Buffalograss: Looking Ahead to Summer

This week, I will be leading a Native Plant School class on “How to Establish a Buffalograss Lawn“. Though the time to plant buffalograss is still months away, winter is the time to start thinking about how your lawn might benefit from a switch to buffalograss and what steps you need to take to prepare.

(Due to popular demand, I’m reposting this previous blog post from June of 2015, which gives a wonderful overview to the process. I will give more in depth information about establishing buffalograss in the upcoming class.)

What to Expect from Buffalograss

The Arboretum has benefited from the established stands of buffalograss we maintain.  The fine leaves stay a nice blue-green during the growing season, and it requires less mowing, watering, and fertilizing compared to our fescue or bluegrass lawns.

Newer varieties of buffalograss (Bowie, Cody, and Sundancer) green up faster in the spring, stay green longer in the fall, spread quickly by stolons to cover a planting area and remain shorter. They therefore require less mowing.

Once established, we have found it to be a tough, durable alternative to many cool-season grasses.  It thrives in dry, sunny conditions and even survived the extreme drought of 2012. We will be planting some additional areas to buffalograss in the coming year.

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Here are some ways to ensure a favorable outcome when planting a buffalograss lawn:

Give it sunshine.

Buffalograss needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day and a well-draining soil to grow best.  It will not grow well in low areas with periodic standing water or areas of moderate to heavy shade.  Typically, if it is unhappy, you also will be unhappy with its overall appearance.

Weed control prior to planting.

Just like establishing a flower bed, your seeding area needs to be as weed free as possible.  I have found that several applications of Round-Up in the spring prior to planting is the best way to control weeds, especially Bermuda grass and bindweed.  I also lightly till (1/4-1/2 inch deep) the area before planting so that I have some loose soil to just cover the seed.  Keep in mind that every time the soil is tilled new weed seeds will germinate, which will need to be eradicated before spreading the seed.

Proper seed selection.

There are new forms being discovered and introduced every year, but the forms we have used at the arboretum have been Cody, Bowie, and Bison.  We seeded them in June or July at a rate of 2-3 lbs. of seed per 1000 square feet.

Proper establishment.

Buffalograss needs soil temperatures that are above 60⁰ F for germination to start.  I normally spread half the seed in one direction and then spread the other half perpendicular to the first half of seed.  I lightly rake the area and then pack it in (drive over entire planting with a mower or tractor) to get good seed-to-soil contact.

I water the whole area deeply the first watering to completely saturate the soil (just to the point water is running off) and then follow with frequent light watering until the seeds germinate in 14-21 days.  Once germination is complete, infrequent deep soakings will keep the new seedlings spreading.  Full establishment of an area from seed can be completed in the first year.

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Weed control after planting.

These new forms of Buffalograss perform well in our area.  In ideal conditions, they form a thick, dense lawn that can out compete weeds.  In marginal situations, weeds can become problematic, requiring weed control through herbicides or manual eradication.  We apply a broadleaf weed control in the fall to eliminate henbit, dandelions, bindweed and other broadleaf weeds.  Management of weeds in your buffalograss both before planting and the first few years after establishment will, over time, reduce future weed control, watering, mowing and overall maintenance.

I have found buffalograss to be a valuable turf for open, sunny spaces, but keep in mind that it is not a miracle grass that can solve all your lawn problems.  The natural look of this native grass should be appreciated because it is adapted to our area.    It should also be planted with the expectation that over time, it will require less financial input and minimal work to maintain a dense, attractive turf.  For these reasons, I have found buffalograss to be a low-maintenance lawn alternative that is worth growing.

The Trade-off Plants Make to Survive

Gardening is a learning process.  I have been working at the Arboretum for nearly 25 years and I am still learning new things.

Wildflowers and grasses, as it turns out, live in communities. They grow best surrounded by plants that coexist well and rely on each other. My designs have focused on individual plants grouped together for dramatic effect, but they would be much happier bunched with native grasses like little bluestem.  It is a subtle change in design approach, but can make a tremendous difference in the overall success of the planting and give plantings a much richer sense of place.

Another epiphany has come with the realization of the trade-off that plants make in the landscape. We tend to automatically believe that just because we put a plant in the landscape it will be happy. I have killed my share of plants by making this assumption. We manipulate the soil and install irrigation with the hopes of keeping the plants chosen for the site alive and thriving. Instead, we should be searching for the right plants for the landscape that do not have to be coaxed to grow. Although there are thousands of plants available, only a select few will grow freely under these specific conditions.

This is the trade-off. Plants cannot move and are bound to where they are planted. They have to survive in the soil, light, nutrients, water, pH and temperature of that particular site. They have to tolerate these conditions to grow and reproduce. If any of these resources is lacking in any way, the plant will give up something to continue to grow. The leaves will curl, plant growth will be stunted, flowers will be smaller or if it needs more light, the stems will be elongated. The plant is not growing as it should because it lacks one or all of these important resources or conditions.

Our natural response as gardeners has been to supply these resources by changing the conditions, which keeps these plants on life support. I have come to realize there is an alternative. The importance of matching plants up with the site is vital to the success of the landscape design. There are plants that thrive in our gumbo clay soils here in Kansas without organic matter amendments. For centuries, plants with deep roots that can punch through the dense soil for extra moisture have prospered without supplemental help.

Think of the landscapes and gardens we love. They seem to thrive effortlessly. They have constraints and can be harsh, but they are lush and beautiful too. They create a sense of place and thrive regardless of the conditions.  Stress on plants helps define what will grow in a particular landscape. It makes us choose wisely the plants that we incorporate into our designs.

 

As you plan for spring and begin to choose plants, be conscious of the land. Ask yourself what plants will thrive in this garden? What plants were not happy last year? Make a concerted effort to understand the plants you specify for your landscape. As I have said time and again, match the plants up to your site. I just have to take my own advice. If you are looking for a few plants for your area, find them at the 2018 FloraKansas Plant Sale.

Do you Need a Prescription for Nature?

There is a growing field of study among doctors and researchers on the positive effects nature has on us both physically and mentally. Ecotherapy is the name given to a wide range of treatment programs that aim to improve your well-being by participating in outdoor activities in nature. Spending time outside on a walk or listening to the birds in the trees, taking in the grandeur of the mountains or the beauty of a flower in your garden or the scent of dewy petrichor after an afternoon rain have healing qualities.

As we have fewer and fewer encounters with nature and spend more and more time busily working or glued to our electronic devices, the world is passing us by. We are missing out on these connections that we know are important, but do not make time for in our busy schedules.  The need for time in nature is so great that some doctors are writing prescriptions for time outdoors. No really – THEY ARE!

Richard Louv in his 2005 book, Last Child in the Woods, coined the phrase “Nature Deficit Disorder,” which describes what happens to people who don’t spend enough time outdoors. This book was one of the motivations to start the Arboretum’s Earth Partnership for Schools program that exposes school children to nature, particularly the prairie. According to Louv, children who have these regular up-close, hands-on encounters with nature are less likely to suffer childhood obesity, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and are more likely to improve academic performance.

Developing a connection with nature and environmental understanding are fundamental to the psychological and physical health of children. Like kids, adults also need to have these connections. Research shows that people are attracted to and feel restored by elements from nature such as running water, grasses moving with the gentlest breeze, open green spaces, forest trails, birds, butterflies, and other nature-based experiences.

I am not a doctor and I know that for many people with chronic mental and physical illnesses, much more than a stroll in the park is required for treatment. However, I know for me, on some days even a short walk during a stressful time can change my perspective and mood.  Try it!

In the New Year, let’s be more intentional about our outdoor experiences.  Intuitively, we know that it’s helpful to our well-being. What is holding you back? Here are some great ways to encounter nature:

  • Take your dog for a walk in a park or on a nature trail (please clean up after your dog!)
  • Find a quiet spot outdoors and spend some time in meditation and journaling.  The slower pace and time of reflection can reduce stress and anxiety.
  • Go feed the ducks, turtles or geese

  • Spend time outdoors doing exercise and stretches to improve flexibility and improve your sleep.
  • Design and plant a wildlife habitat garden. Be sure to plant a manageable space that you can enjoy.
  • Go fly a kite!

  • Sit around the fire pit and roast s’mores while visiting with friends.
  • Plant a vegetable garden.
  • Visit a National Park this year.

The bottom line: nature is good for what ails us. Time outdoors calms us, brings balance into our lives and connects us to the world around us. What better reasons could there be to intentionally spend more time outside this year?  Open the door and go for a walk!

Make Your Garden Welcoming to Winter Birds

Something that amazes me every year is how birds survive the winter. Somehow they are able to find the food, water and shelter they need each day. Just the other day, I watched a pair of cardinals foraging in the buffalograss and eating seeds from the Maximilian Sunflower outside my window. They find a way to survive, but it can’t be easy.  I believe we can do a few things in our yards to make their lives a little easier.  Here is a list that will help them survive the cold weather and give you more up-close encounters with birds.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Leave prairie plants up through the winter

Winter is a desperate time for birds.  They spend a tremendous amount of energy each day searching for food. Their winter food comes from a variety of sources, but one of the first places they search is in and around meadows and perennial borders.  By leaving these areas undisturbed through the winter, birds can find bugs, seeds that are highly nutritious in the seed heads, and tufts of grass near the ground.

Create a wildlife border

The more diverse your plantings, the more diverse the types of birds your landscape will attract. Think about different layers of plants, including trees and shrubs, that produce fruit and nuts that birds need.  Incorporate a few evergreens along with deciduous trees and shrubs, because the winter foliage provides extra protection from the elements and predators.  These layers mimic the natural areas birds flock to during the winter.

Create a compost pile

All those leaves that are blowing all around your yard make wonderful compost. They also make a nice place for bugs to hide. I have seen birds completely destroy a compost pile searching for insects and seeds.  Those leaves will also become next year’s soil amendment for your garden.

Make a brush pile

Our brush pile at the Arboretum is huge, but it is always filled with birds. It provides shelter from winter storms and protection from predators.  Even a small pile with logs, sticks and branches will provide the safety and security many birds need.

Provide Food for Birds in the Winter

The key to feeding birds in winter is to give them options. A diverse selection of seed, suet, and peanuts will entice many different types of birds. Locate feeders in areas out of the wind but within viewing distance. Hang some from tree branches and others on the ground.

Provide Water for Birds

Birds need ready access to water in the winter.  Bird baths, a puddle, or a stream are great options as long as they are not frozen. Heating these water sources will allow birds to find the water they need for survival especially during freezing weather.

Make plans to help

If you don’t have these key features in your garden already, create a design that favors birds and other wildlife.  Include grasses and perennials that produce seeds birds prefer. Establish shrubs with persistent seeds and fruit that birds can utilize in the winter.

Here are a couple of interesting websites that may help you create your plan:

Common Feeder Birds

Kansas Birds Checklist

How birds survive the winter in simply amazing. Helping to welcome the boreal birds to your backyard can be quite enjoyable for you and for them. By providing the habitat and food they need, your landscape can become a bird sanctuary and a haven that gives them food, water, and shelter to endure the winter.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!

We hope you have a great Thanksgiving as you celebrate the holiday with family and friends.  We are most thankful for you and the opportunity to serve you. Your support in many different ways continue to help us grow.  THANK YOU.

Janelle, Brad, Katie and Scott-The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains team.

 

Thank You to all the volunteers who helped us this past year. There are over 150 of you who have given of us your time and talents.

 

EPS Students-The next “Citizen Scientists” that will impact the world.

 

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’

 

Vernonia ‘Iron Butterfly’ with hawkmoth

 

A few Thanksgiving thoughts:

What Are The Benefits of Hedges?

As you design your landscape, one of the first questions to consider is the need for screens and hedges. Do you need to block an undesirable vista or define an area? Do you need to line a path or camouflage a utility?  Hedges help outline boundaries. Instead of a rigid wall or fence built with wood or brick, why not create a living wall or screen using a variety of plants?   A living fence will provide much needed wildlife habitat while slowing the wind, improving air and water quality and beautifying the landscape.

Here is a mixed planting with taller shrubs/trees in the background.

 

When I think of hedges, my mind automatically pictures shrubs neatly trimmed and closely spaced, but it can be so much more diverse. A non-traditional hedge can be created with many different types of plants. This approach creates layers of varying heights that naturally block the view or envelope the space. The key is matching the plants to your site and grouping plants in informal clusters rather than in predictable rows. Hedges can be an essential element in a sustainable landscape design.

Blackhaw viburnum and Dallas Blues Switchgrass

Diversity is the key to the longevity and success of any hedge. If you drive through the country, you see screens and windbreaks that were planted with only three to four species in rows, and have, over time, been devastated by decay and disease. Who knew that pine wilt or tip blight would kill so many pine trees 50 years ago? A diverse selection of evergreens, deciduous trees, understory trees, and shrubs, grouped together in irregular patterns, would allow the removal of a dead or dying plant without compromising the whole planting. This large scale example can be incorporated into a smaller back yard planting. By using a wide variety of plants, you will avoid this lack of diversity pitfall.

Buffer planting along a driveway.

Typically, hedges are made up of evergreens or shrubs, but even wildflowers and grasses can be mixed together to produce an attractive screen. Tall grasses such as switchgrass and big bluestem, along with wildflowers like New England aster and culvers root, become intertwined and dense, creating an informal hedge that provides valuable habitat and season-long interest. Intermingling shrubs with blooms and interesting foliage contributes additional food, nectar and shelter. The varying heights and undulating forms boosts the wildlife attraction and overall beauty of the planting. In instances where space is an issue, again, avoid planting in rows. Instead, plant in groups of three or five and add as many different plants as possible.

Prairie Dropseed, Giant Black-eyed Susan and yellow coneflower

Here are some examples of plants we recommend for hedges:

Evergreen choices

Eastern red cedar (Juniperis virginiana), ‘Caneartii’ or “Taylor’, Arizona Cypress, Southwestern White Pine, and Leatherleaf Viburnum

Native grass recommendations

Switchgrass-Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’, Panicum ‘Northwind’, Indiangrass-Sorghastrum nutans, Big Bluestem -Andropogon gerardii

Wildflower recommendations

New England aster, culvers root, penstemon, bluestar, bee balm, black-eyed susan, blazing star, beardtongue, coneflowers, goldenrod, and blue sage

In my own yard, I have a cedar fence to keep my dogs from escaping. However, I have softened the fence with an assortment of flowering shrubs and mixed prairie plantings in the front of it. These buffer areas are much more appealing than the stark vertical fence.  The benefits of a living screen or hedge in the landscape are many. These natural plantings provide privacy, protection against wind, reduce noise, enhance energy conservation, create wildlife habitat, increase species diversity in your neighborhood, beautify the landscape and screen unsightly elements.

Hedges can do so much to improve your landscape. Why not take a second look at some of these areas in your own yard?  A few additions could make a tremendous difference.

Additional resources

Recommended Trees of South Central Kansas

Native Shrub List

Native Plant Guide

Roadside Beauty: What are you seeing?

Fall is the season of change. The verdant green of the prairie melts to lifeless, barren forms – a stark contrast to the landscape that once looked so alive. But for now, as change happens, we are blessed to partake in hues and colors of striking beauty. Trees explode with vibrant shades of orange, red and yellow. Native grasses develop vivid colors and attractive blooms. Asters, goldenrods and sunflowers speckle the horizon.  It is the crescendo of the whole year.

Maybe you have noticed these dramatic changes happening, too. Plants that once blended into their surroundings are suddenly visible. It’s as if someone turned a light on them. Even the prairies and roadsides display beautiful shades of gold, purple, apricot, olive, and copper with autumn wildflowers, shrubs, and curling, rustling grasses. Here are a few that I have seen lately along the roadsides of south-central Kansas.

Sumac

There is no other shrub that signals fall more than sumac. The blood red leaves and clusters of seeds are striking. They are like beacons along the roadsides. If only we could advertise with these shrubs, because they catch my eye every time.

Dogbane

This close relative of milkweed has so much going for it. Dogbane is host for many insects. In fact, the US Department of Agriculture Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA NRCS) ranks Dogbane’s value to pollinators as ‘very high’. Dogbane typically grows two to three feet tall and develops into larger colonies. Right now, they are a bright yellow, which makes them stand out even more. Even the common milkweeds have turned a nice golden color.

Big bluestem

The “King of Grasses” is big and bold. The reddish purple stems begin to change and set the landscape ablaze with their intense colors. Look for the distinctive “Turkey Foot” seed head, too.

“I took a long walk north of the town, out into the pastures where the land was so rough that it had never been ploughed up, and the long red grass of early times still grew shaggy over the draws and hillocks. Out there I felt at home again.” -Willa Cather, My Antonia

Switchgrass

There are a number of outstanding native grasses that provide late season interest, but Switchgrass Panicum virgatum is one of the more common grasses in roadside ditches. It grows to a height of 3-6 feet and turns orange, yellow and fiery red-tipped shades in the fall. The persistent airy blooms and attractive fall colors make this an attractive grass in the landscape.

Osage orange

This tree is along many roadsides in south central Kansas. It is still incredible to see those huge hedge apples dangling from the branches and scattered on the road. The tough demeanor of this tree including its thorns made it ideal as a living fence. Many were planted during the Dust Bowl days as part of WPA projects to prevent soil erosion in the Great Plains states.

Heath aster

Asters are the grand finale to the prairie garden. Heath asters are one of the last asters to bloom. The diminutive white flowers cover the entire plant, making them look like snow mounds in the prairie. They are one of the last great feeding opportunities for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators before they migrate or go dormant for the winter.

Although each season is different, autumn is a very special time. Life has come full circle, from spring through summer and ultimately ending in the fall. It is the perfect time to enjoy all that is changing around us. It is a time to take in sights, sounds and smells of the prairie and connect anew with the natural world.

Bonus Plant: Pink smartweed

Pink smartweed is prolific, growing wild in nearly every roadside ditch. The bright pink flowers and red stems are very striking. They thrive in damp or wet sites, but it is an annual. If you want some for your landscape, collect the seed after the pink flowers fade.

End-of-the-Season Garden Checklist

It seems that fall has finally arrived.  Cooler north winds are blowing and the leaves are beginning to change on the trees. Things are winding down in the garden too, except the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are fantastic this year. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden. There is so much to love about the fall season.

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. It will be time for the prairie to sleep. But before you put the tools away for the winter, there are a few things to take care of now to prepare your garden for next spring. Here is your Fall Garden Checklist.

Perennials

As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, blackeyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem. I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Coneflower seedheads next to little bluestem

Containers

Even the best container plants start to fade this time of year. The annuals, vegetables or herbs that have been growing in them can be discarded into the compost pile. Ceramic pots need to be emptied of the soil and put away in the garage for the winter. Removing the soil now will prevent cracking the pot with frozen soil. The soil in plastic pots can be left in them, but I like to move them to a place out of the sun so they don’t fade. If the soil is tired, plan on refreshing it by mixing with some new potting soil with it or adding some compost or perlite. A little preparation this fall will have your pots ready when spring arrives.

Lawns

This is an important time for lawn care. Obviously, the leaves that fall must be removed or composted into the lawn. More frequent mowing/composting can take care of a majority of the leaves, but if you have large trees the leaves must be removed. A large covering of leaves will smother your lawn. It is also an ideal time to fertilize cool season grasses. The nutrients will be taken up and stored in the roots for vigorous growth next year. If you have a warm season lawn such as buffalograss, now is the perfect time to control winter annuals such as henbit, dandelions and bindweed. Spraying with a broadleaf weed killer such as 2,4-D will clean up your lawn for next season. Be sure you’re using a spray that is labeled for buffalograss.

Buffalograss

Buffalograss in spring after fall application of Broadleaf weed control

Leaves

I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds to insulate the plants. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get so thick that they smother out your woodland plants. Leaves make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.

Annuals

I learned something new on our field trip to Lenora Larson’s garden. She has chosen annual varieties that self-seed, but that pollinators love. She lets the plants stand through the winter and then composts them into the soil where they grew last year. These composted plants are a fantastic mulch and add nutrients back to the soil. The next season, she lightly thins the plants that germinate and the cycle is repeated the next year. Her plants are thriving and she has very few problems with disease or insects. Her approach to landscaping with pollinator-friendly wildflowers, annuals, grasses and shrubs was stunning. I have never seen so many pollinators in such a small area. Her home was an oasis for pollinators.

Painted Lady Butterfly on Zinnia

Native Dakota Gold Helen’s Flower

Trees

This is the worst time of the year to prune trees. Trees are going dormant and pruning now will encourage new growth that will not get hardened off before cold weather. It is better to take notes of trees that need pruning and remove suckers or limbs when the trees are completely dormant in November through January. Pruning now will only weaken the tree and reduce its winter hardiness.

Bulbs

If you like the spring bulbs, now is the time to plant. I prefer bulbs that naturalize and come back year after year. Narcissus and species tulips are great spring bloomers. They require little or no care and reward us each year with bright blooms. These bulbs are the harbingers of spring. Now is also the time to put away tender bulbs such as cannas, dahlias, and gladioli. Allow them to dry for a few days before storing them in a cool, dry area away from sunlight.

Weeds

Remove weeds when they are young. Getting after them now and keeping your gardens and display beds free of winter annual weeds such a henbit will mean less weeding next spring. A little effort now will allow more time to enjoy your garden next spring.

Spring seems like it is so far away, but it will be here before we know it. By doing a few simple tasks in your garden this fall, you will save yourself time and effort next season. Why not put your garden properly do bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.

The Social Network for Plants

One of the landscaping trends for 2018 is the idea that plants are members of a complex social network. No, they are not on Facebook, Instagram or tweeting about the conditions on their side of the prairie, but they do grow best in a company of friends. I enjoy the idea that even though each plant is unique, they are part of interrelated communities. They complement each other and live in harmony, which makes them so much more resilient together than if they grow isolated and alone.

Plant communities in the wild

Nature is a great teacher. Look at wild plant communities. Whether a forest or a prairie, you will find plants growing harmoniously together. There aren’t any mulched areas between plants, but rather intertwining, interlocking and dense groups of plants growing side by side. A compass plant reaches up through tall grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass. The deep tap root punches through the fibrous roots of the grasses, and the tall grasses help prop up the compass plant’s long stems and keep them from flopping over.  If you plant compass plant in your landscape, plant it with these tall grasses. Plants grow in environments that suit their growth habit.

 

Butterfly weed is another great example. In the wild, it would get smothered and lost in five to six foot grasses, but you see it flourishing with shorter grasses like little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue gramma. Grasses of similar height is what they prefer. The beautiful orange blooms are at the same height as the grasses. These plants also have similar sun, soil and moisture requirements, too.

Know more about the plants you grow

An understanding of plant communities and the preferences of individual plants will help direct your landscape design. This approach to landscaping forces you to become familiar with each plant, but rewards you with a successful landscape that mimics the communities on the prairie. By adapting your gardens to include groups of plants that naturally occur together and that match your own landscape, you will have a functional, low maintenance landscape that is ecologically responsible and beautiful at the same time.

Urban prairie photo courtesy Craig Freeman

 

This style of landscaping has caused me to reevaluate how I design new plantings. For instance, switchgrass, which is one of my favorite grasses, is a solitary grass in the wild. It forms large colonies with other wildflowers growing on the edges of these colonies.  Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, in their book “Perennials and their Garden Habitat”, arrange plants according to their sociability level.  Plants like switchgrass or coneflowers at lower levels (1 and 2) are set individually or in small clusters. Plants like prairie dropseed or blue grama at higher levels (3 to 5) are set in groups of 10 to 20-plus, arranged loosely around the others.

By observing the different levels of plant sociability, it guides how you incorporate plants into your landscape. It is an ecological way to garden that focuses less on aesthetics and more on relationships of plants. Of course height, bloom time, texture and flower color are important, but they are not the most important consideration when planting. The main emphasis now is grouping plants together that thrive in the wild together.

So what does this look like practically in your landscape?

It looks like 10-20 coneflowers (level 2 plants) propped up with little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue grama (level 4 plants). In the wild, you never see just coneflowers growing in large solitary groups together, but mixed with other wildflowers and grasses. Blue sage (level 2 plant) has a tendency to flop, but when combined with other taller grasses and wildflowers, its blue flowers are held at eye level. The taller, more upright plants or solitary plants in levels 1 and 2 need the level 3 to 5 plants to grow and spread around them. This interlocking matrix of plants covers every square foot of your garden. Weeds are crowded out and maintenance is reduced over time as these plants squeeze out unwanted species. You can now manage your plant communities as a whole rather than taking care of each individual plant.

Native prairie photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

I believe this approach to designing a landscape has many benefits. Using this approach, we will become intimately acquainted with the plants we grow and the social communities in which they thrive. This connection to our plants forces us to learn about them and more importantly to see them as individual pieces of a much larger collection of associated plants. It is a radical shift in how we design a garden. Plants are pieces that nature weaves together in ecological combinations. Nature is a great teacher.

We will be expanding on this idea of social networks in future blogs and landscape plans.  This is an exciting concept that will change how we garden in the future. It connects us to the land in so many different ways.

 

Six Rewards of Native Plants

Native plants reward people and wildlife in many different ways.  They improve the environment, create a sense of place, restore a balance between plants and pollinators and you get to enjoy their natural beauty. Below is a quick list of six good things native plants do and provide.

They are a good value for your money.

Having just finished the fall plant sale, we hear over and over the value of native plants. If matched to the site, they are resilient, quick-growing and long-lived.  They persist and thrive, which saves money since you seldom need to purchase replacements. These plants are adapted to our climate extremes.  Their deep roots, habits and forms quickly fill up your garden space, adding interest throughout the seasons.

Pollinators will love your plants and you.

With all the talk about pollinator declines including monarchs, don’t you want to help in any way possible? The most obvious way that you can help is by planting the native wildflowers they need for survival. Whether milkweeds for monarchs or plants that provide food and shelter for these imperiled native pollinators, your yard can become an oasis.  Why not create a habitat where up close encounters with many different butterflies, bees, insects, and even birds, can be admired?

They are a versatile and diverse group of plants.

One of the amazing attributes of the prairie is its diversity. There are literally thousands of plants thriving in every possible landscape situation. Wet, dry, sun, shade, clay, sand and so on – there are a host of plants that will grow in your yard just as they do in the prairie.  That diversity allows you to match native plants to your own part of the world and successfully develop a landscape plan.

Native plants reduce maintenance.

Notice I didn’t say native plants require no maintenance? Even though native plants are drought tolerant and tough, they still require some maintenance each year in a landscape scenario. Again, think about a prairie. Native plants’ only requirements are to be cleaned off each spring before the next season’s growth. They survive pests and disease, require little or no fertilizing and demand extra water only during the severest drought. By spending less time maintaining your garden, it releases you from the obligation of burdensome yard work. Less time working and more time enjoying your landscape is always a good thing.

Native plants help with soil and water conservation.

The root systems of native plants are vital to soil and water conservation. Grasses such as big bluestem and switchgrass have fibrous deep reaching roots that hold soil tightly, keeping it from eroding into waterways. A dense, thick prairie of grasses and wildflowers will slow the movement of water, allowing more to infiltrate the soil too. Those deep roots also tap into moisture during dry periods. Drought resistant plants require little if any supplemental water which saves you money in the long run.

Enjoy the garden you created.

A prairie planting done right will offer you years of enjoyment. A habitat with attractive forms, textures and flowers that bloom at different times during the growing season will attract a host of pollinators and birds for you to watch. Those up close encounters will deepen your appreciation of these endangered species. Surrounding your home with native plants guarantees you’ll be rewarded time after time and year after year.  It is a reward to you, but a gift to the natural world too.