Landscaping with Native Plants – One Small Step at a Time

I am an enthusiastic advocate for landscaping with native plants. I preach this message at our spring and fall plant sales, talk about it in presentations, plan and promote lectures and symposia around this and other related topics, and run an Earth Partnership for Schools Program that has planted prairie pocket gardens at more than 60 schools in Kansas over the last 10 years.

But when it comes to my home landscape, I have been TERRIBLE historically at practicing what I preach. The saying “the cobbler’s children have no shoes” has certainly applied to me when it comes to my landscaping. For a majority of my home ownership years, I have hypocritically landscaped mostly with a lawnmower.

Such actions were not intentional as I knew and desired better. I love aesthetically-rich native plant communities that offer a variety of flowers and seeds throughout the year and I love all the different types of wildlife that they attract. I know the ecological principle that greater plant diversity in my yard will lead to greater wildlife diversity of insects, birds, amphibians, mammals, and reptiles. I know that trying to grow a thick monoculture of grass requires regular inputs of water, fertilizer, herbicides, and sometimes even pesticides – none of which are in sync with environmental stewardship or human health. I know that it takes thousands of caterpillars to feed a nest of young birds and that plant monocultures do not host many caterpillars.

I’ve always known better, but have used the excuses of a lack of time and money to keep from doing better.

A few years ago, I decided to try to make some incremental changes…baby steps even. Sara and I started digging up small square-footage sections of our lawn each spring and fall, covering them with newspapers and mulch, and putting in 10, 20, or 30 plants at a time. The time commitment and $ outlay to plant and establish each of these native plant beds was manageable. We’d lose a few plants here and there, but the majority would survive with regular watering in the first year to get those soon-to-be deep, perennial maintenance-free roots established.

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New applications of mulch from the free municipal mulch pile in Newton once per year and weekly regular visits throughout each week were not only manageable time allotments, but provided welcome forms of exercise and reflection. Weeding, when done in regular and short repetitions, has actually become enjoyable and therapeutic for me.

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As plants become established and more profuse in their flowering each year, my enjoyment of these native plant gardens has grown. And the wildlife has seemed to enjoy the plants too. There are loads of insects pollinating flowers, and more species of butterflies and birds appear to be visiting our yard. I haven’t seen snakes yet, but have seen toads and a salamander. There has even been a pair of brown bats in my bat house the last couple of years that for many years was empty.

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My home landscape is far from perfect and it may never meet my grandest expectations. Not all of the species I bring in are native and there is always more weeding to do than I will give time. Soccer, croquet, and wiffleball games still require that a chunk of lawn remain. But baby steps forward progress is being made.

Native Plant Combinations for the Landscape

Many people who visit our FloraKansas Plant Sale are very interested in converting their gardens to using native plants, but they often are unsure of which plants to put together and in what configurations. Here are a few tried and true combinations that I have enjoyed, both in our plantings at the Arboretum, and at my home. I hope these suggestions start to get your creativity flowing.

(In addition, you may want to check out these other resources: Landscaping Recipe Card, Establishing Native Plants, and Other Native Plant Landscape Designs)

Perennial Gardens Using Natives

Use these native plant combinations in either a foundation or island planting. Each garden can be modified to fit your space. These plant combinations have been carefully selected to provide year around interest with minimal maintenance required, and will attract a diverse group of pollinators.

PERENNIAL BORDER-SUN

  • Five Panicum ‘Northwind’ and five Baptisia ‘Pink Truffles’ in the back row, alternating
  • Seven Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’, middle back row
  • Seven Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’,  middle front row
  • Seven Solidago ‘Little Lemon’ and seven Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’ in the front row, alternating

 

PERENNIAL BORDER-SUN Less than 36 inches tall

  • Seven Panicum virgatum Cheyenne Sky’ in the back row
  • Seven Agastache ‘Summer Love’  in the middle back
  • Five Echinacea paradoxa and five Schizachryium ‘Standing Ovation’, alternating in the middle front
  • Five Aster ‘Snow Flurry’, five Callirhoe involucrata and five Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition alternating in the front row
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Purple Poppy Mallow and Blue Grama

ISLAND PLANTING-SUN

  • Three Cephalanthus ‘Sugar Shack’ (Center)
  • Five Schizachyrium ‘Blue Paradise’, five Liatris spicata ‘Alba’, three Butterfly weed, alternating in the middle row back
  • Five Aster ‘October Skies’’ and three butterfly weed middle row front
  • Seven Oenothera macrocarpa and seven Prairie Dropseed, alternating front row
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Butterfly weed and Shasta Daisy

SHADE

  • Three Oakleaf Hydrangea, back row
  • Five Solidago caesia, middle row back
  • Five Aquilegia canadensis and five Polygonatum biflorum, middle row front, alternating
  • Nine Carex eburnea, front row

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Plants for containers

These combinations will provide interesting colors, textures and blooms throughout the growing season. Each list of plants are for larger pots that are at least 12-18 inches in diameter. Place center plants in pot first, then arrange other perennials evenly around the rim of the container.  I really enjoyed my potted native plants last year.  It was amazing to watch the pollinators come up to my back deck.  It was like having a front row seat.

SUN

Three Coreopsis ‘Cosmic Eye’
Two Heuchera
One Gaura ‘Rosyjane’
One Schizachyrium ‘Twilight Zone’ (Center)

 

Three Agastache ‘Raspberry Summer’
One Panicum ‘Northwind’ (Center)
Three Monarda ‘Grape Gumball’

 

One Physocaprus ‘Tiny Wine’
Three Agastache ‘Kudos Yellow’
Three Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition’

SHADE

Three Heuchera ‘Autumn Leaves’
Three Carex appalachica
One Solidago odora (Center)

 

Three Native Ferns
Two Wild Ginger
One Aruncus ‘Misty Lace’ (Center)

PART SUN

One Rhus ‘Tiger Eyes’ (Center)
Two Heuchera ‘Obsidian’
Two Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’

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These are do it yourself native plant combinations that will work well, if matched to your landscape.  They will provide easy care, attract a wide variety of wildlife, while providing beauty for your garden.  Just choose a set of plants that fit your area or pot.

As the saying goes, “…if you build it they will come” or in this case “…if you plant it they will come.”  Have fun in your garden this year.

 

Katie’s Plant Picks: Mint Family

Working in the Arboretum greenhouse is a terrible temptation. I love my perennial garden at home and I never stop adding new specimens, so our selection of natives and adaptables this year is a treasure trove for me. I must truly exercise some self control to prevent my entire paycheck from turning into wildflowers. Until I win the lottery or inherit a rich uncle’s fortune, I will have to just pick a few favorites!

If you, like me, have a fond eye for every flower, then it may be helpful to guide your shopping this year by selecting a plant family to collect. Researching a scientific plant family and finding those species native to your area can help lend a theme to your garden, add cohesiveness, and curtail your wild garden spirit.

This year I am going to plant from the mint family, Lamiaceae, or formerly, Labiatae. Lucky for me, our upcoming sale has lots of gorgeous options!

A red variety of bee balm shown with solidago (Left) and a light purple monarda fistulosa (Right)

A red variety of bee balm shown with solidago (Left) and a light purple Monarda fistulosa (Right). Bee balm is part of the mint family.

Family Traits

Lamiaceae (lame-ee-ay-see-ee or lame-ee-ay-see-ii) is a large plant family with of over 3500 species. In science lingo, families are groupings of plant genera – a fancy way to say that these plants share common traits. A tell-tale sign of a mint family member is a strong aroma from the leaves, be it traditionally minty or not. These plants are some of the most valuable aromatic, culinary and medicinal crops in the world – rosemary, oregano, thyme, basil, salvia, hyssop, bee balm, and lavender are all a part of this big family.

Mint family plants commonly have square stems and flowers with bilateral symmetry (top and bottom do not match but sides mirror each other). The pictures in this post will hopefully help you to recognize some of the common traits shared among the mint family, and soon you will be identifying mint family species on your own!

Following are my top mint family picks from our plant sale, along with a list of varieties available.

Agastache 'Raspberry Summer' (left) Salvia azurea (right)

Agastache ‘Raspberry Summer’ (left)                                                                       Salvia azurea (right)

My Plant Picks

One of my top picks from the mint family is agastache, commonly known as hyssop or hummingbird mint. It thrives in sun and heat and its leaves emanate a wonderfully minty scent. Its tubular flowers attract hummingbirds to the garden. We are offering it in yellow, orange, blue, violet, and pink – perfect for whatever color combination you can dream up! Blooming from early summer to late fall, agastache is a showstopper year after year in the landscape.

A. foeniculumAgastache ‘Kudos Yellow’ ‘Kudos Coral’ ‘Raspberry Summer’ ‘Summer Sunset’
‘Summer Love’ ‘Blue Boa’ ‘Violet Visions’

Salvia is another sun loving flower that I will be adding to my garden this year. Pictured above is a native variety, growing as tall as 5 feet in the right conditions. Salvias come in all shapes and sizes; mound forming, tall and showy, wispy, etc., and many different colors. Their long flowering spikes add nice movement in the breezy garden and are beloved by butterflies. The sale will have saturated deep blues and magenta available, as well as lighter tones, pink and lavender.

S. azurea ‘Grandiflora’ – S. pitcherii ‘Nekan’ – S. greggii ‘ Furman’s Red’ ‘Ultra Violet’ – S. nemerosa Violet Riot’ ‘Pink Dawn’ ‘Crystal Blue’ ‘Caradonna’ – S. macrophylla ‘Hot Lips’ ‘Windwalker Royal Red’

If you love the smell of Earl Grey tea then monarda is for you! Commonly called bee balm or wild bergamot (because of its similar fragrance to Citrus bergamia, source of earl grey tea), the leaves of this plant release their pleasant aroma every time you water or brush past. This year we are offering many different varieties of monarda, some native and others hybridized, in various shades of red and purple.

M. fistulosaM. didyma ‘Pardon My Pink’ ‘Pardon My Purple’ ‘Pardon My Cerise’ ‘Leading Lady Plum’ ‘Grape Gumball’ ‘Lilac Lolipop ‘ ‘Cotton Candy’  ‘Cherry Pops’ ‘Rockin Raspberry’

It’s hard to only pick a few when we have so many ‘minty’ options! More than just the three discussed here, we also have catmint (Nepeta sp.), Russian sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) and lavender (Lavendula ‘Phenomenol’), and many more. If you come to the sale, you know where to find me – hovering near the mint family plants, sniffing away!

 

Some information fact checked at http://delta-intkey.com/angio/www/labiatae.htm
Photos from Dyck Arboretum archives and Walter’s Gardens media resources.

 

 

 

 

Gardening as Entertainment

For me, there’s something fun, exciting, and even entertaining about gardening.  It is an adventure every year. I love the journey of taking a plant, any plant, and making it grow.  To see a plant transformed into something that produces a crop for me to use or a flower for me to enjoy is extremely gratifying.  It’s a very personal journey, because of the time you spend and the choices you make.  Actively gardening appeals to the senses.  I don’t want to get all sappy, but to touch, see, hear, and watch the landscape change with a little input and time from me is very fulfilling.

How do we make gardening landscaping more enjoyable? I have thought quite a bit about this question – particularly about making landscaping with native plants more appealing to the general public.  What would motivate someone to spend time and energy developing a native landscape?  Ultimately, it is their choice, but if it were viewed as entertainment, we couldn’t produce enough plants to meet the demand.

So let’s look at gardening as entertainment.  We all want to be entertained. At least I do.  So here are some ways tending a landscape can entertain you.

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Changes throughout the year.

Where else can you go and get year-round beauty?  If you go to the Konza Prairie near Manhattan, you can experience the natural beauty that occurs as the seasons progress.  Every couple of weeks you will see something new. Subtle changes to the landscape provide surprising beauty.  It is no different in our own landscapes.  If you have just three to four plants in bloom during each season of the year, combined with some native grasses, you can mimic that larger landscape on a much smaller scale.  Think of your landscape as a canvas with constantly changing colors, shapes, patterns and textures.  Sounds very attractive, doesn’t it?

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Wildlife.

To watch a monarch butterfly flit from flower to flower is amazing.  To see a hummingbird sipping the nectar from a tubular flower can be mesmerizing.  Blazing stars (Liatris aspera) covered with ten different pollinators at the same time captures your attention.  Just think about the many benefits of native plants.  One of the most important benefits to pollinators is the symbiotic relationship plants and wildlife have with each other.  If you enjoy live entertainment, watching wildlife in your garden can captivate your attention.

TigerSwallowtail on liatris

Relaxation.

We are all living increasingly busy lives.  We don’t have enough time to step back and unwind.  Gardens give us the space to relax.  Plant a garden that is manageable.  If you are really busy focus, on a small area you will use the most or see the most from your home.  For me, my garden is entertainment. An oasis from a hectic life.  A chance to get my hands in the soil.  The smell of freshly turned soil is soothing.  My garden draws me away from personalities, stress, and performance and brings me back to my roots.  Gardening is about touching things that are real and alive, engaging the senses, and enjoying the journey year after year.

Gardening is a choice worth making.  Your landscape can touch your senses, give you a place to go and get the recovery you need and entertain you.  A choice to garden and create a landscape for your enjoyment is never unwise.  Embrace the journey!