work idealized nature, rather then simply attempting to mimic it. They were interested in the contrasts between open areas and woodland edges, and in massing and repeating plants for impact and emphasis. They were moved and delighted by both dramatic and subtle effects of seasonal change, and created four-season gardens in which light and shadow and the winter silhouettes of plants were just as important as the exuberance of wildflowers and the great green canopies of trees at the height of summer.

It was an interesting time. “Here you have Jens Jensen doing these nice naturalistic gardens, and on a larger scale the landscape is being pretty much demolished,” says Neil Diboll of Prairie Nursery in Westfield, Wisconsin. “This whole concept of restoration and natural landscaping and native landscaping really started in the Midwest. Jens Jensen is the origin.”

By 1920, Diboll says, the prairies that inspired Jensen had been plowed under and the rich grassland soil put to work producing corn, wheat, and soybeans. Progress didn’t leave much room for the Prairie School, and prairie plants, no matter how striking, didn’t seem to have much relevance for most backyard gardeners. Now, at the beginning of a new century, they’re back in style.

“Jensen’s work is key, his thoughts are key to our work,” says Sheila Brady, a principal in the landscape design firm of Oheme, van Sweden & Associates in Washington, D.C. Brady was a project designer for the dramatic Gardens of the Great Basin, which opened at the Chicago Botanic Garden in the fall of 2002. It is a highly naturalistic garden, with sweeping masses of perennials in undulating waves of color and texture.

Designers today, making use of an as tonishing diversity of plants (including some once shunned as weeds), are bringing nature back into gardening. Gardeners everywhere have learned to slip unexpected perennials and ornamental grasses into old-fashioned, English-inspired flower borders. The new style is informal, full of surprises, and very refreshing.

Diboll suggests that an appreciation of cultural and horticultural diversity—more kinds of people and more kinds of plants—has led gardeners back to the beauty of native plants. Where before “it was our mandate to tame and conquer,” he says, “now we say, ‘Wait a minute, what did we just plow up? Those are cool plants!’ We just started to appreciate them in the nick of time, because they are almost gone.” H


Echinacea ‘Orange Meadowbrite’

Hybridizers have reinvented the coneflower in a splashy new color. ‘Orange Meadowbrite’, a cross between well-known purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) and E. paradoxa, has graceful, deep green foliage and a soft, spicy orange fragrance. It is hardy and drought tolerant, but it will unfortunately be available only on a limited basis this year. Sources, page 122.

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