Gardening is helping people rediscover the appeal of spending time outside and close to home
Here are 3 favorite Champaign-Urbana area flower gardens to visit and some 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 three years later. Many of our neighbors are growing vegetable gardens in their backyards, or tending ambitious landscaping projects around their houses.
This post focuses on flowers in public spaces and market places, where we can enjoy the fresh air and share a community with others who hunger for beauty and renewal.
1 — Idea Garden, Japan House and Arboretum (southeast of Lincoln Avenue/Florida Avenue intersection, Urbana)
A wide range of garden experiences can be found here, 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 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 that admission to the gardens and grounds is free?) New in Fall 2023: courses open to the community in The Farms Folk School.
3 — Mabery Gelvin Botanical Garden at Lake of the Woods Forest Preserve (950 N. Lombard, Mahomet)
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 enable 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. During the past two holiday seasons, the CCFPD has transformed the garden into an illuminated family destination not to be missed.
Now that we’ve toured three area flower gardens, let’s visit some area farms that raise and sell flowers.
Delight Flower Farm (1472 County Road 500 E, Champaign)
Perhaps you’ve see the proprietors (below) at Urbana’s Market in the Square? Established in 2011, Delight Flower Farm is a sustainable, woman-owned flower farm. It grows a wide variety of cut flowers to sell wholesale as well as through business subscriptions, farmers markets, CSA memberships, and through its online shop. Other products of the farm include CBD hemp, edible flowers, medicinal herbs, and evergreen wreaths in winter. The farm offers a variety of workshops as well as providing flowers for weddings.
Look for Delight Flower Farm bouquets locally at Art Mart, C-U Flower House, Fleurish, and Hopscotch Bakery + Market in Champaign; the Common Ground Food Coop in Urbana; and many florists throughout Central Illinois. And keep an eye on its social media for events held on the farm, which often sell out.
Illinois Willows (1477 County Road 200 E, Seymour)
Since 1999, Kent Miles (below) 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. Illinois Willows also offers various levels of training to help independent farmers establish their own successful agricultural businesses.
Several more area farmers who sell cut flowers at area markets, fill special orders, act as wholesalers to florists or simply sell by the side of the road:
- Florosophy Farms, Urbana
- Iron Meadows Flower Farm, Buckley
- Lancaster Flower Co., Monticello
- Richard Oosterhoff & Son, Momence
- The Urban Gardens Company, Champaign
Want to pick your own flowers?
When the season is right, you can pick your own lavender at Two Sisters Farm in LeRoy. It won’t be a very long outing — there’s no frills on that farm, other than lavender items for sale — but it is a fun outdoor family bonding activity. Mariah’s Mums & More, near Clinton, offers u-pick zinnias on summer Saturdays and also by appointment until late September. You will also want to check out its one-of-a-kind field of vertically-grown strawberries, as well as the fresh produce, fall mums, and on-farm events.
What about farmers who want YOU to garden?
These last two farms have chosen a particular specialty — 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.
The Blooming Idiot (1477 County Road 200 E, Seymour)
Ben Montez (above) 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 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 from the ground while you wait. He prices his daylilies by the number of plants you buy: the more you buy, the cheaper they are.
5-Acre Farm Daylilies (1578 County Road 300 N, Tolono 217-621-8474)
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 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’re wondering, the daylily displayed by Rod above is the Sarah Christine, its ginormous bloom is 6 inches across, and a double fan would have set you back a mere $19 the day we visited.
5-Acre Farm Daylilies also has a robust mail-order business, which is why it generally doesn’t travel to markets, unlike many of the other flower farms in this post.
May you all bloom where you are planted. Happy gardening!
Did you enjoy this Tour of Bloom? Email us to suggest other flower gardens or flower farms in our area.
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