Oak Park, #3. I…

Oak Park, #3.

I grew up in New England. It was so lush and green, the spring exploding with forsythia, rhododendrons, azalea, the summer rich in roses. My ideas of what constitutes a beautiful garden were shaped by that landscape.

My current front yard is a dead zone, an abandoned prairie garden that had gone to wild seed, which the Village forced me to mow down. I did think about letting it up come again next spring, and cultivating it properly to be a real prairie garden. I'm familiar with the ecological arguments, and even buy into them, to some extent. Bringing in non-native plants tends to crowd out and kill off the natives, which were never intended to compete with those vigorous invaders. To preserve as much bio-diversity as possible, we should be very careful to support our native species. And I certainly don't want to help eradicate a native species of wildflower or grass; I can see that in a tiny way, my planting of roses doesn't help the problem. It even hurts.

But I love my roses beyond all reason. My perfect garden is a magical hybrid of English formal, English cottage, and woodland. And yes, I see the irony of wanting an English garden in America's prairie heartland. But even though I can walk by some of the carefully cultivated prairie gardens in Oak Park, and appreciate the effort that's gone into them, and even enjoy the beauty of some individual plants (like butterfly bush), overall, prairie gardens look dry and brown and miserable to my New England-trained eyes.

Part of the problem, I think, (a problem with really doing a woodland garden in your home too), is that the prairie landscape is meant for a bigger space. Hiking through a real prairie is pleasurable in part because the grasses extend in vast swathes to the horizon. It's a little like being lost at sea, but with wind-swept, waving grass. Leaving ecological arguments aside, somehow, confining that to a little suburban patch of yard feels...sort of sad.

Of course, part of the problem is that your neighbors likely haven't planted prairie either -- if we all did, then the overall effect would be much more appropriate. I can see that it would be a good thing to be one of the pioneers, fighting to return prairie gardens to homes across Oak Park, to preserve that native landscape. And yet, I don't think I'm willing to sacrifice the pleasure I would feel walking amidst my roses. Joseph's Coat, Christopher Marlowe, Dark Lady. I am not that generous.

I will plant a few grasses, to wave bravely in the wind. Perhaps my children will grow up to be gardeners, and will love their native Midwest landscape. Maybe this will be their battle. I'm afraid it isn't mine.

She said, "I have known the wind;
It's been a friend all of my days.
I have seen it dance
Across the prairie when it plays.
And I have known the freedom too,
In a wheatfield's rolling seas,
And they have never left me blue,
So play your song for me."

-- Prairie Song, Bill Staines

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Pleasant Ave., between Clinton and Kenilworth, 10/6/10

2 thoughts on “Oak Park, #3. I…”

  1. Yes, I agree. In California, native plant gardens look great for about 3-4 months, and dull to bad the rest of the time. I also have a problem with the “plant zoo” look of a 30-foot prairie. There’s not much evidence they’re that good for wildlife either – the bugs adapt quickly and the birds use whatever’s around. Butterfly bush is good, though. And milkweed for the Monarchs if your location is appropriate.

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