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.

What will all this rain do to my native plants?

The spring of 2019 has been an unusually cool and wet spring here in Kansas. I don’t like to complain about rain, because I know at some point it will quit.  Conditions will get hotter and dryer through the summer.  I don’t know what normal is anymore. For many of us, a short reprieve from the rain would be welcome.  It would give us a chance to catch up and let our basements dry out. 

All this rain made me think about what it does to plants.  Many of you have newly-planted gardens or established flower beds and you, too, may be asking yourself – what will all this rain do to my native plants?

Native Pink Columbine

Excessive growth

Rain obviously causes the plants to grow.  One of the downfalls of excessive growth so early in the season is that it will need to maintain that growth the rest of the year.  Certainly, native plants are adapted to our prairie conditions and have root systems that can sustain the plants.  It makes the placement of plants even more critical and important as we work to match the plants with our sites.  If the plants are properly situated, it should not be a problem. 

Use this season as an opportunity to observe your plants. If you see some wilting over the next few weeks, it may be an indication that the roots have been damaged or that the plants are not happy where they are planted. 

Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’

Plant diseases

All this rain has created perfect conditions for plant diseases like bacteria and fungi to flourish.  There hasn’t been much time for plants to dry out in between rains.  Prolonged periods of leaf wetness and excess moisture around the plant root zone can damage leaves and the crowns of plants.  A few days of sunlight will help, but we need to make sure these plants are not smothered by mulch and the crowns of the plants have a chance to dry. Many plants, including trees and shrubs, have been slow to leaf out. Excessive rainfall and overcast skies has slowed the plant’s growth and can affect the timing and intensity of the blooms for the rest of the season. With rainfall like we have had, it makes us more aware of drainage issues, air circulation, plant selection and planting depth within our landscapes.  

Nutrient leaching

Native plants don’t typically need to be fertilized.  Their extensive root systems tap into nutrients that most plants can’t reach. 

Your plants may have a yellow cast to them, but that doesn’t mean you should fertilize them.  It is a result of lack of sunlight and too much water.  Let them develop new roots and they will begin to green up on their own.  By adding fertilizer, native plants have a tendency to flop and outgrow their root systems. Resist the temptation to fertilize your plants. While heavy rains have leached nutrients out of the soil, affecting the plant growth, these conditions will usually only cause temporary nutrient deficiency.  

Bank of Amsonia

Plants are resilient and quite adaptable.  They should recover over time.  The long term effects of all this rain may not be fully known until later this year or even next year, but a majority of them will be fine.  One reward is that we haven’t had to water much.  We established some plants here at the Arboretum and never had to water them other than the first watering.  That is very rare in Kansas.  I love the sunshine today.  All the lush plants are loving it too.       

Katie’s Weeding Guide Part II

In a previous blog post I discussed tips for common weed identification, but hinted at a second installment covering plants that don’t quite qualify as weeds. After all, a weed is just a plant out of place! Some lovely native flowers have ‘weedy’ tendencies but don’t deserve total eradication from the garden. Here is an introduction to a few of those characters, and what you can do to control them when weeding your gardens.

Spiderwort – Tradescantia ohiensis or T. tharpii

A lovely member of the dayflower family, spiderwort puts on a wonderful show throughout spring.

Ranging from true blue to purple, spiderwort germinates readily from seed and can quickly take over a garden. I find it in every garden we have here at the Arboretum. Hairy leaves with purple veins and a pronounced fold along the mid vein are easy ways to identify spiderwort. The short stemmed species (T. tharpii) is a nice filler around other perennials and will grow as a ground cover. T. ohiensis is taller and more unwieldy, crowding out desirable plants. When Arboretum volunteers are weeding, I ask them to remove all but a few intentional clumps. I cut the flowers frequently to prevent those clumps from seeding.

Prairie Petunia – Ruella humilis

So petite but not so polite, Ruella spreads rapidly and travels all over the garden, thanks to its exploding seeds pods. White, pink, or lilac flowers are borne on purple stems with deep green foliage. With a mainly prostrate habit, this creeper makes a nice border plant, especially spilling over rock edging. Deep rooted, it is hard to pull once mature. If these fellas get started in your garden, regular weeding won’t do it – you will need to dig them out. But maybe they are the free, fast growing ground cover you have been looking for!

Curly Cup Gumweed – Grindelia squarosa

Gumweed can be found growing north of our Prairie Pavilion, but not for long! I am overdue in weeding them out. This western US native is cheery and adorable, but too wild to be running amuck in our formal gardens. I’d be much happier to see it growing in our prairie or around the pond edge. If you have the space, don’t pull them all out – it is attractive to pollinators and can be controlled by cutting the flowers before they seed. 

Public domain image, USA

These are just a few of the weedy native flowers that your soil’s seed bank may be harboring. Perhaps they can find a happy home in your garden, as long as you are willing to tame their bad habits. 

Callery Pear: Cut Them Down

Several years ago, I noticed something disturbing was happening to our prairie reconstruction.  Small little trees were popping up throughout the original prairie planting.  I could not figure out where they were coming from, but they looked like pear tree saplings.  It wasn’t until I saw a large white blooming tree in the spring that it all came together. 

Callery Pear

Although the flower clusters are beginning to fade, Callery pear’s white blooms are most obvious in the spring.  We planted them for their explosion of spring blooms and nice fall color, but this ornamental tree has become highly invasive.  It threatens native wildlife habitat and has become a nuisance for private and public landowners.

This once favorite tree was planted extensively throughout the U.S.  The Callery pear – also referred to as Bradford pear – formed a nice pyramid to rounded shape.  The vertical limbs made it a nice median and street tree as well, ultimately reaching 30 to 40 feet tall and 20 -30 feet in spread.  This Chinese native was a harbinger of spring for decades with its prolific white blooms.  An added bonus was its reddish-purple fall color.

Despite all those positives, these trees have become problematic. This non-native, flowering tree was assumed to be sterile, but it is not.  It now cross-pollinates with other cultivars of Callery pear to produce hybrid offspring.  The fruit is ingested by wildlife and birds that spread the seeds across the countryside and into your yards.  It is aggressively displacing native vegetation, causing economic and environmental damage. 

Escaped Callery Pears*

The message to property owners is to remove the trees now while you can easily identify them in bloom.  We need to keep them from spreading to native areas.  It doesn’t hurt my feelings to see them go, because they are a weak-wooded, thorny mess. 

Native alternatives to Callery Pear:

  • Eastern Rudbud (Cercis canadensis)
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea or Amelanchier ‘Robin Hill’)
  • American Plum (Prunus americana)
  • Chokecherry (Prunus virginiana)
  • Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum prunifolium)
  • Rusty Blackhaw Viburnum (Viburnum rufidulum)
Blackhaw Viburnum in spring
Blackhaw Viburnum fruit and fall color

We have cut down the culprit, but still have a bunch more saplings to remove this summer. There is one more larger tree to cut down near the Visitor Center. We will continue to eradicate these unwanted invaders in our prairies.  It will take time but I believe we can get the upper hand.  I would encourage you to remove them in your landscape as well and replace them with native trees.  Callery pear has no place in the landscape anymore. 

*Image Source

Katie’s Weeding Guide

Spring is finally here and what a great feeling it is to be out in the gardens again, seeing supple green buds and new growth. But that is not all I am seeing these days — weeds, weeds, everywhere! Tons of henbit, chickweed, and bindweed invading our gardens faster than I can pluck them out.

Here I provide a pictorial guide of our biggest offenders so that you might correctly identify these pests in your own garden and dispatch them quickly before they go to seed.

Oenothera biennis, common evening primrose, is not the well behaved, short statured primrose we use in landscaping. This garden bully is tall, lanky, and spreads seeds everywhere! Identification trick: looks for the prominent white vein and semi-pointed leaf tips.

What is a Weed?

I don’t like to throw that word around, and if you are unclear about what I mean by ‘weeds’ feel free to revisit my blog about proper lingo related to pest plants. In this post, I am simply meaning undesirable plants. This includes plants that may be native or naturalized, but are too aggressive or unattractive to be allowed in the gardens. This is a very subjective definition, but to keep this post brief, it must suffice!

Pennycress, Thlaspi arvense, forms many leaves on its rosette before it flowers. ID tip: leaves are hairless and elongated, and they form a sort of nest for the budding flower.
Wild carrot (Daucus carota) and spanish needles (Bidens bipinnata) are very hard to tell apart when they are young. No problem, because I don’t want either of them in this garden! This photo shows wild carrot. ID tip: look for hairy stems and smell the crushed foliage. It should smell like a bitter carrot. DO NOT TASTE THIS PLANT! Wild carrot is very similar to poison hemlock, so do your homework and be safe.

Fool Me Not

Plants are wonderful tricksters. It is often too hard to positively identify them in their early growth stages. In this way, weeds and desirable plants alike commingle in our gardens because we are afraid to accidentally pluck out something we want! Many young plants have basic, nondescript leaves and haven’t developed hairs, waxy coatings, or conspicuous colors that help humans tell them apart. Many weeds right now are in their rosette stage, without flower stems to distinguish them. So you must find other ways to suss them out! Each photo caption includes an ID tip to help you out.

Wild lettuce (Lactuca serriola) is a rather pernicious weed that has weasled its way into our Birdwatch Garden. Some people use this plant as a wild-foraged addition to their salads, but I will stick with my garden spinach! ID tip: Wild lettuce will have spines on the underside of the leaves along the center vein. As it matures, its leaves stiffen and take on a bluish cast.
Field pansy (Viola bicolor) are a member of the Viola genus, just like pansy flowers from your nearby garden center. These adorable tiny flowers invade lawns and gardens alike. Could you stand to pull up something this cute? I don’t even bother. These add to the diversity of our lawns and they die away before the buffalo grass greens up.

Keep an eye out for part two of this topic, wherein I dive deeper ‘into the weeds’ about which weed species are truly pests and which should be allowed to happily coexist in your landscape.

Happy weeding!

An Outing for the Birds

When considering attracting wildlife to a landscape, native plants matter. More diversity of native plant species and greater area of that native vegetation coverage both translate to a higher diversity of wildlife species attracted. Add water into the habitat offerings and your wildlife species attracted will go up even more. We probably all learned these pretty simple ecological concepts in high school. I enjoyed seeing these concepts on display this last Saturday while participating in the annual ritual of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC).

CBC History

Frank M. Chapman

It was the 70th annual CBC for the Halstead-Newton area, and the 118th national CBC for the Audubon Society. The national Christmas Bird Count has a long history. The first CBC was initiated as a response to unfettered sport shooting of the mid to late 1800s. A Christmas Day bird hunting competition to see who could bring back the most birds was a common pastime. Following a concern for declining bird populations amidst a new conservation trend, ornithologist Frank M. Chapman, an early officer of the Audubon Society, proposed a new holiday tradition. The “Christmas Bird Census” that would count birds during the holidays rather than hunt them was born (see History of the Christmas Bird Count for more). The citizen science data collected by Christmas Bird Counts allow for the study of long-term health and status of bird populations across North America.

Halstead-Newton 70th Annual Count

Dr. Dwight Platt

Dwight Platt was a freshman at Bethel College when he helped start the Halstead-Newton CBC. He has organized/participated in nearly all of the 70 Halstead-Newton CBCs. This Wichita Eagle article tells more about the count history. The 16-mile diameter circle Newton-Halstead CBC sampling area stretches from Harvey Co. West Park to the eastern limits of Newton. Count organizer Lorna Harder gave us our CBC assignments. My group of six, led by master birder Gregg Friesen, observed the sunrise as we set out to our designated count area of western Harvey County.

I took the job of recorder and quickly realized that I would be kept busy. The remainder of our group included experienced birders Harv Hiebert, Fred Bartel, Greta Hiebert, and Kyle Miller Hesed, who rarely had to refer to a field guide. With five pairs of eyes scanning the skies, the bird sightings came rapidly. Good bird identification utilizes perception of visual silhouette shape, flight pattern, colors/marking patterns, habitat association, and the audible patterns of calls. Even subtle variations in little “chip” and “pish” sounds can help discern species differences. My group mates incorporated all of these identification skills in ways that were quick, accurate, and impressive.

Bird silhouettes – from https://www.teacuprex.com

We started by counting what we saw from the van along roadsides, in fields, and farmyards. When we came to an area that included more adjacent habitat than farm fields, we would park roadside and spend a bit more time watching and listening. We eventually walked the roads and trails of the 310-acre Harvey County West Park, which included both sides of the Little Arkansas River and a nature trail around the 10-acre lake. Nearby “Sand Prairie,” an 80-acre parcel of sand prairie, ephemeral wetlands, shrubby areas, and woodlands co-owned by Bethel College and The Nature Conservancy of Kansas, also provides valuable bird habitat. Click on this summary of the habitat of Harvey County if you would like to know about its birding hotspots.

Data collection sheet for Sections 3 and 4 of the 2018 Halstead-Newton CBC

The above data sheet is a compilation of the 48 species we observed throughout the day and generally where we saw them. Red-winged blackbirds were most common and seen and heard by the thousands as their flying blackbird ribbons passed overhead. We estimated seeing 25,000 blackbirds and our estimates were probably low. Some highlight birds for me included a pair of spotted towhees, a pair of pileated woodpeckers, and a marsh wren. The spotted towhee is a pretty bird I don’t see often. A pileated woodpecker is the largest of our woodpeckers that used to be rare in Kansas. With fire suppression allowing more growth of woodlands, pileated woodpeckers are becoming more common. Gregg turned to technology to confirm the recluse marsh wren for which we only had a brief glimpse that was not adequate for identification. A quick playing of the marsh wren song from his iPhone initiated a replica response from the bird hidden in the brush.

Spotted towhee – Photograph by John Reynolds, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Most of the birds we saw are habitat specific – they can be predictably spotted looking for food in their preferred habitats. Kingfishers and great blue herons are found around the river where they catch fish. Grassland sparrows are found in the prairies. Woodpeckers are found exploring dead limbs of trees. The spotted towhee hangs out in tangled thickets and the tufted titmouse frequents woodlands. Northern harriers or “marsh hawks” are seen flying over wetlands, and red-tailed hawks perch in the tops of trees looking for prey.

Pileated woodpecker – Photograph by David Turgeon, Cornell Lab of Ornithology-Macaulay Library

Changes in Habitat

Bird populations are affected by changes in the quality or acreage of their specific habitats. The area certainly has more trees, shrubs and woody vines today than it did 70 years ago. This change has shifted composition of bird species observed during the CBC. Management tools, including grazing, herbicide application, and prescribed burning, are needed to maintain grassland integrity in certain areas. But regardless of where you find yourself in the grassland to woodland spectrum, Kansas native vegetation still provides essential habitat of food and shelter for various bird species.

Greta Hiebert, Gregg Friesen, and Kyle Miller Hesed birding Sand Prairie

We finished the count day with listening ears for the calls of owls. Standing roadside while overlooking a marshy prairie, we watched the sunset and enjoyed a rare windless Kansas stillness. It was a perfect end to an enjoyable day of citizen science. Then, a far-off pair of great horned owls bid us a faint goodnight.

10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows

Katie Kingery-Page

I heard a great presentation this last Saturday entitled “10 Lessons for Urban Native Plant Meadows” by Katie Kingery-Page, Kansas State University (KSU) faculty member in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional & Community Planning. Ms. Kingery-Page was the keynote speaker at the Kansas Native Plant Society’s Annual Wildflower Weekend and her message fit perfectly with the weekend’s theme of “Native Plants in City Settings”.

I find Katie’s background of fine art, landscape design, and ecology intriguing. When she introduced herself as someone who sees landscape architecture as the design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place, I knew that her presentation was going to speak to me.

Katie’s insights in this presentation were based on her experiences with “The Meadow” Project in front of the Beach Museum of Art on the KSU campus. From 2013-16, Katie and her team of volunteers converted a half acre of neglected turf into a native plant meadow. Her 10 lessons learned from this process were as follows:

 

1. Build A Coalition for the Life of the Project

It takes all kinds of people to complete a big project, and she showed a diagram of a “volunteer tree” she created.

Flow chart of people critical to the project.

2. Know the Place

Their planting list started with an extensive Flint Hills species template of the plants found at nearby Konza Prairie and was carved down to the resulting planting mix. Hackberry trees removed from the planting site were milled into everything from benches to mushroom-growing media.

Schematic diagram of prairie and forest-based planting mixes. (Image by Katie Kingery-Page, 2013)

3. Let the Team Guide the Values

Their team developed a mission statement and goals including that the site would integrate art and science and be a living laboratory that would minimize the usage of water and chemicals. An outcome of this plan was to forego the conventional use of killing existing vegetation with glyphosate and instead turned to compost smothering and mechanical scraping.

 

4. Develop A Thick Skin…Use Your Tricks

Have patience and don’t expect an instant landscape. Using flashy, early successional flowering plants such as the annual species Plains coreopsis (Coreopsis tinctoria) – the “bacon of plants” – helps distract onlookers that might otherwise see the weedy nature of the early stages of a planting.

Early successional, flowering “bacon” or “eye candy” plants Plains coreopsis (yellow) and beebalm (Monarda fistulosa). (Image by Katie Kingery-Page)

5. Tell the Project Story

Stories of these projects need to be told and can be done so through various media. Photos, drawings, and interactive touch tables at the Beach Museum were all used to tell The Meadow Project story.

Root development and above ground biomass increase over time, which also leads to increased soil porosity.

6. Connect to Volunteers’ Joy

Volunteer efforts were critical to the success of the project and instead of “work days”, they had “convene with monarch days” where learning experiences were an attractive part of the labor-filled get-togethers.

 

7. Put A Price on Labor

Weeding is skilled labor amounting to “surgical plant removal” and it should be rewarded. However, if money can’t be given, then at least try to find ways to acknowledge the people helping.

 

8. Embrace Imperfection

Native landscaping is perfectly imperfect and the inevitable weeds can be seen as beautiful too. Learning strategies that aid perception of such projects include maintaining a mowed edge that is critical to the perceived success of otherwise “messy” native landscapes.

All ages are welcome to weed. (Image by Richard Dean Prudenti)

9. Make Your Project for the Message of Conservation

Such projects are multi-faceted in their environmental benefits, and assessment measures should broadly include plants, soils, stormwater, wildlife, and more.

Restoration vs. Conservation – Katie used to use the word “restoration”, but there is a danger in implying that this process can fix all impacts to a diverse remnant plant community. Perhaps “conservation” is better with a focus on ecosystem functions such as soil structure, stormwater infiltration, etc.

10. Be A Champion…Stay All In

Katie learned early on from school gardening projects that such endeavors need project champions to carry the project through.

“The Meadow” Project. Long view toward the Beach Museum of Art. (Image courtesy of K-State Communications and Marketing)

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The 10 lessons in this presentation were familiar to me in a variety of ways. From 2003 to 2008 at Dyck Arboretum, our staff and an extensive team of volunteers and college student interns collected seed from local prairie remnants and planted the 13-acre Prairie Window Project. Distinct examples come to mind of our project that relate to each of these lessons and I’ve blogged about various interpretations of that project over the years. It would be fun to come up with our own 10 lessons as well. I can tell you that, similar to The Meadow Project, it included the “design and stewardship of the exterior built environment and that doing so with native plants grounded the experience through a sense of place.”






Let’s Talk about Mulch

It is no secret that mulch is great for the landscape.  There are so many benefits when you add mulch around your plants.  Mulch is a great insulator, because it modifies the soil temperature.  It reduces erosion, prevent weeds from germinating, retains soil moisture, provides a buffer between equipment and the trunks and stems, and increases the aesthetics of the overall landscape. As you add mulch to your garden, here are some things to know:

How much mulch is enough?

Mulching is not an exact science, but as a general rule, we try to apply 2-3 inches of mulch consistently throughout the landscape.  This depth of mulch will control weeds by decreasing sunlight exposure, which prohibits seeds in the soil from to germinating.  More than three inches of mulch seals off the soil and suffocates your plants.  It is extremely important that the plants are able to get the oxygen they need.  Spread the mulch evenly and don’t build a mulch volcano around the base of the tree.  Since mulch decomposes slowly, it is good to periodically check the depth and add some as needed.

Mulch volcano at base of tree. A big no no!

Nicely mulched new planting

What is the best way to mulch?

We start by laying out a garden hose, which allows you to visualize the curves and width of a bed.  You can either spray the area inside the hose or dig up the vegetation and let it slowly die.  When the area is cleaned up, we begin applying the mulch and leveling it to the desired depth.  Keep in mind that too much mulch will encourage growth of the roots into the mulch, where it will be susceptible to freeze damage.  The ideal 2 to 3 inch depth of mulch will keep the roots in the soil.

When is the best time to mulch?

We are mulching throughout the year, but direct most of our efforts in the spring or fall.  As we clean up our display beds in the spring, it is always a good time to freshen up the mulch, too.  At this time of year, soil temperatures are beginning to warm and a new layer of mulch will slow down the warming process.  A new layer of mulch will also cover seeds that may have landed in the mulch and covering them now will prevent germination.  We mulch anytime a new tree or shrub is planted.  This practice will keep the soil cooler, help retain moisture longer and insulate new roots from the cold weather. Some thicker mulch areas may benefit from being fluffed from time to time.  Simply take a rake and loosen up the top few inches of the mulch.

What type of mulch is best?

We use whatever is available to us.  Mulch is not cheap, so we use chippings from the tree trimming service.  We have used semi loads of hardwood mulch, which is expensive. It is not as important what you use, but how much you use.  Even free mulch can look attractive and function just like the most expensive mulch.  For sloped areas, the larger and heavier mulch works the best.  It is not as susceptible to runoff or wind displacement.  Smaller or finer mulch decomposes quicker too.  The bottom line is use what is available to you.

Our mulch pile of chipped up trees

River rock as mulch with blackeyed susan and prairie dropseed

Can I use plants as mulch?

In the book Planting in a Post-Wild World: Designing Plant Communities for Resilient Landscapes, Thomas Rainer and Claudia West develop the ideas of layering plants.  There are usually at least three distinct layers of plants: the upper layer filled with taller structural plants used to frame and punctuate the landscape, the middle layer filled with ornamental flowering plants and the ground level that weaves the other layers together and shades the soil, which controls weeds.  These layers mimic natural plant communities and each layer is important for the health of the plants.  A collection of plants living in community can be extremely drought tolerant and water-thrifty.

Lenora Larson’s Garden with dense plants that smother weeds

A few final thoughts:

Purchase a heavy duty mulching fork and stiff garden rake for leveling.

Essential mulching tools: Silage fork and stiff leaf rake

Insects can be a problem in mulch, so keep it away from the foundation of your house and base of the plants.  Termites generally like larger pieces of wood but can even live in the finer mulch, especially if it is too thick.

Landscape fabric under mulch is something we avoid.  It only keeps weeds out for the first few years and then the decomposing mulch turns into compost, which is ideal seed bed for weeds.  It is also hard to transplant into it and often suffocates the soil.  We have purged the Arboretum of just about all landscape fabric.  Save your money and buy more plants.

You can use rock as a mulch, but don’t buy the recycled rubber mulch.  The rubber mulch may last forever but it does nothing great for the soil or the plants around it.  In fact, the compounds and residues that leach over time may do more harm than good.

Happy Mulching!