The Resilient Prairie

An interesting thing happened in the Fall of 2012, after one of the hottest and driest summers on record – the prairie bloomed.  The historic drought was harsh and many plants that were borderline hardy in Kansas were lost, but very few of the wildflowers and grasses of the prairie were lost.  Asters, blue sage and goldenrods bloomed in spite of the brutal summer conditions.  The native grasses, though much shorter, survived.

This was a great lesson about one of the ultimate surviving landscapes—the prairie.

Blue Sage (Salvia azurea)

Kansas has some of the largest expanses of the tallgrass prairie in the United States.  Less than four percent of the original North American prairie land is left.  This sea of grasses and wildflowers survives floods and drought, high and low temperatures, grazing, fire and many invasive species.  The deep roots and adaptability make it one of the most resilient landscapes in the world.

Liatris and Indian grass in the Prairie Window Project

This prairie ecosystem manages heat and drought through adaptation.  The deep roots absorb water that other shallow-rooted plants can’t touch.  Plants go dormant during drought to conserve water and maintain growing points just at or below the soil surface.  Once conditions improve, these plants begin to grow again.  Leaves are shiny or have tiny hairs to reduce water loss.  Grasses stay shorter and produce fewer seeds.

Each of these adaptations help the prairie plants survive and use less water.  This diverse ecosystem is resilient – more resilient than many other landscapes and certainly more resilient than a typical lawn.  It provides habitat for wildlife and food and nectar for pollinators.  It is a self-sustaining environment that persists through harsh conditions.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains

Those drought years gave us a chance to evaluate what we are doing with our own landscapes and to take a look at the types of plants that will actually grow here with minimal time, water and maintenance.  It provided an opportunity to select new plants that can tolerate adverse weather conditions.  More and more Kansans are choosing plants like little bluestem, switchgrass or prairie dropseed.  Gardeners are filling up their landscapes with wildflowers such as coneflowers, penstemon, blazing stars, goldenrods, asters and milkweeds in smaller “pocket” prairies.  These micro-prairies have all the ornamental qualities of a larger prairie, but on a much smaller scale.

Nature is a good teacher.  These plants, which survived and even bloomed after one of the driest summers in recent memory, are amazing.  I knew that prairie plants were tough, but that season made me take notice.  It made me rethink my own perceptions of what is environmentally-sound landscaping.  We can create sustainable plant communities in our own small landscapes simply by copying what nature has done so successfully in creating the prairie. These are beautiful plants that are diverse in form, texture and color.  Plants that would work well in any sunny location.  The combinations are endless.

 

The prairie has a legacy of resilient beauty.  Embrace what is around you and create a sense of place in your own pocket of the historic prairie land.

Plant Profile: Shortstem Spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii)

Garden centers and nurseries carry more native plants each year, because gardeners have caught on to the many benefits that native perennials – such as milkweeds, coneflowers, blazing stars, black-eyed susans, and penstemon – provide aesthetically and environmentally.  One of the best native plants for early spring bloom is spiderwort.  They are fantastic in the gardens right now.  Native spiderworts are excellent alternatives for naturalized or xeric plantings.  Ohio spiderwort (Tradescantia ohiensis) is the most common, prevalent in much of the Great Plains and eastern United State.  It reaches three feet and has striking blue, rose or white flowers.  Its cousin, shortstem spiderwort (Tradescantia tharpii) is not as common, but has more ornamental characteristics and growth habit.  It exhibits excellent drought tolerance with minimal maintenance requirements.

Shortstem spiderwort’s low growth habit and diverse flower colors make it a welcome addition to the front of any rock garden or perennial border.  It is a prolific bloomer, covering itself with large three-petaled flowers in April and May.  At least three distinct flower colors exist in our plantings, purple, blue and rose.  I use this plant along the front of our perennial beds with summer and fall blooming perennials, because it does go dormant during the summer as a natural defense against the heat.  I remove the brown leaves in the early summer and it greens back in late August as a rosette of hairy, pointed leaves.  With proper planning, shortstem spiderwort gives the landscape an exotic—yet native and hardy—spring component.  Honeybees and bumblebees flock to the flowers.  The diversity of pollinating insects that this plant attracts is a joy to watch.

Tradescantia tharpii reaches a mature height of 12 to 15 inches and 15 to 18 inches wide in full sun.  This species is multi-stemmed, forming a dense mound of green foliage.  Leaves are linear-lanceolate, pubescent, giving a whitish cast, and have red translucent margins.  The seed heads all seem to dry at the same time so seed collection is made easy, unlike Ohio spiderwort where the seeds ripen over an extended period.  Seeds are oblong, gray and compressed about one eighth of an inch long.

 

It prefers a well-drained soil, but it can adapt to moister locations as long as there is ample drainage.  I have grown it for years in a gravel-amended sandy loam soil with no problems; plants in heavy clay or sites with poor drainage resulted in slow plant growth.  This is one plant that thrives on neglect, as long as it is properly sited.  Established plants are long lived.  Plants in the Arboretum have been growing in established beds for up to ten years.

I have not observed any disease or insect problems.  In the fall and winter, however, rabbits will eat the rosette of leaves, stunting the spring growth.

You can find this plant at our spring and fall sales or produce it through seed propagation.  A warm, dry treatment before sowing the seed in a mixture of coarse perlite and potting soil gives the best germination.  Germination should occur in about 7 to 15 days.  Divisions of existing plants can be taken every two to four years depending on lateral growth.

Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

For the native plant enthusiast who wants to view this plant in a natural setting, Tradescantia tharpii can be seen growing on clay, sand or rocky soils in prairies and open woods.  Native from central Kansas to southwest Missouri and south into northern Texas, it is essentially restricted to the Great Plains.

Plant Profile: Dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana)

When we think of shrubs that grow in the prairie, lead plant (Amorpha canescens) is the first one that comes to my mind.  Rightfully so, the soft gray foliage and lavender flower spikes are a must for any summer prairie garden.  However, its lesser known cousin, dwarf false indigo (Amorpha nana) is blooming now in the Arboretum.  It makes you stop and take notice.

Dwarf false indigo can be found growing in the mixed-grass and shortgrass prairies throughout the Great Plains. In Kansas, I have seen it growing wild in Clark county.  It is not as widely distributed as lead plant, but I have found it to be quite adaptable.  It thrives in dry, open locations with plenty of sunlight.  Here in the Arboretum, it blooms in May but I have seen it bloom as late as mid-June.

The deep magenta flowers of dwarf false indigo have a sweet aroma like honey.  Each terminal flower cluster is covered in reddish-orange pollen that pollinators love to gather.  The flowers stand out against the bright green leaves.  This prairie shrub should not be pruned in the spring.  It blooms best from previous year’s growth.  A variety of pollinators flock to the fragrant blossoms, but the Silver Spotted Skipper butterfly use the soft leaves as a food source.  After the blooms, the small green seedpods develop, but turn dark brown later in the fall.

The name nana, meaning dwarf in Latin, refers to the shrub’s diminutive size, which ultimately reaches two feet tall.  While short, the deep tap root and finely textured leaves make it extremely drought tolerant.  Plant it en masse or along a border edge so you can enjoy the sweet fragrance of the flowers.  It prefers a well-drained soil, including clay and rocks.

Companion plants for this versatile shrub would be little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium), evening primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa), bottlebrush blazing star (Liatris mucornata), aromatic aster (Aster oblongifolius), shortstem spiderwort (tradescantia tharpii), narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) and butterfly weed (Asclepias tuberosa).  This shrub deserves a place in your sunny prairie garden.

Join Us on Friday, May 12.

Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is offering a free wildflower to the first 25 families or individuals who obtain a new or renewed membership on Friday, May 12, for National Public Gardens Day!

We will also have FREE ADMISSION to the gardens for the day, and coffee and refreshments in the Visitor Center from 9-11 a.m.

THANK YOU TO EVERYONE WHO SUPPORTS THE DYCK ARBORETUM OF THE PLAINS!

How to Create a Beautiful and Sustainable Garden

With growing season and FloraKansas on the horizon, we have been asking a few questions of ourselves over the past few months about native plants. Certainly, we have seen the benefits of using native plants in the Arboretum and at our homes, but what would it take to convince someone to install them in their yard who has never tried them or is unfamiliar with them?  What would it take to begin to change their minds?

We keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but so is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.

Beautiful orange flowers of Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and their landscapes as a whole to provide additional benefits.   Our gardens must now not just look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attracts birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

The evidence that making such a change will really make a difference in our lives and in our gardens begins with the first native plant.  I have seen it time and again – if you plant them, they will come to your garden.  If you plant milkweeds, the monarchs will find them; if you plant penstemons, the bumble bees will find them; and if you plant asters, a flock of pollinators will cover them in the fall.  It sounds so simple, but it is indeed true.  These plants need the pollinators and the pollinators need these plants.  The significance of planting your first wildflower can be both beautiful and good.

If you want to be part of the solution and do your part for nature by reducing water usage and eliminating chemicals, attracting countless forms of beneficial wildlife including butterflies, hummingbirds, and pollinators, cleaning storm water runoff, and having a beautiful landscape, start with a few native plants. Each of us CAN have a positive impact.  We are stewards of these ecological, environmental, and sustainable gardens. An aesthetically pleasing landscape can also be functional and serve a variety of purposes.

Steps to a beautiful and sustainable landscape

  1. Evaluate your landscape
  2. Plan, plan, and plan
  3. Define your edges
  4. Choose the right plants that match your site
  5. Establish plants correctly
  6. Observe Best Management Practices
  7. Enjoy!

 

Home landscapes can be transformed using native plants so that they are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.  To start planning your native plant garden, be sure to attend our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale and look over our 2017 plant list.

Add Your Piece to the Patchwork of Prairie Gardens

We are experiencing a paradigm shift that is sweeping across the country.  People are becoming increasingly aware of the natural world and their ability to impact it.  If we begin establishing landscapes that appeal to us aesthetically, but benefit wildlife ecologically, we can have the best of both worlds.

Each of us has the opportunity to develop a native wildlife habitat, to design your garden in such a way that attracts pollinators and wildlife, and to create a safe space for depleted and endangered native bees and Monarchs to find the food they need to survive.  This is a small way you can show you care.  It is one way you, along with others in your neighborhood, can develop prairie gardens that are refuges for these beneficial insects.  Even a small garden can have an impact.

(If you are interested in or are searching for native plants, peruse our 2017 Native Plant Guide and Plant List and plan to attend our 2017 Spring FloraKansas Plant Sale.)

Monarchs

Statistics show that the monarch butterfly population in North America has declined by over 90% in just the last 20 years.  This is disheartening.  One of the biggest factors in monarch decline is the increasing scarcity of its only caterpillar host plant: milkweeds. Monarchs can’t successfully reproduce, or migrate without milkweeds, resulting in the species decline. If you plant even a few milkweeds in your own garden, you can help reverse the fortune of these beautiful insects.  You can be part of the ultimate solution, which is to provide the plants monarchs need for their life cycle.

Pollinators

The plight of the honey bee and the loss of entire hives has garnered nationwide attention.  However, many of our native bee populations are in danger too.  Scientists continue to track dwindling populations of native bees, including the possible extinction of some species.  The native pollinators are key components of a healthy ecosystem.  The use of pesticides and insecticides, habitat loss, along with the introduced diseases threaten their lives.  These bees often lack season-long food sources, which is obviously important to their vitality.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Many different pollinators face these realities.  Native plants can help us alleviate some of the problems they face.  Native plants have the ability to grow in our soils, are adapted to the climate, look attractive, control erosion, create beneficial habitat and are the preferred food source for many of these pollinators.  By establishing prairie gardens that use native prairie plants, we can improve their plight in this world.  Recognizing that we can make a difference should be motivation to at least begin to help them.

Stewardship and conservation can start with our gardens.  Despite size limitations, these prairie gardens are an important part of conserving the prairie and the wildlife that depend on them.  You might be surprised how much your garden can do to reverse some of these trends.  Imagine your garden combined with hundreds of other small prairie landscapes.  True, it is not the expansive prairies of the past, but it does make a difference.  Your garden can be a piece of the patchwork of prairies.

Do You Want A Native Front Yard?

Something interesting is happening to our front yards.  They are slowly shrinking.  The typical large expanse of green lawn is being replaced with low-maintenance, drought tolerant shrubs, perennials and grasses.   Homeowners are realizing that this alternative to a mowed lawn has its advantages.  Certainly, this new paradigm will require less water over time, but it can be functional and beautiful as well.  The potential environmental impacts of making this change can be significant.

Shady area at Arboretum converted from fescue turf to columbine, bluestar and other perennials and shrubs.

Lawn grasses such as fescue and bluegrass require more mowing and watering than native landscapes.  Here are some facts about lawns and their impact on the environment:

  • There are some 80 million home lawns across the country
  • 30-60 percent of urban fresh water is used for watering lawns
  • The typical American lawn uses 10,000 gallons of supplemental water (non-rainwater) annually
  • Nearly 70 million pounds of pesticides are used on U.S. lawns each year
  • Approximately $25 billion is spent on lawn care each year in the U.S.

If you are tired of the traditional front yard and wish to reduce your lawn, a simple landscape design focused on native plants can make a real difference.  With their deep roots, native plants can adapt to the regional climate and ecological conditions, while also addiing diversity, reducing maintenance and attracting a host of wildlife and pollinators.  Use these simple steps as a guide to develop a native front yard.

Step 1: Plan your design, start small

I prefer to lay out a garden hose to get the curves and flow that I want.  It is a great way to “fiddle” with the design before tearing anything up.  Start small by removing a section of lawn that you can manage.  You can convert other areas over the next few years.

Step 2: Investigate plant types

Think about the type of plants that will grow in your area.  I group shrubs, perennials and grasses to add impact in the landscape.  Strategically locating small trees such as redbuds and disease resistant crabapples will give height and take up space in the design. Are there some evergreen trees and shrubs that will give some splashes of green especially in winter?

Investigate the types of plants you wish to include in your yard.  Plan your garden for a succession of bloom to guarantee there are always a few plants flowering throughout the year. These native plants provide nectar and pollen for beneficial insects.  A few plants such as milkweed can provide food for larvae and fruits and seeds will feed the birds.  A monoculture of lawn can be transformed into a landscape alive with diversity and activity.

Buffalo grass, blue grama grass and mixed prairie plantings

Step 3: Find your plants

Find the plants you need for your design by checking with local nurseries, or you can use our Native Plant Guide 2017.  Steal ideas from nature or visit the Arboretum to gather ideas of combinations and groupings that grow well together.  Then purchase the plants you want at our sale in April or September and get them in the ground.

Earth Partnership for Schools Prairie Planting along walkway to school

It will be great to see your front yard transformed into an oasis for pollinators and birds.  You will be able to look out your front window at a diverse and functional landscape that has a positive impact on the environment.  It will be a landscape that fuels pollinators and supports all sorts of birds and other wildlife.  It will be a landscape that is part of the solution rather than part of the problem.

I believe lawns will always have a place in our landscapes, but maybe just a smaller place than in the past.*  It is not a bad thing to replace some of our lawn areas with beautiful and attractive trees, shrubs and other perennials.  Just think about the possibilities.

*If you like a larger expanse of lawn, but wish to consider drought-tolerant alternatives, consider buffalograss as an option.

 

 

Spring Native Planting Guide

As winter fades and the warm moist winds of spring begin to blow, or have been blowing, those of us who love gardening are eager to get our hands dirty planting something in the ground.  We long to see something green, to see something in bloom, and to see pollinators and birds foraging in our yards.  There are so many wonderful aspects to look forward to in the garden.  As you anticipate spring and put together your plant shopping list, here are a few tips that will be a helpful guide as you plan your landscape.

Investigate

Learn about the plants you want to include in your overall landscape plan.  The web is a valuable source of information along with our Native Plant Guide 2017.  I like to read several websites from various places to determine how plants have performed in other gardens.  Plant labels can be deceiving, because they give a broad perspective of the plant, with little or no specific information on how the plant will perform in your area.  Rarely do plants grow as large or as full as the label describes.

Watch the weather

As much as I want to put something in the ground, native plants – particularly native grasses – need warm soil to get them started.  If soil temperatures are below 60⁰, they will not root or begin to grow.  It is better to wait until the soil is warm than to plant too early.  Resist the urge to plant too soon.

Dormant Panicum ‘Northwind’ Switchgrass trimmed and ready for warmer days.

 

Observe your site

I have said this many times, but it bears repeating – the most important step in planning and designing a native garden is to match the plant up with your site.  Take time to observe your area.  Is it sunny or shady?  Does it stay wet or dry?  Is your soil sandy, clay, like concrete, or some other mixture?  Does it get morning sun and afternoon shade or vice versa?  What is your hardiness zone?  Can plants withstand a cold winter?  Choosing the right plant for your landscape will save you time, energy and resources in the long run, because these newly established plants will need less care throughout the growing season.

Sun Guide

“Full sun” means an area receives at least six full hours of direct sunlight each day.  Most wildflowers and grasses, including buffalograss, grow best under these conditions.  A south or west exposure is most common.  These plants can endure sun through the hottest part of the day.

“Part sun” means four to six hours of sun each day.

“Part shade” means four to six hours each day.  Most plants that need protection from the hot afternoon sun fit into this category.  East or northeast exposure is most common.

“Full shade” means less than four hours of sun per day.  Spring ephemerals and woodland species require this type of setting.

Grouping plants

One of the design principles that I remember most from college was that plants grouped in odd numbers are more appealing to the eye.  Plant three, five, or seven of the same wildflower or grass.  They will stand out in the garden, be easier for pollinators to find and look better together than one single plant blooming by itself.  It may cost a little more, but the visual impact will be that much greater.  Also, plan your garden so wildflowers are blooming throughout the year, spring, summer and fall.

From left to right: yellow coneflower (spring), butterfly weed (summer), button blazing star (fall) and little bluestem (fall/winter)

Plant spacing and scale

Give each plant the room it needs.  Think of the mature height, width and scale of the plants you are establishing.  Is it too large for your area?  To keep plants in scale means choosing plants that don’t grow larger than half the bed width (for a 6 ft. wide bed, choose plants that are no more than 3 ft. tall, not a compass plant that gets 10 ft. tall).  Some wildflowers look good individually, such as asters, while others look better grouped together, such as coneflowers or blazing stars.  Also, you might consider using taller wildflowers or grasses as specimen plants to frame other perennials.

Compass plant is a beautiful tall wildflower, but not for a small garden. It needs plenty of space since it can grow ten feet tall.

If you purchase plants early, carefully tend them until you can get them in the ground.  Watch the weather and move them into shelter when freezing temperatures are in the forecast. Don’t over water them, but keep soil moist until they are planted. Here is our watering guide that provides step by step instructions to successfully get your new plants established.

Now is the time to prepare your area for plants so you are ready when conditions are right. Typically, I wait until after April 15 (average last frost date) before I plant. Even then it is no guarantee that cold weather will not return. Good luck and enjoy the spring.

Six Native Groundcovers That Thrive in the Sun

As you think about your native landscape, taller plants are easier to plug into the design.  There are more choices from which you can add diversity, color, texture and habitat.  These taller layers are the backbone of any plan, while the edges or ground level are often overlooked.   In my opinion, the border plants are just as important because they define the edges.   The larger perennials typically overshadow these native groundcovers, but here are a few that stand out in the landscape.

Missouri Evening Primrose-Oenothera macrocarpa

In the wild, this low growing wildflower is found clinging to exposed hillsides.  If it can survive that environment, it will be a tough drought-tolerant plant for any sunny spot.  The large, showy, yellow flowers bloom from May through August, but the majority of the blooms come in April and May.  One plant can spread up to 24 inches while only reaching 6 to 12 inches tall.  Obviously, it likes it dry, so don’t over water them.  They look great along walkways or spilling over rock walls with their silver green leaves and reddish stems.

Purple Poppy Mallow-Callirhoe involucrata

Some like it hot, but these like it really hot.  The deep tap root of Purple Poppy Mallow sustains it during times of drought.  These roots are starchy and supposedly taste like a sweet potato.  (I don’t know if I am that hungry, but it may be worth a try.)  The magenta cup-like blooms appear throughout spring and into summer.  I like to interplant with low grasses or shorter perennials that bloom later in the season, such as blazing stars or goldenrods.  The stems hug the ground and ultimately spread 24-36 inches wide and 6-12 inches tall.

Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’-Bouteloua gracilis

Unlike any other native grass, ‘Blonde Ambition’ will make an impact in your garden.  The eyelash-like seedheads dance with even the gentlest breeze atop the fine blue-green foliage from mid-summer into winter.  Selected for its unique habit and hardiness, it can be used in a variety of settings from clay to sandy soils.  It gets larger than most Blue Grama grass, maxing out at 24 inches.  Space them 18 to 24 inches apart for best display.  Regularly, Blue Grama is found growing with Buffalograss in the shortgrass prairie, making it an important native grass of the Great Plains.

Rose Verbena-Glandularia canadensis

This plant holds the record for most months in bloom.  I have seen it in bloom from March through December.  It is one of the first to bloom in the spring and if we get some beneficial rain in the fall, it will bloom again.  In the prairie, rose verbena can be found in open bluffs and rocky outcroppings.  It requires minimal rain and terrible soil for the best growth.  Sounds like a winner to me.  The vibrant pinkish-purple blooms will brighten any border.  Give it room to spread.  One drawback is that they are not very long lived, every few years, plants will completely die out or move.  I think that they bloom themselves to death.  Just replace with new plants and again enjoy this sun loving groundcover.

Rose Verbena-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

Stiff Coreopsis-Coreopsis palmata

Each spring, the golden yellow blooms of this prairie beauty burst open with an eruption of glorious sunshine.  The stems are lined with leaves that resemble little hands lifted skyward.  It is a favorite of pollinators as they flock to the nectar rich flowers from late spring to early summer.  I give it some room to roam since it slowly spreads to fill in an area when it is happy.  Eventually, spreading to 36 inches or more and growing 24 inches tall, this wildflower is a great alternative to its other coreopsis cousins.

Coreopsis palmata-By Frank Mayfield (Flickr: Coreopsis palmata PRAIRIE COREOPSIS) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepis

At one time, this was one of the top selling grasses nationwide.  It is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough they are planted in mass in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.

 

Sporobolus heterolepis-By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Five Garden Trends for 2017

Garden Retreats

We live in a connected, fast paced digital world.  We need places to disconnect and unwind.  Green spaces surrounded by nature have been shown to calm the anxiety of a stressful life.  Outdoor activities such as playing in the garden or sitting around a fire pit sipping on your favorite drink are growing in popularity.  With less connection to the natural world and longer work hours, relaxing places to land at the end of the day are really inviting.

Pollinator Gardens

This trend isn’t a new one, but a continuation from the past few years as we try to address the plight of pollinators.  Whether planting milkweeds for Monarchs or stunning wildflowers for bees and butterflies, your garden can be a part of the solution.  Pollinator gardens don’t have to be limited to native plants. Other herbs or vegetables can be grown as well.  Every garden, no matter the size, can make a difference.  Not only will you be rewarded with the beauty of the wildflowers, but pollinators and other wildlife will thank you with their presence in the garden.  If you plant for them, they will come.

Strategic Lawn Areas

It has long been the American dream to have a large, beautiful, green lawn, a show piece of how we can manipulate the landscape.  However, perceptions are changing.  There is a realization about the potential environmental impacts of a traditional lawn and a renewed sense of stewardship and conservation.   Native grasses such as Buffalograss and Blue Grama are great alternatives to fescue and bluegrass for sunny areas.  The deep roots of these grasses make them less dependent on water.  Don’t get me wrong.  I believe lawns will always have a place in our landscapes, maybe just a smaller place than in the past.  It is not a bad thing to shrink the lawn with encroaching trees, shrubs and other perennials.

Edible Gardens

Increasingly, consumers want to know where their food comes from and how it is raised.  They are concerned about chemical use, the environment and food waste among other things.  This awareness has caused more and more people to plant gardens in backyards where they can control all aspects of how their food is grown.  These gardens are easy to start and can be as simple as a small raised bed or a few containers on your deck.

Valuing Native Plants

This trend fits the mission of the Arboretum quite well.  The prairie landscape can be brought home to your garden by matching the right plant with your site.  This landscape trend mimics the natural world around us.  It gives your garden a sense of place.  Let native plants be the anchor for your native design.  Incorporate native grasses (another garden trend) such as ‘Northwind’ Switch as backdrops for other wildflowers which bloom at different times throughout the year.  The true value of native plants is worth the experience whether they are viewed up close in your own garden or atop a windswept hill in the Flint Hills.

Are Native Plants Really Drought-Tolerant?

I love prairie plants and I encourage people to use them in their landscapes.  Native plants have so many excellent qualities.  I see their benefits in the plantings we have throughout the Arboretum. They attract pollinators and other wildlife and they are beautiful in flower and form.  Native plants have become all the rage now, and rightfully so. However, as their popularity continues to grow, some misunderstandings about them are being advanced.

Myth: Native plants are always drought-tolerant in the landscape.

Even I have touted this myth from time to time that native plants are always drought-tolerant, maybe even more drought-tolerant than similar exotic plants.  Our expectation that these plants will naturally grow on their own and survive under any circumstances is not true.  The reality is that there are a set of plants that are well-suited for our particular landscape.

New Jersey Tea

What is true? Native plants can be drought-tolerant in the right conditions.

We know about the extensive root systems these plants develop and assume that means they will never need watering in our contrived landscapes.  In their prairie homes, they are drought-tolerant.  They are perfectly matched to the prairie habitat they prefer.  They are content because all aspects they require to grow are being met, from soil, moisture and sun to even prairie companions.

Brown-eyed Susan

What is false? All native plants will grow happily in your landscape.

Often, our landscapes cannot perfectly match the preferred environments of these native plants.  Since they are not ideally situated, these plants will need some input from time to time to keep them happy and thriving.  This is the reason the selection process becomes the most important step in developing your native landscape.  It is vital that you match the right plant with the right place.  Just because a plant is native doesn’t mean it will happily grow in your landscape, will tolerate drought or require little care once established.

Embrace the process of learning about individual plants.

This kind of plant knowledge can be hard to learn.  I have mistreated my share of native plants trying to get them to fit into my box, my “planned” native garden. What I should have been doing was familiarizing myself with where these plants grow, learning about their native ecosystems and trying to match plants as closely as possible to their new home.  Some of the best learning experiences I had came at the expense of losing a few plants.  I quickly learned that not every native plant will be happy all of the time, especially if it is not properly situated.

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’

I like to use the example of a Missouri Evening Primrose and a swamp milkweed.  The primrose thrives in dry conditions while the swamp milkweed loves having its feet constantly wet.  The primrose will not be happy growing next to the pond with the swamp milkweed, just as the swamp milkweed will not be happy growing next to the primrose on a dry windswept hill.  Each is distinctly different, requiring unique conditions to prosper.  If these native wildflowers are not ideally located in the landscape, environmental conditions will need to be constantly manipulated to keep them growing.

Swamp Milkweed

Missouri Evening Primrose

I love native plants and will continue to promote their use.  Understanding this myth about native plants helps me be more selective in the plants I choose for my landscape.  With more knowledge comes a better understanding of what these native plants need.

Just like the diversity of the prairie, there are a host of plants that will fit into almost any landscape environment, including your corner of the world.  As you become more aware of plant types and match the right plant with your situation, you will be rewarded for your time and effort.

Interested in learning more about native plants and how to utilize them in your garden? The Arboretum will be offering landscaping classes this spring, one about landscaping for sunny areas and one for shady areas.