Things are happening at Gallagher Creek Park! This little park in the southwest corner of Oakland Township spans 15-acres at the headwaters of Gallagher Creek, an important water resource in the township which was home to a remnant native brook trout population just a few years ago. Outside the developed area near the parking lot, wetlands at Gallagher Creek Park host a variety of birds and wildlife, and prairie plantings installed between 2016 and 2018 blanket the upland areas.
In 2018 Oakland Township Parks and Recreation added a playground, picnic shelter, and rain garden at Gallagher Creek Park, and expanded the parking lot. All this work wrapped up just as fall set in last year. This spring we added finishing touches with installation of native plant landscaping around the playground. Join me, Ben VanderWeide, for a tour of the first year of our new landscaping!
Grownups, children and a baby-to-be playing at Gallagher Creek Park in fall 2018.
Native Plants for a Better World
We use native plants throughout our parks because they are important for a healthy environment. Native plants provide food resources and habitat for pollinators, and filter runoff and sediment from storm water flowing from developed areas of the park before it reaches Gallagher Creek. Check out great books by Doug Tallamy if you’re interested in learning more about the benefits of native plants.
The landscaping surrounding the playground and picnic pavilion creates a transition from the play area to the existing natural community in the park, connecting visitors, especially young children and their parents, to nature. We designed this transition landscape to be visually appealing by using low-growing plants, showy flowers, and neat edges. Check out our plant list here. Our native plant landscaping is a free, publicly accessible resource for educators, nature centers, and anyone who wants examples of how to use native plants.
Native plant landscaping design for Gallagher Creek Park.
After the playground and other improvements were finished in 2018, we were left with fairly compacted soils. Some areas had fill dirt and one spot had a thin layer of soil over driveway gravel! We didn’t have the time or resources to loosen the soil, so we just hoped the roots of our tough native plants would break through the hardpan. Our site preparation mostly involved removing sticks, large rocks, and any existing plants. The total area of the native planting is about 9,000 square feet.
The east side of the playground at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. April 12, 2019
The north side of the playground at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. April 12, 2019
The area near the parking lot had been accidentally seeded to turf the previous year, so we had to kill the grass first.
The temporary grass cover on south side of the playground near the parking lot at Gallagher Creek Park before native landscaping installation. May 9, 2019
A few weeks before we started planting, we celebrated the grand opening of the playground equipment and other improvements. Jane Giblin was there representing both The Wildflower Association of Michigan and Rochester Garden Club, two organizations which provided grants to help us buy plants. Stephanie Patil also generously gave us a donation to help purchase plants. Thanks!
Jane Giblin represented the Wildflower Association of Michigan and the Rochester Garden Club at the Gallagher Creek Park Grand Opening on May 23, 2019. Both organizations gave us grants to help install the native plant landscaping.
The last thing we did before planting was place the log edging. We used black locust logs left over from another project. Black locust resists rot, making it favorite choice for fence posts by farmers of the past. What a great use of this invasive tree!
We used aged black locust logs left over from another project as the edging for our landscaping. The edging helps give the landscaping a neat, yet rugged appearance.
All that preparation got us ready for the main event, planting! We put out the call for volunteers, and many of you showed up! The slideshow below shows our process. We first marked out each planting zone, then dug holes using a bulb planting bit on a gas-powered drill. After placing the plants in the holes, we carefully packed dirt around the plugs to eliminate air gaps. We mulched around the plants and gave them a good soaking. Finally, we put small identifications signs throughout the landscaping to help people learn the names of the species we’d planted.
Weeding and Watering Through the Summer
Even with careful site preparation and a few inches of mulch, we prepared ourselves for a big flush of weeds from our post-construction soils. The worst weed problem the first year was annual grasses, but we had to be vigilant as seedlings of cottonwood, Canada thistle, quack grass, and crown vetch emerged.
As summer began, we watered about twice per week to help the plants establish. Ample rain fell during the second half of the summer, so we only watered as needed. The seasonal stewardship staff did great work hauling water to the site in a large tank and keeping the weeds down. Thanks Alex, Marisa, and Grant! I know a few volunteers also stopped by to help with weeding. We couldn’t have done it without you!
Watering the new plants during the first season helps them establish deep roots. After the first season we won’t need to continue watering, though we’ll scan for weeds regularly.
Monarch Butterflies Love the Plants!
As plants grew larger, we found monarch caterpillars on the butterfly milkweed, and adults enjoying the nectar of blazing star. Hurray for pollinator habitat!
Plants like northern blazingstar (Liatris scariosa) were favorite nectar sources for monarch butterflies, while nearby butterfly milkweed provided hosts for their eggs and caterpillars.
Build it and they will come! Monarch butterflies wasted no time finding our butterfly milkweed. This caterpillar we found on August 27 might be overwintering in Mexico right now!
From Small Plugs to Big Plants
Our little plants didn’t look so small by early September! The sedges and grasses did especially well, providing nice texture and structure. Some forbs (wildflowers) did well and even flowered their first year; others invested their energy in putting down deep roots. We weren’t able to get some species in the spring, so we planted a few additional species in the fall – western sunflower (Helianthus occidentalis), round-leaved ragwort (Packera obovata), and nodding wild onion (Allium cernuum). Fall plantings don’t need to be watered as much, and the plants get a head start for the next year!
By the middle of September, the small plugs we’d planted were robust plants. The sedges and grasses did especially well the first year.
Flagstone paths provide routes to explore the colors, textures, smells, and sounds of the native plant landscaping. I can’t wait to see what this corner looks like next summer! September 13, 2019
Flagstone pathways allow children to play on the playground or explore the beauty of the native landscaping.
As summer turned to fall, the colors and textures of the grasses and sedges provided seasonal interest. In this picture we have muskingum sedge, little bluestem, Carex brevior, and prairie dropseed showing off different textures and shades of green. October 13, 2019
In October the interesting textures and shades of green from grasses and sedges replaced the pop of color that wildflowers provided during the summer. October 25, 2019.
Looking Ahead to Next Year
Next year we won’t have to plant everything again, so we’ll be switching gears to long-term maintenance. In 2019 we mulched the plantings to help retain moisture and suppress weeds, but we’re planning to reduce or eliminate additions of new mulch in the plantings over the next few years. We included several species that spread by rhizomes or stolons as part of our “green mulch” strategy – allowing the good plants to create a dense canopy that resists the establishment of new weeds.
Next year we won’t need to water, unless we have a severe drought. At that point, the plants should have established deep roots, and will be able to handle the normal fluctuations in moisture and temperature for southeast Michigan – another advantage of native plants!
Weeding will continue to be important until we’ve reduced the weed seed bank and established our green mulch. I’ve found that a few years of intensive weeding can reduce the weed pressure to almost nothing. Only a few quick scans will be required every month to catch problems before they become big ones.
Every year we’ll evaluate the species mix in our plantings. What’s doing well? What didn’t grow much? Do we have consistent blooms to support pollinators throughout the growing season? We’ll add species and thin others, fine-tuning our native landscaping.
The tenacious crew on the last day of planting. Thanks to all the parks staff and volunteers that worked so hard to bring beauty to our residents and food to our pollinators.
We’re looking forward to the challenge and joy of watching our native plant landscaping change and grow over time. We hope you’ll join us, whether you’ve been a gardener for decades or are just interested in native plant landscaping. All are welcome!