'I saw how a yard could be.' Couple turned acres of farm fields into 3 prairies in the Town of Eagle

·12 min read

When Jean and Tom Weedman look out onto their land, they see prairie plants that look like a sea of color blowing in the wind.

There is butterfly weed with its brilliant orange flowers that attract monarch butterflies, wild columbine, which has red and yellow flowers that hummingbirds and bees love, and little bluestem, a shorter grass that turns bronze in fall and winter and provides seeds for birds and cover for small animals.

These are just some of the stunning plants in the prairies they planted and tend on their 5-acre property in the Town of Eagle

It’s a labor of love and a shared passion to promote native plants and to provide habitat, food, water and shelter for local wildlife.

“This is the stuff that supports pollinators,” Jean Weedman said. “A lot of our insects need certain plants to survive through the generations. Monarchs, of course, need milkweed, and fritillary butterflies need violets. Lightning bugs spend two to three years underground. So, if you are using poisons, you are killing all the larva for lightning bugs. Then people say, ‘I never see lightning bugs anymore!”

This year, their prairie will be one of four naturally landscaped yards on a Wild Ones tour July 9.

Their glacially formed land, which they bought in 1992, was originally a farm field.

They built their house on the property in 1994 and 1995 and started clearing the land in 1996. By 2000, they were ready to plant their first of three prairies at five-year intervals. They also began cleaning out a woodland edge that adjoins their prairies.

Jean and Tom Weedman relax in one of their prairies in the Town of Eagle on June 23.  Their home will be part of the the Wild Ones Kettle Moraine Chapter's Native Garden Tour.
Jean and Tom Weedman relax in one of their prairies in the Town of Eagle on June 23. Their home will be part of the the Wild Ones Kettle Moraine Chapter's Native Garden Tour.

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She became interested in native plants in the late 1980s, when she and her husband were living on Milwaukee’s east side and she took a tour of native gardens put on by the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center and Wild Ones, the native-plant group.

On the tour were the gardens of Lorrie Otto, the late environmentalist credited with helping to start the first Wild Ones group here in 1977. There are now more than 72 chapters in the U.S. and 23 “seedlings,” which are groups working toward full chapter status.

“We toured Lorrie’s yard in Bayside, and it was filled with native plants. She was leading the tour, and she encouraged everyone to do a landscape that would offer some services to the environment.

“It was like this light-bulb moment for me. I saw how a yard could be,"   she said.

Butterfly weed flowers are seen in a prairie at the home of Jean and Tom Weedman in  the Town of Eagle on June 23.
Butterfly weed flowers are seen in a prairie at the home of Jean and Tom Weedman in the Town of Eagle on June 23.

Prairies require patience

She began to research native plant and prairie gardens and filled her yard with native plants. But her yard was very small.

Years later, after she and her husband retired from teaching jobs in Oak Creek and Greendale, it was the perfect time to find a home with more land and create the garden she had been dreaming of.

But planting a prairie didn’t happen quickly.

“It took us two years to get the land ready. You have to get rid of the weeds and the weed seeds that are currently there. … You have to do that in two seasons.”

They used chemicals.

“Because you have to get rid of the weed seeds, there are few options. If you have a small garden you can smother the weeds and seeds by covering the area with black plastic for a year. But if you have a big area, you have to use chemicals that one time. But then you never have to use them again.

“We had a farmer help with it. We had him cut it really low so the seeds didn’t come up and develop."

Next came the planting.

“We also had the farmer plant the seeds.  … After that, you just sit back and wait. You don’t water it, and you don’t fertilize it. You just let it be.”

Patience is important.

“If you start a prairie from seed, you aren’t going to get things you recognize in the first couple of years. You have to wait to see a variety. … It will happen when it’s ready to happen,” which is usually in three to four years, she said.

Unlike other kinds of gardens, prairies don’t ever have to be watered or fertilized because the native plants in them are accustomed to area soil conditions, she said.

But they do need to be burned or cut back every three to five years.

“It stimulates growth. It gets rid of the dead material. A prairie is accustomed to being burned," she said.

“What we do is rotate the burning and cutting. One year we will burn one prairie, mow down one prairie, and let the other one serve as an insect habitat.”

Prairies differ from native plant gardens but share some similarities, the main one being that only plants native to Wisconsin are used, Weedman said.

“Either kind of garden is beneficial. A prairie by its nature is a little bigger than a native garden. It’s a community of plants that would naturally grow in the open in our area. They are usually in sunny areas. It’s different from a native plant garden because it’s bigger, so it draws in more critters.

Also, native gardens are organized by humans.

“A prairie is random. In a native plant garden, you would try to put colors together, and you would put masses of certain plants in one spot, and then repeat them in another spot. In a prairie, they grow wherever their seeds fall or where they feel comfortable growing," Weedman said.

“Native plant gardens are wonderful, and they are doing a service. But they are like little islands. But if that’s what your land is, you have to do what you can do,” she said.

Bees and butterflies love the flowers on columbine.
Bees and butterflies love the flowers on columbine.

In addition to tending their prairies, Weedman and her husband are restoring their woodland edge.

“It has all native trees and bushes. We mostly have red and burr oak. That was one of the draws to this property. There’s a giant burr oak at the back of the property. Those big oak trees provide food for birds throughout the year because there is larva hiding under the bark.

“But we also have buckthorn. We hired a contractor to clear the buckthorn along the edge. When he was clearing it, he said, ‘Look what we found.’ There were tons of shooting stars, a beautiful woodland edge spring flower” that has purple, pink or white flowers.

She recently talked about their prairie and the Wild Ones tour.

Question: Why did you decide on this piece of property?

Answer: It was a matter of being in the Kettle Moraine area. That was important to us because it’s a natural resource.

Q: How much time do you spend gardening each day?

A: Maybe a couple hours a week. It’s not a chore. We go out and look for invasive plants.

Q: Do you both work in your green spaces?

A: In terms of weeding, that’s both of us. If it’s planting and planning, that’s mostly me.

Q: What is the hardest part of planting a prairie?

A: The waiting. You have to have a lot of patience. The hardest part is waiting to see what comes in. You also have to learn about the plants. You have to know, is that a weed or a native plant? You have to get your resource books and start to learn.

Q: If Lorrie Otto were alive today, would you like to show her your prairies?

A: Yes. And I would make it clear to her that she was part of the inspiration in starting this. She was famous for her part in getting DDT banned as a pesticide. I heard she used to carry dead birds into meetings to show what the chemical did. She got it banned here first and then it was banned in the rest of the country.

Q: How long have you been a member of Wild Ones?

A: I became a lifetime member of the Kettle Moraine chapter in 2011. I was a regular renewing member before that, probably since the early 2000s.

Q: Are native plant groups more popular these days?

A: Yes. It’s really taken off the last couple of years. But in the '70s when I toured Otto’s garden, how many people were even thinking about doing a natural landscape?

Q: How many pounds of prairie seed did you use on each of your prairies?

A: About 15 pounds for each prairie, depending on the mix. Each prairie is a little over 1 acre. One is a tall-grass prairie with grasses and other plants that can get up to 10 feet tall, another is a short-grass prairie with plants that get 3 to 4 feet tall, and the third is a diverse prairie with plants that reach 3 to 4 feet.  There are pathways around and through each of them.

Q: Do you have any non-native plants on your property?

A: Yes. When we first got here I created a big perennial garden at the front and the back of the house. Now I’m transitioning those areas from non-native plants to natives. Anything that is near the house is much more tended like a garden. We also have three fountains by the house and a little courtyard out front with a bluestone patio.

Q: What happens after you burn or cut your prairie? Is it like starting all over again?

A: No. They come up as soon as two weeks later. We burn in early March.

Q: What wildlife do you see regularly?

A: The lightning bugs, and sandhill cranes visit our yard daily. We also have 13-lined ground squirrels that run around, and rabbits, fox, deer, turkey and tons of butterflies and birds. We have a large population of birds. A lot of the prairie plants will feed birds during the winter.

Q: Is a prairie colorful?

A: Yes. But it changes. Unlike annuals we put in pots, they don’t stay the same color all season long. Right now, we have baptisia blooming, and it has white flowers. And there is Indian paintbrush that’s a reddish orange.

A lot of things are getting ready to open right now. It shifts from one type of plant blooming at a time, or several at a time. Unlike a garden where you are massing things together, in a prairie things are scattered around.

Indian paintbrush flowers are seen in a prairie at the home of Jean and Tom Weedman in the Town of Eagle.
Indian paintbrush flowers are seen in a prairie at the home of Jean and Tom Weedman in the Town of Eagle.

Q: Can you start a prairie using plants?

A: Yes. You can plant first-year plugs if you have a smaller area. They are usually in little 1¼-inch pots. Those you do have to water. 

Q: Do you have a horticulture background?

A. I’m a master naturalist. I took a course through the Wehr Nature Center.  

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The Weedmans' favorite plants

Here are some more of Jean and Tom Weedman’s favorite native plants. She said they can all be used in any style of garden.

A pale purple coneflower is seen in a prairie at the home of Jean and Weedman in the Town of Eagle.
A pale purple coneflower is seen in a prairie at the home of Jean and Weedman in the Town of Eagle.

Pale purple coneflower:  A threatened species. This tall (3 to 5 feet) and showy plant has light purple petals and is a favorite of birds and butterflies. Let stand in winter, and the seeds will feed overwintering birds 

Lead plant is good for butterflies and hummingbirds, and it adds nitrogen to the soil.
Lead plant is good for butterflies and hummingbirds, and it adds nitrogen to the soil.

Lead plant: Does well in dry soils. This small, deciduous shrub gets 1 to 3 feet tall, with tiny, purple flowers and gray-green foliage. It’s beneficial to hummingbirds and butterflies and adds nitrogen to the soil.

Purple prairie clover attracts bees, and birds eat the seeds in winter.
Purple prairie clover attracts bees, and birds eat the seeds in winter.

Purple prairie clover: Has purple thimble-shaped flowers that sit atop a spray of stems with delicate foliage. Gets 1 to 2 feet tall and does well in dry soil. Attracts bees and birds that eat the seeds through winter. Enhances nitrogen in the soil.

You can make tea from wild bergamot, also called bee balm
You can make tea from wild bergamot, also called bee balm

Wild bergamot: Also called bee balm, it gets 2 to 4 feet high and has pink to purple flowers from July to September. This plant is a bee and hummingbird favorite. You also can make tea out of it.

Early sunflower/false sunflower: Gets 3 to 5 feet tall with bright yellow flowers. Blooms from July into October and provides seeds for birds.

Blazing star is a vital food for monarchs as they prepare for migration.
Blazing star is a vital food for monarchs as they prepare for migration.

Blazing star: Upright plant gets 2 to 4 feet tall and has deep purple flowers. Butterflies, especially monarchs, feed on these as preparation for migration. We have three varieties.

Hoary vervain likes dry soil.
Hoary vervain likes dry soil.

Hoary vervain: Gets 2 to 4 feet tall and has dense spikes of small purple flowers that draw in butterflies. This plant likes dry soil.

New England aster is a key food for pollinators well into fall.
New England aster is a key food for pollinators well into fall.

New England aster: Blooms range from pink to purple in color. Provides food for birds, butterflies and bees late into the fall. Gets 3 to 6 feet tall.

Prairie dropseed grass grows in prairie land at Jean and Tom Weedman's home in the Town of Eagle.  Their home will be part of the the Wild Ones Kettle Moraine Chapter's Native Garden Tour.
Prairie dropseed grass grows in prairie land at Jean and Tom Weedman's home in the Town of Eagle. Their home will be part of the the Wild Ones Kettle Moraine Chapter's Native Garden Tour.

Prairie dropseed:  A grass that gets 2 to 4 feet high and has a graceful fountain-like shape. Looks great in smaller gardens as a border. Provides seeds for birds.

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More native plant resources

For a large selection of native plants and information: 

For information:

This program, named after honorary director Lorrie Otto, provides learning opportunities that connect youths to nature and the Wild Ones mission. It also provides grants ranging from $100 to $500 for native plant gardens and landscaping projects throughout the United States.

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If you go

What: Walk on the Wild Side: A tour of four naturally landscaped gardens. Gardeners on the tour use native plants to support conservation efforts and attract birds, butterflies and other pollinators. There will also be a bonus tour at a small property with prairie, woodlands and an ephemeral pond.  Sponsored by the Wild Ones Kettle Moraine Chapter.

Where: In the Eagle area in Waukesha County. Located in the southern Kettle Moraine area.

When: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. July 9.

Tickets: $10; ages 12 and younger admitted free. Tickets available at the Alice Baker Memorial Library, 820 E. Main St. in Eagle, from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. the day of the tour.

For more information: See bit.ly/nativegardentour.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Kettle Moraine Wild Ones garden tour: Pair turn farmland into prairie