In the Midwest, on public and private land, prairies have almost become a landscape cliche. People often "plant" a prairie before they know much about that unique ecosystem or what's involved in creating and sustaining one.
But here in Madison you can learn about prairies as well as experience the essence of this unique landscape at the UW-Madison Arboretum. At this time of year I always try to visit the famed Curtis Prairie. These photos were taken there when our little blogging group made a stop at the beginning of September.
CURTIS PRAIRIE IS THE WORLD'S OLDEST RESTORED PRAIRIE and occupies 73 acres of Arboretum land. It's predominantly a tallgrass prairie and shows off many native species, including big bluestem and Indian grasses. If you're interested in prairies this is the Holy Grail of that landscape in terms of age and information.
Many classic experiments with planting techniques and the use of fire to manage prairies were conducted here during the 1930s and ’40s. Most of Curtis Prairie is a restoration, but the northeast corner is actually a small remnant of original prairie abundant with native species, according the Arboretum's website. There is nothing quite as restorative and romantic as walking through Curtis Prairie with the grasses waving in the breeze high above your head on a September afternoon.
On the opposite end of the garden spectrum is the Thai Pavilion and Garden at Olbrich Botanical Gardens. This gorgeous building — known as a sala — was a gift to the University of Wisconsin-Madison from the Thai Government and the Thai Chapter of the Wisconsin Alumni Association. UW-Madison has one of the largest Thai student populations of any U.S. college or university, according to Olbrich's website. I think that last bit of information was a big surprise to most of us who live in Madison. The Thai Pavilion is connected to the rest of Olbrich Gardens by an ornamental bridge which emphasizes the feeling of stepping into another world.
Salas are common in Thailand and are typically used for protection from the elements. The pavilion at Olbrich is more ornate than most roadside salas in Thailand and is more like the ones you might find at a palace. It was built in Thailand, taken apart and shipped by ocean transport, rail and truck to Madison. The Thai artisans who came to Madison to reassemble it arrived in Chicago on September 11, 2001. The building is only one of three to be built outside of Thailand and is designed to withstand our weather.
The Olbrich horticultural director and staff have done an amazing job of creating a tropical garden around the building and along the approach route. You can imagine how impressive a feat this is in the Midwest.
Water in typical Thai-style containers as well as in reflecting pools is an important feature in this garden.
The Thai garden also includes fountains so the sound of water adds to the atmosphere.
Olbrich Botanical Gardens and the UW Arboretum are wonderful assets to our community and to the Midwest in general. For my money, the Thai Pavilion and Garden alone is worth a visit to Madison. No matter how many times I visit it always takes my breath away.
Since my niece Sarah comes from a family of architecture buffs who particularly like Frank Lloyd Wright, visiting all the FLW buildings in Madison seemed like a natural. For those of you who are not local, I will just say that FLW is a native of Wisconsin and that Madison and the state are home to many of his landmark creations, including Taliesin, his home near Spring Green. So Sarah, Mark and I spent last Thursday visiting FLW shrines around town.
The Meeting House of Madison's First Unitarian Society was commissioned by the group in 1946. To help defray costs the congregation helped with the construction, including hauling the quarry stone, building furniture and doing interior finish work. As you can see here, the building is an excellent example of the soaring triangular shape that FLW used to great effect in a number of his projects.
The Society now has an adjacent new building used for many events including public concerts. The FLW building is still used especially for weddings and memorial services. I've attended many of both over the years and can attest that the seats are a bit on the low side but moderately comfortable. It's a wonderful space and visiting it — like visiting any FLW site — is a bit of a religious experience.
FLW used a soaring triangle in a different manner in the Gilmore House, known more familiarly — in Madison at least — as the "airplane house". Wright placed this 1908 house just below the crown of the highest hill in the University Heights neighborhood, according to my 1987 Heggland/Rankin tour booklet.
The main living rooms were on the second floor giving the Gilmores a spectacular view. The jutting triangle is a balcony. Still a great house on a wonderful site.
But I've always thought the entrance was overgrown and it never felt welcoming. I was in this house years ago and I admit I have no memory of the interior. I am guessing I was only on the lower floor because I can't imagine I would forget the view.
I love to imagine how the Buell family — who built the first home at the top of the hill in University Heights in 1894 — felt when the Gilmores and Wright put up the "airplane house" directly across the street and just above them. Perhaps Charles Buell had the last laugh since he was the first person to build so far from downtown. By the time he died in the late 1930s his house was surrounded by the homes of Madison's movers and shakers.
I have to say I've never been sure which house I'd rather live in: The Gilmore or the Buell. You can't tell it from the photo below but the land drops sharply away from the Buell house as the street turns tightly around their corner lot. Conover and Porter, architects.
If you're rambling around the Heights, you can't miss the Bradley house. My guide booklet says this massive Prairie style building from 1910 was one of the last works — and a rare residential design — of Louis H. Sullivan, Wright's mentor and one-time employer. The house was a wedding present to the Bradley's from the bride's father but they found it too large. They sold it to the Sigma Phi Fraternity in 1914. The house was "meticulously rebuilt" after a terrible fire in 1972.
The members of this house are known as "the gentlemen on the hill" according to their Rush Week signs. While we were debating walking up to the door and ringing the bell, one of the Fraternity members invited us inside and gave us a tour of the public rooms. From his presentation and answers to our questions, it seems these young men know the history and value and popularity of their house very well.
The detailing on this house — inside, outside and on the leaded glass windows — is gorgeous. The scale is so dramatic that you can stand on the curb and enjoy the design. I've been inside this house many times over the years and it's always a treat, though I'm not sure I could live with so much dark wood on a daily basis. Still, I'd be willing to give it a try.
When Mark and I went house hunting for our first home, we'd read the newspaper ads on Sunday morning and then I'd go look at the houses we noted during the afternoon while he was at work. I always remember the time I saw a little west side house that I thought was too cramped, too boring and too expensive. As I was driving down the block I saw the house below, pulled over and thought, "Now there's a great house." It took me a bit of drooling and dreaming to realize it was a FLW design.
This is the Jacobs House, built in 1937, for Katherine and Herb Jacobs. He was a newsman at The Capital Times so you know his salary was modest. The couple challenged Wright to build for less than $5,000. The house came in at about $5,550 and there are lots of stories about where Wright got some of the building materials to stay within that figure.
The house is also known as the first "Usonian" house, a word FLW coined that means the building was designed to relate directly to nature. This house does it with its L-shape with windows facing an open area surrounded by trees, swaths of prairie grass and Midwestern plants. The side street view of the house is more accessible than I remember in past years so we were able to get a good look at it. And yes, I've been in this one as well. Mark and I once spent an afternoon there with Jim Dennis, the UW-Madison art history professor who lovingly restored the house over the course of many years.
Being the home of someone who supports a progressive political agenda means there are always messages on display on the street corner where the house is located. (Not my best look ever but I love the sign!)
We ended our FLW tour with a triumvirate of Wisconsin icons: We went to Smokey's, a landmark supper club, where Sarah had her first Brandy Old-Fashioned Sweet (Wisconsin's unofficial state beverage) and deep-fried cheese curds. A perfect day no matter how you slice it.
It was so foggy early today that I snapped a picture through the kitchen window. I thought it looked quite beautiful until I saw these images of the landscape southwest of Madison that Mark photographed when he was out that way this morning.
The conditions were just right to create a "fog bow."
Driving back to Madison at noon when the fog had burned off.
This is Project No. 2 that Mark finished in June: Moving the water line across the area outside the Tea House and setting up a more accessible and useful hook up. The picture below shows the work on the trench for the electric line. Going off to the left you can see the start of a trench that will go over to the fence and provide multiple faucets.
Between the two projects Mark figures he dug about 25 feet of trench. Again, not a glamorous job but one that I'm very thankful for. The new setup has three faucets. That means I can attach hoses that go off in opposite directions should we have a really droughty period.
I typically only water newly planted things. Once plants, trees and shrubs have settled in they are on their own. Most years we have enough rainfall in southern Wisconsin that additional watering is never needed. These days I'm much more conscious about using drought-tolerant plants as well.
But I must say that I love having a faucet at the right height for watering cans so I can easily take care of the potted plants in this part of the garden. And it finally means that those annoying eyesores of unfinished pipes are no longer on view in one of the main focal points of the garden.
Only one more job remains before this area can be called finished: Project No. 3.
I don't remember when or why Erin Schanen of The Impatient Gardener and I first connected. Perhaps it came about because we are among the few garden bloggers in Wisconsin. Last year Erin visited my garden when she was in Madison and I finally made it to her garden this summer.
I probably would have visited sooner but I got confused: I thought she lived in Brussels (Wisconsin) up near Green Bay, when she actually lives in Belgium over near Milwaukee. You can see why I got mixed up, especially since our relationship is mainly on-line. My husband walked the garden — camera in hand — while I peppered Erin with questions.
Initially I had the same experience that I think many of us have when we visit a garden in person that we only know from on-line. No matter how many wide views and maps you look at nothing quite prepares you for the reality. There were a few things that I was expecting to see, like her blue front door and curving steps, that felt familiar.
And annuals! She does pots and window boxes and had this hot sunny border filled with gorgeous annuals. I am strictly a perennial gal except for a few herbs so I am always fascinated with her blog posts about seed starting and such. We also chatted about her hose (curled up in the black container) as Erin always knows about the latest and best tools and garden products. Though she is a member of the Troy-Built Saturday Blogger Group I think she is quite honest in her evaluations of their products. And I especially like the fact that I am getting a woman's viewpoint on all the products and tools she tries.
Unlike me, Erin is a veggie gardener. That garden is set off from her house and flower gardens and part of it was protected from marauding critters, including deer. She's hoping to build a greenhouse in the future so I will be very excited to watch that happen as it is something I dream about.
The next two pictures give you a better sense of where her house sits in the midst of her various gardens. The front door is at the far left side of the house. What I loved most about Erin's garden is that she mixes shrubs and trees in with her perennials.
This view (below) is similar to the one above but gives you a better sense of how Erin's enveloped her house in gardens but then they expand out into the property as you move away from the house. You can also see that the gardens are divided with stone and grass paths. Look at what a terrific sense of color, texture and scale she's created in these long views. So much to see without ever getting close to specific plants.
Looking from the other direction at the garden that is to the left of where Erin and I are standing in the picture above. I love all the blue touches, whether flowers, furniture cushions or doors. Those spots of blue let Erin use a variety of other colors without the garden seeming unfocused.
The other side of the above border feels completely different since it has a swath of one kind of plant in the foreground. Having enough space to create borders with distinct sides is one of the benefits of having a garden as large as Erin's.
This is the short side of Erin's house with a very simply planted border. The Hakonechloa grass draws your eye to her gorgeous stone chimney. There's a Witch Hazel planted in pride of place in front of the chimney but it is not doing particularly well. Whether it's related to soil, light or even heat from the chimney is the big question. That and whether she should swap the Witch Hazel for another plant. No matter how perfect things look to us garden visitors, it always seems like the gardener sees something different!
I was particularly taken with Erin's repetition of blue evergreens with the yellow-green perennials on either side of the path. I believe that is Picea engelmannii'Blue Magoo' in the rear.
I'm growing Aralia 'Sun King' and am in love with it. So perhaps it's not surprising that I completely fell for Aralia 'Silver Umbrella' when Erin pointed it out to me. It's a new one for me but one I will be searching for. There's nothing like seeing a new specimen in place in a garden and getting to hear firsthand about the gardener's positive experience with it.
Last but not least I love Erin's found art creation on her septic mound. Septic systems are a fact of life in rural areas and it amazes me that more people don't somehow take advantage of this natural platform for art.
Now when I read about what Erin is doing in her garden I will know exactly where and what she's talking about!
We hiked Whitefish Dunes State Park on our third morning in Door County — after our third massive breakfast at the Viking Grill just down the road from where we were staying in Ellison Bay. Fabulous potato pancakes with a big dish of applesauce. Heaven
At this park there were many more visitors than on our first two nature walks. I think it was partly due to the fact that it was the July 4th weekend and also that Whitefish Dunes has an area set aside for people who want to bring their dogs to the beach. And they were there in force, as were the kayakers.
Whitefish Dunes State Park protects the fragile dune environment on the eastern Door County Peninsula. It is the largest and most significant Great Lakes dunescape in Wisconsin. We left the crowds behind and ambled and scrambled along the shoreline of Lake Michigan, as well as hiked some of the trails throughout the forested sand dunes and beech forest. If you look closely at the image below you can see the sand building up underwater and slowly re-shaping the shoreline.
Blackened sand (below) indicates the presence of Magnetite, an iron mineral found in the Lake Superior basin. These sand grains are debris that glaciers eroded from the bedrock of Canada and dumped into Lake Michigan. You can use a magnet to pick it up!
This area is stabilized with a variety of beach grasses. The photo below is right at the edge of the Lake Michigan shoreline and really gives you a sense of how this sandy landscape is held together. This whole area is such a different landscape that we watched the movie in the Visitor Center that showed how dunes are formed. If you are interested, here's a good description from the Wisconsin DNR site.
After walking the shore, we hiked — slipping and sliding — up the dunes to the various trails. We also hiked up to Old Baldy, the highest dune on this side of Lake Michigan: 100 feet. Doesn't sound very high but it certainly seemed like a good climb by the time we got to the top. Then we walked through some of the meadows and woods back to our car.
Again we saw a large variety of ferns, many of them not only growing in a very sandy soil but also in lots of sun. Though many of them looked familiar to me, I was able to positively identify very few. We also saw more Reindeer moss but were unable to determine if there are two kinds of moss growing here or one kind at different stages. All three of our "nature hikes" left me with questions and a desire to read more about these landscapes, to say nothing of visiting them again.
Whitefish Dunes is a day-use park, there is no camping. One area of the beach is closed to swimming because it has such strong rip tides. Every day it seems I saw or learned something new: my kind of vacation.
Note: Some of the specific information about the park came from the Wisconsin DNR website.
The moderating influence of the waters of Green Bay on one side and Lake Michigan on the other mean that the gardens in Door County are like no others in Wisconsin. I've been visiting the Door since the mid-1980s and the plants, gardens and nurseries have always been one of its major attractions for me. I spotted this Alchemilla mollis the minute I stepped out of the car when we made our first stop. I've never seen them grown so well: large, lush and sturdy. When you can grow 'em like this why not make them the whole story?!
Thanks to Beth, a fellow-Wisconsin gardener who blogs at Plant Postings, on this trip I saw what I had missed on previous visits to Door County up at the top of Wisconsin's "thumb": The Ridges Sanctuary. The following information is from the official DNR description of the area:
The Ridges Sanctuary encompasses a diversity of unusual habitats, resulting in one of the greatest concentrations of rare plants in the Midwest. It was established in 1937 as Wisconsin's first area set aside to protect native flora.
The natural area consists of about 30 narrow, crescent-shaped sandy ridges and recent research has correlated the ridge formation with the cyclical changes in Lake Michigan water levels which have occurred during the past 1400-1500 years. Each ridge represents a former beach line of Lake Michigan and took an average of 30-50 years to form. The narrow ridges are forested with wet swales between them.
We hiked the various areas of The Ridges on our first morning in Door County as well as toured the Upper Range House.
Built in 1869, the Upper Range Light and its companion Lower Range Light (below) are the only lighthouses of this design that are still on range and functional as navigational aids. Each building houses a light and ships position themselves so the lights line up in order to make it safely into the harbor through the rocky coastline. Except for touring the Range house with a small group of people, we barely saw or heard anyone else during our morning at The Ridges.
The view from the room that houses the light in the Upper Range building down to the Lower Range Light and the lake.
Fundraising is going on to restore the Range Lights. When they pulled up the old linoleum flooring they discovered WWII-era newspapers which are framed and on the walls of the keeper's bedroom along with historic photos of the light.
Everywhere we hiked we saw memorable landscapes and plants.
Nuphar pumila (above) was growing in the expansive bogs (below).
We saw orchids and lots of this orange "wood lily" as well as incredible lichens and mosses.
This thistle is rare and endangered and only grows in a few places in the world, the Ridges being one of them. The day we were there folks from the Chicago Botanic Gardens were also on hand. They are trying to help the Ridges' staff figure out how to propagate the the thistle to help save it.
When you enter The Ridges the initial area where you walk is all new boardwalk raised above swampy areas where we saw Iris growing.
Friends who've visited at other times of the year say that no matter what season you go you will see something wonderful and unusual. Our time spent hiking at The Ridges was a revelation and certainly makes me eager for another visit.