A Visit To The Garden Of Pat Hill

Recently I got acquainted online with Pat Hill, author of Design Your Natural Midwest Garden. Pat’s book had a big influence on me, and I think it is an important book for any gardener interested in designing with native plants.  Pat is a garden writer and designer, and is active in promoting natural landscapes.

Pat Hill
Pat Hill in her garden.

She was kind enough to invite me to visit her and her garden, and I did so just recently. Unfortunately, Judy was not able to come with me, and so all the photos for this post are mine, taken with my phone. I regret that they don’t really do justice to Pat’s garden, but bear with me.

Patricia Hill
Pat’s side yard.

This is a prairie garden, with native grasses and flowers mixed throughout, although with a far higher ratio of flowers to grasses than you would find in a wild prairie. My own garden, by contrast, is more of a cottage garden which includes many prairie wildflowers and a few grasses. Pat actually conducts annual burns in spring, which is necessary to sustain the health of prairies.

Patricia Writght, Baptisia
Front door. Note the absolutely massive Baptisia australis by the door – I would love to see that covered with blue flowers in June!

Pat generally has a more laissez-faire approach to her garden. She does some editing of self-sown volunteers, and has battled to remove some plants that are overly aggressive.  On the other hand, to some extent she lets plants roam freely, with some beautiful results.

Joe Pye Weed
Joe Pye Weed at its peak.

For instance, Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum) has spread widely through her garden, and at this point in the season they make a gorgeous mass.

Wild Petunia
Wild Petunia

Similarly, she allowed Wild Petunia (Ruellia humilis) to self-sow throughout her parkway, making a lovely meadow dotted with lavender flowers.

A huge clump of Switchgrass growing in the parkway garden.

Pat also does not struggle with staking – if plants are going to lean, she lets them lean. In her garden, this looks right. However, I could not do this in my own garden, as my compulsive control tendencies would give me no peace.

Flowering Spurge
Flowering Spurge, aka Prairie Baby’s Breath

While I was familiar with many of the plants in this garden, there were a few I had not seen before that intrigued me. For example, I really liked Flowering Spurge (Euphorbia corollata) – it also goes by the more appealing and apt common name of Prairie Baby’s Breath).  Flowering Spurge has an airy mass of tiny white flowers up to 4′ tall, which is great for filling in between larger, more substantial plants. It turns a beautiful red in autumn.

Prairie Dock leaves
Prairie Dock leaves

I was also intrigued by Prairie Dock (Silphium terabinthinaceum), a relative of Cup Plant. Like other Silphiums, Prairie Dock has tall stalks bearing yellow daisies. But it can also be grown as a foliage plant, as it has huge basal leaves that remind many of Elephant’s Ears (Colocasia).

Pat’s garden was about more than plants. There were many repurposed objects turned into garden art. Unfortunately I did not have the presence of mind to take pictures of these.

Prairie Plant Screen
A private place to chat, courtesy of Pat’s prairie plants.

I was so glad to be able to visit this unique garden and gardener. Pat was great fun to talk to, extremely knowledgeable and with a great sense of humor. You may not be able to visit her garden yourself, but you can do the next best thing by reading Designing Your Natural Midwest Garden.



53 Comments on “A Visit To The Garden Of Pat Hill

  1. I am adding this one to my list! The shot of her door with the with the baptisia is gorgeous! How wonderful that you were able to connect with her!!!

    • One of the great things about the internet are the personal connections you can make. I think you would get a lot out of her book.

  2. It is always great to be able to chat with a knowledgeable gardener who will share their thoughts and ideas with you. I love how her garden looks, I don’t think I’d be brave enough to fire parts of my garden but I know this is what happens in a natural prairie.

    • I wouldn’t do a controlled burn, either. In addition to the fire risks, you have to get all kinds of permits and it is a big production.

      • One does indeed need several permits and conditions have to be just right in order to conduct a controlled burn–which, of course, we want.

        One must first apply to the Illinois EPA in Springfield for the permit, then apply to the local entity (in my case, the City of Elgin, IL.) for permission, which must include a map of the area to be burned including buildings, sidewalks, streets, and vegetation, and is granted (or not) by the City Manager. Then the neighbors must be notified in writing.. On the day of the burn, the temperature must be between 40-60 degrees, relative humidity must be between 45-60%, wind speed has to be between 5-10 mph and steady. One must dress correctly: boots,hats, gloves, long-sleeved shits, long pants, no synthetic fabrics. Flappers and metal rakes to control the fire, hose available and turned on. I have one or two people help me.

        On the day of the burn, the fire department must be notified and their permission received.

        Most of my gardens are linear stretching along the front and side sidewalk. (I don’t burn the gardens adjacent to the house.) I start at one end and watch it burn slowly and steadily down the line. In my small garden, it takes almost a whole day to complete. Grass is the fuel; forbs actually don’t burn all that well.

        Why do I do it?

        Fire recycles nutrients back into the soil, removes invading brush, and promotes the growth of native species. Midwestern native plants evolved with fire; it suits and encourages them.

        I can’t, however, emphasize the process that must be followed enough–all the rules must be strictly adhered to.

  3. A very colourful garden, too, but I wonder how it looks like in the winter? Suppose they get a lot of snow? The prairie dock is a most beautiful plant – does it behave? Great to be able to meet passionate and knowledgeable gardeners.

    • We normally do get a lot of snow. Some of these plants, especially the tall grasses, do have good winter interest. I didn’t think to ask Pat if the Prairie Dock was aggressive, she didn’t indicate that it was.

  4. How interesting. It always amazes me how each gardener has their own vision and there are not two alike. This was a lovely tour and I can only imagine how great the conversation was that accompanied it.

  5. What an interesting garden. I love the natural feel it has and the way it seems to flow. Fascinating that Pat has an annual burn. I will look her work up.xxxx

    • As she says in her comments here, to maintain a prairie you really need to do the burns. Her garden has wonderful color and does have a sense of flow, as you say.

  6. “…compulsive control tendencies…” LOL I’ve been meaning to speak with you about that! I think of you every time I stake anything!

  7. How wonderful! I love the soft, lush benevolence of Pat’s garden. What a treat to be able to meet her/ experience it in person!

  8. Jason, Prairie garden is something interesting for me, I’ve never been in Prairie. I love the photos of herbs, wildflowers, as petunias. I think she’s very kind and clever woman.

    • There may not be prairies in Russia, but there are steppes (not near St. Petersburg, of course). Perhaps in Volgagrad people are making steppe-style gardens.

  9. I do like the look of Pat’s garden Jason – it certainly is an interesting place to visit. I hope you picked up lots of tips. I particularly like the side yard – the pink and yellow scheme is amazing! One worthy of borrowing in fact 😉

    • Pink and yellow don’t seem like they should go together, but they do in this location. Perhaps because it is more of a purplish pink?

  10. A beautiful garden and a wonderful gardener! Thanks for this glimpse into a natural Midwest garden! I’ve never visited the Midwest in the summer so it’s nice to know what happens after all that snow melts.

  11. What a lovely garden! I love the concept of a prairie garden with flowers growing where they will. How exciting that you had this opportunity to visit a gardener that you admire. I just returned from several weeks in the Midwest and was very impressed with the number of native plants along the roadsides.

    • Here in Illinois there are several projects for promoting native plants along highway roadsides. I think Texas started the trend thanks to Ladybird Johnson.

  12. I really enjoyed your visit to Pat’s garden. I am amazed she does the annual burn since it looks surrounded by properties and homes. I am glad she clarified how she went about it. I love this free and natural type of planting. It is so at home in the Midwest.

    • Pat’s house is in an ordinary neighborhood in Elgin, and “outer ring” city outside Chicago. Fortunately the burning has not caused much controversy with neighbors.

  13. It was an interesting post about a speciel garden. It sounds very strange to burn your garden, but I have read about it, and it makes sense. The side yard looks fantastic.

    • It does sound pretty strange, doesn’t it? But I guess it makes sense if you need to mimic a larger ecosystem that has fire as a key element.

  14. Thanks for posting this! Pat looks familiar, I must have seen her at Wild Things or Chicago Audubon’s biennial conference. I wish now that I had done something more like this in my postage-stamped sized backyard but I have grown attached to the trees I planted and I’m not going to remove them. Maybe controlled burning is the only way to get rid of some things that go absolutely too crazy.

    • I have an exotic shade tree in my back garden, a Siberian Elm. I won’t take it down until it is dying. Actually Tim at WBU says these Siberian Elms are pretty popular with birds because they attract lots of bugs!

  15. Hi Jason, the “controlled burn” of the grass sounds a little risky, If I was to try something like that, I can just imagine the house going up in flames. The garden is very beautiful though.

  16. What a beautiful garden Pat has, I really enjoyed your post and Pats explanation of the burn process but I would worry about the affect on any wildlife living in the garden, it’s a garden I’d love to visit.

  17. What a pleasant garden! Gosh, I wish I could do a controlled burn but I think the neighbors and the authorities would frown upon it–the joys of suburban gardening. I’m not even sure it’s allowed up at our “cottage” property. I love to see gardens full of native plants. Thanks for taking us along.

  18. If you drive around the nearby streets, you can tell who has been (with her permission) pillaging Pat’s plants to propagate their own personal prairie gardens. She is the only one with nerve enough to do a controlled burn by her wooden house, however 😉 and none of us have as lovely a spread (yet – I am ambitious!)

  19. Just love these gardens all around the house. I could get lost in there. One can never have enough Joe Pye Weed if only because of the tremendous nectaring use by Tiger Swallowtails starting in August here in NJ. What a gardening triumph in a relatively small space…amazing.

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