Our Maturing Reconstructed Prairie

Six years ago I wrote my first ever Dyck Arboretum blog post about our “Teenage Prairie” Prairie Window Project (PWP) reconstructed prairie. The birth and development of this project was the focus of my early years here at the Arboretum from 2004 to 2010 and at times it indeed felt like developing progeny. Sticking with that maturing prairie/human metaphor, I’d say this prairie today would be in the young adult stage. While it is still maturing, it relies much less on the parental influence of Arboretum staff and its changes from year to year are more subtle.

Prairie Window Project in September 2017
Prairie Window Project in August and October of 2010

I recently gave a 40-minute webinar presentation about the story of developing this PWP prairie. I enjoyed remembering all the educational and community building opportunities this project intensively afforded over a 7-year period and how it still serves us today. From that presentation, I will summarize through images and interpretation the stages this reconstructed prairie has been through.

Conceptual Stage

This reconstructed prairie was a gleam in the eye of Harold and Evie when they started the Dyck Arboretum in 1981. With native gardens already established here, they also wanted visitors to experience the feeling of visiting a larger prairie ecosystem. I was tasked with oversight of this project when I started working here in 2004. Preparations began in 2005 to turn 18 acres of agricultural ground south of our hedge row to a prairie.

The conceptual plan showing our existing grounds (in green) and the proposed PWP to be developed.
The red 1.3-acre rectangle was planted in 2005 and 2007 and the blue 5-acre oval was planted in 2009 and 2010 after earth moving added some topographical relief

Collecting Seed

We wanted this prairie reconstruction to be developed with local ecotype seed collected with in a 60-mile radius, knowing that the plants would be best suited to local fauna, soils, and climate. No other prairie in Kansas had been restored with local seed, and we knew this site could be a unique future seed source for creation of other prairies. We set out to visit more than 100 nearby blueprint prairies to collect data on their plant composition, study the butterfly and bird populations they supported, and scope out where we would best be able to hand-collect seed. Visits to these prairies on a regular basis helped us secure the grass, wildflower, shrub and sedge seed needed to plant a diverse prairie at Dyck Arboretum.

A graduate student collecting seed from a nearby remnant prairie
Volunteers collecting seed from a nearby remnant prairie
Harvesting large volumes of grass seed with the aid of a nearby KSU Ag Extension plot combine
Seed collection outings sometimes involved the collection of insects, rocks, sticks and more

Seed Mix

To best mimic the species composition of the blueprint remnant prairies we were observing, prairie restoration literature suggested that we should be aiming for a wildflower:grass ratio of no less than 50:50 and perhaps even has high as 80:20. Other target planting parameters included at least 50 lbs of seed per acre, a minimum of 50 seeds per square foot, and as much species diversity as possible. Five different plantings between 2005 and 2010 met these parameters and more than 120 local ecotype prairie species were planted into the PWP during that time.

Volunteers cleaning seed, removing chaff, and helping us best estimate seed weight that would insure the most accurate species mix calculations as possible
An example of the level of detail that went into planning the seed mix
2005 seed mix ready for planting

Planting Seed

Planting our seed mix with a seed drill or mechanical planter wasn’t realistic given the unique shape of our planting areas and diverse shapes/weight/textures of the seed mix. An alternative plan was to establish a planting grid that would allow for even distribution of seed using 5-gallon buckets. We assigned two buckets and a volunteer per planting unit, distributed seed (sand added for bulk) evenly to all buckets, and instructed volunteers to evenly cover their flag-marked planting unit.

Establishment of planting plots to best insure an even distribution of our seed mix
Volunteers walking to their assigned planting plots in January 2005
A graduate student distributing seed in January 2007

Prairie Management

Prairies require regular disturbance management of grazing and fire to maintain healthy ecosystems and prevent the invasion of woody plants and non-native cool-season grasses. Selective pulling of certain invasive, non-native species was key early in the PWP planting’s development. Once the desired prairie vegetation built sufficient roots after about three years and became well-established, a rotation of mowing (to best simulate grazing), burning and leaving residual has been implemented ever since.

Earth Partnership for Schools teachers pulling invasive non-native yellow sweet clover in June 2010
Volunteers helping conduct a prescribed burn in April 2018

Research

More than a dozen undergraduate and graduate students have been invaluable in collecting data to monitor populations of plant and wildlife species. Their efforts have helped us understand changes in groupings and species as the planting matures and management continues.

Graduate students conducting vegetation sampling July 2008
Vegetation guild importance value changes over 12 years
Small mammal trapping and population monitoring on the PWP

Education into the Future

Our PWP reconstructed prairie is regularly used by preschool, K-12, and college students to learn about the plants and wildlife important to the natural history of Kansas. Community bird and butterfly enthusiasts regularly monitor the species that are found within. And visitors seeking recreation on our paths enjoy the prairie backdrop that enhances their Arboretum stroll.

Elementary school students collecting seed for a plant-growing project
Students conducting sweep netting to temporary collect and learn about insect populations
High school students collecting specific leaves as part of a scavenger hunt test during the finals of the Kansas EcoMeet

The Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction on the southern part of our grounds has been a valuable tool to promote prairie conservation, education, and community building with our membership. This project has been at the heart of our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land. Pay this prairie a visit sometime and let us know if and how it may hold value for you.

Plant Profile: Southwest White Pine

When one thinks of classic and elegant conifers, Eastern white pine often comes to mind.  Unfortunately in the Great Plains, summer heat, wind and drought restrict growing Eastern white pine to only well protected sites.  We have a stand of Eastern white pines strategically planted with protection from these adverse conditions.  Even these few original Eastern white pines planted in the early 1980’s are slowly expiring because of environmental challenges. 

Fortunately, there is an alternative.  The Southwest white pine, Pinus strobiformis, is a tough, drought- and heat-tolerant conifer. Its native range extends from Texas to Arizona and south to Mexico.  They inhabit dry, rocky slopes in mountainous areas. 

Southwest white pine planted in 2000

Habit

Somewhat shorter and broader than its eastern cousin, the Southwest white pine reaches 30-60 feet in height at maturity, with a broad, rounded crown.  Needles are five per bundle (fascicle), 1.5 to 3.5 inches in length with a dark green to blue-green color.  The top and bottom of the needles have somewhat distinct white stomatal lines.  Though not as long and soft as the needles of the Eastern white pine, the needles are very soft textured and pliant.  The long cylindrical cones mature in two years and produce a brown oval seed that is edible.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is IMG_2207-768x1024.jpg

Culture 

Adaptable to our high pH soils, Southwest white pine prefers well-drained soil in full sun.  It is a moderate to fast grower. Young specimens in the Arboretum have grown 10-12 inches per year since they were planted in the mid-1990s.

Also consider a Southwest white pine as an alternative to Austrian pine, which has suffered from Sphaeropsis tip blight in the last decade.  It can be used as a large specimen or in a screen or windbreak planting. Its hardiness, drought resistance, and fast growth are definite attributes to consider in our challenging climate. 

Alternatives

Other evergreen and conifers we use here at the Arboretum: Arizona Cypress, ‘Taylor Juniper’, ‘Canaertii’ Juniper, Black Hills Spruce, Pinyon Pine and Vanderwolf’s Pyramid Limber Pine.  There are no guarantees on any of these.  They may develop blights, or other diseases in time.  Certainly they are all attractive to bag worms. 

The bottom line is that growing evergreens in Kansas will always be a challenge.  These are the best options for landscapers. Take a look at our 2020 Native Plant Guide for Spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival for other landscape options.

Arizona Cypress

Short and Sweet: Short Plants for the Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens can sometimes be seen as messy. I have heard it many times while discussing garden plans with Arboretum members. They don’t want it to look too wild. This is a very natural tendency; humans like order, we like patterns, we don’t like chaos. But it is evident by the decline of bird, amphibian, and pollinator species that our desire for the tamed, picture-perfect lawn is ecologically unreasonable.

“What is good in terms of ecological function is often disorderly, and what is neat and tidy is often not sustainable.”

Planting in a Post Wild World, 2015

Joan Nassauer of the University of Michigan does some excellent writing, thinking and teaching on the idea that humans will respond better to ecologically friendly landscapes if they look intentional, framed, and well managed. I think the first and easiest way to achieve this for beginner prairie gardeners is to carefully manage plant height. Choosing short plants preserves sight lines, scales down the planting, and helps the viewers of your landscape more feel comfortable, less hemmed in by foliage. Here are some of our favorites!

Petite Garden Performers

Hymenoxys scaposa (prairie sunshine)

Perky Sue (Hymenoxys scaposa) has semi-succulent foliage and cheerful flowers that bloom all season long.

Hymenoxys has become a new favorite landscape plant for me. Perfect near sidewalks and in tight spots. It is a tiny little powerhouse of bloom if you keep it in full sun. Beware of planting it in a wet spot; soggy soil shortens its lifespan.

Scuttelaria resinosa (skullcap)

Scutellaria resinosa (skull cap) a wonderfully petite mint-family plant native to North Central Kansas. Photo By C. Freeman

This plant makes a short, rounded clump of purple-blue flowers. It thrives in dry, poor soil and isn’t as aggressive as other mint family plants. As a bonus, it also has some interesting medicinal benefits.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’

Most Amsonia spp. can get quite large, but the ‘Blue Ice’ variety delivers nice foliage and blue spring bloom in a tighter package.

Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’ offers all the great qualities of Amsonia – colorful fall foliage, blue spring blooms – but stays under 18 inches. Wonderful as a filler plant for any gaps in the garden.

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose)

Oenothera macrocarpa (Missouri evening primrose) – photo by Michael John Haddock

Missouri evening primrose is an underused landscape plant. Less than a foot tall, this spring stunner is great around sidewalks or trailing ever-so-slightly off rock edging. The blooms are large and eye catching early in the season.

Sporobolus heterolepis (prairie dropseed)

Pugster Blue butterfly bush and prairie dropseed mix well in the landscape and both stay under three feet tall. Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Last but not least, prairie dropseed is a short prairie grass that can be used to blend different colors and species together. Because grass acts as a unifying element it helps to lead the eye from one area to another.

All these plants will be available at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Staff members will be there to help you choose the best plants for your space. We can make recommendations for a beautiful, ecologically friendly landscape.

Plant Profile: Possumhaw Holly, Deciduous Holly

If you have been walking through the Arboretum over the past few weeks, you probably noticed the deciduous holly.  Ilex decidua gets so much attention because of its incredibly lustrous fruit of red, orange, and yellow.  As the leaves fall away each year in November and December, the fruit magically appears and remains on the tree for most of the winter. 

‘Sundance’ Deciduous Holly

Fruit

These colorful berries are not a preferred food of birds, but become more appetizing when snow covers the ground.  Often trees are completely stripped of berries in a couple days after a heavy snow, because other food sources are not readily available.  Many birds, including cedar waxwings, flock to these trees to feed on the fruit later in winter.

Deciduous holly requires male and female plants to produce fruit.  Tiny white flowers appear before the leaves in March and April.  We have several male selections planted in close proximity to the female plants to assure the development of the attractive fruit each year.  It is best to keep the fruit producing female plants in the foreground and tuck the male forms out of sight.  We have used the branches with fruit cluster as holiday decorations.

Evergreen wreath
Holly berries as part of an evergreen wreath

Habit and Site Preferences

Deciduous holly, or Possumhaw as it is often called, is a small tree or large shrub that grows 15-20 feet tall. The smooth gray bark of the trunk and branches hold the fruit on the upper half of the plant.  Here in the Arboretum, we have both tree forms and suckering shrubs. Either is attractive and the suckering shrubs making a nice screen. As their name indicates, they are deciduous, dropping the leaves in autumn to fully reveal the berries.      

These deciduous trees grow best in full sun or partial shade.  Trees are more vigorous and produce more berries in full sun.  We have several along our creek channel and some around our parking lot.  They are quite adaptable to wet or drier conditions.

A few selections at the Arboretum:

‘Council Fire’ – An upright, rounded form growing 15′ tall and 10′ wide, this plant is superior for its ample fruit production and retention in clusters along the stems.

‘Council Fire’

Red Escort’ – This is a male selection (pollinator) with glossy leaves and a habit to 20′ tall.

‘Warren’s Red’ – This cultivar grows on the eastern border of the Arboretum parking lot.  It is very hardy and consistently produces fruit.  It is more shrub-like and upright, ultimately reaching 15’ tall. 

‘Warren’s Red’

‘Sundance’ – Nice tree form to 10’ tall and 8’ wide.  It has the longest lasting fruit, which is orange-red.

‘Sundance’

We are planning to have several deciduous holly varieties at our spring FloraKansas Native Plant Festival. Check out our Native Plant Guide for these cultivars along with Ilex verticillata varieties. Each will give you great winter color and habitat for the landscape. We love their hardiness and toughness as well as the beautiful fruit. Why not give them a try?