Focusing on growing things in Champaign-Urbana
The state of Illinois is famous for many things: from the City of Big Shoulders up north, to the mighty Mississippi along its western edge, to everything Abraham Lincoln in between.
From where we sit in East Central Illinois, we know that Illinois has some of the richest and most productive soil on the planet, thanks to our region’s serendipitous history of glaciers, swamps, and prairie grasses. Farms cover a mind-boggling 27 million acres of our state; the farmers of Illinois are leading producers of soybeans, corn, and pumpkins too. The Champaign-Urbana area is uniquely positioned to contribute to our state’s agricultural economy, whether in ag education, ag tech, or agritourism.
But you don’t have to be directly involved in Big Agriculture to be a plant lover in Champaign-Urbana. Perhaps you are just fascinated by the process of turning dirt, water, and sunshine into plant life. Or perhaps you are an urban parent who wants to teach your kids to appreciate the seasonal cycles of nature and the interconnected web of life on earth. There are a host of resources here to help you find what you need to flourish.
Visit Public Gardens
Our favorite place to stroll through beautiful gardens is the University of Illinois Arboretum, which includes the gardens of Japan House as well as the Idea Garden. Don’t miss the few days in early spring when the cherry blossoms bring everyone out to celebrate in one of the most lovely cherry tree groves in the state. And your kids will enjoy the Children’s Garden located within the Idea Garden and designed especially for small curious people.
In the nearby town of Mahomet you’ll find the Mabery Gelvin Botanical Garden, located in the Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve. Its koi pond and scenic bridge attract lots of fans, as do its carefully labeled trees. For the past several years the garden has been illuminated during the winter holidays as a different way to enjoy the space.
The grandest gardens in our area lie to the southwest in Monticello, at the Allerton Park and Retreat Center. The grounds here are (usually) free to enter — a picnic location that can’t be beat — and become especially popular when the peonies are in bloom during the month of May. Allerton has also jumped on the recent bandwagon of lighting up for the holidays, and it’s well worth the drive from C-U.
It probably goes without saying that all of these locations offer great fall foliage viewing, and we’ve already mentioned some other specific times of year to visit these garden spaces. We would be remiss if we didn’t mention the pleasure of hunting for spring wildflowers — not exactly a garden trip, but more of an excuse to visit Champaign County’s marvelous forest preserves. And in the dead of winter, once the holiday lights have turned off, there’s no better area garden to visit than the University of Illinois Plant Biology Greenhouse, to breathe in humid air and remind yourself that plant life still exists.
The most idiosyncratic area garden just might be the Poisonous Plant Garden at the U of I’s College of Veterinary Medicine. This public garden hosts over 85 plants that are toxic to different animals, and serves as an educational resource for both veterinary students and the community. Tours can be arranged by request, or you can enter at your own risk.
Buy Some Plants
Stores selling plants: Champaign has seen a recent mini-boom in stores specializing in houseplants: Planted, Plant Mode, Orchid & Vine as well as Gro Up Gardening (more oriented toward hydroponics or indoor grow operations) all fall into this category. Florists and big box stores will also sell you plants year round. Come springtime, the big box stores join other hardware stores in busting out their garden centers, selling flowers, shrubs and trees for outdoors. Prairie Gardens and Country Arbors are our two biggest area garden centers. If you want a garden center to knock your socks off, make the pilgrimage to Woldhuis Farms/Sunrise Greenhouse in Grant Park.
Plant sales: Springtime also brings a flurry of pop-up plant sales to the area. Some of these sales are fundraisers for various nonprofits; some offer niche plants such as orchids, herbs, or Illinois native plants; some are put on by growers themselves. Here are some of the biggest ones, with their most recent, or upcoming, sale dates:
- Master Naturalist Native Tree and Shrub Sale, Sept. 1-30, 2022
- Central Illinois Orchid Society Sale, March 4, 2023
- U of I Horticulture Society Sale, April 15, 2023
- Grand Prairie Friends Native Plant Sale, April 30-?, 2023
- Parkland Greenhouse Plant Sale, May 1-5, 2023
- Common Ground Food Coop Plant Sale, May 3-9, 2023
- Kappa Kappa Gamma’s Flower Sale, May 5-6, 2023
- Allerton Plant Sale, May 5-7, 2023
- Twin City Garden Club Plant Sale, May 6, 2023
- Sola Gratia Farm Plant Sale, May 12-21, 2023
- Champaign-Urbana Herb Society, May 13, 2023
For those on a strict gardening budget, keep an eye out for Plant/Seed Swap events. Common Ground Food Coop hosts these occasionally, as do organizers of the thriving Facebook group CU Plant People. Or check out the free Seed Exchange hosted at the Urbana Free Library.
Farmers markets: They can be found in both Champaign and Urbana as well as in surrounding towns, and are the easiest way for growers and producers to get the freshest and most local items straight to their customers. For many vendors, especially earlier in the growing season, this includes selling plants.
Visit Farms and Farm Stands
Some of the vendors you’ll meet at your local farmers market may also welcome visitors where they farm, where again you may be purchasing what they grow, or maybe paying for an experience while you’re there. Here are some of our favorites, in no particular order:
- Delight Flower Farm, Champaign
- Clearview Farms, Champaign
- Mr. Willows, Seymour
- Florosophy Farms, Urbana
- Iron Meadows Flower Farm, Buckley
- Two Sisters Lavender Farm, LeRoy
- Sunflower fields (various)
- 5-Acre Daylilies, Tolono
Finally, what do you do when you are craving something farm-fresh and it’s not your community’s market day? A farm stand just might be the answer and we help you find them.
Get Your Hands Dirty
Growing things for yourself or for others? You can do both even if you lack your own garden. Public and community gardening are alive and well in C-U and we point you toward the info you need to get started.
University of Illinois Extension opportunities
If you are eager to learn more, consider one of these Extension programs.
Master Gardeners: These are trained volunteers who dedicate their time and skills to make their community a more beautiful place. Create and maintain demonstration gardens, answer gardening questions from the public at the County Extension Office, conduct gardening programs for small groups, and plan the group’s annual Garden Walk.
Master Naturalists: Learn more and do more to facilitate conservation in your community through such activities as seed collection, citizen science, removing invasive species, and other volunteering.