Gardening has been having a moment while people rediscover the appeal of spending time close to home
We’ve highlighted 3 favorite Champaign-Urbana area flower gardens to visit, and 4 area farms that are growing flowers for you
According to an article from 2020 in the Washington Post, “People are starved for safe outdoor activity. People are starved for something that refreshes the soul.” No wonder gardening is still having a moment. We could describe the vegetable gardens people are growing in their backyards, or the landscaping projects that people have pursued while they were stuck at home. But for this post, we wanted to focus on flower gardening in public spaces and market places, where we can social distance but still be part of a shared community that is hungry for beauty and renewal.
The first stop on this “Tour of Bloom” offers a wide range of garden experiences, all under the auspices of the University of Illinois. Each area of the Arboretum has an educational mission, and all of it is FREE to visit. Experience the serene landscape surrounding Japan House, roam the variety of formal and open spaces throughout the Arboretum, or narrow the focus of your visit to the Idea Garden.
The Idea Garden is an ongoing project of the Champaign County Master Gardener volunteers of the U of I Extension, and so it changes every year. It usually highlights different gardening themes such as vegetables, rock garden, rose garden, tropical garden, sensory garden, berry garden, or serenity garden. Like moths to a flame, kids will be drawn to the children’s garden, which encourages interactive fun (like hiding, smelling, or touching). Detailed resource information on plants and design is available for each section of the Idea Garden… or just relax in the gazebo and take it all in. Metered parking (and handicapped parking) available at Japan House, at the Idea Garden, and along Lincoln Avenue.
2 — Allerton Park and Retreat Center (515 Old Timber Road, Monticello)
Less an educational location than a functional one, Allerton is currently operated by the University of Illinois as an event and lodging space. It began its existence as the private estate of artist and philanthropist Robert Henry Allerton around 1900. Its public outreach today focuses on art, nature, and history. Visitors can explore 14 miles of hiking trails, wander through multiple formal gardens (the most well-known of which is the Peony Garden), play “pose like your favorite statue” throughout the grounds, or participate in organized programs including outdoor concerts, youth summer camps, themed dinners and educational events, nature hikes, and tours. (Did we mention the gardens are FREE?)
With this garden we leave university-run properties and enter a different non-profit world, that of the Champaign County Forest Preserve District. Your tax dollars again pay for your FREE admission to this garden, as well as to the nearby Museum of the Grand Prairie. Much like the gardens of Allerton Mansion, the creation of the Mabery Gelvin Botanical Garden was spearheaded by one man — H.I. Gelvin, the founder of the Forest Preserve District. The garden is named after his late wife Mabery.
The 8-acre garden features beds of beautiful flowers as well as several Instagram-worthy locations: the bridge pictured above, the artificial waterfall, the giant Lake of the Woods chair, or the gazebo pictured below. Its educational focus is not on its flowers, but on its trees. Each tree — and every tree at Mabery Gelvin seems to be a large attractive specimen — gets its own informative plaque. The garden also offers some hands-on fun for the younger set: giant tic-tac-toe and checkers, tree stumps and rocks on which to clamber, and a nature trail in the shade. Free parking (and handicapped parking) available at the Museum of the Grand Prairie as well as a small lot a little further along the access road.
Now that we’ve toured three area flower gardens, let’s visit four area farms that raise flowers.
4 — Delight Flower Farm (1472 County Road 500 E, Champaign)
Perhaps you’ve seen them (below) at Urbana’s Market in the Square? Established in 2011, Delight Flower Farm is a sustainable, women-owned, flower farm. They grow a wide variety of cut flowers to sell wholesale as well through business subscriptions, farmers markets, CSA memberships, and through their online shop. Other products of their farm include CBD hemp, edible flowers, medicinal herbs, and evergreen wreaths in winter. They teach a variety of workshops as well as provide flowers for weddings.
Look for Delight Flower Farm bouquets in C-U at Harvest Market, Common Ground Food Coop, Hopscotch Bakery & Market, the West Kirby County Market, and the Rose Bowl Tavern. And keep an eye on their social media for events held on their farm, which often sell out.
5 — Illinois Willows (1477 County Road 200 E, Seymour)
Since 1999, Kent Miles has operated Illinois Willows as a specialty cut flower grower with material to sell year-round, through direct-to-consumer sales and for the wholesale trade. His is another familiar face at Urbana’s Market at the Square, where his lucky customers benefit from the more than 60 kinds of flowers, foliage, and woody ornamental branches from his farm. Or consider purchasing a share in a CSA, so that every other week during the summer and fall, you receive a large, farm-fresh bouquet. (And note that he currently offers free delivery to Champaign, Urbana, Savoy, and Mahomet for orders placed on his site.) Illinois Willows also offers various levels of training to help independent farmers/growers establish their own successful agricultural businesses.
What about farmers who want YOU to garden?
The last two stops on our Tour of Bloom are farms that have both chosen a particular focus — flowering plants in the genus Hemerocallis, known commonly as daylilies, to grow and sell to the home gardener.
It’s no accident that both farms have chosen the humble daylily: it is hardy, easy to transplant, thrives in good and not-so-good soil, doesn’t need much watering, comes back each year in bigger clumps, and most importantly? There are a mind-numbing 89,000+ registered cultivars, according to the American Daylily Society.
6 — The Blooming Idiot (1477 County Road 200 E, Seymour)
Ben Montez can be frequently found at Urbana’s Market at the Square, selling pre-dug daylily plants — as well as multiple hosta varieties — ready to be taken home and planted. However, at the field where he farms (adjacent to Illinois Willows) he grows 350 varieties of daylilies, along with another 250 varieties at home. He sells the plants either by pre-order (and he will bring them to the Urbana Market), by appointment, or at two open house days: one for early/mid-season bloomers, and one for late-season bloomers. At these open houses, your plants are actually dug while you wait. He prices his daylilies by the number of plants you buy: one for $8, 3 for $20, 4 for $25, 10 for $50. The first open house of 2021 is coming up on July 3 so don’t miss out!
7 — 5-Acre Farm Daylilies (1578 County Road 300 N, Tolono)
A visit to Rod Kroemer and Jim Wuersch’s farm is something to be savored. 5-Acre Farm Daylilies is like a botanical garden, a farm, a business, and a home all rolled into one idyllic package (off High Cross Road, south of Philo). Here they grow over 700 varieties of daylily, some of which they have hybridized themselves.
The routine for customers during daylily season (roughly, June-September) goes something like this — you show up on a weekend (or by appointment) during daylily season, you wander the landscaped beds as well as the more utilitarian fields, ooh-ing and ah-ing over the infinite variety of colors, shapes, sizes, and smells. You write down the names of your favorites, found on tags buried at the base of each and every plant. Then you take a seat in the shade, sip some water, go through your list, and find out how expensive each plant is. (Prices range from about $11 to $75; in past years they have grown at least one named cultivar that tops $100! Rarity and novelty have their price.) Then you look in your wallet, sigh, cut your list way down, and make your final decision. You’ll have to schedule another trip back to the farm to pick up your new garden babies.
In case you wondering, the daylily pictured above is the Sarah Christine, its ginormous bloom is 6″ across, and a double fan would have set you back a mere $19 in 2020.
5-Acre Farm Daylilies also has a robust mail-order business, which is why they generally don’t travel to markets, unlike the other three farms in this post.
May you all bloom where you are planted. Happy gardening!
All photos by Kathy Richards except where indicated.
Did you enjoy this Tour of Bloom? Email us to suggest other flower gardens or flower farms in our area.
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