We had a great time with our 11th annual Earth Partnership for Schools Summer Institute last week. K-12 teachers brought their enthusiasm for learning and a willingness to put themselves in the shoes of their students. For five days, they practiced hands-on curriculum activities and developed action plans to plant native prairie school gardens in the coming years with their students.
A big focus of the week is the study of insects. We learn about their diversity, preferences for different habitats, and importance in pollination. We make observations, conduct studies, think about how certain plant shapes and colors attract certain insect groups, and even play insect charades.
Insects are critical components in the function of nutrient cycling, natural areas, food systems, and general human existence. We hope that teachers will embrace the importance of these critters and inspire the next generation with the fascinating world of insects.
Models showing common insect orders of classification.
Conducting and presenting science inquiry studies with insects.
Studying whether pollinators are attracted by different colors.
Data collection with soapy water insect traps near purple coneflower.
Flower-pollinator observations at Maxwell Wildlife Refuge with butterfly milkweed in the foreground.
Mint family flower shapes attract certain types of pollinators.
Legume family flower shapes attract certain types of pollinators.
Observing a clear wing moth collect nectar from common milkweed during the week.
The clear wing moth is also known as the squash vine borer.
After seeing the two sets of wings, efficient lateral movement, compound eyes, and short antennae, it becomes obvious that this is a dragonfly.
Monarch ovipositing on common milkweed (April 9, 2017).
There are many positive things that can be said about insects. They are important to healthy ecosystems. If you have any appreciation for wildlife of any kind in Kansas, you have insects to thank. Aside from a handful of pests they are beneficial to humans as well. Click HERE to see an earlier blog post on why I am in awe of insects.
Many insect species require a specific host plant or group of plants to feed their young. Therefore, it should be no surprise that greater plant diversity leads to greater insect diversity and ultimately a greater abundance of wildlife. I like to see more biological diversity in urban landscapes and this is why my landscaping tendencies trend towards more plant diversity rather than less.
Butterfly enthusiast and master gardener Lenora Larson gave us this similar message last month at our March winter lecture. She highlighted more than two dozen species of butterflies and moths that folks can easily attract to their landscape with specific host plants. A summary of her presentation, host plant and butterfly species lists, and helpful references can be found HERE.
Monarch egg on common milkweed (April 10, 2017).
A little over a week ago on April 9, I saw my first couple of northerly migrating monarchs of the season. There were many other reports of first of season monarchs reported that weekend as well. In the week since, newly emerged milkweed shoots more often than not are found hosting one to six monarch eggs each. Yesterday on April 18, nine days after the first monarch siting, I observed the first two hatched caterpillars. More on the plight of the monarch and why we are so carefully observing this progress can be found HERE in an earlier blog post.
Newly hatched monarch caterpillar on common milkweed (April 18).
We’ll be touting at our spring plant sale the many benefits of gardening with Kansas native plants. Attracting insects and biological diversity to your landscape is one of those many benefits.
On Saturday, March 18, we held our 11th annual spring education symposium entitled Living the Land Ethic in Kansas, and learned how much we have to celebrate in Kansas. This symposium was many months in the making and it went smoothly thanks to our four staff, help from a number of board members, the assistance of many volunteers, and underwriting support from Kansas Humanities Council.
The speakers were top-notch and their messages were filled with immense knowledge and passion. Those among the 85 registered attendees were literate, engaged, and full of great questions. The homemade baked goods for breakfast, Lorna Harder’s venison stew for lunch, and nice day outside to enjoy during breaks all helped round out a perfect day.
I gave a brief introduction of how this symposium developed as part of our year-long Dyck Arboretum 35th anniversary celebration with a focus on Aldo Leopold’s Land Ethic chapter in his famous book A Sand County Almanac. We then heard presentations about the essential Kansas natural elements of “The Land” from educators and writers, Rolfe Mandel (soils), Craig Freeman (vegetation), and Michael Pearce (wildlife) and how these elements are foundational to our Kansas natural history, agriculture/ranching-based economy, food systems, and land-based enjoyment and recreation. Land stewards Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, and Brian Obermeyer told their stories of how being a land caretaker is not only a way to make a living but that it is part of a cherished way of life through which one strives to sustainably pass along stewardship responsibilities to future generations. Elementary school teacher, Erin Dowell explained how critical it is to instill a land ethic in our children that will be our future land stewards. And visionary, Wes Jackson, rounded out the day with a presentation about how we as agricultural agents must steward the land as part of a living ecosphere.
The day was filled with dialog and rich with a variety of science as well as humanities topics about the important interplay between the land and people. Thank you to all participants!
I’ve been fascinated if not mesmerized recently with this phenomenon of blackbird “ribbons” flying across the sky. While they’ve become familiar to me during the winter in recent years, I’ve noticed them with much greater regularity this year. While the photos and video taken with my iPhone don’t do the phenomenon justice, they will at least give you some idea of what these ribbons look like.
Since early January I’ve seen good examples of this phenomenon perhaps 15-20 times. When I’ve seen them, they have either been flying east around 8:00 a.m. or flying west around 5:00 p.m. They range in density, usually stay within 100 feet of the ground, and stretch for miles. I’ve tried to do some sampling counts while watching them, often for a duration of 5-10 minutes, and figure they number easily in the tens to hundreds of thousands of birds – if not more – in these formations.
Whenever I’ve see them, I have not had binoculars with me and have been unable to get any positive species IDs. They seem to all be red-winged blackbirds, but I wouldn’t be surprised if grackles and/or starlings were in the mix. Local birding expert from Newton, Gregg Friesen, has spent time identifying species in blackbird flocks and says they commonly consist of 90 percent red-winged blackbirds, 5 percent brown-headed cowbirds and a mixture of starlings and the occasional Brewer’s blackbird.
Look closely to see the tens of thousands of birds in this photo.
Some plausible reasons for flying en masse like this might include protection from predators, higher probability of finding food, aerodynamic efficiencies in flight and more. But why the consistency of “punching the clock” with regard to time of day and direction? Does it have something to do with photoperiod? Perhaps they do it throughout the day and I’m only seeing them during my commute.
Some searching for information via the Web, the Kansas Bird Listserv, and my bird books, has turned up very little on this phenomenon besides that red-winged blackbirds like to flock in winter. I posted my inquiry to the Kansas Bird Listserv (a very knowledge-rich resource of birding enthusiasts from around the state) and got some insightful responses.
There is some interesting footage and information on the Web regarding starling murmurations that resemble these blackbird ribbons. Here is one such article made available by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. University of Kansas science educator, Brad Williamson, describes that the behavior and spacing of birds in these formations can be explained by simple rules in mathematical models that most likely relate to competitive advantages in finding food and protection from predators.
Educator Eugene A. Young from Northern Oklahoma College responded to my inquiry with the following: “Certainly there is strength in numbers, aerodynamics helps, but it appears the birds are usually flying from the roost to forage areas. Once they get to these areas, they disperse into smaller flocks (100-10,000). These flocks, as the crow flies, can travel 50 miles. Once they are done foraging, they begin to gather in larger concentrations, and eventually make their way back to the roost. And different lineages begin to accumulate along the route, eventually forming these long meandering lines of birds. I suspect they use visual cues to find their way back and forth, thus the low flights. But upon reaching the roosting area, they accumulate in staging areas before they go to roost. Often this is wires, trees, bushes or on the ground, and huge congregations form.”
Eugene also confirmed that the timing of movement from roost to forage and back happens right around the time I was seeing this happen and that it relates to photoperiod. A related and informative article (Young, E. A. 2002. Blackbirds Singing. Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks Magazine, 59(2):2-6) can be found here.
This year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains we are trying to be more in tune with phenology as we study the writings of Aldo Leopold. Observing this pretty amazing phenomenon has been just one of many ways I’ve been enjoying a connection with the natural world around me using phenology.
I’ll leave you with a fitting quote from the end of Eugene Young’s article…
“To appreciate the beauty of large blackbird roosts in Kansas is to recognize that large spectacles of animal life are becoming rare. Rather than to be deplored for their droppings and contentious odor, they should be applauded for their mere presence. Imagine what it would have been like to cross the Plains with the large bison herds, or never being out of sight of prairie dogs. What about the huge flocks of passenger pigeons that once flew across the Midwestern sky, with millions of pigeons from horizon to horizon? These moments are gone, lost forever, except for the thoughts and accounts left behind by those fortunate enough to bear them witness. Where can you see such phenomona today? Here in the Plains, but a few short months of the year!”
“All ethics so far evolved rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts.The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land.” The Land Ethic,A Sand County Almanac.
When I think about what Kansas means to me, I think about the land. I think about the Kansas prairie; the soils that support it and the wildlife it supports. I think about the water that flows through it and I think about the sky above it. I think about the food it produces. You and I are important parts of this community too.
On Saturday, March 18, we will celebrate and learn more about these rich Kansas connections of the land including its soil, prairie, wildlife, and people, and how they all interact. An all-star cast of interpreters and stewards of Kansas (Rolfe Mandel, Craig Freeman, Michael Pearce, Jason Schmidt, Pete Ferrell, Brian Obermeyer, Erin Dowell, and Wes Jackson) will be assembled for our 11th annual spring education symposium.
We have an early bird discounted fee if you sign up by March 9. See the following link for more details. Come join us!
We observed the winter solstice yesterday on December 21st. I shared my thoughts on this beloved time in a winter solstice blog post last year. Whether it is the rotation of distant planets, stars and moons around one another or the episodes of weather, plants and animals closer to home, observable natural cycles are abundant around us.
Phenology wheel – a collaborative nature journal
We will be focusing on the closer to home cycles for the coming calendar year at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains. Earlier this year I introduced the importance of “phenology” in a blog post. Now we are now ready to practice and enjoy this ritual in earnest over the coming year here on our grounds. We will be observing and documenting events related to weather, plants, and animals at Dyck Arboretum. With the help of visitors, we will record precipitation amounts, presence/absence of migrating bird species, notable events with other forms of wildlife, flowering and seeding of plants, and more.
We invite you to help us document these phenological events by recording your observations on a sheet in our Visitor Center entryway. At regular intervals, we will compile these observations and record them onto a large wall-mounted “phenology wheel”. The phenology wheel concept was created by Partners in Place, LLC. The idea has been promoted to teachers and students through our Earth Partnership for Schools Program here at Dyck Arboretum, and through the Earth Partnership Program founders at University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum. An example of what we have in mind was recently exhibited at the nature center for Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Phenology wheel observations recorded at Miller Woods, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Become a citizen scientist
So, help us fill up our very own phenology wheel in 2017 by activating your observational skills and recording your findings at Dyck Arboretum. Be observant, take photographs and share them with us, write descriptive notes, make drawings, bring in a leaf or flower if you’d like help with identification, note dates and weather conditions, and educate yourself by engaging with the natural world around you. Through your citizen science observations in 2017 and the display of this Dyck Arboretum phenology wheel, we will all benefit from your findings.
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.
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.
Gardens of Château de Villandry, France. Photo by Peter Dutton.
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.
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
Define Garden Goals – Wildlife habitat in general? Single species habitat (e.g., monarch)? Rain garden? High profile or in backyard? Prairie or woodland?
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.
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.
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.
Be sure that plants are not too tall for the scale of small island plantings.
Add Hardscaping – Include features such as bird baths, feeders, houses, artwork, and benches for human enjoyment.
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.
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.
Suggestions for planting in waves or clumps.
Don’t Fertilize – Native plants will survive fine without fertilizer. Extra nutrients benefit weeds and only make native plants taller (and more wild looking).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Large flat seeds of compass plant (Silphium laciniatum) falling away from the seed head.
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.
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.
Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds ready to disperse in the wind.
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.
Indian grass (Sorghastrum nutans).
Seeds of native tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are held tightly now, but will loosen and fall away this winter.
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.
Whorled milkweed (Asclepias verticillata).
May you find more enjoyment in the dormant vegetation and seeds persisting around you this fall and winter.
I encourage you to embrace thistles. Our South Central Kansas native species are colorful and attractive to pollinators. With the abundance of precipitation we’ve received this year, it has been a great year for plant growth and flowering, and thistles have certainly been among the benefactors. Don’t be so quick to dig out every plant you find.
Delaware skipper on tall thistle
Thistles are an often prickly topic and one to make many prairie landowners bristle. A number of thistle species are on the Kansas noxious weed list, including bull thistle (Cirsium vulgare), Canada thistle (Cirsium arvense), and musk thistle (Carduus nutans). So, it is no wonder, that the mention of these species makes us cringe. When present on a site, they are often dominant and problematic.
Non-native bull thistle
Non-native bull thistle
Non-native Canada thistle
Non-native musk thistle
There are, however, two native thistles found on our South Central Kansas prairies that often get a bad rap because they are confused with their noxious and more invasive relatives. The native species, undulating thistle (Cirsium undulatum) and tall thistle (Cirsium altissimum) are the only thistles I have found on most South Central Kansas prairies I visit. They have beautiful flowers and play an important role as a nectar source for many species of butterflies and other insects. When in the peak of their respective bloom times, undulating and tall thistle flowers are hot spots for a host of insect pollinators, the predators that eat these insects, and birds (especially finches), who will later eat the seeds.
Native undulating thistle
Native tall thistle
Contrast between green upper and white lower surfaces of native tall thistle leaves
The following table provides more information about the native and non-native species found in Kansas. Thanks to Mike Haddock (http://www.kswildflower.org) for some of the photos and information compiled for this post.
“Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play; where seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the sky is not cloudy all day.” ~excerpt from Dr. Brewster Higley’s song Home on the Range (written in 1876, Smith County, KS)
My family makes our home on the prairie. We love it here. Most of our family and friends are here. Our family history is here. We have created our community here. My vocation is centered around the prairie landscape and it gives me a sense of place on the Plains.
Flower and seed heads of Indiangrass (Sorhastrum nutans), compass plant (Silphium laciniatum), and rigid goldenrod (Solidago rigida).
We also love to visit other areas of the U.S. and leave our “home on the range” at least once every summer for a week or two. Most often we go west to enjoy the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and sometimes beyond in states like Wyoming and Idaho. The mountain vistas, the cool and dry air, the rocky snow-melt streams, and the concentrated wildflower season are all attractive during the hot months of July and August on the Plains.
Recently, I was able to enjoy a remote nugget of the West through a backpacking and fly-fishing trip into the Wind River Range of the Rockies in Western Wyoming. My Denver-based brother-in-law and his friends put considerable time and effort into planning this trip that took us 10 miles into the Popo Agie Wilderness where phones are only useful as cameras. The Wind Rivers feature high, jagged peaks; deep, narrow valleys and canyons; sheer granite walls; cirque basins; talus slopes; and perennial snowfields. At 11,000-12,000 feet in elevation, we saw very few people, got snowed on repeatedly, observed trout-filled streams and lakes, and witnessed some of the darkest night skies that the United States has to offer (yes, the Milky Way does really exist). This trip was a real treat.
A lake and rugged terrain in the Popo Agie Wilderness area.
I could certainly love living in the West with all its Wilderness Areas, National Parks, and so many natural recreational areas certainly is a landscape to adore. But while it is easy to love what you don’t regularly experience and fall into the “grass is greener” trap, I’ll gladly embrace Kansas and all it has to offer. Here are a few things that I think are favorable traits of Kansas geography (the relationship between people and their environment):
Only four percent of Kansas is developed. Unless you live in Kansas City, traffic rarely raises blood pressure in Kansas. Few people have to worry about illness related to air pollution.
We have access to clean and plentiful water supplies across the state. Plus, the massive complex of wetlands at Quivira Wildlife Refuge and Cheyenne Bottoms makes Kansas a critical stop to legions of migrating birds as part of the Great Plains Flyway.
Of the 96% undeveloped areas, 53% is in cropland and 43% is covered by prairie. Farming and grazing are economic staples which means that folks are closely connected to the land.
Deep soils make Kansas one of the most fertile landscapes in the world (thanks to thousands of years of prairie roots). Rich earth combined with plentiful rainfall give us easy access to plentiful and healthy food supplies.
Prairies are the skin of our earth and abundant in the Flint Hills and Smoky Hills. They are beautiful at both the landscape and micro-levels. They are biologically diverse, hosting hundreds of species of plants and animals. Prairies are very important to our human health.
Big sky and sunsets are Kansas eye candy. The absence of trees does have its advantages.