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.

A Native Shade Garden

In Kansas, the benefits of shade are obvious.  If you step outside on a summer afternoon, you will quickly move under the canopy of a large shade tree.  The sun can be intense.   We love the shade that trees provide, as well as the value they add to our homes.  However, it can be a real challenge to grow anything under the umbrella of trees, including grass.

How do you develop a resilient native shade garden?  Here are some steps that might improve this problematic area in your yard and maybe begin to change your approach to gardening in the shade.

Native Columbine

Shade can be bad

Realize the challenges of a shady spot

  • The root competition
  • Too much leaf litter and debris
  • Reduced air movement make it difficult to establish a beautiful landscape
  • Plants rarely bloom
  • Not as many plants to choose from compared to sunny areas
  • Plants grow slowly

 

Shade can be good

Since we love the trees in our landscapes, we need to embrace the microclimate they provide.

  • Shady landscapes are easy to care for since they require minimal weeding and watering.
  • Generally, there are fewer insect problems.
  • The canopy of the trees protects plants from leaf scorch.
  • Each autumn, a new set of leaves fall, providing winter protection for plants and a fresh dose of organic matter for the soil as the leaves decompose.

Soil and Sun Levels

Discover the type of soil you have and the amount of sunlight your area receives each day.  Each of these factors will determine which plants to choose.

  • Three to five hours of sun each day is considered partial shade. This can be dappled shade where there is always some light making it through the trees branches
  • Two hours or less of sun each day is full shade.
  • A soil that is friable is usually high in organic matter. This type of soil is ideal for most plants that grow in the shade.
  • A sandy soil that is hard and dries quickly is typically found under oak and maple trees with dense shade.

The Arboretum woodland garden

Use Nature As Your Guide

One of the best ways to landscape for shade is to mimic nature.  Look at examples from woodland settings, then integrate the elements and plants you like the most.  Generally, these landscapes are random and informal with three to four distinct layers of plants.  Large trees make up the upper canopy that provide the majority of shade.  Next, smaller trees and large shrubs of varying heights make up the understory.  Use this plant layer to add interesting forms, textures and blooms.  Redbuds and viburnums, for example, are naturals for these areas.  The woodland floor is the final layer. Lower growing woody and herbaceous species with graceful blooms, a variety of leaf shapes, attractive fruits and seed heads, varying heights and forms, and contrasting bright and dark colors will add to the appeal of this layer as you view it up close.

Carex pensylvanica. Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

The starting point for your shade garden is to examine what is already growing.  Most shade gardens have the umbrella of large trees.  The middle and ground floor need to be filled with appropriate plant material that match the soil, moisture levels and amount of sunlight the area receives throughout the day.  Shade gardens lend themselves to solitude because they are usually enclosed by plants .  They are a natural oasis with a bench, water feature or fire pit surrounded by interesting plants.  Here is a plant guide for each of these lower tiers of a shade garden.  For our purposes, I will focus on plants for a medium to dry soil, with the ultimate goal to develop an area that is attractive to you and wildlife, such as birds and pollinators.

Native perennials for the Woodland Floor

Allium cernuum pink nodding onion
Anthyrium angustum lady fern
Aquilegia canadensis columbine
Arisaema triphyllum jack-in-the-pulpit
Aruncus dioicus goatsbeard
Asarum canadense wild ginger
Aster cordifolius blue woodland aster
Aster divaricatus ‘Eastern Star’ white woodland aster
Aster lateriflorus calico Aster
Carex sp. Woodland sedge
Clematis virginiana virgin’s bower
Chasmanthium latifolium river oats  (Use with caution)
Chrysogonum virginianum green and gold
Dennstaedtia punctilobula hay-scented fern
Dicentra eximia fringed bleeding heart
Dodecatheon meadia shootingstar
Epimedium spp. barrenwort
Geranium maculatum wild geranium
Heuchera Americana alumroot
Histrix patula bottlebrush grass
Pachysandra procumbens Allegheny spurge
Packera aurea golden ragwort
Phlox divaricata woodland phlox
Podophyllum peltatum May apple
Polygonatum biflorum giant solomon’s seal
Sanguinaria canadensis bloodroot
Sedum ternatum wild stonecrop
Smilacina racemose solomon’s Plume
Solidago caesia wreath goldenrod
Solidago ulmifolia elm-leaf goldenrod
Stylophorum diphyllum celadine poppy
Tiarella cordifolia foamflower
Veronicastrum virginicum culver’s root
Zizia aurea golden alexander

Golden Ragwort

Small trees and shrubs

Aesculus glabrra var. argute Texas buckeye
Aronia melanocarpa ‘Autumn Magic’
Cercis canadensis-redbud
Cephalanthus occidentalis buttonbush
Cornus racemosa gray dogwood
Hamamelis witchhazel
Hydrangea arborescens ‘Annabelle’
Hydrangea quercifolia oakleaf hydrangea
Lindera benzoin spicebush
Physocarpus opulifolius ninebark
Rjus typhina ‘Bailtiger’ Tiger Eye sumac
Symphoricarpos albus snowberry
Viburnum dentatum arrowwood viburnum
Viburnum prunifoium blackhaw viburnum
Viburnum rufidulum rusty blackhaw viburnum
Viburnum trilobum highbush cranberry

My shade garden project: I started with a fire pit under a 50 year old pin oak tree. It is essentially bare soil because nothing will grow under it very well. I will chart the progress over the next few years.

So, my advice to you is this: Accept your shady situation. Mix it up.  Combine plants with different textures, colors, shapes and heights to add interest.  Knowing your light levels will help, too.  Keep in mind that shade plants grow slowly.  Choose larger plants initially to install or just be patient with what you have planted.  Water as needed, but remember these shade plants are competing with the roots of a large tree.  Maybe add a soaker hose to deliver moisture efficiently to the root zone.  And finally, look to enhance all the layers of the shade garden, not just the lowest level.  A native garden looks better when it mirrors the natural woods with all three dimensions growing harmoniously together.

Butterfly Milkweed-2017 Perennial Plant of the Year™

It is hard to believe that it’s already 2017.  We still have several months of winter to endure, but after the first of the year, my thoughts naturally turn toward spring.  I anticipate this barren landscape bursting to life.  Wildflowers, grasses, trees and shrubs emerge from their winter slumber to once again beautify the garden.  A wonderful wildflower and one of my favorites is butterfly milkweed, Asclepias tuberosa.

 

2017 Perennial Plant of the Year™

With all the recent buzz about pollinators (pun intended), it seems fitting that butterfly milkweed is the 2017 Perennial Plant of the Year™, according to the Perennial Plant Association.  This classic native wildflower is an excellent perennial that is readily recognizable with its bright orange flowers and the host of pollinators that they attract.  Found throughout the eastern two-thirds of Kansas, they bloom in late May into August.

Monarchs and milkweeds

Butterfly milkweed, along with other native milkweeds, are vital to the survival of the monarch butterfly.   Monarch caterpillars will only eat on milkweeds.  No milkweeds, no monarchs!  If you plant milkweeds, monarchs will find them in your landscape.  It is said that a monarch butterfly can smell a nectar source from up to two miles away.

Monarch caterpillar

Recent habitat loss has made it critical that more milkweeds are added to landscapes across the migration path of monarchs.  Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep, coarse, fibrous root system.  The intricate flowers that reach skyward range from deep orange-red in the eastern part of its range to lighter orange and finally yellow farther west and south in Kansas.  Unlike the numerous other milkweeds found in Kansas, butterfly milkweed does not exude a white milky sap when the stem is cut or a leaf is removed.

This sun-loving wildflower grows best in open areas intermingled with native grasses.  While it prefers full sun and good drainage, it will tolerate light shade.  It is also very drought tolerant once established.  Several cultivated varieties of butterfly milkweed have been developed.  These include ‘Gay Butterflies’, a mix of red, orange, and yellow flowered plants, and ‘Hello Yellow’, an exclusively yellow flowered selection.

Hello Yellow Butterflyweed

 

Butterfly milkweed has many outstanding features, but the most important quality is its ability to attract pollinators and other beneficial insects to your garden. If you get some established, it will quickly become a favorite.  Its rugged character will make it a focal point in the summer garden for years to come.  It is a beautiful wildflower that is at home in the prairie or in your landscape.  Can you find a spot for a few in your garden?

A Few Berry Plants for Birds

With the recent cold snap, I am amazed that anything can survive outside.  Snow and extreme temperatures make it a challenge for birds to get through the freezing nights.  Birds have to change their diets from insects to berries, fruit and seeds rich in fats and antioxidants to make it through winter.  They spend most of their time and energy trying to find food, water and shelter.  Fruits and berries can truly be a lifesaver for overwintering birds.  Here are a few trees and shrubs that will feed the birds during these long, cold months of the year.

Viburnum

This diverse collection of shrubs or small trees offers many great landscape plants.  Most have attractive foliage with amazing fall color, clusters of blooms that develop into groups of tasty fruit for overwintering birds to devour.  Some of the best varieties for our area have been Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium) and Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum).  These two species are native to Kansas and produce abundant fruit that birds love.  Other garden worthy forms are Arrowwood Viburnum (Viburnum dentatum ‘Blue Muffin’) and Leatherleaf Viburnum (Viburnum rhytidophyllum ‘Allegheny’).

Blackhaw Viburnum drupes (fruit)

Possumhaw Deciduous Holly- (Ilex decidua)

This large shrub often goes unnoticed for much of the year until late fall when the bright red berries form along the branches.  Its shiny green leaves and light gray stems make it a desirable shrub for natural areas in your landscape.  Since only female plants bear fruit, you must have at least one male plant in close proximity for best berry production.  Usually after the first snow, birds will begin to eat the berries because the cold temperatures make them more palatable to wildlife. We have several forms of Possumhaw, such as ‘Council Fire’, ‘Red Cascade’, ‘Sentry’, and ‘Warren’s Red’.  Over time, it tends to produce suckers from the roots, forming a multi-trunk screen.

Deciduous Holly Berries

Crabapples-Malus spp.

These trees are highly ornamental.  The attractive spring blooms, interesting foliage, and bountiful fruit make them an ideal choice for nearly any landscape.  They are quite adaptable and drought tolerant.  Varieties with small fruit that hang on through the winter attract the most overwintering birds.  Choose forms that are highly disease resistant to cedar apple rust, mildew, scab and fire blight.  Some of the best are ‘Prairifire’, ‘Firebird’, ‘Royal Raindrops’, ‘Sargent’, ‘Callaway’, ‘Cardinal’, ‘Centurion’, ‘Pink Princess’, and ‘Robinson’.

Prairifire Crabapple fruit

Sumac-(Rhus glabra and typhina)

These fast-growing shrubs have ferny leaves and incredible fall color.  The blood red foliage in autumn is striking.  Typically, these shrubs spread by underground runners forming dense thickets, so find a spot where they can expand.  The red fruit clusters at the ends of the stems are harvested by a variety of birds during the winter.

Smooth Sumac fruit

Junipers-(Juniperus virginiana)

This tree is the only native evergreen to Kansas.  Junipers are extremely important to birds during the winter.  Not only do they offer protection from the cold, but the female forms produce large quantities of berries often eaten by birds after other food sources have been exhausted.  Two varieties we use in our landscapes are ‘Taylor’, a narrow form (4’ wide X 25’ tall) and ‘Canaertii’, a picturesque form (15’ wide x 35’ tall) with dense branches that look like arms.

Canaertii Juniper berries

Bonus: Native plants

Many wildflowers and grasses make great natural bird feeders.  Coneflowers, grass seed heads, black-eyed susans, sunflowers, aster and goldenrods will be used by birds for food.  The key is to not get too anxious to cut these plants down in the fall.  Leave them through the winter for birds to enjoy.  Cut them down next February or March in preparation for spring.

Coneflower seed head-A favorite of Goldfinches

Creating a landscape that is bird friendly takes planning.  Choose plants not only for their beauty, but also wildlife value.  Your yard can become a hub of bird activity as they fuel up to endure the winter.  A few well-chosen berry plants for birds will increase your enjoyment through the winter and throughout the year.  Happy Birding!

Why Do Plants Go Dormant in the Winter?

Winter is coming.  Trees, shrubs and other plants are slipping into hibernation, allowing them to survive the cold weather.  They have gone dormant as they wait to be renewed in the spring.  As cold temperatures set in, I have been wondering why plants go dormant.  Why is this period of waiting for spring so important for plant survival?

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What is the process of dormancy?

During the active months of growth (April-August), each plant is using the photosynthetic process to change carbon dioxide, water, and certain inorganic salts into carbohydrates. These are used by the plant or stored for use during the winter.  At the end of the season, plants begin to move these sugars and carbohydrates from the leaves down in the roots to nourish the plant for the winter months.  Plants are no longer growing.  In trees, the green chlorophyll is removed from the leaves often leaving beautiful pigments of red, orange and yellow that give them brilliant fall color.  Each plant is transformed differently in the fall, but ultimately dormancy is the way plants conserve energy by using the stored sugars and carbohydrates they produced during the growing season to survive the winter.

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What signals dormancy?

As plants grow, they are affected by temperature and sunlight.  These two forces act as signals to plants that winter is coming.  As the day length shortens, plants begin to slow growth and the dormancy process begins in each plant.  In spring, shorter nights encourage plants to actively grow. However, in autumn, longer periods of darkness (August-October) and typically cooler temperatures are obvious indicators to plants that winter is around the corner.

What would happen if plants didn’t go dormant?

Just like we struggle with cold weather, plants are the same.  If plants were actively growing during the winter, the water in the trunk, stems and leaves would freeze, causing tremendous damage to these structures.  We have seen the result of this on trees when there has been an early freeze before the trees are fully prepared for cold temperatures. The bark is damaged because water in the outer layers freezes and expands damaging the trunk of the tree.  Winter also has less sunlight for trees and plants to use.  Water becomes scarce with the ground frozen, making it difficult for plants to collect enough water to endure the cold weather months.  Dormancy is a mechanism vital to plant survival.

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Until we meet again…

Plants know that winter is coming.  The days get shorter and the nights get colder.  The beautiful colors of the grasses, shrubs and trees are slowly muted to browns, tans and grays.  The stark landscape is ready for a winter slumber.  Dormancy is waiting for next year, waiting for renewal, waiting for a fresh start. Plants are waiting for warmer days and waiting for the chance to come to life, adding beauty once again to our world.

With a Voice of Thanksgiving

For each new morning with its light, for rest and shelter of the night, for health and food, for love and friends, for everything Thy goodness sends, for flowers that bloom about our feet; for tender grass, so fresh, so sweet; for song of bird, and hum of bee; for all the things fair we hear or see, Father in heaven, we thank Thee! – Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Little Bluestem

Indian Grass

Indian Grass

Cheyenne Sky

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

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Monarch on New England Aster

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Arkansas Bluestar Fall Color

Sugar Maple

Sugar Maple

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Native Blackhaw Viburnum

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Luminary Walk – Photo by Tom Sawin

 

May you all be blessed throughout this holiday season.

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!