Bay View Apartment Building Boasts Prairie Gardens

July 31, 2018

By Sheila Julson

Former owner Mike Grinker planted two sections of prairie plants at the apartment building, 2624 S. Austin St., replacing a grass lawn. He was motivated by his desire to beautify the property for the benefit of his neighbors and other residents and to do his part to provide pollinator habitat. —Photo Katherine Keller

A Bay View apartment building on the corner of East Dover and South Austin streets has its own little prairie ecosystem. A vibrant mix of native prairie grasses and flowering perennials dance and bob in the breeze. Planted on the east and south property borders, purple coneflower, Black-eyed Susans, orange butterfly milkweed, and other native prairie species attract bees, butterflies, and other wildlife.

“When I was here yesterday mowing lawn, about five goldfinches came flying out. If you think about it, this is nature’s bird feeder. I’ve also seen baby rabbits,” said Scott Silverson, who, with his wife Emily, owns the building on Austin Street. They also own a dozen other properties throughout Milwaukee, through their property management firm Plinth Group, LLC.

The prairie plants on the steep incline that borders the parking
lot help slow and deter storm water runoff because their root systems are deep and the water tends to penetrate better. —Photo Katherine Keller

Silverson purchased the Austin Street build­ing from previous owner Mike Grinker in Spring 2017. Grinker, who owned the building for five years, was motivated to create the prairie gardens in response to reports of the declining numbers of bees and butterflies. “We had a desire to do our part and a desire to beautify the property
for the benefit of our neighbors and residents,” Grinker said. He and his wife Sharon worked with Chris Miracle from LandWorks, Inc., in Sussex, Wis., to make the plant selections.

“The landscaping has native plants and flowers. It’s something different, since there are already a lot of manicured lawns out there,” he said.

Silverson continues to work with LandWorks to help maintain the prairie gardens.

“It’s a big deal for pollinators, and there are many discussions in the news about how bees and bee habitat are disappearing, and that’s a problem,” Silverson said. Currently, Austin Street is the sole building among his properties that boasts a prairie garden. However, he recently finished a yard restoration project at another property where he replaced worn grass with a small garden plot for the residents to enjoy from their back porch.

Since he’s owned the property, Silverson made changes on the north side of the building. He removed trees that were too close to the neighbor’s house and replaced them with a mix of random plants and groundcover. LandWorks also assisted with that project.

The prairie plants on the steep incline that borders the parking lot help slow and deter storm water runoff because their root systems are deep and the water tends to penetrate better. “There are no big gushes of water. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewage District doesn’t have to drain as much [runoff water]. It’s a win-win all the way around,” Silverson said.

During the summer months, the prairie garden is in full bloom. Wisps of color accent lush greenery. But Silverson said that in spring and fall, the gardens take on a weak, weedy look. So he placed signs in each garden to inform passersby that they are looking at “native prairie plants.” The sign further informs, Please do not spray or mow. This area had been planted with native wildflowers and grasses, providing diverse habitat for pollinators, birds, and other wildlife.

“The signs are a way for people walking down the sidewalk to recognize what it is, and to maybe be inspired to try it themselves,” Silverson said. His tenants enjoy it, plus he uses the garden to market the building when he has a vacancy. 

—Photo Katherine Keller

The prairie gardens do not make the property maintenance-free, but Silverson said he probably does less maintenance than he would if the property was surrounded with a grass lawn.

This past spring, Silverson worked with LandWorks specialists to cut the garden back with a special trimmer and rake out weeds and dead plants. They also rake in autumn and harvest seeds for later use.

Silverson is intrigued by the gardening process and enjoys the trial and error, like watching plants grow, pulling weeds, and seeing where plants do or do not fill in an area.

He stressed that patience is a virtue, especially when establishing a prairie garden. “If you want it to be green tomorrow, you need to get sod!” he said with a laugh. “This takes a couple of years to get established, but I love it.”

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