Weeding at Nachusa

Echinacea pallida

As if I didn’t have enough weeding to do, last week I volunteered at Nachusa Grasslands near Franklin Grove, IL, owned by The Nature Conservancy. They emailed a request to volunteers that read in part:

“This week yellow sweet clover is blooming. We have lots of plantings that could use a person to sweep them for weeds BIRDS SINGING, FLOWERS BLOOMING. The joys of summer are yours. I can assign you a planting. Let me know. ”

Now . . . how can you refuse an offer like THAT?

I am quite enamored of this area, not only because of my interest in native plant communities but also because of the equestrian trails at nearby Franklin Creek.


My riding buddies enjoy many hours here each summer. With 198 acres and 12 miles of trails (is that ALL?), we still manage to get lost.

Nachusa sign

Nachusa Grasslands, just north of the equestrian area, consists of 3,100 acres of prairie remnants, restorations, and reconstructions and is home to over 700 native prairie plant species.


I believe this is Common St. John’s Wort (Hypericum perforatum)

I doubt if I have as much as 70 species in my own prairie garden.
And I thought I had a lot!


The “enemy” – Yellow Sweet Clover.

The steward for this area had mowed the top of the knob to control seeding from this pest.


Bill Kleiman provided me an amazing tool that I had seen touted – and sold – by Wild Ones. It is a adapted spade, very light in weight with the handle conveniently rotated – perfect for slicing tap rooted plants like Wild Parsnip, Burdock, Thistle or Queen Anne’s Lace.


This is how it works: The sharp end slices through the soil at the base of the plant like butter. By slicing, not prying, below the plants crown, the “Parsnip Predator” effectively severs crown buds, resulting in root death and no soil disturbance.


When the “carrot” is severed, the plant dies.

Wild Parsnip is a plant that has invaded my pastures and is common along the roadsides where I live, so I was much interested in how to best combat it.


It’s a nasty thing. The juice of Wild Parsnip in contact with skin in the presence of sunlight can cause a rash and blistering that makes poison ivy look like a walk in the park. My friend Janet admits she still has visible scares from encounters from many years ago.

I swiped this photo from A Prairie Haven, a marvelous blog with wonderful butterfly and moth photos. “I wish they would eat it all”, they write. Check out their “parsnip pulling outfit” – LOL!


Since I was not equipped with gloves, long sleeves, and a bag over my head, I concentrated on the Yellow Sweet Clover. Nachusa’s strategy was to go after 2-year plants that can reach 8 ft in height. I found smaller plants that had been bent but not cut in the mowed debris. Tedious to be sure!


In my wanderings I came across deer beds, Leadplant, and graceful Panic Grass.



and a few I managed to ID when I returned home:


Dianthus armeria or Deptford Pink.

I much prefer the botanical name for this one.


Growing on noon, I gathered the weed piles and returned to headquarters throwing my weed harvest on a burn pile along with all the others – a tiny contribution.

I now have been “promoted,” having the password to the tool shed I can come and go as I please. WOW! I thought of my many friends who love the birds and wild places just as I do.

Paw Paw Edith? Glen Ellyn Mary? Chicago Bob? Roberta? Karen? Misha?

Even though I continue my own battle of weeds at home, there is something about a morning at Nachusa that nourishes the soul.



Controlled Chaos in the Prairie

Controlled chaos is what I call my native prairie – emphasis on chaos.


Echinacea pallida (Pale Purple Coneflower) was drop dead gorgeous in it’s second season.


The following winter I discovered voles or 13-lined ground squirrels, comfortably nested under the snow, having a banquet on the corms. Goodbye Flowers. After that, the weeds moved in – Bindweed, Quackgrass, Black Medic, Sow Thistle – I got ‘em all.

So I just began digging.

And digging . . .

And digging . . .

Then pitching the entire mess into the dumpster. Hey – would YOU want Bindweed in YOUR mulch pile?


Support staff is “ready and able”.

When you have GIANT HOLES to fill, adversity can be an opportunity for improvement.

This season’s additions include Cacalia plantaginea (Prairie Indian Plantain), a sweet thing I first saw at Hitt’s Siding, a prairie remnant courtesy of the Burlington Northern RR (below):

Cacalia plantaginea -Prairie Plantain

Melanthium virginicum (Bunch Flower) is touted by Prairie Moon Nursery. When bare root plants were offered on sale this spring, I bit.


Silene regia (Royal Catchfly) – can’t get enough of this exceptional plant. This is what it looked like last year, blooming concurrently with Ratibida pinnata (Yellow Coneflower). I have a sinking feeling this gorgeous specimen ended up in my dumpster.


Anemone canadensis (Meadow Anemone) is known to grow in gravel along roadway edges. Might it keep the Chickweed and Clover at bay?

Don’t let me down, Meadow Anemone. Grow . . . please grow!

Last year’s Anemone in the Ditch Garden:


So, there’s hope. (I hope.)

Solidago graminifolia (Grass-leaved Goldenrod) is both rhizomatous, aggressive, and downright scary when let loose in the garden. I’ll include a picture from Wildflowers.org as mine are pretty darn puny.

Desperate conditions require desperate measures.


Callirhoe involucrata (Wine Cups) — I really don’t understand why I keep killing this thing. It has this charming habit of threading itself amidst its companions with vivid cup shaped flowers reaching for sunlight. Lovely with Diervilla lonicera and, well, just about anything!


Now to figure out how to mark these things so I do not destroy them with my pick and shovel next year in a weeding frenzy.


There will be no more weeding my weeds!




Peonies now spent, roses beginning to open and the prairie is filled with shapes and textures that are so lovely to look at.


This time of year is so exciting to me, like the moment you feel at a horse race when the gate is about to open.


Echinacea purpurea (Pale Purple Coneflower) below:


Tradescantia ohiensis (Spiderwort)


Baptisia leucantha (White Wild Indigo)


In a few short weeks a cacophony of color will follow.


Join me for a stroll?

Chicago’s most famous rooftop garden sits atop City Hall


My first Monarch of the season was spotted on the roof of City Hall in Chicago.

That’s right – a prairie on top of a roof surrounded by a jungle of tall buildings and concrete. We were there courtesy of the Rock River chapter of Wild Ones, a not-for-profit environmental education and advocacy organization.


Our guide Kevin Carroll explained that Mayer Daley first saw rooftop gardens in Hamburg, Germany during a visit in 1998. City Hall needed a new roof and a settlement from ComEd provided the funding. The garden was first constructed in 2000 then turned over to Chicago Department of Transportation in 2003.


We entered the rooftop through what I can only describe as “the boiler room”.


What is unique about the City Hall garden is the use of native plants. While most of the “green roofs” in Europe are comprised of low growing Sedums and similar drought tolerant plants, City Hall’s roof is planted with Midwestern natives, plants well noted for their ability to form deep tap roots that allow them to survive our harsh climate.

But . . . on a rooftop? On shallow soil?

Eryngium yuccifolium

As new manager in 2003, Carroll put in a new irrigation system, killed weeds, reseeded bare areas and introduced a wider variety of prairie natives.

Kevin Carroll

The ability of the prairie species to thrive in the shallow soil – 1-1/2” to 6” deep – has been most astonishing.

They did not know what to expect.

Physostegia virginiana

Many towered over our heads – just as they do in the prairie.


By 2010 there were 220 species of plants in the garden. More than 100 species of birds have been observed on the roof during spring and fall migration, so exhausted by their flight they do not exhibit fear or fly away when approached.

So . . .

where would they go?


“It’s really the Rolls-Royce of green roofs.” said Michael Berkshire who administers green projects for the city. Some areas of the roof have rolling terrain with an added 18-inch layer of soil to support one Prairie Crabapple and a mass of Junipers — welcome protection for the birds clustered by the dozens in their branches.

Malus ioensis

The garden absorbs less heat from the sun than the old tar roof, keeping City Hall cooler in summer and requiring less energy for air conditioning. Chicago estimates that this green roof saves City Hall about $3,600 a year in heating and cooling savings.

The juxtaposition of prairie with urban was most startling, especially considering we were 12 stories off the ground.

I could happily wander around up there for hours!


Kevin guided us through the garden as we recognized the prairie plants that we
were familiar with, along with a few that we were not.

Allium cernuum

Lobelia cardinalis

We were cautioned about getting too close to the edge.

It’s a

L O N G W A Y D O W N !

A long way down

The eastern half of the building belongs to the County with the typical roof of black tar. On a hot day, the surface temperature measured nearly 80 degrees hotter on
the black side (tar) than the green side (prairie).

Restricted Area

Chris maintains the garden daily, removing weeds – mostly black medic, yellow nut sedge and sweet clover – and deadheading plants that might be excessive seeders.

He sometimes forgets to take lunch.


Kevin and Chris pointed out plants that have done exceptionally well (Prairie Dock, Penstemons, Lead Plant, Verbena, Purple Prairie Clover along with the grasses like Big Bluestem) and showed us the noticeable effect that nitrogen-fixing legumes like Amorpha and Baptisia had on their neighbors.

I snatched this picture from the web to show you Baptisia in bloom.


The garden is not open to the public but can be seen from surrounding buildings and by appointment. Visitors from all over the world have come to see it.

Thank you, Jim, for putting up with my forays into the “wilds”. You are a good sport.

Eventually we took the elevator down to the “reality” of big city life meandering over to Millenium Park.


And another rooftop garden . . . of sorts.

Michigan Avenue