How do you make a garden in the middle of Illinois cornfields?
It’s a question that puzzles many wannabe gardeners living on the outskirts of Chicago. While the land once harbored rich biodiversity in its prairies and wetlands (there’s a reason why they call it “the Prairie State”), Illinois has become a monoculture of corn and soybeans growing in what is often astonishingly heavy clay soil. Add in the temperature extremes, the frequent droughts and the fierce winds that sweep in from hundreds of miles to the west, and you have to wonder, is gardening possible here?
For an answer, look no further than the lovely Aurora garden of Laverne and Pete Bohlin. With a property that abuts a cornfield on one side and a recently built subdivision on the other, they could be considered participants in a what-to-do-in-a-cornfield case study.
The Bohlins moved here 12 years ago as the property’s first owners. Although they had lived previously in Elmhurst where they had become serious about gardening, moving to Aurora brought some surprises. “I didn’t know there could be such heavy soil,” recalls Laverne. “I grew up in Ohio where the soil was sandy loam.” And because they had built a house in a new subdivision, “there wasn’t even 6 inches of topsoil.”
She was disappointed when she realized she couldn’t grow holly. But there were other plants that could grow here and grow well — roses, vegetables, many perennials and shrubs, even the sometimes cantankerous Crocosmia ‘Lucifer’, which has been thriving here since 2008. It’s hard to imagine that there was nothing on the now-lush lot when the Bohlins arrived.
Their first move was a bold one. Inspired by the history of the land, the Bohlins began by creating two 10-by-10-foot beds directly next to the front sidewalk and planting them exclusively with prairie natives. One of the prairie patches features a medley of flowering forbs, such as gray-headed coneflower (Ratibida pinnata), New England aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae), rattlesnake master (Eryngium yuccifolium), goldenrod (Solidago spp.) and leadplant (Amorpha canescens).
More daring is the second bed, a mass planting devoted exclusively to prairie dropseed (Sporobolus heterolepis). For homeowners seeking alternatives to the conventional water-thirsty Kentucky bluegrass, this little patch of dropseed suggests a new way of looking at how to design space, a challenge to the same-old, same-old. But Laverne also cites a more prosaic explanation for installing their two prairie patches out front: “I didn’t want to have to bring hoses out there to water.”
Trees in the front yard (which does include turfgrass) include a pair of bur oaks, a pink-flowering ‘Prairifire’ crabapple (Malu ‘Prairifire’) and a ‘Winter King’ hawthorn (crataegus viridis ‘Winter King’). The bur oaks (no surprise) proved to be “the strongest growing thing we’ve ever planted,” says Pete. The crabapple is another success story. “Spectacular when it blooms, almost gaudy,” according to Laverne. The hawthorn, while healthy, has proved to be a slow grower.
The house is surrounded by mixed borders of shrubs and perennials. The east side is particularly attractive with its blend of ‘Annabelle’ (Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’) and Quick Fire (H. paniculata ‘Bulk’) peonies, crocosmia (which receive no extra mulch) and roses. The latter put on a spectacular performance in 2012 despite (because of?) the heat and the drought. “My roses were the biggest ever,” marvels Laverne. “I hardly watered.” Her stars are all French-born beauties from the House of Meilland. Guy de Maupassant (Rosa ‘MEIsocrat’) and Yves Piaget (R. ‘MEIvildo’) are luscious double pinks. Tchaikovsky (R. ‘MEIchibon’) is a subtle yellow-white blend.
In the rear yard, tall grasses play multiple roles, softening the views but also providing structure and focal points. A large silver grass (Miscanthus spp.)anchors the border that frames the cornfield while others stand sentinel along the cedar picket fence surrounding the vegetable garden. Joining the grasses are several perennials, including a yellow-blooming yarrow (Achillea spp.) from the garden of Laverne’s mother, a ‘Morden Gleam’ loosestrife (Lythrum virgatum ‘Morden Gleam’)and a ‘Becky’ shasta daisy (Leucanthemum x superbum ‘Becky’), which Laverne deems “a great plant.”
The vegetable garden is Pete’s province. To get started, he built six 12-by-4-foot raised beds, which he filled with 10 cubic yards of Garden Mix brought in from Midwest Groundcovers in St. Charles. He grows what he likes — zucchini, beans, butternut squash, eggplants, peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and an entire bed devoted to broccoli, accented by three giant sunflowers. What do the Bohlins do with so much broccoli? They blanch it for a minute and a half and then freeze it. They’re not big tomato eaters, growing only two varieties: ‘Carmello’ and ‘Roma’. Perhaps Laverne was warned off by the memory of her father, retired and casting about for some thing to do, went off the deep end and grew 99 tomato plants in a single year.
The fence was a must-have, given that the garden is regularly visited by skunks, rabbits, coyotes, possums and, of course, deer; sometimes 15 to 20 at a time. To keep out the rabbits, Pete stapled chicken wire on the inside of the fence as an extra deterrent. “It’s like a prison camp on the inside,” he jokes. As for the deer, while they do eat the crabapples, they’re mainly a problem when the snow is deep in the cornfield. Sometimes they sleep in the snow.
When the Bohlins moved in, they amended the soil with mushroom compost and then set up a regimen of top-dressing with compost once a year, now reduced to mulching every other year. Soil for the vegetable beds was purchased, but the prairie area soil was never amended. Soaker hoses take care of the supplemental watering.
Not everything they’ve tried to grow has survived. Woody plants have been the biggest casualties — two viburnums, four lilacs, four caryopteris, an Endless Summer hydrangea and buddleias. The bur oaks and the prairie patches, on the other hand, have triumphed.
Laverne became interested in native plants after a visit to the restored prairie at The Morton Arboretum several years ago. “When I walked through it for the first time, I began to cry because it reminded me of how the land used to be,” she recalls. She then took horticulture classes at the College of DuPage and now teaches a “begin to plan your garden” class at the Arboretum. She also volunteers at the arboretum’s plant clinic and is a member of its Nature Artists’ Guild.
The land where the Bohlins live is no longer pure prairie, but their backyard looks out toward the Illinois Prairie Path and the adjacent woodlands and wetlands retained by the developers. A Cooper’s hawk sails by; a frequent visitor. And even the cornfield has its merits. “It’s quiet and peaceful here in the summer,” says Laverne. “It’s nice to have the openness and the long view.”