Nature Book Reviews for Winter

This is the time of year I get the most reading done. With no vegetable garden to tend and little watering to do, I finally have a little time to cozy up with all the books I have been neglecting through the year. Specifically, books related to nature and the environment. If you want to stay connected with nature through these long, cold evenings, choose one of these great reads. And don’t forget to join our nature book club! Here are a few book reviews to pique your interest.

The Ogallala Road

by Julene Bair, buy it here

This non-fiction story follows Bair through struggles and self discovery as she grapples with the fate of the family farm. A story many Kansans can relate to, Bair is torn between her love of the land and the destructive agricultural practices her family uses to make their living. Set in western Kansas, readers are treated to sunny vistas of shortgrass prairie, colorful sunsets and relaxing horseback rides. Though at times I felt the prose was lacking, the story never lost its grip on me. An important warning cry for the Ogallala aquifer, and a call to action to protect this precious resource.

Published in 1992, this books continues to provide perspective into human civilization’s contentious relationship with planet earth. Made mostly of dialogue, the reader enters an “adventure of the mind and spirit”. Through simple, well-paced conversations between teacher and pupil, we get a fresh look at our agricultural society, and how humans might have arrived at such a violent relationship with the land that sustains us. Sure to spark conversation, this is an impactful, thought-provoking book. It continues to color my thoughts and actions long after I returned it to the shelf.

I won’t give away too much since this is on our nature book club list! Lab Girl is a non-fiction account of Jahren’s life and work in the natural sciences. An accomplished geobiologist, she offers a story that is part memoir and part love story – a love of plants. Hope Jahren dives deep into the mysterious and life-giving qualities of plants, soil and seeds. It’s not a quick-paced book that enthralls you, and at times I wished it moved along at a faster clip. But it may just be the perfect book for late winter, when you’re dreaming of summer and the return of green things.

Keep a look out for more book reviews this winter and early spring. I am on a mission to finish a new book each month so long as the cold weather holds!

Attracting Wildlife Through the Winter

Winter is a great time to curl up on the couch and enjoy some cozy relaxation. But for wildlife, it is a three month battle for survival! There are many ways we can help wildlife get through these difficult months. Of course, the best way to attract and support biodiversity is to fill our landscapes with native plants, providing seeds, host plants, shelter, and an active soil biome. But if you missed the boat on planting this past year, there are still some things you can do today to attract furry and feathered friends.

compass plant with snow
Native plants add beauty and shape to the winter landscape (Photo by Brad Guhr).

Food

I am an avid birder, so I love to put out feeders in winter when food is scarce to witness a diverse set of species as they drop by. Make sure your feeders are hanging high, away from potential predators (read: neighborhood cats!) and that they offer high-value feed like sunflower seeds or suet cakes.

spotted towhee bird
Spotted Towhee on a fence post – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Besides birds, I like to see rabbits and other small mammals hanging around. Toss out food scraps like carrot skins or wilted salad greens, either in a compost pile or along a fence line to attract rabbits and opossums. (Opossums?!? Why would you want them around? Here’s why)

I used to live near a small field that is home to deer. Some people in our neighborhood scatter corn on the edge of their yard to draw them out of the woods. They come out just as the sun is going down, peacefully nibbling the grains.

Water

When the temperatures plummet, puddles and streams freeze over, becoming inaccessible to the animals that desperately need a drink. Heated birdbaths do the trick, but an inexpensive option is to frequently refill a cement birdbath, less likely to crack than porcelain ones. I dump a pitcher of water into my birdbath before I head to work, giving the birds at least a little bit of drinking time before it freezes over again. Easily make your own cement bird bath like this one, a similar process to what we do every year in the EPS summer institute for teachers. I keep my birdbath low to the ground so that it is accessible to birds, but also to other passing friends like rabbits and skunks.

Yes, rabbits can be a bit of a pest, but by providing them with a water source you fortify their place in the food chain, thereby supporting the foxes, owls, and other predators that depend on a healthy rabbit population. By Gidzy [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Shelter

A brush pile is a great and easy way to create high-quality shelter for birds and small mammals. Find a forgotten corner of the yard and collect sticks, limbs, leaves, and other brush into at least a 3 foot by 5-foot stack. Forget taking all that stuff to your local dump; save yourself the work and create habitat for neighborhood critters.

Additionally, planting a few evergreens in the landscape protects tree-dwelling animals from the icy winter winds. Though eastern red cedar is Kansas’s only native evergreen, I have a few other favorites that do well in our climate. Look for Taylor Junipers at our sale (a cedar selection) for a pencil-shaped evergreen good for limited space. Arizona cypress and Green Giant Arborvitae are good non-native options.

(Left) Arizona Cypress tree in the Northwest corner of the Arboretum. (Right) Cypress foliage

Plan Ahead

Spring is, remarkably, just around the corner. Start planning now for how you want to improve your landscape with native plants so you are ready when FloraKansas arrives! A garden with food, water, shelter, and a diverse set of native plants will attract wildlife season after season, year after year.

Bringing Nature Indoors

Late fall is the time of year when most of us are spending less and less time in our gardens. The weather is turning chilly, and the days are short. But this doesn’t mean we can’t still enjoy the beauty of the prairie through the winter season! I love getting creative and using native plant decorations on my Thanksgiving table and even in my Christmas tree.

At our recent Prairie Partners dinner in October, I made table decorations using goldenrod, switchgrass, hedgeapples, black locust seed pods, and dried hydrangeas.

Fun Foraging

Half the fun of decorating with native plant material is in the foraging. The easiest way to find good material to work with is, of course, to have a landscape full of native plants. But a prairie roadside or overgrown hedgerow can also yield results. I look for grasses growing in a sunny spot as they tend to be more upright and have well developed seed heads. Look for medium to small branches from trees and shrubs that have an interesting arch or form. I use these cuttings to create the structural base for table decorations, mantle dressings, and banister swags.

Though the prairie, at first glance, can seem dark and dreary through the winter, it has many wonderful shapes and textures just waiting to be part of your seasonal decor! I used tons of these Rudbeckia missouriensis seed heads in arrangements for Laura Kelly’s January 2019 inauguration.

Plant Selection

If you are looking to plant your very own off-season cutting garden, here are a few of my favorite plants to use for fall and winter decorations:

  • Panicum virgatum “Cheyenne Sky” or any of the red to purple switchgrass
  • Schizachryium scoparium – little bluestem
  • Chasmanthium latifolium – river oats
  • Ilex decidua – deciduous holly
  • Maclura pomifera – hedgeapple or osage orange
  • Malus sp. – crab apple trees
  • Penstemon digitalis – prairie beardtongue
  • Viburnum prunifolium – blackhaw viburnum

The fruit, seed heads, and attractive foliage of these plants make them easy to mix and match in any dried arrangement.

We decorate the Christmas trees in the Arboretum Visitor Center with grasses like maidenhair grass and river oats. We also use some artificial millet and golden beads as accent.

More than Decor

As you can imagine, I am a huge fan of using native plants in my seasonal decor and floral arrangements. By planting these lovely natives in your landscape not only can you forage for goodies all year long, but you are also providing critical shelter habitat for our native birds and insects. Knowing the positive ecological impact they have on our environment makes them all the more meaningful when incorporated into holiday decor. Best of all, native plant decorations are not plastic or imported from overseas, which means they are carbon friendly and can be composted when you are finished enjoying them.

Evergreen wreath
Red cedar branches and deciduous holly berries give this wreath made by Scott Vogt a Scandinavian feel.

Front Yard Native Landscaping

As a new homeowner, there are a thousand projects around the house vying for my attention. But none call to me more than landscaping. After a few weeks working on the basement, I needed a break! I redirected my energy and landscaped my front yard!

Walk the Walk

I talk often and openly about the ecological problems inherent with a “well kept lawn”. Now that I finally have my own lawn, I wanted to convert part of it to something earth conscious, yet attractive. With smart design, landscaping can feed birds and insects, build soil integrity, and take very few inputs. I will always have a good sized patch of weedy Fescue for the dog to play Frisbee in, but more and more of the yard will get planted to natives every year.

Proper Prep

First, I sprayed two adjacent sections of our front yard with a strong application of glyphosate. It was not an easy decision: I am not a fan of using this chemical, or any chemicals in the landscape. But when contending with bermuda grass, my options were limited. Bermuda is a fierce, non-native competitor that will easily overtake a native flower bed if not eradicated properly. On the sides of the house, where bluegrass, Fescue, and dandelions are prevalent, I expect solarization to work wonderfully next spring and summer.

Hymenoxys scaposa (perky Sue) is adorably small; six inches tall with cheery yellow flowers the size of a quarter. It is a great addition in my front yard because of its petite, tidy habit.

Planting

A few weeks later I planted right into the dead thatch of the grass. I like to plant thick, aiming for a very full, lush look and less weeding in the long term. Then I back-filled each hole with some rocky, sandy soil from a long abandoned planter box on the side of the house. This might help the clay soil drain better for the drought hardy species I wanted to incorporate. A flag at each plant ensures I don’t miss any while watering.

Though I am always so excited to plant, it doesn’t look like much for the first year. But by next fall it will be the talk of the neighborhood.

In my design, I focused on purples, whites and yellows to complement a pale blue porch. Made up of many western Kansas species, this garden is extremely drought tolerant once established, staying full of blooms for pollinators even in hard times. When I get a free weekend, I will layer the empty spaces with newspaper and wood chips to discourage weeds. Luckily, my city has a free wood chip pile nearby!

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

Here are some of my favorites included in the design. Many are native, others are non-natives well adapted to heat and drought:

Allium spp.
Amsonia hubrichtii
Asclepias verticillata
Baptisia minor
Ericameria nauseosa
Hymenoxys scaposa

Lavandula ‘Hidcote’
Muhlenbergia capillaris
Nassella tenuissima
Prunus besseyi
‘Pawnee Buttes’
Sporobolus heterolepis
Scutellaria resinosa

I plant Amsonia mainly for its foliage, but the blue blooms are a welcome sight in spring.

Grass But Not Lawn

I used Sporobolus heterolepis along the sidewalk and Muhlenbergia capillaris for a slightly taller focal point. To keep my front yard looking intentional, tidy, and appropriate to my neighborhood setting, I kept the plants under twenty four inches mature height, except for a few accents. My neighbors are already giving me funny looks about all the flags in my yard!

Yet to be included in the planting, Pycnanthemum tenuifolium is a must have for pollinators and for its delicious minty scent.

My co-workers have all taken their work home with them too; planting natives in their home landscapes and seeing the wonderful change in biodiversity these plants bring . It was time for me to do the same! Once the garden matures, I hope it inspires others to convert more of their underused front yard space to valuable, attractive wildlife habitat.

Sumac in the Garden

Sumac might not be what you imagine when you think of an outstanding garden plant. Native sumac often grows on roadsides or prairie draws, and would be unruly in the home landscape. But there are two cultivated varieties that are wonderful additions to the garden — Gro-Low Sumac and Tiger Eyes Sumac. With all the loveliness of native sumac, but much more manageable.

Rhus aromatica Gro-Low has leaves that look similar to poison ivy, but this plant is completely harmless.

Gro-Low sumac is perfect for that spot in your yard you don’t want to maintenance anymore. It grows only sixteen to eighteen inches tall but sprawls out six to eight feet. A shrubby groundcover, it needs no mowing or trimming, no fertilizing, no attention at all! Poor soil in full or part sun will do just fine, and is very drought tolerant once established. It produces small green flowers in the spring, well-loved by native bees, and a brilliant red-orange leaf color in fall. Plant it with Prunus besseyi, little bluestem grass, or even Raydon’s Favorite Aster for groundcover that dazzles.

The native Rhus aromatica bush has lovely fall color, and gets much taller than the Gro-Low variety. Photo by Emily Weaver

Tiger Eyes sumac has been become a landscape favorite for Arboretum staff. They seem to find a place in every landscape design and new garden bed. Chartreuse leaves turn orange in the fall, and they can tolerate lots of hot sun and drought. They can grow between four and six feet tall. Poor soil is no problem; they are highly adaptable. Fuzzy stems and interesting branching make this plant wonderful to observe anytime of the year. Plant it with Amsonia and Red October big bluestem for a memorable fall color show!

These Tiger Eyes Rhus in the Prairie Lakes edition of Showalter Villa are thriving in full sun. We are always happy when we see native plants in the landscapes of our neighboring organizations!

These sumac will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival September 5-8. Staff can help you find the right plants for your landscape, and your purchase supports the Arboretum’s mission to cultivate transformative relationships between people and the land.

Shade Plants in Their Natural Habitat

On vacation in early July, some friends and I explored Devil’s Lake State Park, Wisconsin. Rocky and rainy, with lushly forested slopes, it is a very different landscape from my beloved Kansas. While hiking I saw many of my favorite shade plants living in situ, outside the confines of our carefully cultivated gardens. To spot them in their natural habitat is always a thrill!

Devil’s Lake State Park offers well kept hiking trails, rock climbing and water recreation.

Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Jack-in-the-Pulpit was growing along the hiking path ringing the lake. Easy to confuse with poison ivy because of its three leaves, colonies of them grow in part sun locations. In early spring their fluted blooms appear, inconspicuous in yellow and brown. In hot locations they will conserve their energy and go dormant for the summer.

Arisaema triphyllum, Jack-in-the-Pulpit

Ferns

Ferns were growing out of every crag, reaching their delicate fronds upward. Kansas does actually have many of our own native ferns, but they are much harder to find than those in wetter climes. I was really having a hard time keeping up with our hiking group because I was so fascinated by the diversity of ferns around us! I saw christmas ferns, lady ferns and wood ferns all in less than a mile’s walk.

The dots on the underside of the fern frond are spore clusters called ‘sori’.

Coral Berry

I also saw groups of coral berry (Symphoricarpos) growing in the understory, their fruits shining in the dappled light of afternoon. There are lots of cultivars of this plant quite suitable for sunnier locations. They make wonderful bushes for foundation plantings or filler amongst other shrubs.

Luckily you don’t have to go all the way to Wisconsin to see these beauties. All the plants listed in this post will be available at our fall FloraKansas Native Plant Festival fundraiser! Call or email Arboretum staff for more information.

Design by Time and Color

The construction of our new HUB (Horticulture and Utility Building) meant a lot of new sidewalk installation to go with it. And whenever there is cement work around here, there is always a lot of disturbed turf grass and less-than-desirable fill dirt. Instead of reseeding more grass in the areas adjacent to the sidewalk and fighting the weed growth, I decided to put in a new garden. In only two short years, that garden has grown more quickly and successfully than I could have hoped! I designed it in a snap using just three main guidelines: light, color palette, bloom time.


I focused my design on purple. With the part sun conditions in the middle of the bed my bee balm, blue eyed grass and spike speedwell felt right at home.

Light

This space was a delight to design because of its unique conditions and shape. Long and narrow, it spans length of the sidewalk and changes gradually from full sun to full shade as you walk towards the HUB. It irrigated by the same system that keeps our fescue green and lush in that area. These factors gave me endless plant options — a garden situation anyone could design!

Starry champion or widowsfrill (Silene stellata) is a little known shade plant sporting fringed white blooms through June and July. Wonderful for adding a wispy, airy texture to the bed.

Timing the Blooms

I narrowed it down to mostly spring and fall blooming plants for this area. The adjacent sidewalk leads right to our FloraKansas plant festival, so I planned for the biggest impact at the highest traffic times. I have nicknamed this garden the ‘display bed’ because it allows our plant shoppers to see what the plants look like in the ground, actively growing in a garden before they buy them. This justifies the unusually high species diversity in this bed, breaking from my personal style of simplicity and mass planting.

In spring, copper iris blooms tower over the blue-eyed grass clumps. Purples and oranges always pair well together, and the foliage similarities between these two help carry on a grassy texture throughout the bed.

Pick Your Palette

Papaver orientale ‘Royal Wedding’ stuns in white and purple. The whites blooms in a garden help to blend and unify other colors that might clash.

Color was key in my plant selection. In this area we have a lot of fescue grass and pine trees. These all fall into the cool green spectrum of color. To contrast that, I chose lots of reds, pinks and warm purples to populate the garden space. Purple and reds are not colors I like to use heavily in garden design, but it really works against all the cool tones of that area.

Monarda “Cherry Pops” is still beautiful even as its blooms are fading.

I stuck with mostly non-woody plants so that I can mow down this bed in the spring without fear of damaging a shrub. The only shrubs I included were ‘Proud Berry’ Symphoricarpos — the pink matte-finish berries are too cute to pass up! I placed the shrubs in the back of the garden so they are out of the way for maintenance of the rest of the bed.

Designing a cohesive, attractive new garden bed can be simplified by giving a little thought to these three important factors. If the thought of balancing light, color palette and bloom time still sounds overwhelming to you, email us to schedule a landscape consultation. We are here to help!

Flower Power: Learning the Language

Spring blooming plants are just beginning to fade and early summer blooms are coming on strong. At least once a day Arboretum staff members answer the question,

“What is this flower?”

Sometimes someone shows us a photo or has a cutting of something they saw on the roadside. More often than not, however, they try to describe it to us. This is not an easy task if you don’t speak the language of flowers. For instance, if you tell my coworker Brad Guhr that you saw a round flower, he might ask you what you mean by round, and whether it was radial or globulose. There is a lot of special lingo out there concerning flowers. Here I will clarify a few common botany terms relating to flowers, and though they sound complicated, they really simplify the identification process. Learning these terms also teaches us to look closer and longer, becoming better observers.

A french poster showing the terminology related to flower position.

Inflorescence is a word you will hear often around botanists. This is just a fancy word for the complete flower head of the plant including bracts and stems. Sometimes it is even used as a verb, a synonym to ‘flowering’.

Composite flowers are special inflorescences that seem like one flower, but are actually many flowers put together. Sunflowers are a good example of a typical composite flower. Their center is made up of hundreds (sometimes thousands) of disc flowers that mature into seeds. The yellow petals of the sunflower are ray flowers (or ray florets) and do not create seed. Some composites are made up only of ray flowers, like dandelions. Some composites are solely disc flowers, like our native thistles.

The rounded head of echinacea that attracts pollinators is made up of hundreds of tiny disc flowers. The purple petals are ray flowers.

We can further describe some composite flowers as spikes. To be a true spike, each individual flower is directly attached to the main stem, like gayfeather. If the individual flowers are held away from the main stem by smaller stems (pedicels), they are called a raceme. Penstemon and coral bells are both good examples of racemes.

Penstemon digitalis flowers are clustered together on a raceme.
Agastache foeniculum is a true flower spike becuase its individual flowers are directly attached to the main stem.

Umbel flowers are some of my favorite for use in floral arrangements. These are flat topped clusters of flowers on short flower stalks, spreading from a common point. Dill, carrot, and fennel all have umbels. As the name suggests, the arrangement of the flower stalks is reminiscent of an umbrella.

Achillea looks like an umbel inflorescence, but the short stalks that hold the flowers do not all originated from the same point on the stem. It is actually a corycomb, a type of raceme.

These are just a few basic flower terms that can help you begin to identify unknown plants. Keep a look out for more installations on the topic of descriptive plant language. Now get out there and botanize!

Katie’s Weeding Guide Part II

In a previous blog post I discussed tips for common weed identification, but hinted at a second installment covering plants that don’t quite qualify as weeds. After all, a weed is just a plant out of place! Some lovely native flowers have ‘weedy’ tendencies but don’t deserve total eradication from the garden. Here is an introduction to a few of those characters, and what you can do to control them when weeding your gardens.

Spiderwort – Tradescantia ohiensis or T. tharpii

A lovely member of the dayflower family, spiderwort puts on a wonderful show throughout spring.

Ranging from true blue to purple, spiderwort germinates readily from seed and can quickly take over a garden. I find it in every garden we have here at the Arboretum. Hairy leaves with purple veins and a pronounced fold along the mid vein are easy ways to identify spiderwort. The short stemmed species (T. tharpii) is a nice filler around other perennials and will grow as a ground cover. T. ohiensis is taller and more unwieldy, crowding out desirable plants. When Arboretum volunteers are weeding, I ask them to remove all but a few intentional clumps. I cut the flowers frequently to prevent those clumps from seeding.

Prairie Petunia – Ruella humilis

So petite but not so polite, Ruella spreads rapidly and travels all over the garden, thanks to its exploding seeds pods. White, pink, or lilac flowers are borne on purple stems with deep green foliage. With a mainly prostrate habit, this creeper makes a nice border plant, especially spilling over rock edging. Deep rooted, it is hard to pull once mature. If these fellas get started in your garden, regular weeding won’t do it – you will need to dig them out. But maybe they are the free, fast growing ground cover you have been looking for!

Curly Cup Gumweed – Grindelia squarosa

Gumweed can be found growing north of our Prairie Pavilion, but not for long! I am overdue in weeding them out. This western US native is cheery and adorable, but too wild to be running amuck in our formal gardens. I’d be much happier to see it growing in our prairie or around the pond edge. If you have the space, don’t pull them all out – it is attractive to pollinators and can be controlled by cutting the flowers before they seed. 

Public domain image, USA

These are just a few of the weedy native flowers that your soil’s seed bank may be harboring. Perhaps they can find a happy home in your garden, as long as you are willing to tame their bad habits. 

Kansas Native Ferns

At FloraKansas Native Plant Festival our customers were surprised to see we offer Kansas native ferns. Perhaps they were surprised to hear Kansas even had native ferns! With our hot, dry summers and deep-freeze winters, Kansas does not seem like hospitable environment for delicate, shade loving plants. However, we have several naturally occurring fern species in the state that are hardier than you might think. They are fascinating to observe growing in the wild, but also make excellent additions to your shade garden.

Royal Fern

Osmunda regalis var spectabilis


According to fossil records, the royal fern family (Osmundaceae) dates back about 365 million years. 3 to 4 feet tall (shorter in poor, drier soil), this fern becomes a large and impressive specimen in the shade garden. O. regalis var spectabilis grows happily in the far eastern part of Kansas and throughout the eastern third of North America. Royal fern has attractive bright green foliage and rust colored spore plumes. It prefers moist, somewhat acidic soil and shade though it can handle sun if the soil is kept wet. This fern can live up to 100 years if planted in the right location!

Royal fern is an easterly species, occurring from the Ozarks through the southeastern US and north into eastern Canada.

Christmas Fern

Polystichum acrostichoides

This festive native fern grows in far southeastern Kansas. According to Missouri Botanical Garden, it “…typically grows in a fountain-like clump to 2′ tall and features leathery, lance-shaped, with evergreen (green at Christmas time as the common name suggests) fronds.” If you love boston ferns but want something perennial, this is a great option. When planted in an average moisture, shaded area it will spread slowly to form a colony.

If you are up for some botanizing, head to these southeastern counties in moist, partially wooded areas to catch a glimpse of these ferns.

Sensitive Fern

Onoclea sensibilis

Onoclea is unique native fern, with arching fronds and oblong, creeping rhizomes. Getting its name from sensitivity to frost, O. sensibilis is surprisingly hardy. It can easily survive the cold dry winters in Kansas, Nebraska and even the Dakotas. This species is native to the eastern half of North America as well as far eastern Russia and China. According to Wikipedia, you can help your ferns survive the winter by leaving dried fronds on the plant instead of clearing them away.

There are many more native ferns I could include here, from the marginal woodfern found in Wilson, Elk, and Greenwood counties to the tiny rock ferns growing among the monoliths at Rock City in Minneapolis, KS. Get out and do some fern hunting, or buy a few at our fall sale to enjoy for years to come.