What to do with those leaves, leaves, leaves.

(This blog was originally published on October 22, 2014.)

The other day I was driving through town and really noticed the changing leaves for the first time this fall.  They are looking particularly colorful this year.  The maple trees varieties like ‘John Pair’, ‘Autumn Splendor’, ‘Table Rock’ and ‘Autumn Blaze’ put on quite a show.  My favorite tree at the Arboretum is the Sugar Maple called ‘Table Rock’.  It has consistent orange-red fall color. 

Table Rock Sugar Maple

These leaves, no matter how beautiful, will eventually fall.  Then we need to decide what to do with them.  Here at the Arboretum we compost them.  Leaf compost makes excellent plant food and humus that can be incorporated into your garden or flower bed.  Leaf compost is high in valuable minerals such as nitrogen, phosphorus, magnesium, calcium and other trace elements.  Analysis shows that leaves from most trees can contain up to twice as many minerals as aged manure. 

American Ash

Why wouldn’t you want to make your own compost from leaves?  Good compost developed from leaves also adds organic matter to the soil.  This organic matter is great for aerating heavy clay soils or increasing water holding in sandy soils.  Take advantage of these free gifts.   

Steps for composting leaves:

  1. Collect leaves. Shred them into small pieces to speed decomposition.  Place leaves on the ground which will make it easier to turn and allow beneficial organisms such as worms to infiltrate the pile. 
  2. Initially, put a layer of leaves down several inches deep on the bare ground.  This helps aerate the entire pile.    
  3. Layer compost pile if possible with alternating green (nitrogen rich) and brown (carbon rich) material.  Green material can be grass clippings, food scraps, algae, tea bags or any nitrogen source.  These green ingredients speed the decomposition of the brown material.  Brown material can be leaves, newspaper, cardboard, sawdust, or straw.  These ingredients are generally slow to decompose and clump together.  They need time and moisture for optimum breakdown.  As a general rule, try to have one-third green and two-thirds brown.  The secret to a healthy compost pile is to maintain a working balance between these two elements.  Too much green makes a smelly, anaerobic mess.  More brown is better than too much green. 
  4. Keep pile moist by either manually watering or allowing rain to infiltrate compost.  Not too moist though.   
  5. Turn the pile every few weeks.  This incorporates and mixes all the elements together while aerating the pile.  If the pile is never turned, oxygen which is an essential component in the process of decomposition will be excluded.  Allow the compost pile to reach an internal temperature of 140-160 degrees to kill weed seeds.  If your compost pile is not reaching these temperatures add more green material.    
  6. In 4 to 6 months (next spring) the composting process will be complete.

If you don’t have need of fresh compost, the Arboretum is willing to take your bagged leaves.  We are again filling our leave house with our leaves but can take more.  Just drop your bags of leaves in the bus parking area at the arboretum.  We will take them back to the leaf house.  The leaf house is a great example of decomposition in action.

Quiet stop in the leaf house

Putting Your Garden to Bed for Winter

It seems that winter has come earlier than expected this year.  I don’t know about you, but I have been caught a little off guard.  I wish I could say we have everything ready for winter, but that would be untrue.  In preparation for colder weather, I have put a simple checklist together for putting the winter garden to bed.

Perennials

Every year we receive quite a few questions about when to cut back perennials.  As a general rule, I leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses stand through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the winter garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, black-eyed Susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a backdrop of little bluestem.

I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March. Diseased plants with powdery mildew or rust should be removed. Those infected leaves will harm next year’s plants.

Black-eyed Susan with Switchgrass. Photo by Emily Weaver.

Lawns

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

Leaves

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

Clean and sharpen tools

I often overlook this step in the fall garden prep checklist.  A little time cleaning your tools like shovels, spades and other digging tools will give you a jump start next season.  This simple practice will prolong the life of your tools.  Doing this will prevent rust and deterioration.  I like to use a wire brush in the cleaning process before I sharpen each tool.  By cleaning off dirt and debris and applying a thin coat of oil, you will extend the life of each tool.

Store power tools

We always have trouble with our gas powered tools in spring.  We forget that they need to be drained of standard pump gasoline before being stored for long periods of time.  Today’s gas deteriorates relatively quickly and gums up the carburetors.  Empty your fuel tanks into storage containers of fuel, oil, and fuel mix if you are not going to be using the equipment in the next 30 days.  We add fuel stabilizer to the stored fuel over winter.  We like to run the engine completely out of fuel before we put it away. 

Disconnect and drain garden hoses

Obviously, garden hoses that remain attached to the spigot during cold weather will create problems. This connection and the trapped water in the hose will freeze not only the hose, but the spigot on your home.  I have seen these freeze and then burst as they thaw out.  It can be a mess and quite costly. 

Drain garden hoses before you store them for the winter.  It is best to bring them inside so they are not deteriorated by the winter sun.  Extreme winter conditions also break down the inner lining of the hose, weakening it over time.  We like to loop each hose into two to three foot loops. Create flat stacks of coiled hoses.  Hanging hoses will put stress on the areas where they are attached to the wall.

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

Spring is only six months away!

To Mulch or Not to Mulch

We are coming to the end of another growing season in Kansas.  Here at the Arboretum we have seen highs and lows as far as moisture is concerned, but all in all it has been a nice year.  The grasses are at their peak now with beautiful plumage and incredible fall colors.  As we prepare our gardens for winter, it’s a good time to evaluate how your garden performed this year and what it needs for winter or next year. Many gardens will need a fresh layer of mulch.

Arizona Cypress nicely mulched on a berm.

What needs to be mulched?

I typically focus on trees and shrubs because they benefit most from a new layer of mulch this time of year.  I tend to only mulch perennial beds as they are initially planted. More recently, we are planting new beds denser (plants closer together) so that the lower ground level plants fill in and out compete the weeds, making a thick wood chip layer less necessary.  In a prairie, there is no mulch in between the plants — low grasses, wildflowers and sedges cover the ground so weeds don’t germinate and cause problems. We are working to mimic that layered planting style.

What are the benefits?

Obviously, mulch is good at stabilizing soil temperatures which is important as colder weather sets in. It is also good for holding moisture and reducing weeds around the base of the trees and shrubs.  Aesthetically, mulch gives your landscape a finished look that distinguishes it during all seasons of the year.  An often overlooked benefit of mulch is that it keeps the mower and string trimmer away from the base of the plants.  As the mulch slowly breaks down, it releases nutrients into the soil and increases the water holding capacity of the soil.

How much mulch is needed?

For trees and shrubs, I prefer to use between two and four inches of mulch.  It is important to keep it away from the base of the trees and shrubs so insects and rot don’t become a problem at the stem or trunk.  Please don’t create mulch volcanoes, which are death to trees. An evenly spread ring around the base of the plants, replenished regularly, will help them tremendously.  For perennials, we only place one to two inches of mulch down and again we keep it away from the stems.  This is fine as the beds are first established but as they mature, less mulch is needed because, with the right care, the plants become the mulch. 

Too much mulch piled up at the base of the tree can lead to fungus, rot, low oxygen levels and tree death.

Should you use landscape fabric? 

I am not a fan of landscape fabric.  I have seen it do more harm than good especially for many of our native plants.  One problem is that it keeps our clay soils too wet, leading to crown rot and other fungus growth. Using landscape fabric also makes it challenging to change your landscape plan in the future.  As an alternative to fabric, we encourage the use of large pieces of cardboard covered by mulch.  It still provides weed control during establishment but breaks down over time to be incorporated into the soil.  Just slice holes in the cardboard to install your plants. 

What type of mulch should be used?

Here at the Arboretum, we use wood chips from local tree trimming services.  We like it too be fairly coarse so it breaks down slower and is less susceptible to wind.  The type of mulch is not really important but texture is important. Finer mulches tend to cake up and seal off the soil which can be problematic to the plants root systems. Many municipalities have wood chip piles that can be loaded and used at little or no cost to you.  Why spend money on fancy wood chips when you can get it for next to nothing?  Most mulch looks the same after a few weeks in the sun anyway.

Mulch pile shown here is rough and natural colored, showing our prefered texture and style

 It is no secret that mulch is great for the landscape.  There are so many benefits when you add it to your landscaping routine.  A little work now will pay dividends next year.   

Rethinking Garden Clean Up

It may not feel like fall yet, but it is coming.  I am ready for some cooler north winds to blow and the leaves to begin changing on the trees. In the back of my mind, I am grudgingly starting to think about garden clean up.

Things are winding down in the garden, except for the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are a bright spot in the October prairie garden. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden.  The grasses are spectacular this year too.   

Monarch on New England Aster

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. The grasses that are so beautiful now will blend into the landscape.  It will be time for the prairie to sleep.  Before we settle in for the winter, there are a few things to take care of in the garden so that it’s ready for next spring.

Taking stock

I know we don’t want to think too much about the landscape, but if you don’t take a few notes now, you will forget by spring.  I know that will happen to me, so I like to spend a few moments reflecting on what has worked and what didn’t in the gardens. 

Do I need to add a few plants to fill or augment my current design? Should I move some plants to make them happier? I take note of plants that need to be divided and/or moved next February or March.  What areas am I going to focus on next year?  Do some of my trees and shrubs need pruning?  What plants have I seen that I believe would work well in the landscape?  What do I need to do to create habitat for wildlife? 

Fall is also a great time to appreciate what you have accomplished.  Even a few steps toward a more sustainable landscape should be recognized.  Your project may not be complete, but you can see progress.  Give yourself a pat on the back.  Your stewardship efforts are making a difference.  Hopefully, you know this and have seen evidence of it in your garden. 

Perennials

We have been rethinking how, when and why we do cleanup of our perennial beds.  It is generally better to leave perennials such as wildflowers and grasses as they are through the winter. The forms and textures of plants such as little bluestem and switchgrass provide movement in the garden and should be left standing. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop of little bluestem.  Enjoy these autumnal combinations. 

Little Bluestem

Wait! Don’t clean up your garden too early.  Cleaning up beds often removes natural food and shelter that wildlife need to survive the winter months.   Coneflowers, black-eyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds.  Many pollinators and other insects overwinter in stems and tufts of grass in the landscape.  By prematurely removing all dead vegetation you are removing overwintering wildlife.  We have found that it is better to cut these plants down in February and March, but leave the stems in the garden as mulch.  Overwintering pollinators and insects hatch in the spring and these composted plants are a fantastic mulch that add nutrients back to the soil.  In our experience, overzealous cleaning often does more harm than good. 

Leaves

I love the fall color of the trees in October. However, once the leaves have fallen, what should be done with them? I purposely don’t remove some leaves in perennial beds so they can insulate the plants. Keep in mind that too many leaves or larger leaves tend to cake up and seal off the soil. This will keep the soil too wet through the winter for many perennials.

When you are dealing with large quantities of leaves you may need to remove them or shred them so they break down quickly. In a shade garden, they are perfect as mulch. Just don’t let them get too thick that they smother out your woodland plants, too. Remove leaves from your turf areas, but don’t haul them away.  They make great compost that can be used in your garden or flower beds.   

Tablerock Sugar Maple

Trees

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

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

Planting for Pollinators

One of the hottest trends in horticulture is planting for pollinators.  In tending our gardens, we all want to do our part to make it easier for butterflies, bees, and other winged friends to find the plants they need for survival. 

September is a great time to plant wildflowers.  If you keep pollinators in mind as you plant, they will come.  Try a few of these summer and late-season wildflowers in your landscape.  They are pollinator-magnets. 

Rigid Goldenrod

Goldenrods get a bad rap.  They don’t cause hay fever.  However, they do attract all sorts of wildlife to their bright yellow flowers in late summer.

Rigid Goldenrod with Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass

Aromatic Aster ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ and ‘October Skies’

This is one of my favorite asters.  They each have nice lavender flowers in late-September into October.  These plants are abuzz with activity as pollinators seek the last sips of nectar before migrating or hibernating for the winter. 

“October Skies” aromatic aster

Swamp Milkweed

This milkweed is vital to monarchs as they migrate back south to Mexico.  The pink blooms appear at the right time to provide the energy they need to complete their journey. 

Monarch on swamp milkweed. Photo by Brad Guhr

New England Aster

This wildflower prefers a medium to moist soil.  The dark purple to pink flowers attract tremendous diversity of pollinators to the flowers in fall.  I like variety ‘Purple Dome’ with its shorter habit and dark purple flowers. 

Painted Lady butterfly on a New England aster

Coneflowers

There are so many varieties of coneflowers.  I love the new colors but have really come to appreciate the true native species Narrow-leaf coneflower, Pale purple coneflower, Yellow purple coneflower and Purple coneflower.  The rounded cones make perfect landing pads for all sorts of insects searching for pollen.   

Photo by Emily Weaver.

Black-eyed Susan

This easy to grow wildflower is one of the best pollinator plants.  The yellow flowers with the dark center attract a host of pollinators in including Great Spangled Fritillary. 

Rudbeckia ‘American Gold Rush’ Photo courtesy of Walters Gardens, Inc.

Liatris mucronata

Dotted gayfeather is blooming right now in the arboretum.  The lavender spikes lay lower to the ground than other taller forms but these late season wildflowers are still attractive to bees and butterflies of all shapes and sizes.   

Native Grasses

Don’t forget the native grasses.  Many pollinators overwinter in clumps of grasses such as little bluestem and switchgrass.  Besides their beautiful fall color, these denizens of the prairie provide great texture and structure in the winter garden, too.

Aster ‘October Skies’ with the dark purple blooms of ‘Purple Dome’ aster with a backdrop of little bluestem

What Do Pollinators Need?

One of my favorite past times during the fall season is watching pollinators work on the many wildflowers in bloom.   This morning there were dozens of different pollinators crawling all over the white flowers of Tall Boneset (Eupatorium altissimum).  It had everything from small flies to larger wasps to different bees and even a few butterflies.  They were all living harmoniously together atop this one plant.  It was fun to watch and listen.

That was one plant. Imagine how many plants are needed to sustain these pollinator populations.  With documented losses of habitat nation wide and documented losses of milkweeds (host plants of the migrating monarchs), what should our strategy be to help the plight of pollinators? 

It’s important to realize that we all need to participate and understand that the choices we make in our landscapes can make a difference. Yes, our landscapes can help pollinators no matter the size.  This one boneset plant was found by dozens of pollinators.  Sure – we will never replace the pristine prairies that once were here, but our smaller green spaces can still help support an abundance of wildlife.     

Here are six ways you can help increase declining populations of pollinators, including bees and monarchs:

1. Plant Pollinator-Friendly Plants

It goes without saying that pollinators need blooming plants and the plants need the pollinators. Having a diverse set of native plants in your landscape will be a good start to attracting pollinators to your yard.

Certainly, milkweeds are the best wildflowers for attracting monarchs to your yard.  We have seen several already migrating through on their way south, and some have been depositing eggs on our common milkweed plants. The wildflowers are the buffet these pollinators need for their survival. (Peruse our native plant list and sample landscape designs for some inspiration.)

Monarch butterfly on Asclepias incarnata, or swamp milkweed – photo by Brad Guhr

2. Plant with a Succession of Blooms

I recommend planting wildflowers that bloom at different times of the year.  A mixture of wildflowers coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year provides a ready food source.  This approach mimics the natural prairie and the changing seasons.

Skipper butterfly on Tall Boneset Eupatorium altissimum

3. Create Habitat in your Yard

Layer trees and shrubs along with wildflowers and grasses.  These plants provide shelter from the wind as well as nesting sites and food for birds, butterflies, and bees. I like to leave old logs and small brush piles so these pollinators can overwinter in my yard. Remember, even a small garden can have a tremendous impact.

Bumblebee on Echinacea purpurea, or purple coneflower – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

4. Provide Water

We all need water for survival.  Pollinators need it too.  A clean source of water such as a birdbath, basin, or hollow stone is enough water for pollinators.  These features also provide landing spots so that pollinators have a perch. Here are some great plants to complement your water feature.

Pearl crescent butterflies meet at the watering hole – Photo by Dave Osborne

5. Reduce Chemicals

There is growing research on the detrimental effects chemicals have on pollinators.  Any time we can reduce or eliminate the use of chemicals in the landscape, we are impacting wildlife in a positive way.  Allow insects to control unwanted pests.  Be willing to accept a few damaged plants, knowing that by not spraying you are saving much more in the long run.

Hummingbird moth on Liatris pycnostachya, or Kansas gayfeather – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

6. Learn About the Plight of Endangered Pollinators

There is so much to learn about each type of pollinator.  When are they out in the garden?  What do they need to complete their life cycle?  Where do they migrate or how do they overwinter?  We have so much to learn about these important insects. (One good resource for this is this book, by Heather Holm, which we often carry in our gift shop. And, of course, MonarchWatch.org is a great resource.)

When it comes to supporting the life cycle of pollinators, you can be part of the solution.  Native wildflowers are the best option to help them prosper.  You will be amazed when you introduce just a handful of wildflowers to your landscape.  If you plant them, pollinators will come.

What is Land Stewardship?

The other day, I was reading an interesting article about modeling sustainability in our landscapes.  This particular article focused on botanical gardens and their importance as models for sustainable practices and stewardship of the land.  Obviously, it made me think about our own landscapes here at the Arboretum, how we manage and maintain them and how we can help encourage conservation and stewardship of our lands, waters and wildlife. It also made me keenly aware of my own feelings toward stewardship. How do I share my empathy for the land or my belief that the land is worth saving?

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

What’s your personal land ethic?

Certainly, a land ethic is a very personal thing. Stewardship is about a person’s relationship to the land. It’s about what you believe on the inside.  What I am willing and able to do right now regarding stewardship of the land in my little corner of the world, is quite different from what my neighbor is able to do, or even what you, the reader, are able to do.  We may feel driven to make drastic changes right now, but others may see those changes as excessive and unimportant in light of other issues they are currently dealing with. 

I am reminded of a quote from Aldo Leopold from A Sand County Almanac:

“Examine each question in terms of what is ethically and aesthetically right, as well as what is economically expedient. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Each of us has some sort of land ethic. Whether or not we can articulate it to someone else is another thing. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit
Arboretum tallgrass prairie garden in the Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

The stewardship spectrum

I like to think of stewardship on a horizontal plane.  On the one end of the spectrum are those who hold a deep reverence for the land.  They are compelled to actively incorporate practices into their lives, such as using native plants, harvesting rainwater, reducing/eliminating the use of pesticides and herbicides, mulching, creating habitat for wildlife, and other sustainable actions. They are caretakers of the land. 

On the other end of the horizontal plane are the novices.  These are the folks who want to do the right thing, but they don’t know how to get started.  This end also includes someone with a pristine lawn and tidy flower beds.  There is nothing wrong with this type of landscaping — remember that a land ethic is a very personal thing.  This landscape reflects their beliefs about how a landscape should look.

Those of us who see the value and beauty of a native landscape have the opportunity to model a paradigm shift in landscape practices and show a different land ethic that can be beautiful in its own way.    

Developing a connection to the land

So how do we move people along this horizontal plane from novice steward to sustainable steward of the land?  Whether here at the Arboretum or in your own back yard, the more people who see and experience nature up close, and connect with the land, the more progress will be made. 

This connection with the land is important. A deeper connection results in a deeper empathy for the world around us. Change starts at home in your own landscapes by modeling your convictions. 

“Conservation can accomplish its objectives only when it springs from an impelling conviction on the part of private landowners.” 

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac
A small garden of native plants

People will want to change when they see change is possible.  If they see stewardship modeled for them, they will begin to embrace this change in their own feeling about the land. To care for the land, people must see that the land is worth saving. 

Those of us who see that stewardship is possible need to: model it for others, share it with others, help others, and support others as they gain understanding and confidence on their own stewardship journey.

“ A land ethic, then, reflects the existence of an ecological conscience, and this in turn reflects a conviction of individual responsibility for the health of the land. Health is the capacity of the land for self-renewal. Conservation is our effort to understand and preserve this capacity.”

– Aldo Leopold, A Sand County Almanac

Encore Blog: Do You Want A Native Front Yard?

Posted on August 8, 2019 by Scott Vogt

(Originally published on March 29, 2017)

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, blue star 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 2019.  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.

Trusted Plants for Kansas Landscapes

It has been an interesting year weather-wise, to say the least.  We have seen monsoon flooding and sweltering heat.  I would like to say that this is another typical year in Kansas, but I don’t know what typical is anymore.  So with all the highs and lows, wet and dry, what will grow here?  How can you choose trusted plants with confidence, knowing that they are right for your site?

Plants are the best teachers

The simple answer is to look to nature to show you the way.  Plants are the best teachers.  So go ahead and choose plants that you believe will grow without much input on your part.  After a year or two you will have a pretty good idea which plants grow best.  You will need to plant more of the plants that are thriving and find a new space for those that are struggling.  Every good gardener has had their share of plant failures, but they keep finding new plants that work.  Don’t get discouraged, this is all part of the process of growing plants in a harsh environment. 

A display of Black-eyed Susan, Russian sage, and blue star.

Every Landscape is Unique    

The other thing to keep in mind is that every landscape is different.  What works for your neighbor may or may not work for you.  The plants they use may not be your cup of tea.  Choose plants you like and appreciate to make your landscape uniquely yours.  It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to bring you joy, fulfillment and increase your confidence to try new things. 

Start Small

Start with a small area and slowly expand it.  This way your garden doesn’t overwhelm you.  From weeding, to watering, to maintaining your garden space, establish a garden you can manage with just a few hours each week.  More than likely, it will not be perfect the first time, but with trial and error you will discover the types of plants that work in your areas. 

Rattlesnake master with red switchgrass

A Reflection of You

From those humble beginnings, you will have a space that reflects your interests and tastes.  Here are a few of my favorite “go to” plants.  I confidently use these plants because they are quite adaptable and provide consistent color, texture and/or bloom.  Some of these plants may work for you too. 

Grasses for Sun

  • Switchgrass: Panicum ‘Northwind’, ‘Ruby Ribbons’, or ‘Purple Tears’
  • Prairie dropseed: Sporobolus heterolepis
  • Blue grama: Bouteloua gracilis ‘Blonde Ambition’
  • Little bluestem: Schizachyrium scoparium ‘Twilight Zone’, ‘Standing Ovation’, or ‘Jazz’
  • Feather reed grass: Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ (Not native, but it has nice form and texture)

Wildflowers for Sun

  • Aster: Aster ericoides ‘Snow Flurry’, Aster laevis ‘Bluebird’, Aster lateriflorus ‘Lady in Black’, Aster oblongifolius ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ or ‘October Skies’
  • Ornamental onion: Allium ‘Millennium’
  • Blue star: Amsonia hubrichtii, amsonia illustris and ‘Blue Ice’
  • Baptisia varieties
  • Coneflowers: Echinacea angustifolia, pallida, and paradoxa.  Hybrid varieties are nice if properly placed.
  • Rattlesnake master: Eryngium yuccifolium 
  • Blazing stars: Liatris aspera, punctata, pycnostachya and spiccata
  • Primrose: Oenothera missouriensis
  • Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’
  • Wild quinine: Parthenium integrifolium
  • Black-eyed Susan: Rudbeckia missouriensis, fulgida, maxima, or triloba
  • Goldenrod: Solidago ‘Golden Baby’, drummondii, nemorails, rigida, ‘Fireworks’, or ‘Wichita Mountains’
  • Spiderwort: Tradescantia ohiensis
  • Ironplant: Vernonia lettermanii ‘Iron Butterflies’

Grasses and Wildflowers for Part Shade

Yarrow, Amsonia, Aster divaricatus ‘Easter Star’, Solomon’s Seal, Coreopsis, Heliopsis, Monarda, coneflowers, phlox, coral bells, Rudbeckia, goldenrod, culver’s root, golden alexander, prairie dropseed, river oats (use with caution), sedges, and bottlebrush grass.

June Prairie Blooms

This past week I had the opportunity to trek into the Flint Hills.  I always enjoy spending time immersed in a prairie setting.  It makes me feel small in a great big world.  It makes me keenly aware of the great diversity and complexity of the prairie ecosystem.  It also reminds me how precarious these settings are and how important they are to our survival and the life cycles of so many different things.  Here are a few of the prairie blooms I saw in June:

Catclaw sensitive briar (Mimosa quadrivalvis var. nuttallii

The vibrant pink disco balls of catclaw sensitive briar stand out in the landscape.

Narrowleaf Coneflower (Echinacea angustifolia)

Narrowleaf Coneflower

Leadplant (Amorpha canescens)

The silvery green foliage and dark purple blooms of leadplant are striking in the landscape.

Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)

Millions of these bright yellow blooms dot the prairie hillsides.

Bee balm (Monarda fistulosa)

These flowers are a favorite of many pollinators.

Prairie Coneflower (Ratibida columnifera)

Columnar coneflower reaching for the sky

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

Butterfly milkweed (Asclepias tuberosa) Photo by Brad Guhr

Sullivant’s Milkweed (Asclepias sullivantii)

Large pink clusters of blooms on Sullivant’s Milkweed Photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

This is just a handful of flowers blooming right now in the Flint Hills. With all the rain, the prairies are lush and full of life. I would encourage you to take time to find a prairie near you, even our own Prairie Window Project, and enjoy our native habitat. I was amazed how alive the prairie was with sights and sounds of wildlife and pollinators. It was worth taking in the view of earth and sky.