By Marty Ross
Nature provides many of the smartest landscaping ideas for our region. Natural rock outcroppings, windswept grasslands, and serene watercourses can inspire landscaping in your backyard.
Rock gardens have long been popular in the Midwest for a reason: Rugged rock outcroppings are common here, and handsome native stone is ideal for low garden walls, patios, stepping stones, and walks. Plants in natural outcroppings find their way into the cracks and crevices, and they flourish in dry-laid stone walls (built without cement) too.
Sages and salvias are pretty choices for a rock garden; they are tough plants. Thread-leaf coreopsis (‘Moonbeam’ is a popular variety), silvery artemisia, fragrant lavenders, and dianthus all thrive in rock gardens. Sedums and other succulents colonize happily in cracks in walls. A few stones, stacked just so, are really all you need to start your own rock garden.
Ornamental grasses in Midwestern gardens capture some of the spirit of the prairie. They seem to belong in our landscapes, and they are especially beautiful in fall.
At Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin, ornamental grasses grow close to garden paths, so fuzzy blooms of fountain grasses brush gently against visitors. The tall, wispy seed heads of switchgrass catch the light and your attention. In fall the slender leaves of prairie dropseed turn from tawny to rich copper, and the aroma of sparkling seed heads resembles that of buttered popcorn.
Water is a precious resource, but urban environments often squander it. When rainwater rushes down the street and into a storm drain instead of soaking down through the soil, trees and flowers miss its benefit. Rain gardens -- plantings that capture and take advantage of rainwater -- help limit runoff, and that also takes the pressure off storm-water systems.
When you build a rain garden, you turn a place that doesn’t drain properly into a pretty garden area that’s also good for the environment. Rain gardens are not just for bog plants; asters, goldenrod, blazing star, and many other hardy plants thrive in rain gardens. Learn how to build a rain garden here.
Often, Midwestern gardens are at their best in fall. When the heat of summer fades, gardens and gardeners revive. This is a wonderful time to plant. Trees and shrubs planted in early fall have time to get their roots down before cold weather arrives. Perennials divided in early fall settle in and come back strong in spring. Set out Swiss chard, kale, and other cool-season vegetable transplants. Whether in a garden plot or in a pot, they yield delicious crops before really cold weather finally ends the gardening season.
When the weather turns, it’s not time to put away your trowel for the year: It’s time to enjoy the colors and fresh exuberance of the season. It’s time to plant.
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