Let’s Talk about Mulch

It is no secret that mulch is great for the landscape.  There are so many benefits when you add mulch around your plants.  Mulch is a great insulator, because it modifies the soil temperature.  It reduces erosion, prevent weeds from germinating, retains soil moisture, provides a buffer between equipment and the trunks and stems, and increases the aesthetics of the overall landscape. As you add mulch to your garden, here are some things to know:

How much mulch is enough?

Mulching is not an exact science, but as a general rule, we try to apply 2-3 inches of mulch consistently throughout the landscape.  This depth of mulch will control weeds by decreasing sunlight exposure, which prohibits seeds in the soil from to germinating.  More than three inches of mulch seals off the soil and suffocates your plants.  It is extremely important that the plants are able to get the oxygen they need.  Spread the mulch evenly and don’t build a mulch volcano around the base of the tree.  Since mulch decomposes slowly, it is good to periodically check the depth and add some as needed.

Mulch volcano at base of tree. A big no no!

Nicely mulched new planting

What is the best way to mulch?

We start by laying out a garden hose, which allows you to visualize the curves and width of a bed.  You can either spray the area inside the hose or dig up the vegetation and let it slowly die.  When the area is cleaned up, we begin applying the mulch and leveling it to the desired depth.  Keep in mind that too much mulch will encourage growth of the roots into the mulch, where it will be susceptible to freeze damage.  The ideal 2 to 3 inch depth of mulch will keep the roots in the soil.

When is the best time to mulch?

We are mulching throughout the year, but direct most of our efforts in the spring or fall.  As we clean up our display beds in the spring, it is always a good time to freshen up the mulch, too.  At this time of year, soil temperatures are beginning to warm and a new layer of mulch will slow down the warming process.  A new layer of mulch will also cover seeds that may have landed in the mulch and covering them now will prevent germination.  We mulch anytime a new tree or shrub is planted.  This practice will keep the soil cooler, help retain moisture longer and insulate new roots from the cold weather. Some thicker mulch areas may benefit from being fluffed from time to time.  Simply take a rake and loosen up the top few inches of the mulch.

What type of mulch is best?

We use whatever is available to us.  Mulch is not cheap, so we use chippings from the tree trimming service.  We have used semi loads of hardwood mulch, which is expensive. It is not as important what you use, but how much you use.  Even free mulch can look attractive and function just like the most expensive mulch.  For sloped areas, the larger and heavier mulch works the best.  It is not as susceptible to runoff or wind displacement.  Smaller or finer mulch decomposes quicker too.  The bottom line is use what is available to you.

Our mulch pile of chipped up trees

River rock as mulch with blackeyed susan and prairie dropseed

Can I use plants as mulch?

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants.  There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds.  These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

Lenora Larson’s Garden with dense plants that smother weeds

A few final thoughts:

Purchase a heavy duty mulching fork and stiff garden rake for leveling.

Essential mulching tools: Silage fork and stiff leaf rake

Insects can be a problem in mulch, so keep it away from the foundation of your house and base of the plants.  Termites generally like larger pieces of wood but can even live in the finer mulch, especially if it is too thick.

Landscape fabric under mulch is something we avoid.  It only keeps weeds out for the first few years and then the decomposing mulch turns into compost, which is ideal seed bed for weeds.  It is also hard to transplant into it and often suffocates the soil.  We have purged the Arboretum of just about all landscape fabric.  Save your money and buy more plants.

You can use rock as a mulch, but don’t buy the recycled rubber mulch.  The rubber mulch may last forever but it does nothing great for the soil or the plants around it.  In fact, the compounds and residues that leach over time may do more harm than good.

Happy Mulching!

Five Water Saving Practices for your Landscape

Last week the Arboretum staff visited a flower farm near Lawrence.  It was interesting to see how they were growing their flowers to be used in arrangements and displays for special occasions. They focused on native plants, but also had some annuals, bulbs and shrubs, too.  During our tour, the topic of irrigation and water use were explored, because they are under severe drought conditions.  It made me think about our irrigation practices and ways to create a water-wise landscape.  Here are five water saving practices for you to implement in your garden.

Choose plants adapted to your site

One of the biggest mistakes I have made when establishing a new garden is choosing plants that I like rather than plants that like the area in which I am trying to establish them.  There is a big difference. It is critical to match plants to the site. The closer they are adapted to your landscape the less water they will need to survive.  Native plants are always a good choice, because they are already adapted to our climate.  Evaluate your landscape’s soil, sun exposure, and moisture content.  By understanding these aspects of your landscape, you will be able to make informed plant choices.  There is a palette of plants that will almost effortlessly grow in your garden.  Grouping plants with similar water needs that match your landscape conditions will ensure success.

 

Space Plantings Tightly

In their book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants.  There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil which controls weeds.  These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

Use mulch around trees and shrubs

Mulches can be a blessing and a curse depending your mulching practices. We typically apply a two to three inch layer of mulch around a tree by simply mulching a tree a few inches away from the root flare and extending out to its drip line. Shrubs get the same treatment.  It is vital to keep mulch several inches away from the trunk or stem. Please, no mulch volcanoes!  Mulches prevent weeds, eliminate erosion, retain soil moisture, help moderate soil temperatures, provide a buffer between equipment and the trunks and stems and increase the aesthetics of the overall landscape.  Too much mulch (over four inches) starves roots of oxygen by sealing off the ground suffocating the plants. Old mulch can matte up and restrict water infiltration, too.

Viburnum prunifolium in bloom

Irrigate efficiently

During times of prolonged drought, irrigation may be necessary.  Plants naturally go dormant, but in a display bed you can add supplemental water to keep them more vibrant and healthy.  We use pressure compensating drip irrigation tubing with emitters spaced 12 inch apart.  Drip irrigation puts water where it is needed for optimum efficiency in the root zone rather than on the leaves. If you irrigate with overhead sprinklers, start sprinklers early in the morning or later in the evening.  Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day to reduce evaporation and loss from wind.  You can also recycle rainfall and create a rain garden.

Pressure compensating 1/2 inch soaker hose

 

Reduce your lawn

Cool season grass lawns with roots that are maybe six to twelve inches deep are one of the most watered landscape plants. If you think strategically and replace part of a water-guzzling lawn with deep rooted wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees or even with native buffalograss, you will save water and increase wildlife diversity in your landscape.  You may like open spaces with lawn for play or leisure, but you can scale back the size of your lawn and still have the aesthetics you appreciate.  Mow your lawn at the highest height and water only as needed.  Turfgrass has its place in the landscape, but maybe not the most prominent place it currently does.

We don’t think often enough about the water we use. It is a precious commodity. Remember the 2011 and 2012 drought in Kansas? We were using tremendous quantities of water to keep our landscapes alive. It made us evaluate each plant according to its response to these extreme conditions.  Obviously, some plants did better than others and we lost some plants those years. It made us think critically about our plant choices and irrigation practices. A beautiful and resilient landscape that uses little if any supplemental water is an achievable result.  A few changes can make a big difference.

Plant Profile: The Versatile Viburnums

In addition to our interest in native trees, shrubs, wildflowers and grasses, one of the goals of the Arboretum is to grow plants which, while not native, are adapted to the rigors of the central Kansas climate. We are especially interested in displaying plants that are not widely grown in the area, but that show excellent hardiness and landscape potential.

The viburnums are a perfect example.  While not as widely known as forsythia and lilac, these shrubs deserve much more use in our landscapes. Not only do they offer year-around show of ornamental attributes, such as abundant floral displays, fragrance, outstanding fruiting characteristics, and fall color, they are also hardy and can serve a number of important uses in the landscape.

The Arboretum collection currently features a number of different viburnums, each displaying unique characteristics and qualities.  Most of the viburnums can be seen along the east border of the Arboretum, just south of the parking lot. A planting on the north bank of the Amphitheater features several additional kinds along with some newer varieties in the Pinetum.

Fragrant snowball viburnum – Viburnum x carlcephalum https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viburnum_%C3%97_carlcephalum

The three most fragrant viburnums in the Arboretum’s collection are the Koreanspice Viburnum (Viburnum carlesii), fragrant viburnum (V. x carlcephalum), and Judd viburnum (V. x juddii). These three are somewhat similar in appearance because the latter two are hybrids involving a cross between the Koreanspice and another viburnum. They are medium size shrubs (6-10 feet tall). However, our collection also includes a dwarf form of the Koreanspice. All produce clusters of fragrant white flowers in April into May followed by inconspicuous black fruits.

Another fragrant type in the Arboretum is Burkwood Viburnum (Viburnum x burkwoodii). This semi-evergreen grows 8-10 feet fall and produces a white snowball-like flower cluster in April. The fragrance in somewhat sharper, almost spicy.

Like the burkwood viburnum, Willowwood viburnum (Viburnum x rhytidophylloides ‘Willowwood’) is semi-evergreen, retaining its furrowed, leathery leaves throughout much of the winter. This 7-10 foot shrub blooms in April and often to a lesser extent again in October. The blue-black fruits are attractive and can be quite abundant. Another form that is really attractive is ‘Alleghany’ which has tough, leathery leaves, attractive white flowers and abundant bunches of reddish-purple fruit.

Alleghany Viburnum. Photo by Emily Weaver

The Wayfaringtree viburnum (Viburnum lantana) grows as a large shrub or small tree (12-15 feet). While not fragrant to any degree, it produces an outstanding floral display in May, followed by red-black fruit in late summer that persists into fall. Fall color is often red, although it is not consistent.

Another large shrub is the Wentworth cultivar of the American cranberrybush (Viburnum trilobum ‘Wentworth’). The Wentworth viburnum was selected for its large, edible fruits, which progress in color from yellow to red to bright red and persist throughout winter. Birds seek out the fruits from fall through winter.  I have often thought that this shrub was at is best on bright winter days with the fruit highlighted against a snowy background. It is also attractive in May with its show of white, flat-topped flower clusters. A dwarf form of the American cranberrybush is found on the north bank of the Amphitheater.

Tucked up under the northeast corner of the Visitor Center is a viburnum that is very attractive. The Doublefile viburnum (Viburnum plicatum forma tomentosa ‘Shasta’) is stunning in bloom as the flowers are held horizontally above the branches.  It has insignificant fruit, but the spring flower show makes up for it.

Doublefile viburnum

The last two species in the Arboretum collection are the Blackhaw (Viburnum prunifolium) and southern or rusty blackhaw (V. rufidulum). These two species are native to Kansas and distinct from each other. Blackhaw viburnum is a large shrub or small tree that has smaller leaves and brighter fall color with oranges, yellows and reds. The dense flower clusters develop into purplish-black fruit that the birds love.

Rusty blackhaw is not widely available in the nursery trade at this time, but extremely adaptable and hardy. The glossy dark green leaves turn a nice burgundy-purple in the fall. Large, white, flat-topped clusters of flowers appear in early spring and later produce bunches of fruit that change from red to purple through the fall.  Again, many types of birds cherish the nutritious fruit.  These two native viburnums are my personal favorite, because they are the most adapted to our Kansas landscapes and have so many wonderful qualities.

Viburnum prunifolium. Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Viburnum rufidulum fruit. Photo by Emily Weaver

Any way you look at them, the viburnums are a versatile and highly ornamental group of plants that deserve a greater use in the landscape. We will continue to integrate new species and varieties into our plantings as development of the Arboretum progresses.

Can A Shade Garden Be Created In Kansas?

“I have shade in my yard, what can I grow?” We get this question every year at our FloraKansas Plant Festivals and I admit it is a challenge to come up with plants that will thrive in shade.  The difficulty with trying to grow shade plants in our area in not that we have shade, it’s that we have shade in an area that once grew sun loving deep rooted prairie plants.  Trees have been added to our landscapes out of necessity and the prairie has been pushed out due to lack of adequate sunlight.  The inconsistent rainfall and root competition of the trees are a real challenge to shade-loving perennials, shrubs and understory trees.

So what can we do to create a shade garden?

Start small

Choose drought tolerant shade loving plants. These new additions to your shade garden should be smaller and don’t require digging a deep hole and disturbing tree roots to get them in the ground.  Establish an area that can easily be managed and maintained the first couple of years.  Keep in mind that root competition and irregular rainfall will require consistent moisture from you the first year until the new plants can weave their roots through the tree roots and live in harmony together.

Be patient

This is not a quick fix. The roots of your shade plants develop slowly so you need to watch and wait to see what these plants need.  The first two years are vital to the success of your shade garden endeavor. You will need to water them regularly to encourage growth.  Work with the plants to create an environment in which they will thrive.  Your patience will be rewarded with new blooms several years into the future, but you have to start now to see this happen.

Forms and textures are important

Let face it, there are not as many showy flowering plants for the shade compared to the vast array of sun loving prairie plants.  So, we need to include plants with interesting forms and foliage.  A good example of this are the arching stems of Solomon’s seal. A group of these growing happily together are very striking. Incorporate plants that flower but don’t forget the architecture that give additional visual interest.  Great shade gardens have a balance of flowers and foliage.

Arching stems of Solomon’s Seal

Don’t fertilize

Leave the leaves as protection and organic matter.  As the leaves decompose, they will supply nutrients to the fledgling plants. The natural processes that make a woodland work effortlessly need to be replicated as closely as possible.  Woodland plant communities rely on the nutrients from the canopy and twigs that are slowly broken down and released back to the soil.  Too much fertilizer creates all kinds of problems, but the most obvious is too much growth with not enough sustainable roots.

CLICK HERE: For a list of shade loving perennials and shrubs.

Trees in Kansas are a blessing, not a curse.  We enjoy the shade, but often struggle to find the right plants for that barren shady spot under the trees.  Some properly chosen plants and some patience along with timely watering will make your woodland garden more natural and resilient over time.  The roots of the trees and roots of the shade plants co-mingle in our soil, sunlight and climate.  Even the most tranquil forest settings we have seen have complex processes and interactions taking place.  So, be patient and you will be rewarded with happy plants for years to come.

 

Five simple ways you can make a difference for wildlife

In the grand scheme of things, we have a tremendous capacity to impact our surroundings for good or bad.  A few changes in how we approach and look at our landscapes can make a real difference to the future of the wildlife we enjoy and care about.  Here are five ways you can positively impact wildlife and create something you enjoy too.

Increase vertical layering

Having tiers of plants from the largest trees to the lowest grass and everything in between is the perfect habitat for wildlife. Plants of varying heights and forms create interest in the garden, but more importantly these diverse plants provide food, shelter, and nesting sites for beneficial insects, birds, small mammals, and other wildlife. The use of native plants will only attract more wildlife.

Provide water

Water is an essential part of any diverse wildlife habitat. Just like us, wildlife need water for their survival. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. A birdbath, small pond or bubbling fountain will be like a magnet for all sorts of wildlife. Besides, there is something soothing about the sound of water moving.  We may need it for our own healing.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Reduce your lawn

Invariably as we have done insect sweeps over lawns versus prairies, we always catch more insects and pollinators in the prairie. It makes perfect sense. The shortness of the lawn and lack of diversity of plants repel rather than attract more insects and birds to the areas that are more diverse.

Limit the use of chemicals

Obviously, chemicals were created to eradicate pests. However, chemicals adversely affect not just one pest but also many non-targeted species. In addition, the chemical residue can remain active for an extended period of time, lengthening the impact. Here at the Arboretum, we use chemicals sparingly and as a last resort. A diverse planting attracts a host of insects, including predator insects and birds that feed on the problem pest.  A pristine landscape with whole leaves and little insect activity is not natural. Some pests are inevitable and are usually controlled by other wildlife.  It is important to wait for the natural processes to take place.

Become a citizen scientist or naturalist. Be aware of wildlife and its needs.

The more you know about the wildlife in your landscape, the more you will understand what they need for their survival.  Knowledge is power. Monitor what is happening in your yard. Create habitat by establishing trees, shrubs, grasses and wildflowers that attract a host of diverse wildlife.  The awe that many of these critters invoke naturally creates within us a desire to learn more about them.

The most important thing to remember is that you can make a difference. Even a few small steps over the next few years will have a positive impact. While it might not seem like your small space is that important, imagine your landscape connected to hundreds of other patchwork gardens throughout the town. These gardens will make a difference, over time, on the wildlife we seek to help. No small change is too trivial—so pick one of these ideas today and take action!

Plant Profile: Rattlesnake Master (Eryngium yuccifolium)

There are quite a few native wildflowers that everyone knows – coneflowers, gayfeathers, prairie clovers, evening primrose and so on. But when I tell folks to try some rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, I get the blank stare, or the proverbial crickets in the room sound. What does that do? What does that look like?  True, it is one of the lesser known wildflowers, but I contend that it is just as attractive as some of the common wildflowers.

Rattlesnake master, Eryngium yuccifolium, gets its name from the belief that the roots have the ability to heal snake bites. In today’s world, I would stick to the true antidotes. Often the root was dried and used in bitter teas as a supposed cure for maladies such as venereal disease, liver problems, impotence, expelling worms and to induce vomiting. It makes me thankful for modern medicine, but back in the 18th and 19th centuries many herbs from the prairie were used to cure a variety of ailments because they had nothing else.

This unique wildflower’s scientific name comes from the close resemblance the leaves have with a yucca plant. The sword-like leaves have soft tiny barbs along the edges that make it easily recognizable. In the summer, the white thistle-like flowers develop atop the stout upright stems. Even though it looks like a thistle, it is actually a member of the carrot/parsley family. Rattlesnake master ultimately reaches about three to four feet tall with a spread of one to two feet. I like to combine them in groups of three in the middle to back of the flower bed.

In the landscape or in a prairie, it is quite a striking plant. The grey-green foliage and one inch diameter flower heads make it stand out in the garden as an accent plant. The flowers slowly dry and become yellow-brown later in fall and into the winter. The stalks are sturdy and remain well into winter, providing interest in the landscape. We have even used them in dried flower arrangements.

Plant them in full sun or part shade for best growth. They are quite adaptable, but prefer a medium to dry soil. I have planted in spring and fall with easy establishment either time of the year. This is a plant that should be used more in roadside plantings, prairie restorations, prairie landscape settings, and in your wildflower garden.

You may never need a rattlesnake master for a snake bite, but you do need some rattlesnake master in your garden. Its attractive appearance and resilient beauty are outstanding. Plus, pollinators love it too.  You may have just found your next favorite plant.

Scott’s Favorite Wild Places in Kansas

Believe it or not, there are still some fantastic wild places in Kansas that are worth discovering. These regions don’t fit the stereotypical mold of a Kansas landscape (flat and boring). I have compiled a list of some the best spots that I have enjoyed.  Maybe you can take a day trip this summer and reconnect with the land.

Kanopolis State Park

This park has a special place in my heart because of the time and my classmates and I spent the night there in fourth grade. The teachers must have been crazy watching us overnight, but we had a great time. A few years later they came to their senses and now only spend the day at the park. Anyway, Kanopolis State Park, the first state park in Kansas, is situated in the rolling hills, bluffs and woods of the scenic Smoky Hills region of the state. If you have a chance, take a hike along the Horsethief Canyon Trail and enjoy the wildflowers, ferns, caves, streams and scenic views.

Wilson State Park

Many people consider this to be the most beautiful of Kansas’ state parks. It is located in the heart of the Smoky Hills. Wilson Reservoir features a rugged shoreline punctuated by scenic cliffs and rocky outcrops. Wildflowers abound throughout the year, but especially in spring along highway 232 from Interstate I-70, leading you to the lake. Another point of interest worth the short drive is The Garden of Eden in Lucas.

Rocktown. Photo by Craig Freeman

Clark State Fishing Lake and Big Basin Prairie Preserve/St. Jacobs Well

These areas are interesting and worth the drive. Big Basin features St. Jacob’s Well, a water-filled sinkhole that has never run dry. This water source was a stop for many settlers migrating west. The Big Basin is a lush mile-wide crater-like depression, also resulting from a sinkhole. Clark State Fishing Lake in Clark County of southwest Kansas is located in an extremely scenic setting of canyon country.

Chase County State Lake

The wonderfully diverse native prairie along the uplands overlooking the lake make this a beautiful setting to camp and fish.  It is a little known treasure in the heart of the Flint Hills. Take a short jaunt to Cottonwood Falls to eat at one of the local restaurants or make the short 15 minute drive north to the The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Evening at Chase County State Lake. Photo by Bob Regier

Cross Timbers State Park

This park west of Yates Center in Woodson County is a gem that more people need to experience. The forested streams with ancient oaks and upland prairies provide visitors an opportunity to discover trees dating back to 1730. Hiking to the top of the rugged sandstone-capped hills are a great way to take in the scenic views of the area.

This is just a sampling of the places I have experienced over the years living in Kansas. I’m sure you have your favorites as well.  A point worth noting is the importance of these wild places for future generations to enjoy. These wild places help reconnect us to the land.

A Short List of Sun-Loving Favorites

This time of year as we greet the true arrival of spring and the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, I am asked quite a few questions about native plants. Often people ask about how to establish their native plants, but more often they want to know which native plants are my favorites.  It is hard to narrow down my choices, because there are so many great plants to include in your garden.  Wildflowers attract pollinators and grasses add texture, structure and movement in the garden.  The combination of wildflowers and grasses create the layers and habitat that wildlife depend on for survival.

Here is a list of my top five sun-loving favorites:

Threadleaf Bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii)

This is an all-season perennial with fantastic ornamental features that at make it stand out from other wildflowers.   In May and June, clusters of small powder blue, star-like flowers top the strong stems.  The stems are encircled with soft, narrow leaves resembling pine needles, making each plant look like a small shrub with feathery texture and incredible fullness. I have found them to be extremely hardy, drought tolerant and very low maintenance.

Amsonia fall color

The real show develops in September when the foliage turns a butter yellow, fading to a golden brown by October.  One specimen plant is spectacular in each season of the year, but a group of ten or more massed together and strategically located are quite stunning.  Individual plants can reach up to 48 inches tall and 24-36 inches wide.  They prefer full sun to partial shade and an average garden soil.

Other Bluestars worth trying are Shining Bluestar (Amsonia illustris), Amsonia ‘Storm Cloud’, and Amsonia ‘Blue Ice’.

Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)

Northwind Switchgrass

The airy seed heads and upright habit make this a great landscape grass.  These forms make quite a statement in the fall and winter landscape.  They add structure, texture and movement.  For best results, plant them in a sunny spot in a medium to moist soil.  It is very drought tolerant.  Discover these varieties: ‘Northwind’-consistent upright form to four feet tall and golden yellow fall color, ‘Cheyenne Sky’-red leaves develop early in the summer and grows to three feet, and ‘Dallas Blues’-tall (to 8 feet), with blue foliage and purple seed heads.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ (Penstemon digitalis)

I love this penstemon in the perennial border.  The pink flowers in spring have just a blush of white and develop interesting seed heads.   It adds outstanding form and texture to any landscape throughout the year.  Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ is a beautiful selection of smooth penstemon with reddish-purple foliage that is attractive even when blooming is complete.

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ in bloom. Photo courtesy of Terra Nova Nurseries.

Letterman’s Iron Plant (Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterflies’)

One of the plants that has done well over the past few years in the Arboretum is Letterman’s Narrowleaf Ironweed. It is a reliable drought-tolerant wildflower that requires little to no extra irrigation.  In fact, too much water makes it floppy and unhappy. Plants like that are rare and should be utilized more, in my opinion.

In late August, it is covered with exploding deep purple flowers atop the sturdy upright stems. The narrow leaves whorled around the stem remind me of narrowleaf bluestar (Amsonia hubrichtii) , except these are even more narrow. These leaves, combined with the attractive frilly flowers, give it a soft, pleasing texture.

Ironweed gets its name for its tough stem. Iron Butterfly Ironweed is the diminutive cousin of the pasture ironweed. Typical prairie ironweed is coarse and tall, but Letterman’s Narrowleaf ironweed is more refined. The parent species Vernonia lettermanii is quite rare and can be found in Arkansas and Oklahoma.

Iron Butterflies in bloom

In late summer, the flowers are just what butterflies and other pollinators need as they migrate or prepare for winter. All sorts of butterflies, skippers, moths, and bees will swarm the blooms. In the Arboretum, we plant them in sunny gardens with medium to dry soil. They can take some shade, but have a tendency to flop.

Aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius)

Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ in full bloom

This diverse wildflower grows throughout the state, and is more drought-tolerant than other aster species. Its name alludes to its fragrant purple/pink flowers and foliage that exudes a pungent aroma.  This species typically grows about two feet tall, but shorter varieties exist.  Garden worthy varieties include ‘Dream of Beauty’ (short (one foot tall) with pink blooms), ‘October Skies’ (2’ x 2’ with light blue flowers)  and ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ (3’ x 2’ with light blue flowers).

If you missed FloraKansas this weekend, never fear! We will be keeping the plants on display this week (open weekdays 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.) and I will also be setting up a booth on Sunday, May 6th, at Lakewood Park in Salina for the Discover Salina Naturally event. Come see me there!

 

What is the Key to Native Plant Happiness?

One of the questions we get every year at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, is “why didn’t my ___ come back this year?” It is a great question. Every year at the Arboretum, we ask the same question with some of the plants we establish and want to grow. I wish there was a right answer for every situation and every scenario, but every landscape is unique. Here’s the hard truth that many gardeners don’t often want to hear: the key to native plant happiness lies in identifying this uniqueness and finding the right plants for your plot.

Coneflowers blooming in the lush prairie garden

Match Plants to Your Site

Your landscape is a micro-climate all its own. The soil, sun exposure, orientation to your house, root competition from trees, and many other factors make your garden special. Even your neighbor overwatering their lawn can impact what plants grow best in your scene.  There are hundreds of factors that relate to the happiness of your plants and whether or not they will thrive.

The most critical step when establishing your native plant garden is matching the plants with your site. Sometimes I want to try a certain plant in a certain spot that has no business being planted there. I have done it too many times to mention and the result is always the same. I am left holding the hand of a struggling plant that would be much happier someplace else. In the end, I either move it or lose it.

Summer blooms of Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower

Do Your Homework

If we are honest, I think we have all planted before preparing. The wilting plant in the flower bed is a constant reminder to me that I didn’t do my homework.  Look at your landscape.  Is it sunny or in the shade?  Is the soil clay or sand?

Become familiar with prairie plants that grow in similar situations and evaluate the elements that will impact their survival. Choose plants that will thrive in the micro-climate of your yard.  Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. If your flower bed receives less than 6 hours of sun, look at more shade-loving natives.

A thriving landscape begins with matching plants to your one-of-a-kind area. For a lower-maintenance garden, choose plants that occur in the same or similar prairie climates.  Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort to keep alive.  Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a Missouri evening primrose in a bog will never work.

Butterfly milkweed on a well-drained slope

Learn From Your Mistakes

Good gardeners have lost their share of plants over the years, but what makes them good gardeners is that they learn from their mistakes. With lots of trial and error under their belts, they/we should make better choices…in theory at least.

Other design elements such as succession of bloom, patterns, year round interest, heights, and visual elements become less important when your plant is unhappy in its current location. You must get the right plants in the right place and the other elements will come much easier. A healthy garden begins with a connection to your landscape personally. As you watch and learn  what your landscape needs and what it can sustain, you will be able to link the appropriate plants to the location. This important step in the design process allows you to spend more time enjoying and less time “working” in your garden.  We all want that from our gardens.

Just one more thing…

Sometimes plants, through no fault of our own, defy all of the above-mentioned rules and simply don’t return. Even in the prairie, plants are ephemeral and rely on self-seeding to continue to grow in an area.  As you become more familiar with native plants (and I’m still learning too), you will be able to identify these species.  It is their nature to be short lived. True native coneflowers have this characteristic.  They are worth planting, but may need to be supplemented with new plants from time to time to keep the area full.

Pale coneflower

Can One Garden Make a Difference?

One of the thoughts that I keep coming back to is this question of whether one garden can make a difference in the world.  This question makes me ask even more questions like: Can it slow habitat loss? Will it really attract pollinators? Can a conservation garden be beautiful and functional? Is encouraging biodiversity important? Can such a small garden mimic essential ecological processes? Will these pocket gardens connect people with nature? Even if only some of this is true, then conservation CAN indeed start at home.

 

Create Prairie Habitat at Home

Creating habitat gardens, prairie gardens, wildflower gardens or whatever we want to call them is now part of the conservation movement. Prairies as we knew them 200 years ago are never coming back to their original form. I would love to see large herds of bison meandering through vast expanses of prairie. We would stand in awe as we looked across the horizon on a rich and diverse landscape that moved with the gentlest breeze. But there remains only a handful of prairies that reflect this bygone era. Certainly, we must protect and try to enlarge these prairie tracts as much as possible, but encouraging the planting of thousands of small prairie gardens is equally important. We must begin at our homes by creating small vignettes that reflect our prairie heritage.

 

Give Back to Nature

It is through human intervention that these new landscapes can bring about change. Nature now relies on us to help more than ever. Conservation is like paddling upstream on a river. Progress happens as long as we keep paddling, but as soon as we stop the river pushes us backward. Incremental change or success is a result of our concerted efforts focused on moving us upstream. We can give nature back as much as it gives us. We rely on each other and we can no longer be separated from one another.

So to answer my question: Yes. Every garden is important in so many ways. To choose to restore, create or protect a habitat makes a difference. Each landscape/garden, no matter how small, can truly have a positive impact on the health of the environment. Imagine your garden habitat connected with hundreds of other prairie landscapes throughout each community, as shown through the Million Pollinator Garden Challenge. Pollinators and wildlife will benefit and we will feel good about the role we play as we care for nature.

 

Here are a few ways that incremental change can happen:

  • Reduce the use of chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides.
  • Use native plants as much as possible, because wildlife prefers these plants.
  • Plant trees and shrubs that develop fruit and berries that birds need as they migrate or overwinter.
  • Design a garden that has a variety of plants blooming throughout the year.
  • Incorporate plants that adapt to your site, which makes them low maintenance.
  • Transition parts of your lawn to wildlife habitat.

 

Instead of looking at all the negative that surrounds us daily, let’s focus on the positive role we can have in our neighborhoods.  It is easy to be all doom and gloom, but really we should continue to paddle forward. I believe small, steady changes provide us with a unique opportunity to discover what it means to be a steward of creation.  Who knows? Maybe your garden will be an inspiration that others use to begin their own journey. One garden can make a tremendous difference.

If you live in Kansas and don’t know where to start in establishing a prairie habitat garden, we invite you to further explore our Prairie Notes blog and attend our upcoming FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.