Are Bulbs Good for Pollinators?

My volunteers and I have been spending many hours this fall planting daffodils and tulips around the Arboretum grounds. All told, we will have nearly 800 new blooming bulbs coming up next spring, down a bit from the 1000 we planted last year.

One afternoon my colleague Brad Guhr posed an important question:
“Are bulbs useful to spring pollinators?”

We all love the aesthetics of fat yellow daffodils and spritely crocus, but I had never considered whether they served an ecological purpose. Supposing (incorrectly) that most bulbs I order are native to the Netherlands, what good would they be to our local pollinator population?
I have now been down the rabbit hole of research and will summarize here how bulbs affect pollinators, which bulbs attract them and proper bulb planting technique.

Tulip humilis (aucheriana) is a wild-type tulip that does well in gardens and meadows alike.
By Bernd Haynold – selbst fotografiert – own picture, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4767022

Bulbs and Bugs

Long before people started admiring their blooms, most of our favorite bulb flowers were being visited by pollinators. Such is not the case for today: modern hybrids selected for the biggest bloom and brightest color sometimes become less useful to pollinators. Flowers that have been distorted too far from their original form may have less nectar or be entirely sterile, rendering them useless as a food source. Hybridization can also sacrifice the flower’s strong scent, leaving aroma-sensing pollinators (like nocturnal moths) lost without lunch. As humans try to improve flowers for our own eye, we  inadvertently disrupt their role in nature. Insects and flowers have an important relationship directly related to the flower’s form. If it changes drastically, certain insects may no longer be able to reach the nectar. Because of this, avoid buying highly modified ‘double’ and ‘triple’ bloomers or extra-petaled flowers that will likely inhibit a pollinator’s ability to feed.

Narcissus poeticus, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=907

Best Bulbs

Though we may associate the bulb trade with Holland, the native range of daffodils is the Iberian Peninsula and tulips grow wild in Turkey and Central Asia. Crocus were originally native to southern Europe, the Middle East and western China. There are some bulbs native to North America, such as Claytonia virginica and Mertensia virginica as well as the trout lily, but they are too often upstaged by fancy exotics. This link offers great options for North American native bulbs that will benefit you and the ecosystem. If you aren’t ready to give up your tulips and daffodils, never fear! By choosing unhybridized species, the flower retains its pollen and nectar, supplying much needed early spring feeding for hungry pollinators. Crocus, species-variety Tulips and Muscari all are well-loved by hungry bees waking up from their long hibernation as well as wild type daffodils such as Narcissus poeticus or N. jonquilla.

A bee visiting a purple crocus flower.
CC BY-SA 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=660234

Claytonia is a lovely North American native. By Dcrjsr (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Planting Tips

The first step to proper planting is identification – is what you are holding truly a bulb? Corms, tubers, rhizomes and true bulbs all fall under the category “geophyte” (a perennial that stores its food underground). Many rhizomes would not like to be buried as deep as a bulb but corms can be treated much the same. Sorting out the technicalities will ensure correct planting and big blooms!
When planting true bulbs, depth is essential. In general, plant bulbs 2 or 3 times as deep as its height. Example: a 2 inch tall daffodil bulb should be planted 6 inches deep. Digging too shallow is better than planting too deep since many bulbs have contractile roots. Over time, these specialized roots will pull it down to optimal depth. Planting root side down/pointed side up is always best, but if the bulbs are too odd-shaped to tell, plant them sideways to be safe. Thanks to geotropism, a plant’s ability to sense gravity and grow accordingly, they will eventually right themselves.

Bees love Fritillaria meleagris, a dainty and unique bulb native to Europe. By Пономарьова Алевтина (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So, after much scouring of the internet it seems there is no straightforward answer to Brad’s question. Many highly hybridized bulbs do not benefit pollinators, but other heirloom or species varieties certainly do. To benefit early spring pollinators in your bulb garden, install a few North American species or try to find unhybridized varieties that retain their full species name and their ecological importance. Get out your sweaters and garden gloves, now is the time to get digging!

Predator Gardens

Pollinator gardens are the current craze, and rightly so! Pollinators of all shapes and sizes are desperately in need of good quality habitat. But it’s not all beautiful butterflies and buzzing bees – there are predator insects on the loose, patrolling your flowerbed for their next meal. These helpful arthropods can reduce the weeds in your garden and put a stop to those leaf eating larvae. Inviting certain predator insects to your yard can benefit your flowers and keep your little slice of the ecosystem in balance. Following are a few ways to start a predator garden and how it can benefit the rest of your landscape.

Beetle Banks

Photo from http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/995056020.
The Pennsylvania ground beetle (Harpalus pennsylcanica) is found all over North America. It feeds on the seeds of ragweed and giant foxtail as well as the larvae of Colorado potato borer. What more could you want?

A great way to start a predator garden is by creating ‘beetle banks’. We all love the aphid eating lady beetle, but there are thousands of less charismatic species to be thankful for as well. Ground dwelling beetles can be a gardeners best friend by eating weed seeds, preying on slugs, snails, mites, and much more. You might not see them in action since many species are nocturnal. Planting raised berms/mounds of clump and tuft forming grasses such as Panicum, Tripsacum, or Sprobolous, invites ground-dwelling beetles to stick around. The uncut grasses keep them cozy during winter and the raised area helps keep them dry. I learned all about this technique at a Xerxes Society training day for farmers interested in beneficial insects. Beetle banks are being tested on the agricultural scale, but it works on the small scale too.

While this Panicum virgatum planting is wild and natural looking, a few clumps of an upright variety in your garden can be beneficial and still look groomed. Wikicommons public domain image at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSDA_switchgrass.jpg

Don’t Swat the Wasps

Your first instinct might be to knock down that wasp nest, but not so fast! Wasps are excellent predators who can rid your garden of hornworms, army worms, flies and crickets. Paper wasps and yellow jackets will package up the remains of these little pests and feed them to their young. Some wasps are so small they resemble a fly or mosquito, and these are likely a species of parasitoid wasp. These helpful friends lay their eggs inside tomato hornworms and aphids, immobilizing and eventually killing them. In fact, the University of Maryland extension called parasitoid wasps “the single most important biological control method gardeners have”. Adult wasps of all kinds mostly feed on nectar and can easily be attracted the same way as any other pollinator – by having season long nectar available in your native flower bed. Just be careful not to get too close to their nest, we all know how a wasp sting can smart!

Above, a paper wasp (Poliste fuscatus) feeds on horsetail milkweed nectar/pollen.

A Home For All Seasons

Depending on the size of garden/field you are trying to pest control, it can take years to establish a reliable predator population. Pollen/nectar producing flowers are the first part of attracting these helpers, but creating habitat is crucial to keeping them around. Along with beetle banks, blooming hedgerows or shrubby borders will provide summer nectar and winter shelter. Leaving your garden uncut through winter will make sure there are plenty of pithy stems where insects can overwinter. Reduce the amount of tilling every year to ensure that ground dwelling beetle populations aren’t decimated. And lastly, try to avoid the use of prophylactic pesticides such as treated seeds or broadcast/non-selective application. This will also kill the non-target species, such as the predator insects that might save you the cost of pesticide next season!

The Great American Solar Eclipse: Staff Perspectives

All four Arboretum staff members traveled to Nebraska for Monday’s solar eclipse. I happened to be on a business errand up there to pick up plants for our upcoming sale, while my co-workers fanned out to different towns in the zone of totality. We had no idea how close in proximity we were to each other until we returned to work Tuesday! Here are some reflections from each of us about our “totality” experiences.

Janelle

Holmesville, NE

“I viewed the solar eclipse with family and friends, including a large group of young children. Watching the kids experience this amazing cosmic event, with such joy and wonder, made the whole day so much more meaningful.”
Janelle visited the home-church of her great-grandmother to get a look at the eclipse. Friends, family and church members shared lunch on the lawn while children enjoyed games and crafts related to the eclipse. Janelle took the video below at the moment of totality when the shadow of the moon fell over the area, creating a look of twilight. Listen for the enthusiastic young boy exclaiming “totality! totality!” in the background; a perfect soundtrack!

Brad

Geneva, NE

“One of the best memories of the moment we hit totality…screams of delight heard from the elementary school about a half mile away.”
Monday was a special father-son bonding experience for Brad and his father Leon. On a last minute whim the two zipped across the state line to witness the total eclipse first hand. Through an old coworker and with the help of serendipity, they ended up welcomed into the home of strangers and watched the event from their yard.

Brad safely watching the eclipse through his solar glasses.

Scott

York, NE

“Impossible to describe. Watching it with the 120 people on our trip in such a beautiful setting made it even better.”
The Arboretum received overwhelming interest in the Solar Eclipse viewing trip. Scott and our board chairwoman Lorna Harder led two buses full of Arboretum supporters, nature enthusiasts and umbraphiles  to Prairie Gold Nursery in York, just on the north side of the totality zone. We are so grateful that the nursery staff were willing to let the Arboretum commandeer their parking lot for this event. Our trip-goers were delighted with the opportunity to buy some beautiful plants while waiting for the eclipse to begin.

Only a sliver of the sun left showing. Photo by Jim Griggs, http://www.selective-focus.com/

Katie

Beatrice, NE

I watched the show from a friend’s family farm near Beatrice, very near the center of the totality zone. Out in the open country, I experienced the natural phenomena of the eclipse as the moon’s shadow draped over the land: sudden stillness of the wind, quieting of the birds, and a sunset-orange coloration encircling the entire horizon. I resisted the urge to take photos. Instead, I just soaked in the eerie feeling of darkness during the day and reflected on all the changes around me.  I had been very skeptical in past weeks about all the hullabaloo leading up to this eclipse. It can’t be as exciting as everyone was talking it up to be, right? I am glad to be proven wrong, and so happy that I happened to be in the zone of totality so I could view it for a few moments without the solar glasses.

Arboretum supporter and master photographer Jim Griggs agreed to let us use some of his amazing shots taken in far western Nebraska for this blog post. Find more of his photography at http://www.selective-focus.com/

New Shrubs, Big Color

Each year Scott and I scour catalogs and websites to find new and interesting plants to offer at the spring and fall FloraKansas plant sale fundraisers. New shrub varieties are, in my opinion, the most fun to hunt up. We are looking specifically for species that have some, if not all, of the following qualities: attractive habit, beneficial to wildlife/pollinators, heat and drought tolerant, good performance record, unique or unavailable in our area, or important for conservation.

I am so excited about the new plants available at the upcoming fall sale, I can’t help but share a few with you early! Enjoy some quick profiles about my favorite new shrubs as well as companion plant suggestions to help blend them into your landscape. Some of these are completely new to us, and others are simply better performing varieties of our old favorites.

Tandoori Orange has stunning fall color and beautiful berries, offering multi-season interest. Photos courtesy of Proven Winners – www.provenwinners.com

‘Tandoori Orange’ viburnum

This viburnum will be a big hit as a garden border plant. It has all the qualities we love in a viburnum (shade tolerance, deer resistance, attractive leaves), but it is the first to boast a true orange berry and leaf in fall. The ripe, peachy-orange berries add mid-summer interest and the white spring bloom is not to be missed! At 6-8ft tall it is suitable as a hedge, privacy screen or back-of-the-garden border. To ensure fruit production, plant ‘Cardinal Candy’ viburnum nearby for pollination.

Companion plant:
 The bright yellow fall foliage of Spicebush (Lindera benzoin) offers a stunning contrast to Tandoori Orange. They both produce berries that are edible to birds, turning your yard into a bird banquet banquet hall!

 

The red berries of ‘Berry Poppins’ coupled with red leaves and twigs of ‘Red Rover’ create quite a show in late fall and winter. Photos courtesy of Proven Winners – www.provenwinners.com

‘Berry Poppins’ deciduous holly

Just as cute as its name, this dwarf holly, only 3-4 feet tall, is easy to plunk into the landscape in any open space. Its habit of heavy fruiting gives a great winter show when other things in the garden are brown and dormant. The berry-laden branches are great for cutting, and for making crafts and Christmas decorations pop. Plant in full to part sun and with a pollinator plant such as ‘Mr. Poppins’ to ensure fruit production.

Companion plant: Red Rover dogwood (Cornus sp.) brings another pop of red with its bright, fiery twigs in winter. Very upright and structured, it’s a great partner to the similarly shaped holly.

 

Pugster Blue butterfly bush and ‘Gone with the Wind’ Dropseed mix well because of their similar habit but contrasting leaf shape. Photo courtesy of Proven Winners – www.provenwinners.com (left) and Walters Gardens, Inc. (right).

‘Pugster Blue’ butterfly bush

This one has my hopes up as a replacement for some other underwhelming dwarf buddleias out there. All too often the bush’s diminutive size also means smaller blooms – not for Pugster! Big true-blue blooms don’t quit until frost on a plant that only grows 2ft tall. Perfect for a tight spot that needs big color and butterfly appeal.

Companion plant: Prairie Dropseed ‘Gone with the Wind’ (Sporobolus heterolepsis) complements and mimics the compact, rounded shape of this butterfly bush. Sporobolus heterolepsis adds tremendous movement and texture to any garden. Surrounding ‘Pugster Blue’ with this grass or mixing them together in a border will create a natural, flowing aesthetic.

Come visit us at the September plant sale fundraiser and get a peek at these unique plants. Fall is an ideal time for planting; your new shrubs will thank you for the cool autumn temperatures during their establishment. Arboretum staff will be available to make suggestions, helping you find the best fit for your landscape.

Insectopia

With all the beautiful blooms around the Arboretum these days, the bugs are on a feeding frenzy! I have been having a blast snapping photos of all the active insects with my new camera gadget – a clip-on macro lens that attaches to a phone camera. My iphone can now get incredibly close and detailed shots of the tiniest insects. This handy tool is inexpensive and invaluable for bug-crazy individuals like me. I got mine courtesy of a Xerces Society pollinator workshop back in April.

Can you identify these Kansas insects? (without reading the captions first!)

Grey Hairstreak on Wild Quinine flowers (Strymon melinus on Parthenium integrifolium) with outstretched proboscis!

Goldenrod Soldier Beetle (Chauliognathus pennsylvanicus) dipping his head into the flower cup of Indian Hemp Dogbane (Apocynum cannabinum). Notice the long segmented antennae and claws on the feet for climbing.

Carpenter bee (Xylocopa sp.) on Purple Prairie Clover (Dalea Purpurea) with pollen on his hairy legs.

Large Milkweed Bug (Oncopeltus fasciatus) on the underside of a fuzzy Common Milkweed leaf (Asclepias syriaca)

Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis) resting on limestone near the greenhouse, probably on his way back to the pond.

 

The lens even allows me to take videos –
watch as a paper wasp forages on horsetail milkweed flowers and the pollen-covered bee in the picture above enjoys a snack on some purple prairie clover.

If you want to bee an insect expert, get one of of these lenses for yourself and snap away! They are useful as educational tools or for taking detailed pictures to help you and your extension agent identify particular garden friends or pests. When you visit our grounds to see these beauties for yourself, be sure to check the gift shop for a wide selection of children’s books and as well as adult field guides that focus on insects found in Kansas.
Find more goregous shots of Dyck Arboretum flora and fauna on our Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/explore/locations/255013257/dyck-arboretum-of-the-plains/

Get the Most Bloom From Your Bulbs

This is the time of year when our favorite daffodils, tulips and alliums are looking sad and spent. The flowers have dried up and the foliage is floppy. Here are a few Dos and Don’ts to follow, ensuring a bounty of blooms next spring.

 

DON’T cut foliage before it is yellow and dying. Green leaves are still sending food down to the bulb. The stored sugars keep the bulb healthy through the winter and provide energy for the burst of flowering in the spring. Leave them uncut until they are truly yellowed and no longer photosynthesizing.

Giant allium in “Our Mother’s Garden”, blooming in early May.

DO mark where your bulbs are planted. After the leaves are cut away and the summer perennials encroach, it can be difficult to remember where exactly your bulbs are. Mark the area with flags, wooden stakes, decorative stones, or golf tees to be sure you don’t accidentally dig them up.

Pink hyacinth and daffodils, blooming in mid-March.

DO fertilize. Bulbs benefit from a good boost when they are first planted, when they first break the surface of the ground in spring and then lastly in fall. Choose a fertilizer high in phosphorus and be sure to mix it with water or water it into the soil. Bulbs can only absorb nutrient that is carried in water, so moisture is a must.

Yellow crocus, blooming in early March.

DON’T miss out on great deals! Many bulb suppliers give big discounts for orders placed in spring and summer because their busiest season is fall. Think ahead and get your next tulip bed planned out and ordered before the big rush. John Scheepers has a great selection, and Ruigrok would be best for large orders of many hundred bulbs at a time. After all, you can never have too much spring color!

Partner Perennials

As the weather warms up and perennials begin to sprout I find myself in the gardening mood! Whether filling in gaps in an existing garden bed or planting up a new area, knowing which plants will look best together can be a sort of guessing game. But a fun one! When I start getting too many ideas about what plants to pair up, I put pencil to sketch pad and doodle my ideas into reality.

There are countless unique, easy combinations for every situation that can incorporate natives, exotics and even our old garden favorites. Maybe you can use some of my recent sketches, maybe they will inspire you to draw up some of your own!

For the Shady Place

Try partnering bright colored blooms together and using leaf color that adds contrast. For example, using light greens behind darker greens can add depth and interest to an area that is only foliage. You can use striped hostas (Liberty, June Spirit, Brother Stephan) to liven up a dark area and use lowgrowing spreaders as ground cover between them (Ceratostigma plumbagnoides, Gallium odoratum) In my shade garden at home I already have some hostas planted, so I am thinking of filling in around them with some native Silene stellata (Starry Champion) and some non-native Epimedium rubrum (Barrenwort). Waldesteinia fragoides (Barren strawberry) might be the perfect ground cover to suppress weeds around it all. The purplish hue of the epimedium blooms will work well with the yellow of false strawberry since they are complementary colors (situated opposite each other on the color wheel).

If you have a shady spot, try planting fillers between hostas to add interest and texture.

 

Epimedium rubrum By Salicyna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Silene stellata at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silene_stellata_flowers.jpg
Barren Strawberry by User:SB_Johnny (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Good pairings for part sun areas:

Solidago rigida (Rigid Goldenrod) + Anemone ‘Pink Kiss’ (Pink Snowdrops)
Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’ + Carex pennsylvannica (Pennsyvannia Sedge)
Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) + Matteuchia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern)

 

For the Hottest Hot Spot

What plants can partner together to beat the heat? A dry, hot spot is a perfect place for mixing native grasses and wildflowers that have evolved in the prairie sun. For a rock garden or sunny burm, try this combination of Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake Master) and Eryngium planum (‘Blue Glitter’ Globe Flower) that will complement each other’s whimsical, spherical blooms. Sporobolis heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed) and Delosperma (‘Firespinner’ Creeping Ice Plant) will fill in around the base of the taller plants. Not only are the Eryngiums major pollinator magnets, they are also long lasting cut flowers! The bright orange-red blooms of the ice plant will warm up the cool hues of the eryngiums.

A mixture of grass, upright specimen plants and crawling ground cover will create a nice balance

Other suggestions for full sun pairings:

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ (Yellow Yarrow) + Callirhoe involucrata (Poppy Mallow)
Rudbeckia missouriensis (Black Eyed Susan) + Helenium ‘Salsa’ (Sneezeweed) + Sedum ‘Lidakense’

If You Need Some Height…

Perhaps growing along a fence or forming a border between yards, tall plants provide structure for the garden. A columnar grass species like Panicum ‘Northwind’ (Switchgrass) or Miscanthus (Silvergrass) can be the eyecatching backdrop for other perennials. They also provide support to tall flowers that might otherwise flop over when they reach their mature heights. Planting Veronicastrum ‘Lavender Towers’ (Culver’s Root) or Eupatorium maculatum (Joe Pye Weed) between tall, strong stemmed grasses can keep them upright in a stiff prairie wind. The sketch below shows a shorter variety of Joe Pye called ‘Baby Joe’ situated between some Miscanthus grass with Scabiosa (or, just as well suited, Knautia) growing wispily in front.

For an area that can use some height, install some Miscanthus grass for a big effect in fall.

 

Eupatorium (right) by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Blue Scabiosa by By Xemenendura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tall grass that will support tall flowers:

Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem) + Coreopsis tripteris (Tall Coreopsis)
Calamagrostis acutiflora (Karl Foerster Grass) + Salvia azurea ‘Grandiflora’ 

 

Partnering plants is the fun part of perennial gardening – let your imagination go wild! Use the color wheel to make the most of your pairings and pay close attention to foliage shape and texture to achieve a harmonious look. If you think some of the plants in this post will work well in your yard, come to our FloraKansas Plant Sale April 28th – May 1st!  This is our largest fundraiser of the year, and your purchase makes educational programming and the management of Arboretum grounds possible.

Growing Berries in the Backyard

Berries are my favorite addition to the production garden – they are the perfect topping for ice cream and yogurt and make delicious pies! But they can be expensive to source from the grocery store and certain types are nearly impossible to find. Why not grow your own? Many types of raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and currants are adaptable to Kansas, flourishing under the right conditions. If you don’t have space to create a vegetable garden, no worries – berry plants can mix into the perennial borders and become a productive (and delicious!) part of your landscape for you and for the wildlife.

Raspberries

Rubus idaeus, red raspberries, got their initialized name from Mt. Ida in Turkey, where the citizens of ancient Troy dined on them. Since that time they have spread throughout the world because of their sweetness and adaptability. These delicious little morsels do not naturally flourish in the harsh Kansas climate, but with a little human attention they can produce a summer full of fruit for you.

Wild red raspberries. Photo by mako from Kangasala, Suomi (Finland) (wild raspberries) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Plant your canes in a spot with full sun (some shade acceptable during the hot hours) and good drainage. Protection from the hot south wind will ensure it doesn’t scorch in our blistering summer. ‘Heritage’ variety red raspberry has a reputation for bountiful crops and first year success. It is everbearing, meaning that it produces two crops – one in mid-July and another in September. ‘Fall Gold’ yellow raspberry also bears two harvests: in fall and then the following spring on the same canes. Gardeners love its unique color and light flavor. Some raspberries are self-supporting, but most benefit from some type of staking.

Currants and Gooseberries

Currants and gooseberries are part of the Ribes genus, some of which are native to Kansas. Ribes ordoratum (golden currant) is commonly found in thickets and near streams, bearing delicious wild fruit great for canning. These wild types can be grown in the landscape for their berries, wildlife appeal and ornamental value. I discovered cultivated red currants while traveling in France; they are a staple of a French breakfast table, irresistible in jams and sauces. ‘Red Lake’ is a type that grows well here in Kansas, with bountiful bunches of marble-sized red berries. Plant in neutral pH soil and don’t keep their feet wet for extended periods of time.

Red currants ripe for the piking! Photo by Idalia Skalska (http://idalia.pl/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The greenish-pink gooseberries sport characteristic veins/stripes and a sour taste. Photo by Nadiatalent (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gooseberries are very hardy, long-lived and have a bramble-type habit. Thorny and thick, they make a great border plant. The berries have light colored ‘veins’ showing through their translucent skin. With a tart, rubarb-esque flavor they go well as a crumble topping or baked into pies and meat sauces.

Strawberries

Everybody’s favorite mid-summer treat, strawberries, are easy to establish and spread via runners to increase yields year after year. A raised bed is a common way to grow strawberries, helping with weed management and containment. A layer of straw or mulch around new plants will aide in retaining soil moisture. If you have no room for a raised bed area, don’t fret! Strawberries are happy to live in the perennial garden and crawl around the bases of taller plants – they will behave as a ground cover (suppressing weeds!) and benefit from the light shade cast by the flowers above them. Some varieties are bred specifically to grow in a patio pot and produce vigorously. ‘Tristan’ and ‘Ruby Ann’ are examples of this type. They always provide me with a midday snack in the greenhouse!

Serviceberry (left) and Elderberry (right) in bloom. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sambucus_nigra-Busch.jpg and By peganum from Small Dole, England (Amelanchier x grandiflora Cole’s Select) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elderberries, Chokeberries, Serviceberries

Lesser known or wild-type berries are just as nutritious, but require less maintenance. These berries all taste best after some type of processing (cooking, freezing, juicing, etc). All three of the following berry-producers bear stunning white blooms and produce fruit with high nutritional content for your table or for the birds to enjoy!

  • Consider planting elderberry (Sambucus) shrubs in a drainage area or part of the yard that always floods – they will absorb excess water and create a wall of blooms in late spring.  Raw elderberries are bitter, but perform well in jams, wines, and home remedies. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are two types of elderberry we recommend for heavy fruit production.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a versatile and attractive shrub that bears high-antioxidant blackish berries in late summer. The berries have an astringent quality that makes the mouth pucker with that ‘dry wine’ feeling. Berries can be made into syrups and jams, or used in muffins. Five to six feet tall at maturity, they make a great screen or windbreak. Aronia ‘Viking’ is a nice variety that produces well and has high ornamental value. ‘Low Scape’ and ‘Hedger’ types for smaller spaces display blooms and attractive fall foliage but do not produce much fruit.
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is native to the eastern-most regions of Kansas and can reach 20 feet tall in some locations. It makes an excellent specimen tree and produces fruit that taste much like blueberries. The berries ripen in mid-summer, earlier than most other berries. They can be eaten right off the tree, baked into pies or dried like raisins for preserving.

Growing berries can be fun and easy! Consider planting some edibles in your landscape as a part of your hedge or as a perennial ground cover. They will look great and taste even better. If you don’t have time to pick them for yourself, the wildlife will thank you for the extra sweet treat!

The Bees’ Needs: Garden Tips for Creating Habitat

Last month the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was added to the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This bumble bee use to roam the vast grasslands of the Midwest, sipping on endless nectar supplies of prairie wildflowers. But the land has changed, and with it a way of life for this little critter.

There are many factors contributing to population decline of this bumble bee and many other native bees – healthy prairies are harder and harder to find, urbanization gobbles up grassland nesting sites, agriculture employs potentially harmful pesticides and land management practices, and pathogens/fungal disease prey on their already weakened populations. What a nightmare for our flying friends!

Though these problems sound insurmountable, there are many things gardeners can do to help save these important insects from extinction.

Rusty patched bumble bee queen (Bombus affinis) – who couldn’t love that face?  Photo By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The namesake of the bee, a distinctive dark, rusty ‘patch’ on the its back. Queens do not have this marking. By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Flower Choice

When planning your garden, be sure to choose flowers that are useful and nutritious to bees. In this regard, all flowers are not equal and some are even deadly! Rhododendrons produce toxic nectar. Some exotic tropical plants (such as Heliconia, “false bird-of-paradise” or “lobster claw”) can be lethal to our North American bees as well.

Hybrid flowers can also pose a problem – they are bred for beauty and not nectar production, resulting in little usable nectar for visiting bees. If the flower has been so hybridized that its shape has been altered it may be impossible for a bee to reach the nectar. For example, ‘double flowers’ that do not occur naturally make it impossible for a bee’s tongue to reach past the inner petals. Be wary of using too many hybrids in your garden without doing some pollinator researching.

Click here for a list of native plants that are pollinator favorites. This link will allow you to choose your region and see native plants best for your area.

Plant for the Long Season

The rusty patched bumble bee is one of the first to break dormancy in spring and last to hibernate, which means we need to provide nectar sources for the sparse times. While there are many popular flowers blooming in mid-summer, the earliest parts of spring and latest parts of fall can be difficult times for bees to find nectar. Incorporating early blooming spring flowers as well as lingering fall bloomers will ensure the bees have food when they need it most.

Early Spring Bloomers: Baptisia australis, Dodecatheon meadia, Hammamelis virginica, Pulsatilla patens, Mertensia virginica, Lupinus perennis, Hellebores

Late Fall Bloomers: Salvia sp., Rudbeckia triloba, Echinacea, Aster novea-anglea, Aster oblongifolius, Solidago sp. 

To enhance the mid-summer buzz in your garden, consider Monarda fistulosa, Silphium perfoliatum, and Liatris spicata/Liatris punctata.

Many of these plants are available at our spring and fall FloraKansas native plant sales here at the Arboretum. If you don’t have a perennial garden, here is a list of popular annual plants that bees love!

Bumblebee (probably Bombus terrestris) collecting pollen from Senecio elegans flower. Wellington, New Zealand. I, Tony Wills [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nesting Habitat

Bumble bees need safe places to nest and overwinter. Skip the fall raking and mowing in a part of the yard to provide protected area close to the ground. Leave your grasses and flower stems standing all winter to provide protected hollows and nooks for bees to hibernate in. Many types of bumble bee like to nest underground in abandoned rodent dens or other areas of undisturbed soil, so be sure to leave an area of the garden untilled.

The Midwest is no longer a giant grassland pollinator paradise, and the bees need our help to ensure that they get the food and shelter they need to carry on. Every garden counts!

Click here for more information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about what you can do to help save the rusty patched bumble bee!

 

Needy Seeds: How to Germinate Prairie Species

January and February can be dull months for a gardener. When the north wind whips and the drizzle freezes, spring seems a lifetime away. But here at the Arboretum these cold months are a busy time for seed treatment. Seeds we’ve collected and ordered are prepared according to their species-specific needs.

Photo from Dyck Arb

Seeds collected for the Prairie Window project being cleaned and sorted

Stratification

There are many specific types of stratification: warm-moist, cold-dry, cold-moist, water-soak, etc. Many prairie wildflower species require a cold-moist stratification period, a sort of “man-made winter”. Seeds are amazingly self governing, with built-in mechanisms to prevent germination until conditions are suitable. For species that have spent thousands of years adapting to the Great Plains, this means reading and reacting to seasons: long, cold, moist winter gives way to spring. Aha, time to sprout! It is the stratifyer’s job to convince the seed that winter has come and gone.

Cold stratification involves

  • first, mixing the seeds with media (sterile soil, sand, sphagnum moss, vermiculite)
  • wetting it slightly (too much moisture and the seeds will rot, too dry and they won’t germinate)
  • then storing in a refrigerator for a specified length of time

Each species is a little different – some need 60 days of cold, some need 120, and some just 10. Be sure to look up the requirements of each species if you are stratifying your favorites at home.

Common milkweed (Asclepias syriaca) seeds waiting to catch a breeze. 30 days of cold, moist stratification is all you need to germinate them for yourself.
Photo from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AMilkweed-in-seed.jpg

Scarification

Scarification is any process that weakens the seed coat, purposely making it more permeable to gases and water that trigger germination. In the wild, these seeds would only sprout after many years of freezing and thawing, or perhaps after being passed through the digestive tract of a seed eating animal. If you want to germinate tough-coated seeds for your own garden (and you don’t have the digestive tract of a bird) then you will need to simulate nature’s scarification processes. This is done by nicking seeds with a knife or rubbing with sand paper. Seeds naturally activated by wildfire may need to be treated with nearly-boiling water. Some seeds perform best after an acid bath! Every seed is unique.

Line drawing of prairie seeds by Lorna Harder. This is the featured graphic on our “Prairie Restoration” informational sign on the Arboretum grounds.

Fall Sowing Alternative

Fall sowing is often less work intensive than manual seed treatment. Let mother nature do the work of breaking the seed coat by sowing your seeds in late fall. The cycles of freezing and thawing mixed with intermittent winter moisture will produce much the same effect as the previously mentioned methods. But be patient – some seeds may take several years to germinate this way.

If you are looking for high quality native seed, Prairie Moon Nursery is a good source.

To find species-specific information on seed treatment, check out Growing Native Wildflowers by Dwight Platt and Lorna Harder, available in our gift shop.