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IMG_2009Sunflowers, and their kin.

They always give me the urge to glean the seeds and preserve their petals, and capture all the sunshine within them.

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The photos are my own gleanings, taken at Mettawa Manor during a recent Open Day for the Garden Conservancy. The owners of this estate graciously open their property every year for the Garden Conservancy’s Open Days.

Bill Kurtis and Donna LaPietra have a gracefully determined respect for the land and the presence of place. In the 25 or so years they have called Mettawa Manor their  home, they have reclaimed prairie and ponds, added new features and gardens, and have enriched and enhanced those already growing. They are the epitome of what garden conservation can and should be.

Folks go to Mettawa Manor in hopes of seeing Bill Kurtis. They return, again and again, because of the lure of the prairie, the stillness of the ponds, the majesty of the woods, the history of the area, the exquisite formal gardens, and even the hope of a small ice cream cone or tasting of grass-fed beef, one of Bill Kurtis’s many ventures.

You may know who Bill Kurtis is. If you don’t, you likely recognize his voice. He was a reporter for Chicago’s local CBS news for decades and is well-recognized for his investigative reporting for which he has received numerous honors, including a Peabody award. He has reported and anchored news from both coasts, as well as nationally. Bill Kurtis also reached wider audiences through programs he conceived such as “Cold Case Files”, “Investigative Reports”, “The New Explorers”,  “American Greed”, and most recently  “Wait, Wait . . . Don’t Tell Me!”, for public radio on PBS. I love hearing his voice on Saturday mornings on a radio show I’ve long enjoy.

I admire Bill Kurtis and his partner in life and in business, Donna La Pietra. Ms. La Pietra has an impressive resume and career of her own and is well known for her charitable work. You might be interested in reading about them here.

It is Kurtis and La Pietra’s collaboration in the 65+ acre  Mettawa Manor estate for which I personally have my greatest admiration. At this historical country estate they have shared a vision of what it means to be good stewards of God’s good earth. They have also shared the gift of hospitality as they frequently open the garden and even their home for good causes.

I came home on Sunday renewed, anxious to inch our little prairie forward, seed by seed, and to plant more trees along the way. I have a book on harvesting to read, for the owners generously gave visitors a book from their personal gardening library. Really, dear reader, the gift of gardening and conserving comes in many forms, especially at Mettawa Manor. What more can I say?

Well, I really can say much more, but, this is already getting long in the tooth, and I did want to show you some photos of sunshine. I hope to share the book I brought home with you soon, and to share more photos of this garden and another we visited in future posts.

For now, I’ll just glean a few photos of flowers.

Black Hollyhock:Mettawa Manor Lily:Mettawa Manor

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Would you like to take a walk with me today?

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It is walk through a private garden graciously opened for the Landscape Design Council of the Garden Clubs of Illinois.

Positioned on an elegant North Shore estate, the garden sits under the watchful eye of a historical Georgian mansion. I am not part of the Landscape Design Council, but, my membership in the GCI affords me, and all our members, these rare opportunities. I am glad a few of us were able to attend.

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Fairlawn Estate is a testament to texture and structure in landscape. The several acres of property has few flowers. A potted plant here, a few roses there. It is the estate’s grand garden rooms that provide the pleasure of place where one can observe the purpose and need of good “bones” in a garden.

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I was amazed by the owner, who led the tour, and her honest respect for trees while she was still being rooted in the harsh nature of the midwest and the cruel reality of the predominance of the hard, unyielding clay underneath its soil. I was struck by her words of reality that tree roots do not have far to travel to reach clay, which eventually becomes impossible to penetrate. It is why we do not have trees that survive and thrive hundreds of years here. In spite of this reality, great care has been taken to judiciously prune and stake where need be on this elegant estate, which is brimming with structure, both living and modeled.

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It was not just the predominance of statues in this garden, but in how they were positioned and how they lent to the landscape design. I am not a landscape designer, nor a landscape architect. I am a simple gardener who has dirt under her nails and grass stains on her knees, but, a gardener no less and one who is most sincerely appreciative of the beauty of this magnificent estate,

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as well as the sense of playfulness the owner.

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I learned a great deal on this tour; about trees and structures and statues – and yet another way to garden.

I also learned quite a few things about myself. Our garden structures here on the Cutoff, aka garden art, will never be as grand or significant as the ones on this estate. Although I do ponder and place and move my “things” about to find just the right angle of the sun or the view from the arbor, the perspectives of our living room window, or the view from the road, I can be more purposeful in my placements.

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and more aware of texture and the subtleties of tone and color.

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°IMG_7518 - Version 3On a recent, misty, Saturday afternoon, I took a trek in a nearby woods. It was a murky walk on muddy paths over fallen trees; a route less traveled except by an army of mosquitoes attacking from all fronts. I had on my “cone of protection“, but, they found my skin just-the-same, especially my ankles and the meaty mounds of my aging forearms.

There was an eclectic collection of participants; citizen scientists of uncertain age, students of nature as well as history buffs and those interested in conservation efforts. A few younger participants, at least younger from my perspective, appeared to be summer interns who came armed with pens and intelligent questions and there were those with sophisticated cameras, sketch pads and notebooks.

We were at McDowell Grove and the subject of the presentation in the stone shelter and the walk was how this forest preserve came to be. It was private property a century or so ago. By the 1930’s, now a forest preserve,  it took on a newer purpose. The stone shelter we met in was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which was part of FDR’s New Deal. A corp of men resided in a location not far from the shelter. They built bridges,  as well as stone structures, fire pits, dams, and trails. It was later taken over by the military and the OSS. Today, it is a peaceful forest preserve, still growing and changing in its use and significance.

My mission being equal portions of curiosity and field work, I went to determine if this would be a fitting outing for my garden club, I found the tour fascinating with a lingering sense wonder at how much more I wanted to know.

This walk in the woods and presentation in the stone shelter were interesting and awakened my curiosity about how our forest preserve districts have come about, what other purposes they may have had, and curiosity over who walked the paths before us. It also increased my gratitude for the men and women who deeded their properties for public use and for the citizens who saw the value in preserving valuable tracts of land so that generations of those who love nature or will come to love nature will have a place to walk and wonder.

I live close to many of woods of the Forest Preserve Districts of Cook and Du Page County. They house nature centers and equestrian trails, bike trails for the casual ride through the woods as well as staging areas for mountain biking. Canoeing and kayaking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing, groves for picnics and for family reunions, and now, even camping is allowed in some locations.

The State of Illinois, more often known for its crooked politicians, crime, prairies and skyscrapers, actually has more acres of forest preserve than most other states. These public places with acres upon acres of wonder and welcome are also places of both solitude and recreational gatherings. They provide safe harbor to wildlife and healthy living in equal measure for the weekend wanderer or the life-time outdoorsmen and women.

Have you been to a forest preserve or nature center lately?

Have you learned some new,  historical, scientific, environmental?

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A little Muir

This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.

John Muir

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IMG_1023Our little arbor on the prairie.

Penny’s Arbor House, aka Papa’s Treehouse (Ezra’s interpretation) is my refuge. It is where I go to sit and sip my morning cup of tea or something iced mid-afternoon to read a book or magazine, or to just BE.

When the idea for a prairie sprouted a few years ago during a conversation while sitting in the arbor, we envisioned a few grasses in this barren, sunny spot of pseudo-lawn. We imagined tall plants to catch our eyes, be welcoming to pollinators, birds, bees and other living things, and be easy to maintain.  A few yuccas were already there,  daisies that were divisions from Marilyn and a little plot of native ageratums.from Jane. They were established, but they needed some company.

The first to come was Oat Grass for Father’s Day, a Little Bluestem from a native plant sale, garden gifts, and a phone call from a friend wondering if my garden club still had a members’ plant sale in the fall. Cindy had some divisions to share. We ended up keeping her donations (I gave a monetary donation to the club instead of Cindy’s plants).

Not long after that, plants from a public garden that would be under construction needed homes. Did we want some?

Last year and this, Jan was dividing Pampas grass, Heavy Metal switchgrass, and other delights, which have quickly set down their roots in the depths of our prairie earth and are already rising to the heights of our boundless sky.

This it Tom and Thalictrum. At 6’4″, with a reach of 8′, Tom is quite tall. He is next to the plant, which is a member of the rue family. In full bloom, this variety exceeds 10′. It was one of our few purchases for this garden and was worth it for its stature and its display of wispy blooms, which lasted well over a month.

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Our little prairie is now filled and flourishing with Joe Pye Weed, bear’s breeches, butterfly weed, brown-eyed Susan, and bee balm.

Bear's BreechesBee balm:Joe Pye Weed

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Further afield is a growing patch of grasses and a compass plant, which no prairie should be without.

Compass plant

 I think I’ll have some iced tea and read a few chapters of “Little House on the Prairie”.

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IMG_1243 - Version 2The sweet scent of milkweed was calling me as I wandered around at dawn, tea cup in hand, wearing a sweatshirt against the unseasonal chill in the air. I could see a few deer in the weeds, nursing their young in the lot next door and there was a conversation between two cardinals I overheard as I strolled out front toward nature’s incense.

I had been checking the milkweed each day, looking for eggs, hoping. I had noticed several holes in the leaves; a sign that something was eating the leaves, then I saw it!

I rushed back in for my camera;  monarchical paparazzi that I am.

DSCN8952There on a leaf was a Monarch caterpillar, munching and inching its way along a milkweed plant. I must have gone back to check on it five or six times yesterday, and repeatedly today. Under a leaf, up and down the stem, even half hidden in between the flowers of the plant, there was this very hungry caterpillar, marching his way on the host plant.

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A lone Monarch caterpillar sharing the gifts of a milkweed plant with bumblebees and ants is not going to alter the precarious plight of the Monarch butterfly, but, to me, this black and yellow striped insect brings the tiniest bit of hope that perhaps, just perhaps,  there will be a few more Monarchs this summer and that they will go forth and multiply.

Be sure to click on the photos for a better look.

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She emerged from the lush greens on our Saturday stroll in the Rotary Gardens.

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On Tuesday, Yeats appeared on my daily feed from The Writer’s Almanac . . .

Down By the Salley Gardens
by William Butler Yeats

Down by the salley gardens
my love and I did meet;
She passed the salley gardens
with little snow-white feet.
She bid me take love easy,
as the leaves grow on the tree;
But I, being young and foolish,
with her would not agree.

In a field by the river
my love and I did stand,
And on my leaning shoulder
she laid her snow-white hand.
She bid me take life easy,
as the grass grows on the weirs;
But I was young and foolish,
and now am full of tears.

Then Maura O’Connell showed up today.

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