What is Land Stewardship?

The other day, I was reading an interesting article about modeling sustainability in our landscapes.  This particular article focused on botanical gardens and their importance as models for sustainable practices and stewardship of the land.  Obviously, it made me think about our own landscapes here at the Arboretum, how we manage and maintain them and how we can help encourage conservation and stewardship of our lands, waters and wildlife. It also made me keenly aware of my own feelings toward stewardship. How do I share my empathy for the land or my belief that the land is worth saving?

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr.

What’s your personal land ethic?

Certainly, a land ethic is a very personal thing. Stewardship is about a person’s relationship to the land. It’s about what you believe on the inside.  What I am willing and able to do right now regarding stewardship of the land in my little corner of the world, is quite different from what my neighbor is able to do, or even what you, the reader, are able to do.  We may feel driven to make drastic changes right now, but others may see those changes as excessive and unimportant in light of other issues they are currently dealing with. 

I am reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Each of us has some sort of land ethic. Whether or not we can articulate it to someone else is another thing. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit
Arboretum tallgrass prairie garden in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

The stewardship spectrum

I like to think of stewardship on a horizontal plane.  On the one end of the spectrum are those who hold a deep reverence for the land.  They are compelled to actively incorporate practices into their lives, such as using native plants, harvesting rainwater, reducing/eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, mulching, creating habitat for wildlife, and other sustainable actions. They are caretakers of the land. 

On the other end of the horizontal plane are the novices.  These are the folks who want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to get started.  This end also includes someone with a pristine lawn and tidy flower beds.  There is nothing wrong with this type of landscaping — remember that a land ethic is a very personal thing.  This landscape reflects their beliefs about how a landscape should look.

Those of us who see the value and beauty of a native landscape have the opportunity to model a paradigm shift in landscape practices and show a different land ethic that can be beautiful in its own way.    

Developing a connection to the land

So how do we move people along this horizontal plane from novice steward to sustainable steward of the land?  Whether here at the Arboretum or in your own back yard, the more people who see and experience nature up close, and connect with the land, the more progress will be made. 

This connection with the land is important. A deeper connection results in a deeper empathy for the world around us. Change starts at home in your own landscapes by modeling your convictions. 

“Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.” 

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
A small garden of native plants

People will want to change when they see change is possible.  If they see stewardship modeled for them, they will begin to embrace this change in their own feeling about the land. To care for the land, people must see that the land is worth saving. 

Those of us who see that stewardship is possible need to: model it for others, share it with others, help others, and support others as they gain understanding and confidence on their own stewardship journey.

“ A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Concentration of Blooms

When I recommend native plants for a particular landscape, I’ve learned to focus on the fact that people and the insects they are hoping to attract are conditioned to desire seeing a concentration of blooms with decent repetition. Some of the fascinating parts of landscaping with native plants are that they also have interesting features regarding their vegetation, seed pods, relationship to insects as host plants, and natural/cultural history stories that accompany them as Kansas native plants as well. But first and foremost, their flowers are what most intrigue the masses.

A profusion of purple is about to happen at Dyck Arboretum when the annual Leavenworth eryngo (Eryngium leavenworthii) hits its colorful stride in late August to early September.

A Long Growing Season in Kansas

The challenge when landscaping in Kansas is that our growing season is long, spanning 7 to 8 months, generally from March to October. A given landscape only has so much space for plant repetition and one has to choose which plant species will be planted in big numbers to have a concentration of color when desired. With a school planting, for example, I will mostly choose species that bloom in either April-May or August-September when students will see and enjoy them.

The angst I have in knowing that rigid sunflower (Helianthus rigidus) is having an increasingly dominating presence in our Arboretum prairie reconstruction is slightly soothed by the salve of its showy floral display in mid-September.

When you plant just a handful of species with big numbers of each for a few different times of focused colorful brilliance, you look like a genius during those times of flowering. Each perennial species, however, blooms for only a couple of weeks or so. When the plants are not blooming, critics of native plantings may label your garden as “too wild” or “dead-looking” when vegetation begins to senesce. These folks are not too forgiving of the fact that perennial plants must first build vegetation before they can flower. and then invest energy in building roots so they can come back again next year. So, one needs to find a reasonable balance between sufficient repetition of a given species and making sure there are enough species to provide blooming overlap throughout the growing season.

Prominent Prairie Grasses in July

This concept of concentrated flowering, or lack thereof, is on my mind every July when the Kansas temperatures are hottest and the well-adapted warm-season prairie grasses that are a significant part of the prairie matrix begin to shine. Grass flowers are wind-pollinated and understandably not investing in colorful flowers with a design to attract pollinators. It always seems to me that prairies in July are dominated by green, and that any blooming non-grass flowers stand out.

Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pychnostachya) looks great when it blooms around our pond edge in late July, especially because of its eye-catching repetition.

Inspiration of High Elevation Wildflowers

My family and I usually get away for vacation to Colorado or somewhere west of Kansas to enjoy different landscapes. These trips usually take us to areas with higher elevations, cooler air, and snow-melt streams. Above 5,000 feet in elevation, these areas have much shorter growing seasons, roughly half of that in Kansas. This phenomenon concentrates the flowering of available species into a tighter window of opportunity causing many blooming occurrences to overlap. Since late July is the center of that growing season, the wildflowers are often at their peak during our visits.

Sunflower family plants wash this mountain-side in yellow with the punctuation of purple penstemon and red Indian paintbrush along Brush Creek Trail above Crested Butte, the so-called “Wildflower Capitol of Colorado.”

During our last two July vacations to Montana’s Glacier National Park (GNP) and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain National Park (RMNP) in 2018 and 2019, respectively, we witnessed especially lush displays of wildflowers that made hikes for me most enjoyable. The following photo collage includes species observed on mountain trails that made me pause and take note. They each have similar-looking close relatives in Kansas.

While I know that most mountain wildflowers won’t survive in Kansas, I am still inspired by them. I observe their site-specificity with regard to moisture/light, what wildlife they attract, and their growth form — often including many plants of one species creating a concentration of color. Our upcoming Fall 2019 FloraKansas Plant Festival will offer many native species that thrive in our Kansas climate and soils. Plan to peruse the options, see what catches your eye, plant them in repetition, and be inspired.

Creamy-colored beargrass (not a grass, but a lily) and pink subalpine spirea provide landscaping inspiration along the Iceberg Lake Trail in Glacier National Park.

Encore Blog: Do You Want A Native Front Yard?

Posted on August 8, 2019 by Scott Vogt

(Originally published on March 29, 2017)

Something interesting is happening to our front yards.  They are slowly shrinking.  The typical large expanse of green lawn is being replaced with low-maintenance, drought tolerant shrubs, perennials and grasses.   Homeowners are realizing that this alternative to a mowed lawn has its advantages.  Certainly, this new paradigm will require less water over time, but it can be functional and beautiful as well.  The potential environmental impacts of making this change can be significant.

Shady area at Arboretum converted from fescue turf to columbine, blue star and other perennials and shrubs.

Lawn grasses such as fescue and bluegrass require more mowing and watering than native landscapes.  Here are some facts about lawns and their impact on the environment:

  • There are some 80 million home lawns across the country
  • 30-60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns
  • The typical American lawn uses 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually
  • Nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year
  • Approximately $25 billion is spent on lawn care each year in the U.S.

If you are tired of the traditional front yard and wish to reduce your lawn, a simple landscape design focused on native plants can make a real difference.  With their deep roots, native plants can adapt to the regional climate and ecological conditions, while also addiing diversity, reducing maintenance and attracting a host of wildlife and pollinators.  Use these simple steps as a guide to develop a native front yard.

Step 1: Plan your design, start small

I prefer to lay out a garden hose to get the curves and flow that I want.  It is a great way to “fiddle” with the design before tearing anything up.  Start small by removing a section of lawn that you can manage.  You can convert other areas over the next few years.

Step 2: Investigate plant types

Think about the type of plants that will grow in your area.  I group shrubs, perennials and grasses to add impact in the landscape.  Strategically locating small trees such as redbuds and disease resistant crabapples will give height and take up space in the design. Are there some evergreen trees and shrubs that will give some splashes of green especially in winter?

Investigate the types of plants you wish to include in your yard.  Plan your garden for a succession of bloom to guarantee there are always a few plants flowering throughout the year. These native plants provide nectar and pollen for beneficial insects.  A few plants such as milkweed can provide food for larvae and fruits and seeds will feed the birds.  A monoculture of lawn can be transformed into a landscape alive with diversity and activity.

Buffalo grass, blue grama grass and mixed prairie plantings

Step 3: Find your plants

Find the plants you need for your design by checking with local nurseries, or you can use our Native Plant Guide 2019.  Steal ideas from nature or visit the Arboretum to gather ideas of combinations and groupings that grow well together.  Then purchase the plants you want at our sale in April or September and get them in the ground.

Earth Partnership for Schools Prairie Planting along walkway to school

It will be great to see your front yard transformed into an oasis for pollinators and birds.  You will be able to look out your front window at a diverse and functional landscape that has a positive impact on the environment.  It will be a landscape that fuels pollinators and supports all sorts of birds and other wildlife.  It will be a landscape that is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I believe lawns will always have a place in our landscapes, but maybe just a smaller place than in the past.*  It is not a bad thing to replace some of our lawn areas with beautiful and attractive trees, shrubs and other perennials.  Just think about the possibilities.

*If you like a larger expanse of lawn, but wish to consider drought-tolerant alternatives, consider buffalograss as an option.