Wild Columbine

The parkways – strips of (usually) grass and a tree in front of our buildings – help define the look of Evanston.  Most noticeable are parkway trees: little saplings just starting out and giant elms and oaks that make an impression. Paul D’Agostino, City Environmental Services Coordinator, hears comments “all the time from new residents and visitors regarding our elms and oaks and how ‘different’ it feels here.”

Now Evanston has made it easier to add gardens to parkways, by updating City ordinances. This aligns with the City Climate Action and Resilience Plan, which encourages urban canopy and natural areas to shade and cool our streets, soak up rainwater, absorb city noise, reduce energy use, sequester carbon, filter pollutants from the air and water, ease our stresses and help us breathe easier.  

The City Code now provides: Parkway plantings must be three feet tall or less. This is to ensure drivers can see people that may step into the street, and bikes, cars and other vehicles emerging from alleys. A change: plants no longer are limited to a designated City list.

No attaching things to trees, such as hammocks, swings or birdfeeders. They can damage city trees.  

A free permit is still required (as it always has been). Call 311 or email garden plans to forestry@cityofevanston.org. List your planned plants; no invasive species allowed. The permit is required mainly so that the City can check plant height and that the list includes no invasives.

Anyone who wishes to trim, spray, remove or plant a parkway tree needs a permit and an arborist to do it. Also, new trees must be at least 15 feet from crosswalks or intersecting alleys or streets.

Mr. D’Agostino says, “I hope this revised parkway planting ordinance not only makes it easier to transform your parkway, but encourages you to do so with a wide variety of plants that benefit both nature and humans alike.”

What will we do with this new-found freedom for parkway plantings not from a City list? Some of us may hold tight to turf grass and keep mowing, raking leaves, and adding fertilizers and other chemicals. But at a time when the abundance of beneficial insects is in steep decline, mowed lawn provides virtually no value to butterflies and moths, and the chemicals we apply kill fireflies and other good bugs underground or on plants. Birds face a double threat: losing insects that they and their nestlings depend on and succumbing to toxins themselves.

Vegetable gardens are another parkway possibility. Plenty of vegetables grow three feet tall or less: eggplant, fennel, potatoes, most herbs, onions, leek, garlic, kale, broccoli, cabbage, collards, chard, lettuces, spinach, arugula, mustard greens, turnips, peppers, certain beans, squashes, carrots and beets. Many of these help pollinators if we avoid chemicals. There are some challenges: Parkway soil may need amending, raised beds are not allowed, dogs may pee on prized radishes, and pedestrians might help themselves to that pepper you were watching get full ripe. (Raised beds are an issue for the City because building the beds and adding soil over the roots of existing trees can stress parkway trees, and potentially make them susceptible to disease or insects.)

Amy Dale, owner and founder of Green Edens Horticultural Service, has a great idea: Put big rocks on the corners of your garden, so dogs can pee there instead of on plants. “They like granite especially.”

A pollinator garden is another great alternative to turf grass. Variety is key. Many people know that Monarch butterflies eat milkweed. But many bees, butterflies and moths also need certain plants: Violet Fritillary need violets, Spicebush Swallowtail need spicebush, Pearl Crescents need asters. Doug Tallamy, renowned University of Delaware entomologist, has ranked plants by the number of caterpillar species that feed on them. Since caterpillars are food for birds, mammals, and other insects, the number of caterpillar species indicates “wildlife value.” On Dr. Tallamy’s chart, oaks are mightiest, feeding 518 native caterpillar species. Among native flowers, clovers (115 native caterpillar species), goldenrod (112), aster (105) and strawberry (75) have highest wildlife value.

Here are ideas for a parkway pollinator garden that will provide color spring to fall and remain under three feet tall:

For a sunny or partly sunny parkway (listed spring to fall blooming):

Wild Lupine, Lupinus perennis.  
A 1-2-foot spring ephemeral, lupine goes dormant after blooming. It hosts the Karner Blue butterfly, a federally-endangered species, as well as Elf and Frosted Elfin butterflies.

Wild sedum, Sedum ternatum. Easy to grow 8-inch groundcover. White blooms April-June.

Purple Clover, Dalea purpurea. This is not the non-native clover in many lawns. Dalea Purpurea is 2 feet tall and host to the Dogface, Marine Blue, and Reakirt’s Blue caterpillars. Clover is a summer-blooming legume that restores nitrogen to the soil, enriching it for other plants.

Pale purpleconeflower, Echinacea pallida. Early summer blooms on three feet tall stalks provide nectar for hummingbirds and butterflies. Larval host to Ottoe-skipper and Silvery Checkerspot butterflies and Wavy-Lined Emerald and Common Eupithecia moths.

Nodding onion, Allium cernuum. Native Americans used bulbs from this 1-2-foot plant as a treatment for croup, colic, colds and fevers. Midsummer blooms are pollinated by small short-tongued bees, such as Halictid bees.

Butterfly weed, Asclepias tuberosa. A shorter milkweed at 2-3 feet, it bears bright orange blooms May-September. Like all milkweeds, it is larval host to Monarchs, as well as Queen and Grey Hairstreak butterflies.

Bur Sedge, Carex grayi. Seed pods look like a spiked medieval mace. Up to three feet tall, larval host to various butterflies, including the Eyed Brown and Appalachian Brown. Seeds feed many song birds.

For a shady or partly shaded area (listed Spring to Fall):

Pennsylvania Sedge, Carex pensylvanica. At about 1 foot, this short, grass-like sedge blooms in spring.  It feeds grasshoppers and grass-miner moth caterpillars. Grows in part to full shade, dry soil and tolerates wet soil.

Jacob’s ladder, Polemonium reptans. Blue blooms on a 1-foot plant provide spring nectar to many bees, butterflies, skippers and moths, including Andrena polemonii, a bee that only pollinates this plant.  Host plant to two moth species.

Virginia bluebells, Mertensia virginica. Familiar drooping blue-to-pink blooms emerge in mid to late spring. Pollinated by long-tongued bees like bumblebees and stingless mason bees, as well as Sphinx moths that fly like little hummingbirds.

Wild columbine, Aquilegia canadensis. Delicate, red blooms late spring-early summer attract hummingbirds. Host to Columbine Duskywing, Borer moths, Columbine Sawfly and Leaf Miner flies.  Foliage, 2-3 tall, is toxic, so rabbits should leave it alone.

Wild Geranium, Geranium maculatum. Plants up to 2 feet tall bloom pink-to-blue spring-summer. Hosts specialist bee pollinators, called oligoleges, and several moth species.

Sky Blue Aster, Symphyotrichum oolentangiense. Grows 2-3 feet tall, drought tolerant blue to violet blooms late summer to fall. Like most asters, it attracts small bees, flies, butterflies and skippers. Host plant of the Pearl Crescent butterfly.

Zig Zag goldenrod, Solidago flexicaulis. Grows 2-3 feet tall with blooming yellow strands in late summer-fall. Supports several oligolectic (pollinator specialist) bees, as well as caterpillars and other insects.

Sources for native plants:
Chicago Audubon Society plant sale benefit underway until May 19. https://naturalcommunities.net/discount/CAS2019. Be sure CAS2019 autopopulates the discount box at checkout.
Highland Garden Club of Evanston’s Backyard Botanicals sale: June 1 (9 a.m. – 3 p.m.) in Independence Park.
Free asters to help Pearl Crescent butterflies (while supplies last): Email Habitat@NaturalHabitatEvanston.Org
Online suppliers: prairiemoon.com and prairienursery.com  
More information:  
Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at wildflower.org.  
Prairie Rivers Network rain gardens https://prairierivers.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Rain-Garden-Brochure-20121.pdf
Native Pollinator Garden Basics for the Chicago Region: https://westcook.wildones.org/2017/07/21/nativepollinatorbasics/.