A Four-Season Garden

As we persevere through the winter months, I am thankful February only has 28 days. This short month seems to go on and on.  If we could get past February, then spring is right around the corner. I know there is still plenty of winter left, but by March, things begin to change.

“Thirty days hath September, April, June, and November. All the rest have thirty-one, except for February, which is cold, so make it go quick.”

– adapted from an English nursery rhyme

That is not exactly how the saying goes, but as I look out my window this cold morning, I am thankful February is short. It also makes me aware of the importance of creating a garden that can be enjoyed even in winter. A four-season garden takes planning. Here are some ideas to think about that will make your landscape more robust and interesting in all seasons of the year:

Add a variety of plants

Typically, gardens are “one hit wonders”. They excel in spring or early summer, but fade the rest of the year. This is mostly because our gardens are heavily planted with early season bloomers and short on plants with late season interest. We choose plants to include in our gardens that are blooming in the gardens centers we visit and neglect grasses and late season perennials that are not blooming yet. A four-season garden incorporates diverse varieties with staggered bloom times and textural elements.

Summer Prairie Garden

Plants out of bloom

It is natural to first notice the blooms of perennials. We all want wildflowers that look beautiful in bloom and attract a bunch of different pollinators to our gardens. However, with a four-season garden, equal importance needs to be placed on plants as they emerge in spring or after they bloom. Do these plants have interesting forms, textures, seed heads and architecture that can be highlighted or emphasized? The secret to achieving a four-season border is selecting plants that continue to provide an attractive overall shape both before and after flowering.

Coneflower seed heads and little bluestem

Create layers

Plants live in communities. Within these natural communities, all the gaps are filled, from floor to canopy. Ground covers intertwine around larger perennials, which grow up to the under story trees and shrubs. Generally, taller trees provide the backdrop to your gardens, but the layered effect can be achieved with wildflowers, grasses and a few strategically placed shrubs. Planting in layers mimics the densely planted prairies or savannas we admire. Layering plants with differing heights, textures, forms, architecture and bark is attractive any season of the year.

Summer border. Photo by Brad Guhr

Do your home work

It takes time to learn what plants grow best in your landscape. Make a conscious effort to see the gaps in your garden. Plan to add elements that provide interest at times in the year that are weaker or sparser than desired. As always, match plants to your site conditions. Many plants have multiple seasons of interest besides when they are in bloom. Learn how to incorporate these perennials.

It’s not easy being brown

Each season has a unique beauty. Winter is often overlooked but the different hues of brown along with textural elements and architecture add interest to the landscape. These subtle foliar elements are great as they move with the wind or capture snow that falls. A few focal points that stand out in the stark winter landscape can make a difference in completing your four-season garden. 

Switchgrass with snow

Winter can seem long, but that doesn’t mean you cannot enjoy your garden.  Four seasons of interest and beauty can be just a few additional plants away.  I love to see the birds eating the seeds from the wildflowers outside my window.  The grasses moving with the wind are nice, too.  I know spring is coming, but for now, I appreciate what I see.

A Look at the Past, A Glimpse of the Future

Over the past few weeks, I have been doing some cleaning in my office.  It is a New Year’s resolution of sorts, but definitely needed.  I had mountains of papers that had not been looked through in quite some time.  Some of it was worth keeping, but most of it needed to be tossed. 

Through this purging, I was again reminded of how far the Arboretum has come.  Committee meeting notes, board meeting agendas, programming ideas, fundraising updates and past newsletters made for interesting reading about the Arboretum’s past and reminded me how it has continued to grow through the years.

The Vision

Harold and Evie Dyck wanted a place that reflected the Kansas landscape –  a prairie garden with gently rolling hills, walking trails, native plant displays for people to enjoy and stopping points along the way for quiet reflection.  The early mission statement: “The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains exists to foster an appreciation of the natural beauty of Kansas” , focused the development of the grounds and educational programs.  Steady progress was made in the first few decades after the first tree was planted in 1981.

First Tree (Bur Oak) planted on October 10, 1981
Aerial view of the Arboretum and the walking path around the pond , early 1980s
Picture of the island , early 1980s
Bald cypress near the bird watch area, early 1980s
Kansas Wildflower Exhibit and Prairie Shelter, 1990s
Island Planting in summer, 1990s
Harold and Elva Mae Dyck, early 2000s

A Living Prairie Museum

“No color photo or painting, no floral arrangement or pressed wildflower, nothing we take from nature can ever quite capture the beauty, the complexity or the ‘feel’ of nature itself.  The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains is a living prairie museum, affording each visitor a rare opportunity to experience this remarkable habitat firsthand, up-close and personal.”

“Within the space of these 13+ acres, you can traverse a prairie landscape…to see and learn about hundreds of different varieties of trees, shrubs, wildflowers, and grasses indigenous to this region.”  (Excerpt from an early Arboretum brochure.)


A New Mission for a Lasting Vision

“The Dyck Arboretum of the Plains cultivates transformative relationships between people and the land”.  Today, this mission not only refocuses our work on the interconnectedness of people and the land, but also recognizes that the bond we share with plants, animals, water and soil are constantly forming and transforming.  Whether caring for our own garden patch or visiting the awe-inspiring tallgrass prairie of the Flint Hills, being in nature changes us.

FloraKansas Native Plant Sale, 2014
Insect sweeping activity, Samplemania 2012

I believe Harold and Evie would be amazed at how far the Arboretum has come since those humble beginnings.  With the Visitor Center, Prairie Pavilion, and the new Prairie Discovery Lab, the Arboretum is able to reach even more people interested in learning about Kansas’ prairie landscape.  We are so grateful for their dedication to that original vision for this garden. 

An increasing number of people now see the importance of protecting the prairie.  Like Harold and Evie, they seek to understand, have empathy for, and connect with this unique landscape on a very personal level.  Their vision seems to have come full circle.

How to Increase the Value of Your Prairie Garden

Prairie gardens have become increasingly popular over the past ten years as homeowners and businesses seek to directly reverse the trend of prairie degradation.  Using prairie plants in the landscape is one way you can implement small-scale conservation and stewardship practices and become a part of a growing patchwork of prairie gardens in the Great Plains region. 

These patchwork prairies will not replace what has already been lost, but can begin to help raise awareness about conserving any remaining prairie remnants.  Hopefully, we will no longer take for granted the prairies around us and work toward managing and conserving this landscape that is quickly vanishing.

Aquilegia canadensis, columbine

You may ask yourself, “Can a backyard prairie garden really make an impact?  How do I increase the value of my prairie garden?”  The value of a small prairie garden seems minuscule compared to the large prairie tracts that are being lost each year. 

Here are a few things you can do to maximize the impact of your small patchwork prairie garden and further your backyard conservation efforts.

Plant a diverse prairie garden

As you design your garden, look to include as many different species as possible.  It is important to have a succession of bloom from spring through fall.  Include some of the native grasses to provide vertical elements and alternative textures. These elements will support and frame some of the native wildflowers.  Your garden can become a conversation starter within your neighborhood.  Your neighbors’ perspective may shift as your intentionally “wild” and slightly “messy” garden creates habitat for wildlife and pollinators.  People will notice the difference. Your garden, along with many other prairie gardens throughout neighborhoods, will add value to the environment and broaden the conversations we can have.

Fall Blooming Asters with Little bluestem

Connect with where you live

For many of us, we take for granted the prairies around us.  Even though we have some of the largest tracts of prairie like the Flint Hills at our doorsteps, we often don’t see the peril they face.  So in light of these difficulties, it is imperative that we use native species from our region.  Create a sense of place by incorporating as many plants of a local eco-type as possible.  These plants are adapted to your climate and soil.  Cultivated varieties and hybrids give us consistent characteristics and qualities. However, they often lack the same landscape value to pollinators as the true species and are most likely not from your region.  Choose your plants wisely to maximize the impact they have to the garden aesthetic and the wildlife that need them.    

Create an immersive experience

Layers of plants from different perspectives or vantage points will offer you the most enjoyment from your garden.  As you are drawn through the landscape, surrounded by lush plantings, you can enjoy the changes from season to season.  Sunlight, texture, color, and varying heights combine to provide unique encounters with your landscape.  The value of these experiences for your body and soul cannot be measured.  Quiet reflection can calm you after a hard day or bring you some perspective in your life.

Early summer in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Most gardens will never be as perfect as we want them to be, but they still have value for us and our environment. They are valuable to wildlife and pollinators. Valuable for the broader conversation about stewardship of the land.  Valuable to us as we become more aware of the role we can play in conservation and as we develop a relationship with the land. 

Don’t sell short the importance of the prairie, no matter how big or how small. Every step taken, every wildflower or grass propagated, every patchwork prairie garden planted has value.

The Imperfect Garden

In our Prairie Notes blog, we have talked extensively about the need to utilize native plants in the landscape.  The benefits of having native plants are obvious and many.  We have shown you pretty pictures with nicely spaced plants and beautiful combinations of wildflowers and grasses.  Often, you get the sense that in order to have an attractive garden it has to be perfect. 

Perfect gardens are maintained by perfect people or by horticulturists who do this sort of thing for a living.  I don’t know of too many perfect people.  In reality, perfection is in the eye of the beholder.  Our gardens are a reflection of who we are and how much time we are able and willing to spend tending these landscapes.  In fact, there is a growing trend (pun intended) that focuses less on maintenance and more on the natural order we see in nature.

Tallgrass National Preserve in the Flint Hills. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Perfection can be a mess

The randomness of the prairie is easy to see and it flourishes effortlessly.  Plants are intertwined and touching each other.  There is not much space between plants. Instead, a matrix of lush, densely organized plants grow harmoniously together.  To some, this looks messy and unkempt, but this natural collection of plants has a beauty and resiliency that is also healthy and productive.

Designing your imperfect garden

The thought of an imperfect garden is counter cultural.  The idea that we would purposely design and then establish plants in our landscapes that mimic the prairie goes against just about every landscaping principle we have ever learned.  However, more and more people are embracing the natural landscaping trend. We are creating a sense of place.  These newly developed gardens incorporate a network of plants by grouping them together with similar growth requirements, and different textures and heights to completely cover the soil. All of these plants crowd out weeds and create layers that look natural in their setting.  This idea takes the pressure out of growing the perfect garden and instead allows you to enjoy the process.

Maintenance of an imperfect garden

Imperfect gardens are not zero maintenance gardens.  Some level of maintenance is still important, but being tied to your garden will be a thing of the past.  Again, you may have to let some things go and work toward being comfortable having less control of the natural processes.  A few dandelions and clover in the lawn can be overlooked.  Letting some plants naturally seed and spread along with uneven rows and random plants that have moved from last year can now be tolerated.  For us who want to control everything in the garden, we now have permission to back off a little and see what happens.  We still need to pull some weeds, especially at first, but as time passes weeds will become less of a problem. 

Giving the prairie a haircut in late winter

If you plant it, they will come.

An imperfect garden will attract visitors.  Pollinators, birds, and other wildlife will be drawn to your intentional prairie garden.  A functional garden will be used, and sometimes abused, by pollinators.  Your landscape is providing just what wildlife needs.  A few eaten leaves and damaged flowers is a small price to pay for helping complete the life cycle of a few thousand pollinators and other wildlife.  Even some unwanted pests may visit from time to time.  This is a perfect time to watch your imperfect garden take care of itself.  Keep the chemicals in the shed and watch the natural predators find these pests and work to eliminate them. Should we really care if they are not all gone?  You have my permission to step back and let the little critters work it out amongst themselves.

Your garden is a reflection of you.  You are already having a bigger impact than you might imagine.  Don’t be shamed into thinking that you have to have everything in its place.  Sometimes the most aesthetically pleasing garden is sterile and void of plants that actually help the environment.  By gardening, you are already an ecologist.  You may not have the official title, but you are a good gardener. 

RELAX, step back and enjoy the process.  Don’t stress about the sad little plant in the corner of you garden.  If it’s not happy, move it.  Learn about what your plants need. Most of us don’t garden for a living, so give yourself a little grace.  A perfect garden is one that gives you not stress, but joy.  

Continuous Color in Your Prairie Garden

Many people ask for prairie plants that bloom continually from spring through fall.  There are no such plants growing in the prairie. Prairies rather have seasons; each time you look at them, something has changed. If you think about it, there are always plants coming into bloom and others going out of bloom throughout the year. “Petunias” don’t exist in the prairie, so to integrate wildflowers into the landscape, you must mix bloom times and plant heights. 

This list, ordered according to bloom time, will be a starting point as you think about establishing a prairie garden with continuous bloom. 

SPRING

Missouri Evening Primrose (Oenothera macrocarpa) is a popular landscape plant with large yellow flowers from May-June and maybe again later in September atop waxy green foliage.  It stands 8-10 inches and likes a sunny location.  Dwarf blue false indigo (Baptisia australis var. minor) can be found in pastures and prairie remnants throughout the state.  It is usually less than 24 inches tall and its beautiful light blue to lavender flower spikes can be seen above the emerging prairie grasses in May and June. The foliage is unique with its waxy blue green leaves which eventually dries to an intriguing black color in fall. Dwarf blue false indigo thrives in full sun, tolerates clay heavy soil,and needs little supplemental watering throughout the summer months.  Other spring wildflowers include purple poppy mallow, penstemon, amsonia, shooting star, yarrows and golden alexanders.

Missouri Evening Primrose

SUMMER

Coneflowers (Echinacea sp.) can be seen throughout the state during the early summer months.  Purple coneflower (Echinacea purpurea) is a butterfly magnet.  Whether it be the true species or one of the many new cultivars, purple coneflowers cannot be beat for their adaptability to sun or light shade, and the mid to late summer color they provide.  Purple coneflowers prefer moist, but well drained soil. Pale coneflower  (Echinacea pallida) can be seen throughout the Flint Hills and tallgrass prairies of eastern Kansas.  Growing to three feet tall, pale coneflower is a drought tolerant and heat resistant addition to the garden.  Make sure it gets full sun in a well-drained soil.  The slender pale purple ray flowers (hence the name) in June and early July are sure to brighten up any perennial garden. Narrowleaf coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia) is shorter than pale coneflower.  It averages 16 inches to 18 inches with short, wide, pink ray petals that bloom in late May and early June in south-central Kansas. Its range is the tallgrass and mixed-grass prairies of the central Great Plains.

Butterfly Milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) is perhaps the most recognizable prairie plant. Its adaptability, vibrant colors and the lure of pollinating insects make it an excellent choice.  Butterfly milkweed is a stout one to two foot tall perennial with a deep fibrous root system.  Flowers range in color from the deepest reds in eastern Kansas to orange and even yellows further west in Kansas.  It prefers full sun and good drainage and it will tolerate light shade. Once established, it is very drought tolerant.  Several cultivated varieties have been developed including ‘Gay Butterflies’ and ‘Hello Yellow’.

Gayfeathers/BlazingStars (Liatris sp.) are true symbols of the prairie.  There are seven species that are native to the state, all bloom during the late summer and early fall.  Their upright spikes crowed with rose-purple flower heads add a vertical dimension to the last season landscape. Thickspike gayfeather, (Liatris pycnostachya) the past Kansas Native Plant Society wildflower of the year,found in the tallgrass prairie of eastern Kansas is the tallest ultimately reaching up to five feet.  Rough gayfeather (L. aspera) is generally only about three feet tall and occurs in dry, rocky, tallgrass prairies and open woods in the eastern half of Kansas.  Several other worth mentioning are L. muconata, L. ligulystylis, L. spicata, L. squarossaLiatris spicata is the most common blazing star in the nursery trade but all would make a nice addition to any garden.  Other summer bloomers are black-eyed susan, purple prairie clover, and other milkweeds.

Purple Coneflower with Bumble Bee

FALL

Asters fill the gap between the relentless heat of summer and the frosty chills of autumn.  They complete the cycle of bloom in the prairie. There are more than 30 different asters represented in the Great Plains.  One of the showiest of the asters is New England aster (Aster novae-angliae).  It reaches up to 6 feet in height and has pinkish purple or lavender ray flowers.  It is found blooming in September and October in medium to moist tallgrass prairies. Other asters such as Aromatic asters ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’ are wonderful late season bloomers.  Another nice low growing aster is heath aster ‘Snow Flurry’.  Include some goldenrod and Iron plants to add color options to the autumn garden.

Aster ‘October Skies’ in full bloom

WINTER

Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) is one of the many prairie grasses that add winter interest to the landscape.  Taller grasses like and big bluestem, swithgrass, indiangrass will provide texture and movement in the garden.  These grasses are drought tolerant with deep roots systems that sustain them even through the harshest conditions.  Look for switchgrass cultivars like ‘Cheyenne Sky’, ‘Northwind’ and ‘Totem Pole’

Little Bluestem with beautiful fall color

This is one of several design principles that are key to the success of any prairie garden.  It is one of the easier design elements to incorporate.  To learn more about using native plants in your landscape, join us for one or all of our native plant school classes in the new year.

Water Conservation in the Home Landscape

Over the past few years, there has been a renewed emphasis on water conservation.  An ever increasing number of communities in Kansas and elsewhere are realizing that water is a finite resource.  These concerns are causing them to ask hard questions and ask homeowners to look for ways to reduce water usage, but still keep an attractive landscape.

The need for better stewardship of this precious resource, paired with higher municipal water rates, makes this a good time for us all to consider ways to reduce water consumption in our homes and in our landscapes.  The basic approach to reducing water usage in the landscape centers on efficient design, proper site preparation, and the use of low water-demand plants. All these work together to help conserve water. Collectively, these principles make up an approach to landscaping termed “xeriscaping” (“xeri” meaning “dry”).

Tha Arboretum xeric bed in May.

From the standpoint of design, a key principle is the reduction of turf area. Turf grasses such as fescue and bluegrass demand the most water of all of the components in the landscape.  Consequently, reducing the amount of area planted with these turf grasses and thinking strategically about where and why we need turf areas will make a tremendous difference.  Replacing them with deep rooted perennials and shrubs will also reduce water usage.  Another option in sunny areas is to use buffalograss, a native, drought tolerant grass, in place of a high water-demand grass like fescue.

A home owner beginning to reduce the amount of turf in the landscape. These mulched areas were planted with drought tolerant perennials.

The Arboretum buffalograss in the summer

Another water-conserving measure that can influence your design is to separate the landscape into zones according to water usage, with areas that are difficult to water, or which are less-used, being planted with trees, shrubs and perennials that require less water to maintain them. Zoning an irrigation system to accommodate the water requirement of the different areas of the landscape further aids conservation.

Proper preparation of the site is also an important consideration. Constructing retaining walls, or terraces, where steep slopes favor excessive water runoff is one suggestion.  The planting of deep rooted wildflowers and native grasses are another viable option to holding these slopes in place.

Planting wetland species along the Arboretum rain garden near the greenhouse. These plants quickly established and are holding the shore of the rain garden from eroding.

The use of mulches to cool the soil and reduce water evaporation is also helpful.  A newer technique is the inter-planting of wildflowers and grasses that mimics the natural prairie system.  By planting closely so all layers are covered with plants from the ground level to the higher, more ornamental plants, you will also reduce overall water needs while reducing weed competition.

Obviously, a major part of an overall water conservation program is the use of low water-demand plants. Native plants are particularly valuable for this, since they are already adapted to the region’s precipitation amounts and patterns as well as summer heat and winter cold. Once established, these plants should do well with little or no supplemental irrigation.

Photo by Brad Guhr

Curtis Prairie, the world’s oldest reconstructed prairie, at UW-Madison Arboretum. Photo by Brad Guhr.

At the Arboretum, we are concerned about water conservation from both an ecological and economic standpoint.  We think critically about the plants we use.  This is not a perfect system, but we manage to maintain our 30 acres with a water budget of only $7,000 or less.  I think this is quite a feat, since we have so many intensively managed and beautiful display areas.  Buffalograss is used extensively as turf and we select deep rooted native and adaptable perennial, trees, and shrubs.

The reasons for conserving water are many.  It will take all of us doing our part to begin to reverse the water trends.  Why wait to have water restrictions forced on us? With a few changes now, we can save ourselves money and benefit the environment in the process.

Regal Fritillary on yellow butterfly weed. Photo by Brad Guhr






Native Grasses in the Garden

One of the more exciting trends in gardening today is the use of grasses, not for lawns, but as ornamental plants. Even though they do not have showy blooms, grasses can add graceful beauty to gardens and landscapes.

With long narrow leaves and upright habit of growth, grasses have a fine texture, which can provide interesting contrast to other plants in flower gardens.  They can also be used alone as accent plants in the landscape. Many grasses produce attractive seed clusters and have foliage that changes color at the end of the summer.  The dried foliage of grasses can be left standing through the winter, adding movement and texture to the landscape when garden flowers are dormant and tree branches bare.

Little Bluestem and Coneflower seedheads. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Many of the grasses being used in landscaping today have their origins in Asia and Europe. There are a number of different grasses from our prairies, however, that also make excellent ornamental plants. These native grasses possess the added advantage of being well adapted to our soil and climate.

Big bluestem, indiangrass and switchgrass are three tallgrass prairie species that make attractive plants in the garden or landscape. Growing 4-6 feet in height, they can be used in flower beds and borders as screens and as accent plants.  Switchgrass is the most common of these added to landscape designs because of cultivars like ‘Northwind’, ‘Cheyenne Sky’ and ‘Totem Pole’, which offer consistent height and color year after year.

Like the leaves of certain trees, the foliage of these grasses also changes color with the onset of fall.  Big bluestem is particularly noted for its reddish fall color. Each of these species also produce distinctive seed clusters that add interest to the plant toward the end of the growing season. The seed clusters are shaped like a turkey’s foot.  Indiangrass produce attractive golden plumes.  Switchgrass seed cluster are open and feathery.

Indiangrass plumes. Photo by Brad Guhr.

Sand lovegrass is another attractive taller species. It grows 3-4 feet tall and is found in sandy prairie areas.  It produces graceful arching foliage and open, airy seed heads.

Although found throughout much of the Great Plains, little bluestem and sideoats grama are two grasses that are particularly characteristic of the mixed grass prairie region of central Kansas. Both make beautiful additions to gardens and landscapes.

Little bluestem is a fine-textured, clump-forming grass that grows 2-3 feet tall.  Its landscape value is enhanced by its attractive reddish coloration late in the growing season. There are several selections that offer nice winter coloration and sturdy habit.

Beautiful little bluestem in fall. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Sideoats grama is of similar height.  The most ornamental attribute of this grass is its beautiful seed clusters.  The seeds hang gracefully from one side of the seed stalk, giving the plant a windswept look, even when the air is still. The Sioux Indians called this plant “banner-waving-in-the-wind grass.”

Prairie Dropseed is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough, that they are often 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.

For people who live in prairie country, it may be easy to take our native grasses for granted. Yet these plants with their simple form and subtle beauty, can make attractive additions to the home landscape.

Switchgrass and big bluestem. Photo by Emily Weaver.






How to be a Good Steward? Start with One Thing

Over the past year, we have been digging deeper into “Why” the Arboretum exists.  There have been some lengthy conversations about events, classes, native plants, and relationships between people, plants and the land.  One of the questions we kept coming back to was “What can one person do?”  This idea that people change their perspective, build relationships, and/or develop empathy for the land one decision or choice at a time is an important concept for us to consider.  So with that in mind, what is one thing you can do today to make our environment more sustainable?

These are just a few things we can change that will have a positive impact.  There are hundreds more that are specific to your lives.  Start with one thing.

  • Ride your bike or walk to the store.
  • Convert a portion of your lawn to native plants.

  • Plant a vegetable garden each year.
  • Turn the lights off when you leave the room
  • Pay attention to how much water you use both in your home and in your yard.
  • Recycle, recycle, recycle.
  • Create a compost pile and use the compost in your garden.
  • Maintain your car and properly inflate your tires.
  • Use LED bulbs in your home.

  • Make sure your house has the appropriate amount of insulation.
  • Realize you can make a difference.

We all have choices to make when it comes to helping the planet, but I believe environmental stewardship starts at home.  If we choose to manage what we have in a way that saves us money and limits the negative impacts on the land, it is a win/win situation.  This is my epiphany – small incremental changes in my lifestyle will do something good for the environment.  I could always do more, but it starts to move the needle in a positive direction.

Maybe you are somewhat like me and find changing your behavior difficult, or you think stewardship is for someone else. That is not true.  Small changes in the things we do combined with thousands of others making positive choices can make a profound difference in the long run.  Don’t think of it as a compromise, but rather an investment in the future that allows future generations to live the same lives we now enjoy.

Start with one thing.






Pathways in Your Garden

On a cool crisp morning in October, I meandered through the Prairie Window Project here at the Arboretum.  The frost was clinging heavily on all the plants.  I would have been wet if not for the pathway leading me between the tall grasses. It made me thankful for that wide gravel path.

This path is less than ideal, because the rocks are loose and make it hard to walk.  It will take smaller stones and work compacting the path to make it easier to navigate.  It made me think about garden paths in general.  What are the best paths for gardens?

Rock Paths

Stone is a fantastic pathway material.  It has a natural look and can be made very hard and stable.  We have many paths with stone and they seem to hold up to our climate well.

To establish a stone path, we often dig out the soil two to three inches deep to get a good base for the path.  We have used edging (metal, wood, or larger stone) or established paths without edging. Both strategies work fine. Edged paths look more formal, while non-edged paths tend to blend into their surroundings better.  We spread larger limestone (1-2 inch stone) in the bottom of the trench and then cover with smaller limestone (3/4 inch) with fine pieces to weave and bind the path together. It is good to have the path slightly higher than the ground so that water does not stand on the path.  Also, consider drainage and water flow to make sure your path does not become a dam and impede water movement.  We usually add new limestone every two to three years as needed, because the stone will naturally breakdown over time.

Note about other stone: We have used pea gravel and sand, but neither makes a stable walking surface.

Mulch Paths

Mulch paths are the most organic substrate.  They naturally blend into the landscape, while softening the edges of display beds and lawns.  Developing a new path is similar to rock paths.  As with rock, mulch decomposes over time and needs to be replenished.  Larger pieces mixed with finer pieces interlock the mulch and keep it firm.  It will never be as firm and hard as a rock path, but makes a nice cushy surface in which to walk through your garden.

Straw Paths

I have used straw in my garden and it makes a wonderful path.  The advantage of straw in this setting is that at the end of the growing season, it can be tilled into the soil to add organic matter to the soil.  A layer of two to three inches of straw will help with weed control and keep your feet from getting muddy.  I have seen it used around most vegetables.  Straw moderates soil temperatures and reduces evaporation.

Semi-permeable pavement

Permeable interlocking concrete pavers

The use of porous concrete or concrete with holes filled with sand is becoming popular. These solutions allow water to infiltrate quickly and then be held, released slowly and/or diverted to holding basins.  This has merit as we think about rain gardens and capturing water from our landscapes.  The concrete with holes are filled with sand and can be planted with grass, sedges, or some other low growing vegetation that can be walked on.  These stepable plants quickly blend the path into the landscape.  Certainly, this is the most costly of the path options, but it can do so much more than just a rock or mulch path.

Pathways are an important component of any landscape.  They lead you through the garden.  A well designed landscape has paths you don’t notice. Paths complement the garden and harmonize everything within your yard.

Semi-permeable Pavement

 






Mindfulness in the Garden

One of the greatest experiences I have while gardening is a heightened sense of awareness.  For some reason, I notice obscure things that are happening in my landscape. I observe how our garden has changed throughout year. I notice the wildlife that it attracts, the sights and sounds of the garden.  Each day there can be a new discovery.  Gardening is an adventure.  Some people spend time in the garden for what they get from it, like flowers or vegetables, but I garden for what it gives back to me personally.

I spend so much time indoors these days that I relish my time outdoors.  Whether in a garden or walking through a natural setting, the stress of the day seems to melt away.  The sunshine and breeze on my face tend to carry the anxiety, weight of responsibilities and depression far from my thoughts.  I become mindful in these situations – more so than any other place.

It goes without saying, but gardening is good for your health.   Here’s how I practice mindfulness in the garden.

Make it a priority

What gets scheduled gets done. In the hustle and bustle of life, time in the garden will get pushed aside by other good things if you don’t make it a habit.  Don’t neglect your garden, but walk through it in the morning or after work as part of a regular schedule.  Pull a few weeds, pick some flowers, water the vegetables or watch pollinators fly from plant to plant. Become aware of how your countenance changes. You will be amazed how it can rejuvenate and lift your spirit.

Photo by Brad Guhr

Observe

It is incredible to see the insect activity in my garden right now.  Those tiny pollinators are busily working the flowers as a last dash before cold weather sets in for the year.  The leaves are changing to beautiful shades. The musty smell of the compost pile wafts through the air. The wonderful smell after a rain is called petrichor.  Feel the textures of the plants and taste the harvest.  Awareness awakens the senses.

Use your phone for pictures only

Our phones can be a constant distraction. It is either buzzing, beeping or ringing all day long and we need to disconnect from it for mindfulness to happen.  Nothing can ruin a reflective moment quicker than to have your phone ring.  Put it up and disconnect for a few moments.  You will not be sorry for doing so.  The quietness of the garden is calming.

Get Busy Doing

Mindfulness can be achieved in two ways – stillness or in action.  In action, you focus on a task and make it happen.  Whether in the garden or around the house, the simple approach to everyday life can deepen your appreciation and awareness of the world around you.  Being mindful allows you to be fully in the task without distractions and other thoughts.  Fixating on the task at hand will make you more mindful and self-aware.

Planting our prairie

Develop empathy

One of the thoughts that came to us as we worked on our new mission statement was the idea that the more we know and understand, the more empathy we have.  The more we understand the plight of many of our pollinators, the more we want to do something about it.  We have lost 99 percent of the prairie, but I can plant some prairie in my yard and it will make a difference.  An appreciation of the few tracts of prairie that still exist makes me long for that lost landscape.  Stillness in the garden will bring you closer to your garden.  Understanding something develops awareness and ultimately brings empathy.

Mindfulness relates to the many health benefits of gardening.  It reduces stress, increases your self-esteem, boosts the immune system, provides exercise for the heart and decreases stroke risk, makes you happier reducing depression symptoms, and increases brain health. By taking a mindful approach to your landscape, you will grow in so many wonderful ways.  Try it for your health.