The Front Island Bed: A Wildlife-Friendly Spot Full of Bold Plants

The Front Island Bed lies between the Sidewalk Border and the low retaining wall of the expanded Foundation Bed. It is filled mostly with taller plants that enjoy lots of moisture, since the soil is a moist clay loam. It gets almost full sun, even though it is on the north side of the house. It’s also more of a peninsula than an island, I guess, since I expanded it to go right up to the retaining wall for a couple of feet.

Garden Design
The Front Island Bed, July 2012

The Front Island Bed is separated from the Sidewalk Border and the Driveway Border by grass paths, roughly 3′ wide. The key plants in this bed, from front to back, are as follows:

Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). I have both the straight species and the cultivar ‘Ice Ballet’. The species is taller (4-5′) with pink flowers, ‘Ice Ballet’ is shorter (3-4′) with white flowers. Both have a delicious vanilla scent, and both have long bloom periods, starting by late June and lasting into August.

Asclepias incarnata
Swamp Milkweed, straight species


The seed pods can be beautiful in fall. Under the right conditions (sun, moist soil) this plant is easy to grow. Like other Milkweeds, Swamp Milkweed is a host plant for Monarch butterflies, and are superlative nectar plants for pollinators. I think the Perennial Plant Association doesn’t want us to use the common name “Swamp Milkweed”, so you may find it listed in catalogs and elsewhere as “Red Milkweed”. Swamp Milkweed will self-sow and form expanding clumps, but it is not an overly aggressive plant.

Asclepias incarnata 'Ice Ballet'
Swamp Milkweed ‘Ice Ballet’ (white)


Swamp Milkweed seed pods
Swamp Milkweed seed pods

New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae). The New England Aster stands more or less behind the Swamp Milkweed. This aster has spun off innumerable cultivars, but I have the straight species. This guy is a tall aster (5-6′) with variable flowers – mostly blue but sometimes pink or purple. He will spread by seed and by rhizome, but I don’t have to work too hard to keep him in bounds. Blooms August to October. I highly recommend cutting back hard at least once during the season, in order to get a bushier plant of more manageable height. A good nectar plant for butterflies, and birds will eat the seeds.

New England Aster
New England Aster

Cup Plant (Silphium perfoliatum). I’ve written about this plant, which is a particular favorite of mine, in a number of posts. Cup Plant stands behind the New England Aster on the right side of the Island Bed. To avoid being overly repetitive, I will just summarize: VERY tall (8-10′), yellow daisy flowers from July to September, bold foliage that forms “cups” that hold rainwater around the stem, seeds are loved by goldfinches.

Cup Plant
Cup Plant

Sweet Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum). Gaah! I just discovered that Joe Pye Weeds are now Eutrochiums, not Eupatoriums. That’s very annoying! But back to the topic at hand. Sweet Joe Pye Weed is like the more common variety ‘Gateway’ except that it is taller (7-8′), flowers earlier (July-August), and the flowers are more of a dusty pink. Supposedly the leaves are fragrant, but I haven’t noticed any fragrance myself. This plant sits behind the New England Aster and along side the Cup Plant.  The flowers are attractive to butterflies.

Sweet Joe Pye Weed
Sweet Joe Pye Weed in the front island bed.

This is a taller bed because it is generally viewed over the tops of other beds. Most of the plants require some serious staking. I use 10′ rebar for the Cup Plant and the Sweet Joe Pye Weed. It does have some shorter plants in the front: Blue Stem Goldenrod (Solidago caesia),  Geranium ‘Johnson’s Blue” and Northern Sea Oats (Chasmanthium latifolium). I removed most of the Chasmanthium I originally planted and replaced them with the Geranium, because I found this grass to be too tall and floppy to have very much of it at the front of the border.

Blue Stem Goldenrod
Blue Stem Goldenrod

There are also a couple of volunteer Brown Eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba) that I allowed to grow that provide nice contrasts of color and form.

All of the plants in this bed, other than the ‘Johnson’s Blue’ are native to this part of North America. At the moment this is one of the beds where I am not scheming to add new plants or move things around.


32 Comments on “The Front Island Bed: A Wildlife-Friendly Spot Full of Bold Plants”

  1. Bold plants indeed and beautiful too! Typically I avoid tall sun lovers because I don’t have much full sun and I’m terrible at staking. Usually don’t get around to it until the whole garden collapses and then it’s too late :). Best for me to enjoy the fruits of other gardener’s labors in this department.

  2. I love ALL of these plants! There seems to be a lot of variability in Joe Pye Weed (and I still call them Eupatorium from time to time). I have one that flops (but only once the flowers are fully formed…the extra weight just seems to be too much), but another one, just a dozen or so feet away, that has never flopped. The one that flops also has much denser growth, so perhaps they are two different varieties, after all…I find seedlings around now and then…as I’d love to have another of the “non-flopping” ones…to replace the flopper! Oh…and yes, 10′ rebar, sunk about 3′ into the ground is the only thing sturdy enough to keep the one upright!

  3. Hi Jason, I love the way you name all your beds and borders!! You pick such a diverse range of plants, it’s really fascinating. I definitely want to grow more asters this year and think they would work well in my unnamed beds and borders that I am now going to think up names for : )

  4. You and I have all the same plants! I have all of these, too. I love my cup plant. My solidago caesia is actually chugging along in dry shade with the sea oats. I’ve struggled with my milkweed, though. It’s been hard to find a spot that’s moist and sunny enough. I moved it (again!) this fall and hopefully this will be the last time. Love your wildlife garden! 🙂

  5. In looking for information about La Cortine Tulips, your site popped-up. What a great blog!

    Having lived in Evanston, having practiced landscape architecture in Glenview and having been a past member of the Chicago Botanic Gardens, your blog has brought back some nice memories. I look forward to reading more.

  6. I agree that swamp milkweed needs another common name, but “Red Milkweed” is hardly an improvement. I think it is beautiful, and flying insects love it. I just planted seeds this year, and I am delighted to see growth emerging from the earth. I hope mine is as beautiful as yours!

    Also, thanks for your comment on my own post! You asked about the birdhouse. It came from an estate sale. The hole is sized for bluebirds, but I don’t know what birds have lived in it. It may be too large for chickadees.

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