Finding Common Ground with Native Landscaping

In the gardening off season now, you have a chance to think about the big picture of what you want for your landscape. Consider a plan that resonates with the general public by finding common ground with native landscaping. I will offer some suggestions that help keep your native landscaping from looking like a “weed patch”.

Let’s start with some perspective. Landscaping in the United States has many different influences and varies greatly from formal to wild/ecological. You have a whole spectrum of styles to consider.

Formal Gardening

Many of us were taught to appreciate the formal landscapes and garden designs made famous in Europe and France centuries ago featuring rectilinear lines with meticulously-trimmed lawns and hedges. Much of our society today still prefers this landscaping style as is evident in city codes and homeowner association regulations that encourage and even mandate manicured vegetation. With this style, we value leaves over flowers, vegetation simplicity, order, control and tidiness. Intensive use of mowers, trimmers, water, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, help efficiently maintain this style of landscaping that symbolizes human domination of nature.

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Gardens of Château de Villandry, France. Photo by Peter Dutton.

Ecological Restoration

On the other end of the landscaping spectrum is ecological restoration. Plant communities native to a place are used as the blueprint to reconstruct a functioning ecosystem. Seeds of that plant community (i.e., prairie grasses and wildflowers in South Central Kansas) are planted and disturbance vectors (i.e., fire and grazing) that originally maintained that plant community are restored. While intensive preparation and planning go into reconstructing a prairie, this style of landscaping is eventually low maintenance, requires only implementing/simulating occasional disturbance, and mostly embodies working in sync with nature.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Native landscaping advocates, promote many benefits of this latter landscaping style:

  • Colorful flowers and seed heads with varied shapes and textures
  • Diverse habitats with food and shelter that attract various forms of wildlife
  • Dynamic landscapes that provide year-round visual enjoyment
  • Long-term low input needs with regard to water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides
  • Adaptation to natural environmental conditions
  • A cultural connection to earlier inhabitants that used native vegetation for food, medicine, and ritual; building a “sense of place”

There are barriers, however, to landscaping this way in cities. Fires and grazing are not practical in urban areas. Annual mowing adequately simulates these activities, but dealing with that much biomass can still be cumbersome. Codes limiting vegetation height and social expectations driven by the formal garden mindset are hurdles for folks wanting to landscape with native plants. Native plantings are often seen as messy “weed patches”.

But you can still landscape with native plants in publicly palatable ways and enjoy many of the listed benefits. While my training and education are in ecological restoration and I used to be an advocate for restoring diverse prairies in urban areas, I realize that is not usually practical. I’ve moved towards the middle of the landscaping spectrum when it comes to recommendations on landscaping with native plants, to find common ground between formal and ecological styles.

With more than a decade of lessons learned from helping schools implement native plant gardens, I’d like to offer some of the following management practices to make native plant gardens more visually appealing to the general public.

Native Plant Garden Best Management Practices

  1. Define Garden Goals – Wildlife habitat in general? Single species habitat (e.g., monarch)? Rain garden? High profile or in backyard? Prairie or woodland?
  2. Start Small – Hand irrigation to establish plants in the first year is important as well as establishing a regular weeding routine takes time. Keep the workload manageable. You can always enlarge/add more gardens later.
  3. Prepare the Site – Eradicate existing perennials with a couple of Glyphosate treatments in summer, especially important for getting rid of weed enemy #1, Bermuda grass.
  4. Consider Height Proportions – Think about being able to see layers of plants. Island gardens are visually more appealing with shorter plants and there are many short to medium height native options to consider. Gardens against building walls do allow for taller vegetation in the back.

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    Be sure that plants are not too tall for the scale of small island plantings.

  5. Add Hardscaping – Include features such as bird baths, feeders, houses, artwork, and benches for human enjoyment.
  6. Get Edgy – Establish the boundary where weeding meets mowing. A flexible edge such as flat pieces of limestone is a favorite. A visible edge also conveys that this garden is purposeful.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

  7. Clumping of Species – When a garden has high visibility for the public, choose fewer species and plant them in clumps or waves to convey that this garden is intentional. Too many species planted will appear random and thrown together over time.

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    Suggestions for planting in waves or clumps.

  8. Don’t Fertilize – Native plants will survive fine without fertilizer. Extra nutrients benefit weeds and only make native plants taller (and more wild looking).
  9. Mulch Is Your Friend – One or two applications (2”-4” deep) of free wood chip mulch from the municipal pile or delivered by a tree trimmer keeps the native garden looking good and helps control weeds. A layer or two of newspaper under the mulch also minimizes weeds.
  10. Signage Educates – Whether a wildlife certification sign or species identification labels, signage helps convey that this garden is intended to be there. Education leads to acceptance.
  11. Weeding Is Mandatory –Weeding regularly and often minimizes the need for a long backbreaking weeding session that will make you hate your garden. It is therapeutic and good exercise. Plus, a high frequency of visits to your garden will add to your appreciation and enjoyment.

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    Weeding can be fun!

Now, resume your planning and consider going native. Do so in a visually pleasing way and maybe your neighbors will follow suit.

Photo Credits

With a Voice of Thanksgiving

For each new morning with its light, for rest and shelter of the night, for health and food, for love and friends, for everything Thy goodness sends, for flowers that bloom about our feet; for tender grass, so fresh, so sweet; for song of bird, and hum of bee; for all the things fair we hear or see, Father in heaven, we thank Thee! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Little Bluestem

Indian Grass

Indian Grass

Cheyenne Sky

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

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Monarch on New England Aster

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Arkansas Bluestar Fall Color

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple

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Native Blackhaw Viburnum

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Luminary Walk – Photo by Tom Sawin

 

May you all be blessed throughout this holiday season.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

 

Dogs at the Arboretum

Getting to be out and about on the Arboretum grounds every day is the best part of my job. I get to truly experience the weather and the change of seasons and to fellowship with our squirrels, turtles, spiders, and snakes (and this week, a opossum!). But best of all I get to greet our regular visitors as they make laps. We have quit a few hardy citizens who can be seen daily on our walking path, getting their dose of exercise at the Arboretum. I admire the fortitude of these walkers, joggers and scooters – but some of our most enthusiastic visitors are, of course, dogs.

Marty can always be spotted because of her bright pink harness

Marty can always be spotted because of her bright pink harness.

It’s a Dog-Sniff-Dog World

I am wholeheartedly a “dog person”. Big slobbery ones, little timid ones … I love ’em all! And it seems they love the Arboretum. We have a surprising amount of every-day dogs with very dedicated owners; on a good day at work I might get to pet 5 or 6 dogs before noon. Bugs to chase and hundreds of trees to sniff, it must be a dog paradise.

Sadie

Sadie

Gomez and DeeDee

Gomez and DeeDee, our favorite dachshunds

Safer than walking them along the street, the Arb is a walking oasis away from traffic. The cement paths help file their nails while they get their exercise, and they may even get to spot some geese landing in the pond or bunnies in the hedgerow.

Honey, sticking her tongue out at the camera

Honey, sticking her tongue out at the camera

The Rules

If you are walking your dog at the Arboretum, please be courteous to others who may not be as fond of dogs as I am and follow our doggie policies – Dogs MUST be on a leash at all times and kept under control. If your dog needs a place to run free, then we suggest a visit to the Hesston Dog Park or the Newton Dog Park. Also, you MUST clean up after your dog. We do not provide waste bags here, so be sure to bring one from home when you visit.

If you don’t pick it up, I will have to, and that diminishes my love for other people’s dogs just a little bit…

Missy the Shih Tzu

Missy the shih tzu

There are many more of my favorite Arboretum pooches that I couldn’t catch on camera – Comet the dalamation, Misty the schnauzer and Goldie the King Charles spaniel. I love that our doggie community is active and thriving and that these pups get to experience a bit of nature here at the Arboretum. If you plan to walk here regularly, consider getting a membership that helps fund our efforts to keep this place up-to-sniff for you and your dog. Admission is free with an annual membership (otherwise $2 per visit, which you can deposit at the donation pole along the path), and with it your pooch gets unlimited tummy scratches from the dog-crazy grounds manager.

Pest Profile: Oak Leaf Itch Mites

If you have oak trees, particularly pin oak trees, in your landscape, it is not safe to go outside.  Invisible mites fall out of these oak trees and land on anything and anyone under the branches.  They bite and cause severe itching and extreme discomfort.  I liken the bites to a chigger bite on steroids.  These bites are not pleasant.

Oak leaf itch mites are microscopic, making them nearly invisible to the naked eye.  They land on your body and instinctively start to bite.  And ouch do they bite.  To me they are new, but evidently there have been outbreaks of oak leaf mites in 2004, 2009, 2015 and 2016.  The tiny spider-like creatures came to the U.S. from Central Europe in the 1990’s to Kansas City.  Since that time, they have spread throughout the Midwest causing misery wherever they land.

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Oak Leaf Gall Mite-USDA

The last two years, my oak trees have been attacked by a small midges that causes raised areas along the veins of the leaf.  These vein pocket galls are not harmful to the oak tree, but oak leaf itch mites will feed on the larvae of these gall formers.  My oak trees have been covered with these deformed leafs.  It makes my yard ground zero for oak mites.  I would love to enjoy these beautiful evenings outside on my deck, but not with oak leaf itch mites waiting to bite me again.  Their bites are not worth going outside.

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Vein pocket galls

What can be done?  Should we avoid going outside?  Does bug repellent work on oak leaf itch mites?  There are no easy answers.  Ultimately, it is best to avoid contact with them as much as possible.  That may be difficult since nearly 300,000 oak leaf itch mites fall from one tree per day.  Windy days can drop more of them.  If you are outside to rake leaves or mow your lawn, wear a hat, a long sleeve shirt and jeans.  I would even spray some bug repellent on my shoulders and arms.  It is also critical that you bathe after exposure to the mites and wash your clothes immediately, because they can crawl off and stay alive in your house.

I want these mites to go away forever, but it seems they are here to stay.  A hard freeze will hasten their disappearance but they can overwinter and come back next year.  Only a prolonged period of cold weather will adversely affect them.  Right now, it doesn’t feel like that will happen any time soon.  I wish I had better news.  I guess we need an extended polar vortex to freeze them to death.  That doesn’t sound very pleasant either.

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Seeds for the Future

The words “seeds for the future” are easy to use in abstract terms when talking about carrying out Harold and Evie Dyck’s long-term vision for an arboretum (35 years old and counting), or doing education activities with K-12 kids through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. I use this phrase all the time.

But right now, I want to use those words in the literal sense.

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Little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) seeds.

It has been a bountiful year for seed production in South Central Kansas. Oaks have had a mast year. Native shrubs are laden with fruits. Prairie wildflowers and grasses are full with ripe seeds. Seed production helps these plants have a future presence.

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Rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida).

The ecological food web starts with plants as the producers. When this base plant layer of energy is healthy and diverse, the rest of the food web of wildlife it supports is more robust. Seeds are an important part of this food web. Insects are abundant this year. Birds, small mammals, amphibians, and reptiles are finding plenty of food as well. The following chart of rainfall totals from this summer (generated from Weather Underground data) shows why our native Kansas vegetation was so productive.

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Starting from Seed

A big focus of my first seven years at Dyck Arboretum was to reconstruct 12 acres of diverse prairie from seed as part of our Prairie Window Project. This process involved finding local remnant prairies, documenting their plant species, collecting and cataloging seed from April through November, cleaning seed, designing seed mixes, and planting. Developing this project engaged legions of volunteers, expanded our reputation as a prairie conservation resource, and diversified our educational outreach. We collected and planted a lot of seed during those years both mechanically and by hand. The resulting prairie is maturing nicely.

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Prairie wildflower and grass seed mix used for our first 2005 Prairie Window planting.

I often tout landscaping with native plants because of their year-round interest. They do offer aesthetically pleasing flowers during the growing season that appeal to the average gardener. But their interesting seed heads, dormant season vegetation, and myriad of changing colors and textures also provide habitat and landscaping value for wildlife and people through the fall and winter.

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Open pods of Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis).

A year of abundant seed production helps a prairie build up its soil seed bank. This is especially important on a site like this one with a seed bank dominated by annuals and non-native species from decades of agricultural use. Enhancing the abundance of prairie seeds in that seed bank will help add resiliency to this prairie in future years when drought or disturbance occur.

 

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Large flat seeds of compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) falling away from the seed head.

Seed Collection

I enjoy collecting seed. Walking a prairie with a rhythmic movement of hand to bag is therapeutic. I have never been a farmer, but, in a way, this process connects me to the harvest rituals of my ancestors who made their living in agriculture.

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Canada wild rye (Elymus canadensis).

Time spent collecting prairie seed over the years and developing a mental image for certain targeted plants at different times of the year have helped me recognize many species in seed form almost easier than when they are in bloom.

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Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to disperse in the wind.

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Some plants like purple conflower (Echinacea angustifolia) may even have more value to us in seed form. Echinacea seeds (three visible in middle of seed head) and roots have medicinal value as a pain killer and immune system booster. Chewing on a few seeds has a temporary numbing effect on your teeth and tongue.

 

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Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).

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Seeds of native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are held tightly now, but will loosen and fall away this winter.

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With a parachute-like pappus, Dotted gayfeather (Liatris punctata) seeds are ready for a breezy liftoff.

Evolution of Seed Dispersal

Plants evolve with all kinds of seed dispersal mechanisms. Woodland plants develop tasty fruits around their seeds, spring-loaded propellers, and Velcro-like hooks and barbs that latch onto fur. Plants of the open prairie sometimes employ these kinds of mechanisms, but most simply take advantage of the abundant wind by growing hairs/wings that allow them to take flight. By scattering their seeds to other locations, plants help insure their presence in the future.

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Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).

May you find more enjoyment in the dormant vegetation and seeds persisting around you this fall and winter.