Taming the wisteria

by Davie Kean, Master Gardener at T.C. Steele State Historic Site

Money doesn’t grow on trees in Brown County, but wisteria does. Long ago, Selma Steele planted the wisteria that covers this pergola with lavender blossoms each spring. This year it is blooming exceptionally early, along with the lilac in the foreground and the dogwood in the background.

Three species of wisteria grow in the U.S. including a native one, W. frutescens, but the Japanese and Chinese types are more common — and more invasive. Wisteria is a fast-growing vine that can reach up to 30 feet tall when supported. Unfortunately, when your house becomes the support, battle lines (and pruners) must be drawn. It’s hard to keep ahead of the rapid growth as creeps under shingles and twines around nearby trees.

Those unfamiliar with the plant might ask the name of this beautiful ‘tree’ (in the photo to the left) but it is just an ‘escaped’ wisteria, climbing up at the forest edge (to the detriment of the actual tree).

One way the vigilant gardener can enjoy this beautiful vine is by training it into a shrub form. By careful pruning and lots of patience, this can be the result:

There’s still time to enjoy these blooms close-up, but hurry or you may have to ‘settle’ for masses of peonies and iris instead. I encourage you to visit T.C. Steele State Historic Site this spring. Like wisteria, it will grow on you.

The Turner Garden

Contributed by Donovan Miller, Master Gardener and Museum Volunteer

Just in front of the museum, above the parking garage and out along Washington Street is the Turner Garden, a small green space you may never have noticed. But as you drive down the parking ramp, catch a glimpse of flowering plants above and beside you. This is the Turner Garden presently designated as “Wildflower Meadow.”

Over the spring and summer a group of volunteers began renovation to update the plot. The goal is to replicate a Midwest prairie — typical of the grasslands of the Great Plains. Devoid of trees, this area will feature native grasses and forbs (prairie flowers) in an approximate ratio of 50/50 grasses and flowers. The project is being attacked in sections with an eye to completion in four years.

The plan to make changes in the garden arose with the recognition that two species of plants, Rosinweed and Bee Balm, were becoming dominant in the plot. Without attention it appeared that we would gradually see only a tall yellow flowering plant, Rosinweed, and the violet of Bee Balm. Though attractive native plants, these were crowding out the brilliant orange of Butterfly Weed, the white flowers and bluish foliage of Wild Indigo and many other natives. Installation of the first section is now complete. Note photos for a contrasting view before and after renovation.

An inviting wood-chip path has been cut through the growth to give up-close access to the plants, insect and bird life. This time of year the goldfinches and other seeding-eating birds are in profusion. The pollinating bees and other insects are everywhere to be viewed at a safe distance. Come take a walk, see all the color and fauna activity along the path. You may catch a glimpse of a mouse scurrying across the path. Lift your eyes to the museum roof where a resident red-tailed hawk may be waiting to pounce on an unsuspecting rodent. In the center of the city, at the Indiana State Museum, lives this vibrant slice of nature … a true respite from the bustle of the city.

Spring has sprung at the Lanier Mansion

Written by Anne Fairchild, State Historic Sites Eastern Region School Programs Manager

Top 10 Ways to Know Spring has come to the Lanier Mansion
1.  Gardening buffs attended our “Garden Affair” luncheon and discovered new ways to make their gardens more beautiful and fun!

2.  Even with cutbacks, some schools are still planning their annual spring field trips 

3.  Robins are fighting to see who gets the primo nesting spots

4.  We already mowed the lawn last week

5.  Dog walkers, cyclists and runners are out and about

6.  The Easter Bunny and Mother Goose helped us give away a thousand Easter eggs during our “Easter Egg Hunt on the Lawn”

7.  People dug shorts and sandals out of their closets to stroll along the River Walk as temperatures rose into the 80s last week

8.  Spring is in full bloom with flowering forsythia bushes, dogwoods, cherry trees, redbuds, daffodils, tulips, magnolias and more

9.  Our first wedding of the season is next week

10.  The visitors are back and enjoying the sights and sounds of Madison by visiting the Lanier Mansion, watching barges towing cargo up and down the beautiful Ohio River and taking in the fresh spring weather

Spring is an excellent time to visit many of our State Historic Sites. For information, please visit indianamuseum.org/sites.

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Celebrate Abe Camp Diary

Celebrate Abe Summer Camp took place at the Vincennes State Historic Site July 13 through 17.

Making butter.

Making butter.

Day One: The first day of camp is always an exciting day. The campers arrive full of wonder and, of course, energy. We have planned the week’s activities and they are anticipating them. Some of the campers know each other, some do not. This year we have two campers who are staying with grandparents in order to attend our camp. We are proud to see that a new generation is engaged in the quest for knowledge of our nation’s history. It is easy to pick out who will be the future historians, archaeologists, preservers of our story. It is also fun to watch as they gain a real understanding of what our forefathers endured and overcame. Today, the campers learned how to start a fire, grind corn and make cornbread. They also made butter. One of the campers commented that they would have starved if they had to go through all of this to get supper. I can’t wait to see what tommorrow brings! Continue reading

There was a little chigger …

There was a little chigger, that wasn’t any bigger…*

So begins this summertime song, sung by children scratching along in time to the melody. Sad to say, chigger season has returned — and the timing wasn’t so great for our first Sunday afternoon ‘Get-together in Selma’s Garden.’

Our new series of garden programs is a thinly-disguised attempt to recruit volunteers to help in maintaining the gardens at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Eight brave souls showed up, hoping to learn about Selma Steele’s garden techniques and weed identification, but after doing some hands-on (and in) weed I.D. in the garden, I’m afraid they took home more than just information. Continue reading

A Striking Contrast

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

Elderberry blossoms at TC Steele State Historic Site

It’s hard to imagine a contrast that’s not striking. In fact, one definition of contrast  is, “One thing that is strikingly different from another.” I’ve been enjoying an example of this right in my backyard.

The elderberry bushes at the edge of the yard, although beautiful on their own, are enhanced by the dark backdrop of the forest edge. And though I’m content just to sit and enjoy the view from the porch, those dark shadows beneath the shrubs make the forest mysteriously inviting. Continue reading


What’s one of the best ways to improve your outdoor environment? Plant some shrubs! They provide variety, shape, form and balance—all elements of good landscape design. If you stick to annuals and perennials alone, you’ll be missing out, and so will your garden.

A recommendation I’ve read is to buy one shrub for every five perennials. The gardens at T.C. Steele State Historic Site suggest that Selma Steele followed this formula, then doubled it. Leaving aside identification, just taking an inventory of the number of different shrubs planted here would be quite an undertaking. Any volunteers?

shrub_deutziaIn full flower this week is another shrub that I was unfamiliar with, and I wanted to I.D. it before someone asked me about it. Fortunately my book had a good picture, so now Deutzia and I are on a first name (Genus) basis. We’ll have to get better acquainted before I know its species.

Forsythia, Flowering Quince, Lilac, Wisteria (pruned into a bush form), Mock Orange, Carolina Allspice, and now Deutzia—with Rose of Sharon and Hydrangea yet to follow. I’ve already lost count of all the bushes that have bloomed and it’s not even June. The site lacks only identifying tags to make it a botanical garden.

Why did Selma Steele include so many shrubs in her landscape? Was she inspired by one of the many Purdue publications she ordered to help her plan her gardens? Did her art background and training tell her that a shrub would make a great focal point? Perhaps she wanted to introduce fragrance into her garden. She may have appreciated the combination of native wildflowers and understory shrubs in the nearby woods. Likely all of these reasons played a part.

Shrubs are not for those wanting instant gratification. They are a long term investment, one that grows over time. Selma understood this. Always with an eye to the future, she planned it so that not only the shrubs, but her husband’s paintings, would be around for others to enjoy for many years (64 so far).

Buying a T.C. Steele landscape is out of the question for most of us, but there’s no question that our own landscapes would benefit from adding a few shrubs — it worked for Selma.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

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