Urbana man has created his own nature preserve
URBANA – Nearly 200 years ago, a land surveyor and his crew walked along the south edge of Big Grove and recorded oaks, hickories, American hazel, spicebush and loads of wildflowers.
Today, visitors can see pretty much the same thing as they walk around the home of Robert and Judy Vaiden, which sits on a 1-acre lot in east Urbana.
"I've tried to turn my property into what it looked like 200 years ago," Vaiden says. "We would have been standing on what was the south edge of the Big Grove. The timber here was broken, with open areas, so there would have been prairie plants as well as the woodland plants."
Land surveys in what was to become Illinois started in 1804 and continued well into statehood in the 1850s. Crews made measurements as they walked along section lines and made brief observations in notebooks. One of those section lines ran in front of the Vaiden house along East Main Street.
The surveyors were likely impressed with Big Grove, which encompassed about 6,400 acres and attracted pioneer settlers to the area. Surviving remnants of Big Grove include Busey Woods, Brownfield Woods and Trelease Woods, as well as Crystal Lake Park and the big oaks in the Champaign County Fairgrounds.
"I've been working off and on for 20 years on this," says Vaiden, who works at the Illinois State Geological Survey, located on the University of Illinois campus. "It was just a regular yard with Kentucky bluegrass and I've made a push over the years to add diversity and color."
Mission accomplished. Vaiden now has about 150 native plant species in his yard. They are roughly divided between shade-tolerant woodland plants and sun-loving (although some are shade-tolerant) prairie plants. A mowed path snakes around the yard.
In effect, Vaiden has created his own nature preserve.
"One visitor was here when we had a lot of yellow swallowtails, monarchs and other butterflies around and made the comment, 'Look at all the butterflies. You don't see butterflies swarming like this anymore,' which was a little sad because that's the way it used to be everywhere," Vaiden says.
"Illinois is so changed and the landscape destroyed. We have a monoculture of Kentucky bluegrass. People should landscape more with native plants. Those plants are needed and the critters need them," he adds. "The natives attract those beneficial, beautiful insects and birds. Native insects and animals need native plants."
Vaiden speaks in a rapid-fire voice as he rattles off the names of plants: blue and red lobelias, wild geranium, sneeze weed, cardinal flower, turtle head, prairie sundrop, spiderwort, blazing star, cup plant, purple coneflower, queen of the prairie and many more.
An admitted "lazy gardener," prairie plants are great for people who would rather spend time doing things other than pulling weeds (although that still has to be done) and watering. They are perennials that usually do well once established. They tend to be hardy and drought-resistant.
The problem is finding a good source of prairie plants. Vaiden got some of his plants from friends who already had a good population established on their property. The annual Grand Prairie Friends (the local environmental organization) prairie plant sales at the Urbana Farmer's Market are popular (and have already taken place). Some local nurseries offer the most popular prairie flowers, like purple coneflower and black-eyed susan.
A handful of nurseries specialize in native prairie plants. Vaiden recommends Prairie Moon Nursery (www.prairiemoon.com) of Winona, Minn., and Spence Restoration Nursery (www.spencenursery.com) of Muncie, Ind.
The recently established Master Naturalist program offered by the UI Extension could also be helpful. For more information about the program, go to http://web.extension.uiuc.edu/champaign/mn/index.html or call 333-7672.
"People like to share plants and people in that program might be willing to share their prairie plants," Vaiden says. "In some ways, it is hard to get these plants. You think of the word 'wildflowers' and wonder why they are so hard to find."
For people who want to establish a native prairie garden, Vaiden recommends sticking with flowers and staying away from the grasses like big bluestem, which can take over and dominate a small plot.
"I would plant flowers like wild geranium and Solomon's seal in a wooded area, and plants like prairie sundrop, golden alexander, purple coneflowers and butterfly weed for sunny areas. For fall plants, the asters are good. I have heath aster, fragrant aster and silky aster," Vaiden says. "Royal catchfly is nice, but it's hard to find. You can order it.
"The whole idea is diversity," he adds. "With the vast majority of wildflowers, they bloom and then they're gone. They might bloom for two weeks. You need different wildflowers because they hit at different times."