Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Tour of the Idea Garden for Wildflower Wednesday

It's always fun to see a familiar garden through another's eyes, and I had that opportunity this past Saturday.  Blogging friend Lisa and her sister Tena came up for a weekend visit with their cousin--and my best friend--Beckie, and as we often do with out-of-town guests, we had to make a visit to the Idea Garden.

Lisa couldn't wait to take pictures!

I've often mentioned the Idea Garden in this blog, but in case you don't know what I'm referring to, a little background is in order.  The Idea Garden was established in 1997 by a few Master Gardeners as an educational tool "to promote environmentally responsible gardening practices, to demonstrate ideas of garden planning and maintenance," and in general be a resource for the entire community. It is maintained entirely by volunteers--the county Master Gardeners group--and is funded through donations and the main MG fundraiser, the annual garden walk.

The Idea Garden is located on the far south end of the University of Illinois campus with plenty of nearby available parking (a rarity on campus!).  It is open to the public 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  I've been surprised since I first started working here just how many people come through the garden every day.  Some are just strolling through on their daily walk or on their way to another destination and stop to admire the plantings, while others come prepared with cameras in hand.  Professional photographers have used the landscape as a setting for wedding photos or children's photos.  Once, we even had a gentleman reserve it for an evening to "pop the question" to his bride-to-be!

As an educational garden, the IG is a great place for non-gardeners and gardeners alike to see a wide variety of plants that are suitable for our Zone 5b (now zone 6) area.  Even veteran gardeners are bound to find something new and unusual, such as this ornamental millet.

I.D. stakes are located by nearly every plant, so that visitors can easily take notes if they spy something unusual or a cultivar that they would like to add to their own gardens.

Oftentimes, as the garden fills in over the summer, these stakes become hidden, but if you're lucky to be there when volunteers are working, you will find someone more than willing to answer questions for you.  We were fortunate that co-chair Tracy happened to be in the South Border when we spied this unusual plant, a Cardoon. Also known as Artichoke Thistle, the Cardoon has very dramatic foliage as well as these interesting flowers.  It's hardy only to zone 7, but Tracy told us that this one--one of three original plants--actually overwintered this year. That is one of the purposes, too, of the garden--trying new plants and "pushing the envelope" sometimes to see what can survive our tough winters in order to pass along this information to local gardeners.

Usually, when I come to work in the garden, I stay in my area, the Sensory Garden, and don't get a chance to stroll through the rest of the garden. I don't make it every week, however, and so I often find something new in bloom even in my little corner of the garden.  These lilies--wouldn't you know I forgot to check the tag to see what they were--weren't even in bloom the week before.

The Idea Garden is also a showcase for trial plants that may not yet be on the market.  Seed plugs provided by Proven Winners and Ball are grown in the Parkland College greenhouses, again by local MG's. The plants' progress is closely monitored throughout the season by one of our most diligent and knowledgeable MG's, and in the fall, she publishes a list of top performers that is available on the Extension website.  I'm thinking this beautiful petunia--Flash Mob 'Bluerific'--is definitely going to be on the list! 

I'm trying to fathom how this garden began with just three energetic gardeners in charge.  Of course, the Garden has grown since then to over 15,000 square feet, and it is now divided into 12+ sections, with a co-chair or two and a team working in each section.  The Tropical Section in the back and the Theme Garden in the foreground take up the northeast quadrant of the Garden.

One of my favorite sections is the East Border.  If I wasn't so loyal to the Sensory Garden where I started as an intern, I would definitely volunteer here.  I was never a big fan of oranges and reds in the garden before, but these hot, hot colors have changed my mind.  This area is a blaze of color all season long.

Though perennials and shrubs form the backbone of the Idea Garden, the Garden is always changing.  Nowhere is this more evident this year than in the Children's garden, where a new seating area has taken center stage, drawing attention from every visitor, not just children.

Built by students in a construction class at our local community college, the pergola/bench features a living roof planted with different varieties of sweet potato vine.  The slogan on the front expresses the purpose of this area, because it truly is a place where children can play and learn about nature.

A small vegetable garden, a hoop tunnel to crawl through, lots of fun sunflowers, and of course, plants that attract butterflies are all part of this inviting area.

Notice the sandbox to the left of the Joe Pye weed.  One morning when I and another volunteer came to work, we found sand covering the walkway in our nearby area and little trucks scattered about the Sensory Garden.  Some little visitor obviously had a good time the day before:)

It would be impossible to show you every part of the Idea Garden in one post, and on this muggy Saturday morning, my mind was thinking ahead to Wildflower Wednesday this week.  Native plants play a large role in the garden and are probably one reason it is usually full of bees and butterflies.  Along with the Joe Pye weed here, coneflowers, liatris, butterfly weed, and milkweed in the previous photo are all butterfly magnets.

In the East Border tall Rudbeckia laciniata and a type of Helianthus (I think--the tags were hidden from view) provide a dramatic backdrop for the colorful display below, reaching 10 to 12 feet skyward.

Several specimens of Hypericum, or St. John's Wort, are located in different sections of the garden. Gail has featured this plant several times in her wildflower posts, and I've always admired its blooms, but the foliage is also attractive in its own right.

I also didn't realize it also featured these little berries.  I'm not sure if either of these plants are natives or cultivars, but they still are attractive to the bees . . . and unfortunately, if you look closely enough, to Japanese beetles as well.

And finally, one last image--Agastache 'Golden Jubilee,' a cultivar of the native Agastache foeniculum. The Idea Garden has a mixture of all kinds of plants from natives to exotics, but it is definitely a bee-friendly place.  If you are ever in the Champaign-Urbana area, be sure to stop by for a visit.

There are some natives blooming in my own garden, but we will save them for another day.  In the meantime, why not stop by Gail's for a look at wildflowers and natives growing in gardens across the country on this Wildflower Wednesday.


  1. I had such a good time Rose. I don't care how many times I get to see it. It has so much of interest. Too bad it wasn't a nice cool morning like this morning for us to be strolling through the garden. A good time was had by all despite the heat. Happy WW.

  2. What a great resource to have near you. I was so impressed with Missouri Botanical as a teaching garden, and your Illinois idea garden is right up there too. You are lucky to work there and have it to enjoy.

  3. What a wonderful resource! I just wrote a friend who is very active with the MG program to see if there is a garden like this in Nashville. Loved seeing all the native plants migling with the friendly exotics. I think the plant with the tall Rudbeckia is Silphium/cup plant. Happy WW! xogail

  4. So very beautiful!
    I really enjoyed the tour.
    Happy Wildflower Wednesday!
    Lea's Menagerie

  5. Definitely a garden I'd like to visit if I'm ever in the area. I had no idea it existed - thanks for highlighting it for us.

  6. It's a beautiful garden and what a great resource for locals. Your master gardener group is very active and busy! That lily might be 'Black Beauty'. I just saw one in person at our local garden club meeting and loved the star inside of it.

  7. What a gorgeous garden! It must be a joy to be part of creating and maintaining something like that.

  8. Wow, that is a colorful, healthy garden! The Ornamental Millet is fun, and I love the color of the 'Cappuccino' Rudbeckia. I was thinking it would be fun to tour gardens with fellow bloggers. I'm thinking about organizing an outing to Rockford's Nicholas Conservatory and Gardens or Janesville's Rotary Garden. It would be fun to meet somewhere. :)

  9. Thanks for the tour, Rose. That sure is a beautiful place!

    If you get the short tooth mountain mint, just pick up the stems in the spring, and it won't spread much. Well, I shouldn't say that, because it may behave differently in different areas. Mine has been in the same spot at least 5 years, and it has been very manageable.

  10. Thanks Rose for visiting my site. And this Idea Garden is so spectacular, if i am also your visitor it will be my request to also bring me there! Your photos are equally nice and i am amazed at the labor of love of volunteers. I can't imagine they are all native plants.

  11. Rose, you had a wonderful trip to Idea garden and I reading and watching photos enjoyed this garden. I love the gazebo with plants on its roof! Pretty lilies, dalias, landscapes are well done.
    Thank you for sharing!

  12. The Idea Garden is indeed a great idea. I can see how it would be inspirational. It makes me feel a little better that even a model garden has Japanese beetle problems.

  13. I've enjoyed your previous mentions of the Idea Garden, but this tour was wonderful, what a fabulous resource for novices and experts alike, and what a great place to work. I really like the way it is obviously constantly evolving, and the way you experiment with plants too.

  14. A wonderful place and so nice to have it open for everyone to enjoy! With different things happening from week to week, I too would be taking weekly visits to see the changes...

    My St Johns Wart does not have those berry's but it is only 2 years old so maybe too young. I shall keep and eye on it and see if berry's appear..

  15. I enjoyed this virtual visit, Rose. It's amazing how large of an area that garden encompasses. Is it the only project that your county MG group cares for? I would think there would be plenty of work to do if it were. That seating area in the children's garden has definitely given me an idea. It really raises the roof on possibilities for container gardening.

  16. I'm not surprised it's such a popular garden! I do think every garden open to the public should have id tags on the plants. it's really annoying when you see a nice one but haven't a clue what it is!

  17. Lisa, So glad you were able to come! Yes, cooler weather would have been nice.

    Laurrie, I know there are gardeners in the area who've never been here, but it really is a great resource. I've gotten a lot of ideas for my own garden from here.

    Gail, You may be right about the Cup plant--I couldn't see the foliage in my photos to look more closely. Thanks, as always, for hosting WW!

    Lea, Thanks for coming along on the tour!

    Gaia, I'm sure you're not the only one who doesn't know it exists, including a lot of locals. It's probably not on the local tourist brochure:)

  18. Tina, we do have an active MG group, and it's not unusual on some Saturday mornings to see as many as 40-50 people working here. In other words, you won't see many weeds here:)

    Cassi, I really have enjoyed working here. I've learned so much, but you're right I take a sense of pride and ownership in our little area.

    Beth, You must have read my mind! I was just thinking the other day that a little "mini-fling" would be nice for central Midwest bloggers--even if it's just a day trip. Another place I've always wanted to visit is the Anderson Japanese Gardens in Rockford. We should plan something!

    Sue, Thanks for the tip on the mountain mint. You're so right about plants acting differently--I have planted a few things that were thugs in my friend's garden that haven't spread at all in mine.

    Kalantikin, If you are ever in central Illinois, contact me and I would love to give you a tour of this garden!

    Nadezda, I will probably show more photos of this place from time to time, because there is so much more to see!

    Sarah, Yes, and it also has problems with voles and weeds like bindweed. No garden can escape pests:)

  19. Janet, Like any garden, the Idea Garden is always changing, which makes it fun to work in, too. One element it doesn't have is a shady area--we all wish this could be added!

    Skeeter, Before I joined the MG program, my friend and I would try to get here at least once each season--it certainly looks different each time! I don't know much about Hypericum, but Gail does. I don't know if the berries are present on all varieties or not.

    W2W, This is the main project of the local MG group, but they also have three other big projects as well as a few smaller ones. We maintain a garden at the County Nursing Home (where I also volunteer), one at the Crisis Nursery, and another one at the county juvenile detention center, which includes a terrific educational program for the kids as well. We've got some very enthusiastic members who certainly have inspired me!

    Liz, I so agree! I like to know what a plant is, especially if it's something I really like and would like to plant in my own garden.

  20. What a gorgeous garden! And doubly impressive since it is maintained by volunteers!

  21. I love gardens like full of new plants and great ideas to inspire us in our own, they can try them out first so we know what to expect!

  22. Thank you for the tour, Rose! I have wanted to visit the Idea Garden since first hearing of it several years ago. What a wonderful place to volunteer!

  23. Like you, that hot coloured bed has completely changed my mind about oranges and reds. WOW, what a great bed that is. It definitely inspired some ideas for me!

  24. What a nice place to take visitors and get a few ideas yourself. I eyed some St John's Wart at a local nursery on the weekend, and knowing now that Japanese Beetles like it, I am glad I decided to give it a pass. Like you, I really like the reds and oranges in the East Border.

  25. That looks like such a lovely place Rose! You are very lucky to have that nearby. I would be there all the time, too. Thanks for the great tour.

  26. What a wonderful place to visit. I love the eastern border with it's warm colours.
    Have a wonderful day Rose.

  27. Rose girl what wonderful gardens to pass from .. each so different and so eye catching .. I laughed about the sand and the little trucks, too cute.
    My Hypericum disappeared some where so I never got the chance to see berries, darn it! and it had such startling yellow foliage.
    All the plants are so interesting .. cardoon and giant thistle really draw attention don't they?
    I also have Golden Jubilee from a plant I had years ago .. they can be wonderfully stubborn in staying in the garden .. I have a plain blue one that is over 12 years old and I didn't think they could hang on that long!
    Great post girl .. enjoyed it very much!
    Joy : )

  28. There's nothing better than a garden tour. I need to go on one. Yes, that is just what I need. I loved your photos.

  29. Love the way that the garden is made up of little gardens (rooms) and I particularly love the children's garden.
    Those blooms are magnificent. It is a job to pick just one or two.The lilies and the purple petunias probably!
    Maggie x

    Nuts in May

  30. Gardeninacity, yes, all volunteers! An endless supply of compost and mulch helps, too:)

    Scott, Exactly--we've had some failures in this garden, so it's nice to have someone else experiment first.

    Linda, If you ever come downstate, be sure to stop in--I'd love to give you a tour!

    Marguerite, I always make a point of visiting the East border whenever I work at the garden--it's fantastic!

    Jennifer, I hope I didn't discourage anyone from the Hypericum because of the Japanese beetles, but they seemed to really like this plant almost as much as the roses.

    Jean, It really is a joy to volunteer here, because I am constantly inspired.

    Marijke, That's my favorite section, too--it's bound to put a smile on anyone's face!

    Joy, the little trucks made us smile that day, too:) I wish my fancier agastaches were as hardy as this one.

    Sally, Visiting other gardens is my favorite summer activity; it always inspires me to work a little harder in my own:)

    Maggie, The other day a volunteer brought her little daughter along while she worked. The little girl was wearing a fairy costume, and we called her "the garden fairy." She had a great time visiting all of us and made us smile, too.


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