Fire: A Link Between People and the Prairie

Over the last week, I have been helping conduct prescribed burns on the prairies at Dyck Arboretum as well as for some area landowners. This annual spring ritual for me is one of the most engaging examples of our mission – cultivating transformative relationships between people and the land.

A prescribed burn in process at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

For thousands of years since the last ice age, prairie has evolved with fire, an essential element of disturbance that maintains prairie as prairie. Without fire, readily available seeds of trees and shrubs will invade and turn prairie into forest within decades. Gone are the days when lightning or Native American-set fires regularly kept this element of maintenance in place every few years. Today, landowners, ranchers, and land managers must regularly be the starters of fire. A few years ago, I blogged more in depth about why we should Embrace Prairie Burning.

Conducting A Safe Burn

I cannot sufficiently instruct one to conduct a prescribed burn in a short blog post, but I will summarize the important elements to be considered when making fire go where you want it go. Conducting a safe prescribed burn is in actuality a simple process, but one MUST adhere to strict guidelines regarding 1) relative humidity, and 2) wind speed. When relative humidity (RH) is at 80%, fire is very difficult to start and when it is at 20%, fire is very difficult to put out. Making sure that the start and end time of the burn stay within those parameters is paramount, and sunlight and temperature have a profound effect on RH. With every 20-degree F increase, RH drops in half.

Wind speeds between 5-15 miles per hour (mph) are important too. Below 5 mph, winds can be shifty, unpredictable and dangerous when trying to control fire. And it probably goes without saying, but winds over 15 mph can easily carry flames where you don’t want them to go. A 911 dispatcher will not allow a burn to start if wind gusts are above 15 mph, anyway.

There are three types of fire we regularly refer to in prescribed burning. A back fire works directly against the wind, a flank fire works perpendicular to the wind, and a head fire is pushed with the wind.

A back fire working against the wind is the most easily controlled fire type.
A flank fire, is the second most controllable fire and it is only lit once a back fire has safely established the downwind portion of the burn unit.
A head fire that roars with the wind is only lit after the back and flank fires have safely secured all areas of the burn unit.

The intensity of these three fire types is from low to high, respectively, as is their ease of control. To most easily contain a fire within a particular burn unit, we start with downwind back fires until a sufficient black line is established, work around to flank fires until those flanks are made safe, and then finish with a head fire to most quickly finish the burn once all the boundaries have been sufficiently secured. The following diagram, shows the general progression of a prescribed burn, otherwise known as the ring fire technique.

Graphic from fact sheet on Planning and Conducting a Prescribed Burn, provided by Kansas State University Natural Resource Conservation Service.

Important tools in managing fire include those that help you quickly move fire and those that help you quickly put it out. In the past, I used a drip torch full of a diesel/gas mixture, but have more recently relied on the much simpler (and lighter) tool of a garden rake for dragging fire. My favorite water carrying device is a water backpack and hand pump with support of extra water in a larger water tank carried by our new Hustler MDV. The backpack with a 5-gallon capacity can get heavy and cumbersome, but it sprays a reliable 10-15′ stream of water and is easily the most mobile and useful tool I know for carrying water and putting out fire.

Prescribed burning water backpack with hand pump.

Strengthening A Human Connection to the Land

The act of burning a prairie brings together the four classical elements (earth, air, fire and water). The earth produces prairie vegetation, and in spring time, the prairie is renewed after it combusts when brought together with air and fire. We use water to bring this process to a conclusion. As I stated above, people are essential to keeping this positive feedback loop going today.

The people who are essential to this stewardship process of prescribed burning include my colleagues, volunteers willing to lend a hand, and the landowners themselves who initiate the process. All of these individuals make up an important community of people strengthening a connection to the land.

Dyck Arboretum staff, student interns, and faithful volunteers are prepared to conduct a prescribed burn on a parcel of our Prairie Window Project prairie reconstruction.
Landowners Ryan (far right) and Audrey Magill (second from left) are the current stewards of a 17-acre parcel of prairie near Hesston and engaged their family, friends, and neighbors to conduct a burn last week.
Naomi Rutschman, the former land steward of the Magill property, came out to observe the prescribed burn. I was able to burn this same parcel with Naomi and her husband Orville 13 years earlier.
During a burn at Bethel College earlier this week, I was able to greet a friend and mentor who inspired me over 30 years ago to pursue a career in prairie management and education. Emeritus professor, Dwight Platt, in his late 80s still mows and hand rakes acres of prairie hay for mulch on his vegetable garden.

The identity of Kansas is built around the native landscape of the prairie and fire will always be a part of that identity. While the implementation of prescribed burns may be a laborious task that can make my body feel old, it is an important ritual that keeps my spirit young.

One of my favorite experiences of conducting a prescribed burn is often found in the final moments of such an event. Once the final head fire has been lit and the hard work is complete, there are a few moments to enjoy the sounds of crackling flames of moisture-laden grasses and the happy sounds of mating boreal chorus frogs in the background.

In the video below, I leave you with the magical sights and sounds of this experience.

Harbingers of Spring

You may be tired of scraping the frost off your windshield in the morning and perhaps you grumbled while shoveling snow from your sidewalk last week (we had 3″ on 2/20/19 at Dyck Arboretum). But don’t believe Punxsutawney Phil when he predicts six more weeks of winter or become dismayed by this year’s colder spring or higher number of cloudy days than usual. Warmer weather is coming and there are harbingers of spring out there if you pay attention.

Increased Photoperiod

We are gaining roughly two minutes of sunlight every day since the December 21 solstice. The weather may have been unpredictable and cloud cover variable the last couple of months, but we can rely on the daily incremental increase of daylight like clockwork as the sun gets higher in the sky. More light means more warmth and plants/animals respond to these changes in photoperiod.

Bird Behavior

Changes in bird behavior help mark the changing of the seasons. Bird songs seem to be more prevalent in the morning recently. I heard House Finches and Northern Cardinals here at the Arboretum both singing on a morning last week (2/20/19). I would suspect that means something with regard to territory and mating. The courtship ritual of the American Woodcock is a sign of spring around dusk to twilight in early- to mid-March. Hearing their nasal “peent” while faintly seeing them circle skyward before tumbling to the ground is an interesting and memorable experience.

American Woodcocks are mostly nocturnal and difficult to see during the day where they reside in brushy wet meadows. A good time to see or at least hear them is during the early evening hours of the early spring mating season. (Photo Credit: David Seibel, Birds In Focus)

Harris’s Sparrows and Dark-eyed Juncos for me are signs of winter and their migration north signals spring. They are still around here in late February, but their numbers are dwindling and their presence will soon be scarce. American Robins do overwinter here, but their behavior of eating fruit will soon turn to poking around in the soil for food as soil temperature and earthworm activity increases. One can track the spring movements of wildlife, and particularly Robins, including those sighted, getting earthworms, nesting and moving in waves at Journey North.


A change in the foraging habits of American Robins from eating fruit to worms is a subtle sign of spring. (Photo Credit: Judd Patterson, Birds In Focus)

To become more in tune with birds around you, learn more about common to rare birds, their migration patterns, behaviors, songs, food preferences and more, consider joining Kansas Ornithological Society. Be sure to sign up for emails from their Kansas Bird Listserv through which you will get regular reports from experienced birders around the state.

And if you ever wonder what migrating birds are doing when they are not in Kansas, check out this very cool story about the migration of Grasshopper Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers.

Insect Activity

On warm days I look forward to seeing insects beginning to fly and move about. That means host plants and flowers are coming out or will soon be found as well. The presence of insects as food means that birds, reptiles, amphibians, mammals, fish and predatory insects will have something to eat. Insects are an important basis for the food chain of wildlife around us.

But perhaps the most recognizable and celebrated insect out there is the monarch butterfly. Journey North again is a good place to track monarch movements as well as the emergence of their ever-important host plant, milkweed and when/where monarchs are laying eggs on milkweed. The first monarch adults were observed along the Gulf Coast this weekend (2/23 and 2/24) and I expect that we will start seeing our first monarchs in Kansas by early April.

Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed at Dyck Arboretum, April 10, 2017.

Flowering Plants

Then, there are the emerging plants. The first I know to bloom here at Dyck Arboretum every year is witch hazel. As the warm sun came out one afternoon last week (2/20/19) and above-freezing temperatures melted that morning’s snow, this early-blooming shrub burst with flowers.

Hamamelis vernalis – vernal or Ozark witch hazel, Feb. 20 at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

As its two common names suggest, vernal or Ozark witch hazel (Hamamelis vernalis) is a spring-blooming shrub that originates from the Ozarks of southern Missouri.

You have to look closely because vernal witch hazel is not an extravagant bloomer.

During warm winters, vernal witch hazel starts blooming here at the Arboretum as early as mid-January and during cold winters as late as early March. Over the last few cold weeks of February, I’ve watched seemingly struggling flowers wait partially open for their time to shine. And last week this harbinger of spring did not disappoint.

On warmer days to come, flies and bees will be attracted to the nectar of these tiny, dime-sized vernal witch hazel flowers.

The flowers of Prairie Gold® aspen (Populus tremuloides) ‘NE Arb’ are starting to emerge outside the doors of our Visitor Center. Soon the fuzzy catkins of this fast-growing tree with origins in Nebraska will emerge so the wind can disperse its pollen.

Prairie Gold® aspen
(Populus tremuloides) ‘NE Arb’ fuzzy catkins emerging Feb. 22, 2019.

And finally, the common urban tree, silver maple (Acer saccharinum), is one of the spring harbinger flowers you will probably not see, but many of us will know when it starts blooming. The airborne pollen of these not very showy wind-pollinated flowers will soon fill the air and activate itchy and watery eyes and noses (Click HERE if you want to delve a bit more into the differences between wind- and insect-pollinated flowers). I have learned that these unappealing sensations caused by wind-pollinated maples and elms early in spring are harbingers too. Locate your anti-histamine medications and roll out a welcome for spring.

Silver maple (Acer saccharinum) flower buds (Feb. 22, 2019) about to burst.

Winter Storytelling

We have below zero wind-chill temperatures today, making it not very conducive to being outside as a polar vortex grips the Great Plains and Midwest. But we are fortunate at Dyck Arboretum to have warm, comfortable facilities in which to share our mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

At least a few examples of storytelling come to mind through which we are able to engage our membership in winter – stories about cultural history, musical arts, and the natural world, which help us continually seek a sense of place here in Kansas.

Wichita Nation Civilization of Etzanoa

Nearly 200 people (the most ever to attend our Winter Lecture Series) were riveted to a fascinating lecture last night from Wichita State University archaeologist, Dr. Donald Blakeslee. With more than 43 years of experience, no living archeologist has spent more time studying the Plains Indians. He reported on his cultural anthropology detective work in uncovering the roughly 400 year-old stories of a former thriving city of Etzanoa, which was likely populated by 20,000 Wichita Indians and was located at what we know today as Arkansas City.

A capacity crowd listening to Dr. Donald Blakeslee’s Etzanoa presentation.

Dr. Blakeslee showed photos of original maps, Spanish explorer journal entries, artifacts of hunting points, hide scrapers, bison hide hole-making tools, and more. He exhibited aerial maps of encampment sites they have located and where they still plan to explore. Donald showed photos documenting the tools they use from primitive shovel-testing methods to high tech, expensive 3-D modeling laser devices. Drawings of artistic renderings of what the Wichita Nation lodges and agricultural gardens probably looked like only enhanced Dr. Blakeslee’s storytelling.

Wichita Nation point artifacts used for hunting bison. Dr. Blakeslee’s multiple tracings of point outlines (in red) show the consistency used in their production.
Drawing depicting the lodges and fields of a Wichita Nation settlement.

Music of Moors & McCumber

Personal stories of family life, travels, history of places, and the culture of our times are all part of a Prairie Window Concert Series (PWCS) experience. The duo of James Moors and Kort McCumber expertly told these stories a few nights ago for a capacity crowd of 210 music enthusiasts. With a guitar, mandolin, fiddle, cello, accordion, bouzouki, ukulele, banjo, tight harmony vocals, and engaging stage presence, James and Kort made an hour and half of musical storytelling seemingly go by in an instant.

Moors & McCumber at Dyck Arboretum.

The Prairie Window Concert Series experience of “gourmet music and food in a prairie garden setting” is about more than just great live music. It is further enhanced by the delightful intermission faire of Crust & Crumb, a chance to stroll around the Arboretum for a bit of exercise, glimpses of Dyck Arboretum native plant landscaping changes through fall/winter/spring, and mini-reunions with familiar faces that have been enjoying this concert series for decades (PWCS History).

The setting sun streamed into the Prairie Pavilion and illuminated the PWCS crowd.

Native Plant Landscaping

Starting tomorrow evening, our staff will be telling stories through our native plant school, which offers six different classes related to native plant basics, garden design, landscape maintenance, propagation, composting, and attracting wildlife.

The Flint Hills prairie species butterfly milkweed can also thrive in home landscapes.

Native plant landscaping provides so much more than visual beauty. One of the most rewarding aspects of landscaping with native plants is learning the complex stories that accompany these plants.

For each of the hundreds of species of native Kansas wildflowers, grasses, sedges, shrubs, and trees we promote for landscaping, there are numerous stories to learn related to biology, ecology, environmental sustainability, ecosystem function, culture, and natural history.

A clear wing moth seeking nectar from common milkweed.

Native landscaping enhances ecosystem function in urban areas. Every Kansas plant has value to one or more wildlife species as a larval food source, nectar source, or protection from the elements or predators. For this reason, native plant landscaping can add biological diversity to the places we live. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing more butterflies and birds around their landscape?

Native landscaping also has low environmental impact because native plants are adapted to our climate, require no chemical inputs, and reduce our need to irrigate with valuable, clean drinking water. Additionally, native plant gardens act as landscape sponges and can help municipalities slow the erosion-causing migration of storm water.

Native plantings attract wildlife diversity while acting as a stormwater sponge.

Prairie plants also help establish a sense of place by connecting us to previous cultures that have lived here before us. The plants of the prairie have provided sustenance of food, medicine, and goods for people as well as an ecosystem for bison that helped Indian tribes make their home on the Plains. For European immigrants, the prairie provided sod homes and wonderful soil fertility for growing crops created by the presence of thousands of years of prairie roots.

Using multiple species of native plants compounds the rich stories to be told through an urban landscape.

Today, the prairie has been foundational to the Kansas economy that is built on agriculture, from the prairie soils that make us the “breadbasket of the world” and existing grasslands that make Kansas a top cattle ranching state.

Compass plant provides nectar for a variety of insects, seeds for birds and small mammals, it is a favorite food for cattle, its sap can be turned to chewing gum, and its leaves can orient your directions. It is the ultimate storytelling plant!

Blackbird Ribbons

The last story I will tell is about the time-relevant phenomenon of blackbird ribbons. A consistent observation of mine the last few mornings during my 5-mile drive from Newton to Hesston a little before 8:00 a.m. is seeing 2-3 long and thick ribbons of blackbirds. At that time of the day, they fly from west to east barely over the ground as LONG flowing ribbons that undulate over hedgerows and highway traffic with numbers surely in the millions. The timing is consistent with what I have seen around January and February in past years and you may have been noticing them too. I’ll leave you with more information on this topic from a previous blog post.

Thank you for sharing in our stories at Dyck Arboretum.


An Outing for the Birds

When considering attracting wildlife to a landscape, native plants matter. More diversity of native plant species and greater area of that native vegetation coverage both translate to a higher diversity of wildlife species attracted. Add water into the habitat offerings and your wildlife species attracted will go up even more. We probably all learned these pretty simple ecological concepts in high school. I enjoyed seeing these concepts on display this last Saturday while participating in the annual ritual of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

CBC History

Frank M. Chapman

It was the 70th annual CBC for the Halstead-Newton area, and the 118th national CBC for the Audubon Society. The national Christmas Bird Count has a long history. The first CBC was initiated as a response to unfettered sport shooting of the mid to late 1800s. A Christmas Day bird hunting competition to see who could bring back the most birds was a common pastime. Following a concern for declining bird populations amidst a new conservation trend, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition. The “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them was born (see History of the Christmas Bird Count for more). The citizen science data collected by Christmas Bird Counts allow for the study of long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Halstead-Newton 70th Annual Count

Dr. Dwight Platt

Dwight Platt was a freshman at Bethel College when he helped start the Halstead-Newton CBC. He has organized/participated in nearly all of the 70 Halstead-Newton CBCs. This Wichita Eagle article tells more about the count history. The 16-mile diameter circle Newton-Halstead CBC sampling area stretches from Harvey Co. West Park to the eastern limits of Newton. Count organizer Lorna Harder gave us our CBC assignments. My group of six, led by master birder Gregg Friesen, observed the sunrise as we set out to our designated count area of western Harvey County.

I took the job of recorder and quickly realized that I would be kept busy. The remainder of our group included experienced birders Harv Hiebert, Fred Bartel, Greta Hiebert, and Kyle Miller Hesed, who rarely had to refer to a field guide. With five pairs of eyes scanning the skies, the bird sightings came rapidly. Good bird identification utilizes perception of visual silhouette shape, flight pattern, colors/marking patterns, habitat association, and the audible patterns of calls. Even subtle variations in little “chip” and “pish” sounds can help discern species differences. My group mates incorporated all of these identification skills in ways that were quick, accurate, and impressive.

Bird silhouettes – from https://www.teacuprex.com

We started by counting what we saw from the van along roadsides, in fields, and farmyards. When we came to an area that included more adjacent habitat than farm fields, we would park roadside and spend a bit more time watching and listening. We eventually walked the roads and trails of the 310-acre Harvey County West Park, which included both sides of the Little Arkansas River and a nature trail around the 10-acre lake. Nearby “Sand Prairie,” an 80-acre parcel of sand prairie, ephemeral wetlands, shrubby areas, and woodlands co-owned by Bethel College and The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, also provides valuable bird habitat. Click on this summary of the habitat of Harvey County if you would like to know about its birding hotspots.

Data collection sheet for Sections 3 and 4 of the 2018 Halstead-Newton CBC

The above data sheet is a compilation of the 48 species we observed throughout the day and generally where we saw them. Red-winged blackbirds were most common and seen and heard by the thousands as their flying blackbird ribbons passed overhead. We estimated seeing 25,000 blackbirds and our estimates were probably low. Some highlight birds for me included a pair of spotted towhees, a pair of pileated woodpeckers, and a marsh wren. The spotted towhee is a pretty bird I don’t see often. A pileated woodpecker is the largest of our woodpeckers that used to be rare in Kansas. With fire suppression allowing more growth of woodlands, pileated woodpeckers are becoming more common. Gregg turned to technology to confirm the recluse marsh wren for which we only had a brief glimpse that was not adequate for identification. A quick playing of the marsh wren song from his iPhone initiated a replica response from the bird hidden in the brush.

Spotted towhee – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Most of the birds we saw are habitat specific – they can be predictably spotted looking for food in their preferred habitats. Kingfishers and great blue herons are found around the river where they catch fish. Grassland sparrows are found in the prairies. Woodpeckers are found exploring dead limbs of trees. The spotted towhee hangs out in tangled thickets and the tufted titmouse frequents woodlands. Northern harriers or “marsh hawks” are seen flying over wetlands, and red-tailed hawks perch in the tops of trees looking for prey.

Pileated woodpecker – Photograph by David Turgeon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Changes in Habitat

Bird populations are affected by changes in the quality or acreage of their specific habitats. The area certainly has more trees, shrubs and woody vines today than it did 70 years ago. This change has shifted composition of bird species observed during the CBC. Management tools, including grazing, herbicide application, and prescribed burning, are needed to maintain grassland integrity in certain areas. But regardless of where you find yourself in the grassland to woodland spectrum, Kansas native vegetation still provides essential habitat of food and shelter for various bird species.

Greta Hiebert, Gregg Friesen, and Kyle Miller Hesed birding Sand Prairie

We finished the count day with listening ears for the calls of owls. Standing roadside while overlooking a marshy prairie, we watched the sunset and enjoyed a rare windless Kansas stillness. It was a perfect end to an enjoyable day of citizen science. Then, a far-off pair of great horned owls bid us a faint goodnight.

Finding More Meaning in Our Food

We talk quite a bit about landscaping with native plants in this Dyck Arboretum blog space. Native plants have productive flowers and fruits, which benefit our sustainable landscape aesthetics and provide habitat for wildlife. The initial establishment process of prairie garden planting, watering, mulching, and tending is very similar to food gardening. I spend a fair amount of time gardening with both native plants and food, and I’m wondering why we don’t utilize more of both in our landscapes.

The practices of raising native plants…                  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

…and food plants are not all that different.                  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

Everybody needs, wants, and loves food. Most of us in the U.S. eat food three times per day, if not more. The amounts and kinds of food we eat relate to our culture, income, and health. Food is critical to our human physical well-being, and I would even argue that food is an important part of our emotional and mental well-being. Agriculture is also deeply related to the health of our Kansas environment and economy. Food just plain matters.

Searching for Meaning

I view eating food on a spectrum of connection and enjoyment. On the least connected and lowest enjoyment end of the spectrum, I would order from a fast food pick up window or open a can of tuna and loaf of bread to gain quick, easy calories for a meal. On the other higher connection and enjoyment end of this spectrum, I would grow/raise, sometimes home preserve, prepare, share, and eat a meal over a couple of hours with family and friends. And I would enjoy all the love that went into that meal – from the garden to plate. I definitely find more happiness, meaningfulness, and even entertainment in the latter end of the spectrum, but it also requires more effort, education, and time. In this regard, I think our society, in general, would benefit from doing more rituals of hunting, gathering, growing, and preserving of our own food.

Food acquisition and preservation rituals can bring people calories and joy.  Photo Credit: Brad Guhr

Every calorie we eat has its own story and sum of energy required to get it from farm to plate. We learned a great deal about this topic during our spring 2011 Locavores on the Prairie Symposium. Barbara Kingsolver explores this topic in her book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Few of us in this world of increasingly accessible food will spend an entire year eating food raised from within a 100-mile radius of where we live as the Kingsolver Family did.  But doing so would certainly cut down on the size of our carbon footprint and add to our enjoyment of food if we could eat food sourced as locally as possible.

The Problems – Poverty and Disconnect

Poverty – The U.S. may be a developed country, but poverty and/or a variety of other barriers here (disabilities, single parents working multiple jobs, substance abuse, etc.) lead to food insecurity and prevent families from getting adequate, quality food. In my home City of Newton, KS, 80+ percent of kids in a number of the elementary schools qualify for free or reduced fee breakfast and lunch programs. Backpack food assistance programs organized by the Kansas Food Bank and supported by local churches and organizations try to help fill some of the calorie voids for families with elementary-aged children. However, these backpacks do not meet all nutrition needs and are filled with mostly dried or preserved foods that can sit in storage for long periods of time until consumed. The adults in these homes may not have the resources or abilities to grow/raise/hunt/gather/buy adequate supplies of food nor model those healthy behaviors for the children in the household. Not only are these children not getting the calories they need, but they also are not learning the good food-raising habits to pass along to future generations either.

Disconnect

“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” ~Aldo Leopold

Advancing technologies in agriculture, transportation, and food preservation make it even easier for people in urban areas with adequate resources to have food wherever and whenever they want it. There is a tradeoff though…people are becoming increasingly disconnected from the food they consume. The first food-related part of Leopold’s famous quote above is coming true. We know less and less about the origins and journeys of our food.

“Eating is an agricultural act.” ~Wendell Berry

Aldo Leopold biographer, Curt Meine, introduced me to this Wendell Berry quote at a 2017 Land Ethic Conference in Baraboo, WI entitled “Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide”, and it certainly resonates with me. According to a 2016 U.S. Census Bureau Report, 81% of the U.S. population is urban, and 19% is rural. This disparity continues to grow. This statistic tells me that fewer and fewer people (including children) know where their food comes from. Fewer and fewer people (including children) know how the growth, transport, production, and processing of that food impacts their environment and their health. But everybody (including every child) wants a clean environment and personal health. There is a growing disconnect here.

Can we fit more food plots into the human part of this spectrum?             Photo Credit: Curt Meine

There Is Hope

Schools would be an excellent place to teach some of these important life skills of growing food. Schools can help empower students to combat the food-related problems created by poverty and disconnect. Growing food plants alongside native plants in school gardens would not be very different from what we already promote through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program. Growing Kansas-adapted flowering prairie plants that can attract beneficial insect pollinators and predators next to tomatoes, squash and peppers – while adding pleasing aesthetics – can only be a good thing, right?

Fortunately, we do not need to start from scratch in this endeavor, because inspiring examples are already out there to guide us. The following people are passionate and experienced in their successful efforts to teach kids and local communities how to grow their own food.

Stephen RitzGreen Bronx Machine, New York City, NY – “We are a whole school approach to education rooted in health, wellness, and mindfulness.” By getting kids to grow, consume, and distribute food using school gardens, he is helping improve student grades, attendance, and performance. Through the Green Bronx Machine, Stephen is cultivating minds and harvesting hope. Using urban agriculture aligned to key school performance indicators, the program grows healthy students and healthy schools to transform communities that are fragmented and marginalized into neighborhoods that are inclusive and thriving. A visual component of their gardening projects includes vegetables growing via indoor towers.

Stephen Ritz                      Photo Credit: Green Bronx Machine

Will Allen – Growing Power, Milwaukee, WI – The story of Growing Power is an interesting one. Former professional basketball player, author and genius grant winner, Will Allen, grew up on a farm in Maryland. Through the entity Growing Power, which he started with the priorities of growing compost and mentoring youth, Allen became one of the most influential nationwide leaders of the food security & urban farming movement. Turning vacant lots of Milwaukee into vegetable-growing gardens, Allen’s organization successfully raised compost, worms, tilapia through aquaponics, bees, chickens, goats, and more. Growing Power dissolved in 2017 due to mounting debt and Allen’s retirement, but for more than 20 years, through workshops, internships, and leadership programs, Growing Power inspiringly trained and exposed thousands of people to a more community-based relationship with their food.

Will Allen                    Photo Credit: Darren Hauck for The New York Times

Michael HowardEden Place, Chicago, IL – In the Fuller Park neighborhood on the south side of Chicago, Michael Howard has helped turn a former dump site into an oasis of food production and biological diversity that promotes nature conservation and urban agriculture. Their story is helping transform the conversation in this area from lead poisoning and urban blite to nature conservation and urban agriculture. Environmental education at Eden Place focuses on undoing cultural disconnect and scars of the past through hands-on food production and habitat restoration. New funds and programming are focused on bringing stronger science proficiency for students, teachers, and families.

Michael Howard                      Photo Credit: Mike Nowak

Jared Hall – Coleman Middle School, Wichita, KS – An inspiring local example of kids learning about community-based food systems can be found at Coleman Middle School in Wichita. 7th Grade Science Teacher, Jared Hall, makes science fun with hands-on, project-based learning endeavors, including a honey-making beehive in the classroom, vegetable gardens just outside the door, and chickens and rabbits on the playground. Hall is teaching economics, entrepreneurship, botany, and ecology in the process and his students are having a great time while learning.

Jared Hall                           Photo Credit: Coleman Middle School

I attended the Kansas Rural Center 2018 Farm & Food Conference last week and learned that there are many more inspiring sustainable food examples out there to learn about and emulate. Mary Hendrickson, Rural Sociology Professor from the University of Missouri, taught us about the sustainability of Community-Based Food Systems. Donna Pearson McClish of Common Ground in Wichita taught us about food deserts in south-central Kansas and what she is doing to combat them. Terrell Dyer and Aaron Marks of Project RALLY in Kansas City presented about how their urban gardening program is focused on Respect, Accountability, Love, Leadership, and Youth.

The Future of Food

There are good ecological reasons for mixing native plants with food plots as highlighted in the Xerces Society Book, Farming with Native Beneficial Insects.

Polyculture farming solutions have been a successful message of the Land Institute for decades. But these are topics for future blog posts.

Stay tuned for possible food-laden tweaks to the Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools Program in the future.






A New Mission Statement for the Future

Our Dyck Arboretum staff and board (with facilitation from our member and consultant, John Simmering) have been doing a lot of self review over the last year in search of a new mission statement for the future. Our two-part mission statement for the past 36 years has been as follows:

The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains promotes, through education and stewardship, the conservation and use of plants native and adaptable to Kansas.

The Arboretum maintains gardens and prairie plant collections for education and conservation, providing a natural setting for reflection and appreciation of nature.

 

While it was relevant in the early days of the Arboretum, for what we have evolved to today, this old mission statement has become restrictive. It doesn’t recognize the relationships we develop with our supporters through music, history, culture, the arts, rentals, healthy bodies, and environmental stewardship. This old mission statement is also quite long, hard to remember, and mixes mission with vision.

Evie and Harold Dyck’s dream for the Arboretum has brought us through 37 years of changes. Now we’re expanding on their mission and vision.

Our consultant gave us guidance to make our new mission statement simple, inclusive in scope, and unrestrictive in geography. After many meetings, round table discussions with members and supporters, surveys, individual staff reflections and feedback sessions with our board, we came up with the following new mission statement:

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land.

In the following, I’ll pick apart and explain, using visual aids, more of the meaning our staff used to describe each of the words in this new mission statement and offer photos from our archives that might further illustrate each of these thoughts for the public.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For further interpretation of what we do at Dyck Arboretum, one can turn to our vision and initiatives. A vision statement should further flesh out details regarding how we support our mission and the initiatives detail what we actually do to carry out that vision. Our vision and initiative statements are a work-in-progress, but along the way we’ll share what we have been working on and welcome your input.

 

VISION

To support our mission, we have four elements in this DRAFT of our vision statement.

Education – Introduce people to the native landscapes of Kansas, promote ecological diversity, encourage citizen science, and re-connect people to nature.

Community – Enable people to find a sense of place, encourage empathy for diversity of people and organisms, and create both active and passive community engagement experiences.

Arts – Be a source of diverse educational experiences and provide innovative and creative pathways to help people connect to our mission.

Organizational Sustainability – Model sustainable management of staff, instructure and finances, for long-term health of the Arboretum.

 

INITIATIVES

The principal initiatives that help us carry out our vision include prairie conservation and native/adaptable plant landscaping, maintained gardens with contemplative spaces, spring and fall FloraKansas native plant festivals, tours of the Arboretum, visits to important locations in Kansas, landscaping classes and private landscaping consultations, a winter lecture series, a spring education symposium, school field trips, and our Kansas Earth Partnership for Schools Program. Other initiatives that introduce new people to our mission, develop relationships in community, and help us establish a sense of place here at Dyck Arboretum include our Prairie Window Concert Series, Winter Luminary Walk, Go Green Leprechaun Run, visual art displays, a gift shop, and rental of our facilities and grounds.

Thanks for following what we do and for helping support our mission. The relationships we cultivate with you are what we are all about!

 






10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows

Katie Kingery-Page

I heard a great presentation this last Saturday entitled “10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows” by Katie Kingery-Page, Kansas State University (KSU) faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning. Ms. Kingery-Page was the keynote speaker at the Kansas Native Plant Society’s Annual Wildflower Weekend and her message fit perfectly with the weekend’s theme of “Native Plants in City Settings”.

I find Katie’s background of fine art, landscape design, and ecology intriguing. When she introduced herself as someone who sees landscape architecture as the design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place, I knew that her presentation was going to speak to me.

Katie’s insights in this presentation were based on her experiences with “The Meadow” Project in front of the Beach Museum of Art on the KSU campus. From 2013-16, Katie and her team of volunteers converted a half acre of neglected turf into a native plant meadow. Her 10 lessons learned from this process were as follows:

 

1. Build A Coalition for the Life of the Project

It takes all kinds of people to complete a big project, and she showed a diagram of a “volunteer tree” she created.

Flow chart of people critical to the project.

2. Know the Place

Their planting list started with an extensive Flint Hills species template of the plants found at nearby Konza Prairie and was carved down to the resulting planting mix. Hackberry trees removed from the planting site were milled into everything from benches to mushroom-growing media.

Schematic diagram of prairie and forest-based planting mixes. (Image by Katie Kingery-Page, 2013)

3. Let the Team Guide the Values

Their team developed a mission statement and goals including that the site would integrate art and science and be a living laboratory that would minimize the usage of water and chemicals. An outcome of this plan was to forego the conventional use of killing existing vegetation with glyphosate and instead turned to compost smothering and mechanical scraping.

 

4. Develop A Thick Skin…Use Your Tricks

Have patience and don’t expect an instant landscape. Using flashy, early successional flowering plants such as the annual species Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) – the “bacon of plants” – helps distract onlookers that might otherwise see the weedy nature of the early stages of a planting.

Early successional, flowering “bacon” or “eye candy” plants Plains coreopsis (yellow) and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa). (Image by Katie Kingery-Page)

5. Tell the Project Story

Stories of these projects need to be told and can be done so through various media. Photos, drawings, and interactive touch tables at the Beach Museum were all used to tell The Meadow Project story.

Root development and above ground biomass increase over time, which also leads to increased soil porosity.

6. Connect to Volunteers’ Joy

Volunteer efforts were critical to the success of the project and instead of “work days”, they had “convene with monarch days” where learning experiences were an attractive part of the labor-filled get-togethers.

 

7. Put A Price on Labor

Weeding is skilled labor amounting to “surgical plant removal” and it should be rewarded. However, if money can’t be given, then at least try to find ways to acknowledge the people helping.

 

8. Embrace Imperfection

Native landscaping is perfectly imperfect and the inevitable weeds can be seen as beautiful too. Learning strategies that aid perception of such projects include maintaining a mowed edge that is critical to the perceived success of otherwise “messy” native landscapes.

All ages are welcome to weed. (Image by Richard Dean Prudenti)

9. Make Your Project for the Message of Conservation

Such projects are multi-faceted in their environmental benefits, and assessment measures should broadly include plants, soils, stormwater, wildlife, and more.

Restoration vs. Conservation – Katie used to use the word “restoration”, but there is a danger in implying that this process can fix all impacts to a diverse remnant plant community. Perhaps “conservation” is better with a focus on ecosystem functions such as soil structure, stormwater infiltration, etc.

10. Be A Champion…Stay All In

Katie learned early on from school gardening projects that such endeavors need project champions to carry the project through.

“The Meadow” Project. Long view toward the Beach Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of K-State Communications and Marketing)

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The 10 lessons in this presentation were familiar to me in a variety of ways. From 2003 to 2008 at Dyck Arboretum, our staff and an extensive team of volunteers and college student interns collected seed from local prairie remnants and planted the 13-acre Prairie Window Project. Distinct examples come to mind of our project that relate to each of these lessons and I’ve blogged about various interpretations of that project over the years. It would be fun to come up with our own 10 lessons as well. I can tell you that, similar to The Meadow Project, it included the “design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place.”






Cicada Killers

“Hunting, warring, patrolling, tunneling, they do more in two months–the length of their adult lives–than periodical cicadas do in 17 years.” ~Tim Heffernan, The Atlantic

The insect world never ceases to amaze me. I had a new experience with insects in my yard a few evenings ago. A cicada making a ruckus landed on the ground right next to me in my garden. I quickly realized that it was in a tussle with a large wasp. I had heard about cicada killers before, and it didn’t take long to deduce that I was seeing my first one take down its prey. The cicada struggle didn’t last long as the sting and subsequent paralysis happened in seconds. The cicada killer shortly flew and when checking back later, I noticed that the cicada was gone too.

A cicada killer taking down a cicada.

A friend recently posted a great article about cicada killers. Do yourself a favor and read Tim Heffernan’s 2013 brief article on cicada killers in The Atlantic. This article explains the cicada killer’s interesting adult 2-month life, soil-burrowing nest habits, process for taking down cicadas, hatching of their larvae in a cicada’s live but paralyzed state, and the flies that can also parasitize the cicada killers themselves.

Harmless to People

“With bodies up to two inches in length, huge jaws, and glossy black paint jobs streaked with yellow, they are unmistakable, and more than a little intimidating.” ~Tim Heffernan, The Atlantic

Cicada killers are fascinating insects, and you should add them to the list of insects around you that make you say “oooooh”, rather than “ewwwwww!” They may look ominous, but they really are harmless to people.

In addition to taking in the fascinating information in Tim Heffernan’s article, I want you to take away that this insect holds minimal danger for people. Their large size relative to other wasps is due to the fact that they need to wrestle a large cicada to their nest. The warning coloration is probably some form of mimicry that they have evolved to look fearsome like their yellow jacket and hornet relatives. My hope would be that folks could minimize the knee-jerk reaction of reaching for the can of wasp killer whenever they see any wasp, but especially a non-threatening cicada killer. Don’t fall into the societal stigma that causes many people to recoil when they see an insect, and especially a wasp.

The Hymenoptera Order of insects (wasps, bees, and ants) has long been maligned in our society. A quick search for “movies about killer insects” shows that we love to be terrified of insects.

I’d like to encourage a respectful and non-aggressive approach to all insects in general. So, to finish on a calming note, I’ll leave you with an image of a cuddly monarch butterfly caterpillar that I took right outside the Arboretum Visitor Center door this week munching away on common milkweed.

But be careful, it is filled with poisonous cardiac glycosides and if you were only 2 inches tall and you ate it, it could kill you. Aaaaaggghhh!

A deadly monarch caterpillar.






Visit A Favorite Place – Chase State Fishing Lake

June is almost here and it is time for the prairie to shine. The prairie gardens we promote in our urban landscapes feature many prairie elements that start to look really nice this time of the year as well, but sometimes it is most enjoyable to visit the source prairies. One of the best locations to do this in Kansas is the Flint Hills physiographic region and specifically, Chase State Fishing Lake (CSFL).

An anvil cloud approaching CSFL

I’ve probably been there at least a couple of dozen times in the last 15 years and have found something new and fascinating each time. Years of seed collecting for our Dyck Arboretum prairie reconstruction introduced me to this place, and subsequent trips have had me return with Arboretum members, interns, family and friends as I seek to share this unique Kansas gem with as many people as possible.

My son, Ben, searching for treasures at CSFL

CSFL has its human-made construction marks, including the access road, dam, reservoir and spillway. These amenities promote easier access and recreation opportunities including camping, fishing, and swimming. The spillway highlights a series of limestone shelves where, during times of higher water flow, cascading waterfalls are a powerful sight to see. During low flow times, the shady dripping falls and clear shallow pools are a delightful destination during a hot summer day. There is nothing like a watershed made up entirely of prairie to provide a reservoir of pristine water for fishing and swimming.

CSFL spillway during high flow

My spouse, Sara, and I at a section of the CSFL spillway falls

The lake edge is a great location to witness the history of this place dating back to approximately 70 million years ago in the late Cretaceous period when Kansas was under an inland sea. Exposed sedimentary limestone features fossils including gastropods, bivalves and crinoids. During seed collection forays, my boys in their younger years would spend hours looking for fossils lakeside and I have to smile when I occasionally find crinoids around the house from their collections.

Fossils in limestone at CSFL

The wildlife is plentiful at CSFL. I don’t typically spend much time seeking it out during visits, but the diverse prairie ecosystem is teeming with insects, spiders, mammals, reptiles, and birds. Even though wild populations of bison are gone from the Flint Hills, evidence of buffalo wallows from hundreds and even thousands of years ago are still visible as small round compacted wetlands on the prairie ridge tops. It wasn’t till after a number of trips there that an accompanying herpetologist friend turning over rocks while I was collecting seed, alerted me to the fact that a diverse world of snakes and scorpions could be found under foot if you just look for it.

A focus of mine during some visits has been documenting prairie birds and butterflies. Bird species such as upland sandpipers and Henslow’s sparrows and butterfly species such as arogos skippers and regal fritillaries may have become rare throughout the Great Plains in general, but these species still thrive in the expansive prairies of the Flint Hills.

My first ever and only confirmed sighting of the rare arogos skipper occurred at CSFL

Regal fritillary butterfly (Speyeria idalia) on tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum)

Maize High School students observing the abundance of insects…

…and spiders at CSFL

The crown jewel of CSFL, in my opinion, is the prairie vegetation. Hundreds of species of grasses, wildflowers, sedges, vines, shrubs, and trees makeup the diverse skin and lifeblood of this Flint Hills landscape. Searching out flowers and seeds of these species is a like a deluxe scavenger hunt from March to November. A good reason to visit in early to mid June is to enjoy the stunning shows of butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) among dozens of other species blooming at the same time.

Flowering spurge (Euphorbia corollata)

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Finally, there is no better place to take in the grandeur of the relationship between the land and the sky. I’ve been fortunate to watch a thunderstorm roll in at CSFL and I can only imagine what it is like to witness a prairie fire there. With few to no trees to impede your view of the horizon, a ridge top there is an exquisite place to watch the sun rise and set. With only the sound of the wind and the dickcissels, meadowlarks, and grasshopper sparrows to serenade your visit, I find it one of the most enjoyable and even spiritual natural places in Kansas.

A tour group enjoying the last hours of daylight on a ridge top at CSFL

Prairie sunset at CSFL






Spring-Blooming Prairie and Woodland Plants

Spring-blooming prairie and woodland plants are among the first to take advantage of warmer soils and days with increasing sunshine. Even though it has been a cold and slowly developing spring, the green shoots of spring bloomers are emerging and starting to produce colorful flowers that feed early pollinators and brighten sunny to partially-shaded landscapes.

The following 16 species are some of my favorite spring prairie and open woodland plants that also serve as landscaping gems, flowering in April and May:

a. Baptisia australis var. major blue false indigo full sun
b. Callirhoe involucrata purple poppy mallow full sun
c. Clematis fremontii Fremont’s clematis full sun
d. Geum triflorum prairie smoke full sun
e. Koeleria cristata Junegrass full sun
f. Oenothera macrocarpa Missouri evening primrose full sun
g. Penstemon cobaea penstemon cobaea full sun
h. Penstemon digitalis foxglove beardtongue full sun
i. Pullsatilla patens pasque flower full sun
j. Tradescantia tharpii spiderwort full sun
k. Verbena canadensis rose verbena full sun
l. Amsonia tabernaemontana blue star part shade
m. Aquilegia canadensis columbine part shade
n. Heuchera richardsonii coral bells part shade
o. Senecio plattensis golden ragwort part shade
p. Zizia aurea golden alexander part shade

 

SpringFlowersBlogV2

There are so many benefits to be found in landscaping with native plants. They will greatly enhance the biological diversity and ecology of your yard by providing food for insect larvae and flower nectar for pollinators. Small mammals and birds feast on the abundance of available seeds. Predatory insects, birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles will find food in the abundance of available insects. Even the smallest of native gardens can be a mini wildlife sanctuary.

 

Black swallowtail butterfly (male). Golden alexander is a host plant for the black swallowtail caterpillar.

Native plant gardens connect us to our natural and cultural history and give us a sense of place. Even if you don’t use your home landscape today as your grocery store, home improvement store, and pharmacy, Plains Indians and European settlers certainly did not too long ago. The plants and animals of the prairie were critically important to human survival.

The deep roots and unique traits of native plants make them very adaptable to our Kansas climate and provide sensible and sustainable landscaping. Once established, these plants need little to no supplemental water and require no fertilizers, herbicides or pesticides if properly matched to the site.

Even if you are only interested in colorful garden eye candy, this list of spring flowering native plants will provide a beautiful array of flowers to brighten your spring landscape. You can find these plants at our FloraKansas Plant Festival!

 

Photo Credits