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!

Five Water Saving Practices for your Landscape

Last week the Arboretum staff visited a flower farm near Lawrence.  It was interesting to see how they were growing their flowers to be used in arrangements and displays for special occasions. They focused on native plants, but also had some annuals, bulbs and shrubs, too.  During our tour, the topic of irrigation and water use were explored, because they are under severe drought conditions.  It made me think about our irrigation practices and ways to create a water-wise landscape.  Here are five water saving practices for you to implement in your garden.

Choose plants adapted to your site

One of the biggest mistakes I have made when establishing a new garden is choosing plants that I like rather than plants that like the area in which I am trying to establish them.  There is a big difference. It is critical to match plants to the site. The closer they are adapted to your landscape the less water they will need to survive.  Native plants are always a good choice, because they are already adapted to our climate.  Evaluate your landscape’s soil, sun exposure, and moisture content.  By understanding these aspects of your landscape, you will be able to make informed plant choices.  There is a palette of plants that will almost effortlessly grow in your garden.  Grouping plants with similar water needs that match your landscape conditions will ensure success.

 

Space Plantings Tightly

In their 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.

Use mulch around trees and shrubs

Mulches can be a blessing and a curse depending your mulching practices. We typically apply a two to three inch layer of mulch around a tree by simply mulching a tree a few inches away from the root flare and extending out to its drip line. Shrubs get the same treatment.  It is vital to keep mulch several inches away from the trunk or stem. Please, no mulch volcanoes!  Mulches prevent weeds, eliminate erosion, retain soil moisture, help moderate soil temperatures, provide a buffer between equipment and the trunks and stems and increase the aesthetics of the overall landscape.  Too much mulch (over four inches) starves roots of oxygen by sealing off the ground suffocating the plants. Old mulch can matte up and restrict water infiltration, too.

Viburnum prunifolium in bloom

Irrigate efficiently

During times of prolonged drought, irrigation may be necessary.  Plants naturally go dormant, but in a display bed you can add supplemental water to keep them more vibrant and healthy.  We use pressure compensating drip irrigation tubing with emitters spaced 12 inch apart.  Drip irrigation puts water where it is needed for optimum efficiency in the root zone rather than on the leaves. If you irrigate with overhead sprinklers, start sprinklers early in the morning or later in the evening.  Avoid watering during the hottest part of the day to reduce evaporation and loss from wind.  You can also recycle rainfall and create a rain garden.

Pressure compensating 1/2 inch soaker hose

 

Reduce your lawn

Cool season grass lawns with roots that are maybe six to twelve inches deep are one of the most watered landscape plants. If you think strategically and replace part of a water-guzzling lawn with deep rooted wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees or even with native buffalograss, you will save water and increase wildlife diversity in your landscape.  You may like open spaces with lawn for play or leisure, but you can scale back the size of your lawn and still have the aesthetics you appreciate.  Mow your lawn at the highest height and water only as needed.  Turfgrass has its place in the landscape, but maybe not the most prominent place it currently does.

We don’t think often enough about the water we use. It is a precious commodity. Remember the 2011 and 2012 drought in Kansas? We were using tremendous quantities of water to keep our landscapes alive. It made us evaluate each plant according to its response to these extreme conditions.  Obviously, some plants did better than others and we lost some plants those years. It made us think critically about our plant choices and irrigation practices. A beautiful and resilient landscape that uses little if any supplemental water is an achievable result.  A few changes can make a big difference.

Coneflowers: Native vs Hybrid

Echinacea, or coneflower, is possibly one of the most well known prairie flowers. Endemic to North American prairies, it is known around the world for its medicinal properties and its versatility as a cut flower. There are ten distinct species of naturally occurring echinacea, but the horticultural industry has created countless hybrids.
Though native echinacea only comes in purple, pale purple, or yellow, hybridized echinacea can be red, orange, pink, green or even multi-color. But what besides color make these new coneflowers different? And are there any downsides to using engineered plants over natives?

 

Our native Echinacea pallida always has thin, reflexed petals and a pale purple hue.

‘Julia’ is a hybrid coneflower sporting vibrant orange flowers on strong stems. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

How They Are Made: Wilderness Vs Laboratory

Most newfangled varieties of Echinacea are from the species E. purpurea. Unassuming and bright, the ‘straight species’ of Echinacea purpurea has long lasting purple blooms that readily self seed in the garden. Insects pollinate these wild coneflowers by carrying pollen (i.e. genetic material) between whatever echinaceas are nearby, producing seeds with mixed traits and variable habits. However, hybrid varieties have much more protected DNA, developed by humans through hand pollinating of flowers with desirable qualities. It can take years to successfully select, cross, and stabilize a genetic line of new coneflowers for the garden market.

This variety of Echinacea called ‘ Cleopatra’ has eye catching yellow flowers. Photo courtesy of Walter’s Gardens.

Pros

Using hybrid echinacea gives you more options. If you like to make bold statements and thematic garden designs, a wider color pallette is always more fun. The hybrid types come in all different sizes as well, meaning customers can choose tall or dwarf types to fit multiple landscaping needs. Native coneflowers, like E. pallida or E. paradoxa, will always be between 1.5-3 ft tall when planted in optimal conditions. Beyond height, genetically modified coneflowers often have better branching and a more compact habit than the native type. They are usually less prone to flopping over, and some even have a longer bloom period. For gardens with limited space, hybrid coneflowers offer lots of color in a more manageable package.

E. angustifolia is an iconic prairie flower, beloved by pollinators and humans alike.

 

‘Salsa’ Echinacea is from the Sombrero series of coneflowers offered by Walter’s Garden. All of the varieties shown in this post will be available at our fall plant sale!

Cons

Native coneflowers are excellent food sources for pollinators, but the jury is still out on whether hybrids are as beneficial. We know that hybrid echinaceas with double and triple blooms are useless to pollinators because the extra petals block nectar and pollen. However, preliminary studies on the subject suggests some single flowered hybrids are as attractive to pollinators as their parent plants.

Additionally, some hybrid varieties are sterile and do not produce viable seeds to support seed eating birds. Humans reproduce most hybrid varieties through vegetative propagation, either by tissue culture or by cuttings and divisions. This means they are genetic clones of each other and do not contribute to genetic diversity within the Echinacea gene pool. Less genetic diversity transmitted to the next generation of plants leaves echinacea species’ at risk for disease and decay of their genetic line. Ecological considerations aside, some new varieties don’t seem to be as long lived as the true natives. 

Bumblebee visiting Echinacea purpurea – photo by Janelle Flory Schrock

Whether or not you go with true natives or new varieties of coneflower depends on the purpose of your planting. If you want an ecological planting that increases biodiversity and improves habitat, then stick with Kansas natives. But to simply improve the aesthetics of your landscape and add a splash of color, new hybrid varieties will do the trick. Come to the FloraKansas fall plant sale and get your fill of coneflowers, native and otherwise!

A New Way to Think About Spring Garden Clean Up

This time of year, we get excited about heading outside for some spring garden clean up. The warmer weather signals that spring in just around the corner. All of last year’s plants, including grasses, perennials and the mountains of leaves blown into the garden, have to be cut down and hauled away, or do they? There is so much to do, but before you clear cut the garden, look closely at what you are removing from your landscape.

Through winter, your garden has provided habitat for many different beneficial insects and wildlife. By removing everything above ground, you are removing nesting sites and the homes of the pollinators you have attracted to your yard. All the old stalks, stems and leaves have protected and sheltered these insects through the coldest weather. So how can you save them and still get your garden ready for spring? Here are some suggestions that will save most of the beneficial insects hibernating in your garden.

Coneflowers and Little Bluestem offer great winter cover for pollinators and beneficial insects.

Carefully remove old growth

Most native bees are solitary creatures that overwinter in the ground or in hollow stems of perennial and grasses. Because they make their winter homes in some of the stems of your plants, cutting these plants to the ground will remove their nesting habitat.

An alternative would be to cut them down to 18 inches now, remove the upper portion and spread it loosely along the edges of your garden or property. Then you can go back when temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees and completely remove the rest down to the new growth at the base. By that time the bees and beneficial insects will have emerged from their winter slumber.

Another option would be to remove the stalks completely just like you have done in past years. I would then bundle the stems together loosely and hang them along the fence or tree line. From there, the insects can emerge and fly to your garden area.

I didn’t realize how many of these stems and stalks harbored the beneficial insects I want in my garden. It is important that we allow the life cycle of these insects to reach completion. I want to encourage you to be patient and careful when you cut down and remove the old growth from your garden. Either keep those plants up longer into the spring or keep them somewhere in your garden so the pollinators and beneficial insects can come out and stay in your neighborhood.

Strategically clean up leaves

We all have piles of leaves that have accumulated over the winter in our gardens. Just like the hollow stems of perennials, leaves protect beneficial insects, including ladybugs, damsel bugs, and butterflies like commas, morning cloaks and question marks through the winter. Other pollinators overwinter as eggs or pupae in leaves. Holding off leaf removal until daytime temperatures are consistently above 50 degrees will favor the hatching of a new brood of beneficial insects to begin their lives in your garden.

Solomon’s Seal surrounded by leaf litter that protects pollinators and insulates the plants for winter.

This simple and thoughtful approach to spring clean up will have a positive impact on the overall health of your garden. Instead of clearing your garden of beneficial insects, you will be connecting your garden with the complete life cycle of these pollinators. Your garden can have a positive impact on the plight of these endangered species. It will be a landscape that supports the pollinators and beneficial insects we enjoy and need so much.

Inspiring Landscapers

This Saturday, February 24 at our Native Plant Landscaping Symposium, 10 inspiring landscapers will share their native plant gardening stories.

 

A common thread of these landscapers/gardeners (I use these words interchangeably) is that they have each uniquely contributed to my approach and style of landscaping over the years. I have been drawn to their passion for gardening and landscaping. They are botanists, ecologists, master gardeners, landscape artists, and inquisitive students of gardening. Most of them have had successful careers in areas other than landscaping. Yet each considers landscaping a labor of love and finds great joy in working with plants that shape the landscapes around them. Their enthusiasm is infectious. I look forward to hearing their brief prepared stories with photos all being told in a one day symposium format where they can also answer questions. While it is difficult to fit these individuals into specific landscaping categories, I have generally ordered them in speaking sequence from wild and ecological to horticultural and manicured.

I won’t have time to give them each the full and flowery introduction that they deserve. But I will say a bit about their styles and approaches that have influenced me over the last 25+ years.

The Speakers

 

Dwight Platt was my major professor at Bethel College where I studied biology and environmental studies in the early 90s. He introduced me to Lorna Harder, then curator for natural history at the Kauffman Museum. The two of them were responsible for developing the oldest prairie reconstruction in Kansas on the museum grounds, and I was able to serve as a prairie intern with them before graduating. My appreciation for the diverse ecology of the prairie and how prairie plants can be incorporated into landscaping started with them. They inspired me to pursue further education in ecological restoration and landscape architecture.

Kauffman Museum Prairie

Dwight and Lorna’s home landscapes utilize many native plants with a focus on attracting biological diversity to those landscapes. Bob Simmons carries a similar approach. His intimate knowledge of host plants and what butterflies they attract guides his approach to landscaping as well. All three of these folks are passionate knowledge seekers of the birds and butterflies around them. They are regular attendees of annual bird and butterfly counts in Harvey County that contribute to citizen science.

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar on Host Plant

My work at Dyck Arboretum with the Earth Partnership for School (EPS) Program has opened my eyes to the power that native landscaping can have inspiring children. Developing prairie gardens on school grounds offers fun learning opportunities through hands-on, project-based learning. High school science teachers Jay Super (Maize) and Denise Scribner (Goddard) are award-winning educators that have displayed how prairie gardening offers a useful learning tool for their students.

Goddard Eisenhower High School Prairie Garden

Locally grown food is important to our health and well-being and I have long been intrigued by the mixing of vegetables and native plant gardens in our landscapes. The Sand Creek Community Garden in N. Newton has been an example for me in recent years of how growing vegetables and tending native prairie gardens are mutually beneficial. Attracting pollinators and insect predators can only help food plots and they certainly add interest to gardening experience as well. Duane Friesen was the main organizer of this community garden seen as one of the best in Kansas. And as my father-in-law, Duane has also taught me much of what I know about growing vegetables. Joanna Fenton Friesen has a real eye for designing beautiful gardens with native plants and has been an organizer for the perennial flower beds at the community garden. They each have inspiring home landscapes with vegetables and native plants as well.

Sand Creek Community Garden

Pam Paulsen, Reno County Horticulture Extension Agent, is one of the top education resources in Kansas and she has immense knowledge about vegetable gardening, pollinators, and natural pest management. She is also an avid student of the prairie and a great photographer.

Aesthetically arranging native plants in organized assemblages adds enjoyment to landscaping. It also makes native plant gardening, often seen as unkept and weedy, more palatable to the general public. My colleague, Scott Vogt, has a horticulture degree and has helped influence me in this regard by encouraging plantings in groupings. Duane and Joanna with their eyes for aesthetics and surrounding native gardens with edging and mulched trails have also been influential.

A Clumped Planting at Dyck Arboretum.

Two gardens that I have enjoyed visiting in recent years have been the home landscapes designed and tended by Laura Knight (Wichita) and Lenora Larson (Paola). Their displays of not only native plants, but adaptable perennials and annuals too have expanded my understanding and appreciation for sustainable landscaping. They also have an appreciation for art in the garden, beautiful walking paths, water features, and weeding – all elements that enhance the garden aesthetic experience. Lenora also pays close attention to choosing plants that offer either nectar or food for insects.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

I hope you will join us Saturday and experience even a fraction of the inspiration that I have received from these gardeners and landscapers.

Buffalograss: Looking Ahead to Summer

This week, I will be leading a Native Plant School class on “How to Establish a Buffalograss Lawn“. Though the time to plant buffalograss is still months away, winter is the time to start thinking about how your lawn might benefit from a switch to buffalograss and what steps you need to take to prepare.

(Due to popular demand, I’m reposting this previous blog post from June of 2015, which gives a wonderful overview to the process. I will give more in depth information about establishing buffalograss in the upcoming class.)

What to Expect from Buffalograss

The Arboretum has benefited from the established stands of buffalograss we maintain.  The fine leaves stay a nice blue-green during the growing season, and it requires less mowing, watering, and fertilizing compared to our fescue or bluegrass lawns.

Newer varieties of buffalograss (Bowie, Cody, and Sundancer) green up faster in the spring, stay green longer in the fall, spread quickly by stolons to cover a planting area and remain shorter. They therefore require less mowing.

Once established, we have found it to be a tough, durable alternative to many cool-season grasses.  It thrives in dry, sunny conditions and even survived the extreme drought of 2012. We will be planting some additional areas to buffalograss in the coming year.

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Here are some ways to ensure a favorable outcome when planting a buffalograss lawn:

Give it sunshine.

Buffalograss needs at least 6 hours of direct sunlight per day and a well-draining soil to grow best.  It will not grow well in low areas with periodic standing water or areas of moderate to heavy shade.  Typically, if it is unhappy, you also will be unhappy with its overall appearance.

Weed control prior to planting.

Just like establishing a flower bed, your seeding area needs to be as weed free as possible.  I have found that several applications of Round-Up in the spring prior to planting is the best way to control weeds, especially Bermuda grass and bindweed.  I also lightly till (1/4-1/2 inch deep) the area before planting so that I have some loose soil to just cover the seed.  Keep in mind that every time the soil is tilled new weed seeds will germinate, which will need to be eradicated before spreading the seed.

Proper seed selection.

There are new forms being discovered and introduced every year, but the forms we have used at the arboretum have been Cody, Bowie, and Bison.  We seeded them in June or July at a rate of 2-3 lbs. of seed per 1000 square feet.

Proper establishment.

Buffalograss needs soil temperatures that are above 60⁰ F for germination to start.  I normally spread half the seed in one direction and then spread the other half perpendicular to the first half of seed.  I lightly rake the area and then pack it in (drive over entire planting with a mower or tractor) to get good seed-to-soil contact.

I water the whole area deeply the first watering to completely saturate the soil (just to the point water is running off) and then follow with frequent light watering until the seeds germinate in 14-21 days.  Once germination is complete, infrequent deep soakings will keep the new seedlings spreading.  Full establishment of an area from seed can be completed in the first year.

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Weed control after planting.

These new forms of Buffalograss perform well in our area.  In ideal conditions, they form a thick, dense lawn that can out compete weeds.  In marginal situations, weeds can become problematic, requiring weed control through herbicides or manual eradication.  We apply a broadleaf weed control in the fall to eliminate henbit, dandelions, bindweed and other broadleaf weeds.  Management of weeds in your buffalograss both before planting and the first few years after establishment will, over time, reduce future weed control, watering, mowing and overall maintenance.

I have found buffalograss to be a valuable turf for open, sunny spaces, but keep in mind that it is not a miracle grass that can solve all your lawn problems.  The natural look of this native grass should be appreciated because it is adapted to our area.    It should also be planted with the expectation that over time, it will require less financial input and minimal work to maintain a dense, attractive turf.  For these reasons, I have found buffalograss to be a low-maintenance lawn alternative that is worth growing.

Make Your Garden Welcoming to Winter Birds

Something that amazes me every year is how birds survive the winter. Somehow they are able to find the food, water and shelter they need each day. Just the other day, I watched a pair of cardinals foraging in the buffalograss and eating seeds from the Maximilian Sunflower outside my window. They find a way to survive, but it can’t be easy.  I believe we can do a few things in our yards to make their lives a little easier.  Here is a list that will help them survive the cold weather and give you more up-close encounters with birds.

Photo by Dave Osborne.

Leave prairie plants up through the winter

Winter is a desperate time for birds.  They spend a tremendous amount of energy each day searching for food. Their winter food comes from a variety of sources, but one of the first places they search is in and around meadows and perennial borders.  By leaving these areas undisturbed through the winter, birds can find bugs, seeds that are highly nutritious in the seed heads, and tufts of grass near the ground.

Create a wildlife border

The more diverse your plantings, the more diverse the types of birds your landscape will attract. Think about different layers of plants, including trees and shrubs, that produce fruit and nuts that birds need.  Incorporate a few evergreens along with deciduous trees and shrubs, because the winter foliage provides extra protection from the elements and predators.  These layers mimic the natural areas birds flock to during the winter.

Create a compost pile

All those leaves that are blowing all around your yard make wonderful compost. They also make a nice place for bugs to hide. I have seen birds completely destroy a compost pile searching for insects and seeds.  Those leaves will also become next year’s soil amendment for your garden.

Make a brush pile

Our brush pile at the Arboretum is huge, but it is always filled with birds. It provides shelter from winter storms and protection from predators.  Even a small pile with logs, sticks and branches will provide the safety and security many birds need.

Provide Food for Birds in the Winter

The key to feeding birds in winter is to give them options. A diverse selection of seed, suet, and peanuts will entice many different types of birds. Locate feeders in areas out of the wind but within viewing distance. Hang some from tree branches and others on the ground.

Provide Water for Birds

Birds need ready access to water in the winter.  Bird baths, a puddle, or a stream are great options as long as they are not frozen. Heating these water sources will allow birds to find the water they need for survival especially during freezing weather.

Make plans to help

If you don’t have these key features in your garden already, create a design that favors birds and other wildlife.  Include grasses and perennials that produce seeds birds prefer. Establish shrubs with persistent seeds and fruit that birds can utilize in the winter.

Here are a couple of interesting websites that may help you create your plan:

Common Feeder Birds

Kansas Birds Checklist

How birds survive the winter in simply amazing. Helping to welcome the boreal birds to your backyard can be quite enjoyable for you and for them. By providing the habitat and food they need, your landscape can become a bird sanctuary and a haven that gives them food, water, and shelter to endure the winter.

Old Wood, New Buds: A Pruning Guide

Though true winter approaches, there are still a few warm, sunny days ahead to be filled with raking leaves and garden clean-up. Here at the Arboretum we leave our perennial gardens uncut through the winter to create winter habitat and protect the soil, but just like you, we are plenty busy piling up leaves and preparing our Christmas decorations. If the weather is truly obliging, you may even be tempted to bust out your pruning shears and neaten up your trees and shrubs. Less work waiting for you in spring, right? But be warned, overzealous and untimely snipping could cost you! Below is a seasonal summary of pruning information compiled from the four corners of the web, along with a botany primer on buds  and the old wood/new wood conundrum.

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Don’t lose your lilac blooms, prune at the perfect time! Photo by AnRo0002 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

When to Prune What

The truth is, most plants don’t need much pruning. Pruning should never aim to distort the shrubs natural figure, only enhance its shape and thin branches to ward off disease and breakage. Gardeners often ask me when to prune their (insert flowing shrub here) for the best bloom – the truth is, I don’t have all that knowledge locked in my brain! I often whip out my phone to research the specific plant and find out if it blooms on new growth or last years wood. If a plant flowers on last years wood, pruning in winter or spring means you will cut off all the already produced dormant flower buds and greatly reduce or eliminate the coming year’s bloom. Here is a run-down of when to give some common landscape plants a haircut.

Crypemyrtle (Lagerstroemia) blooms on new growth, prune in late winter before it leafs out to get a good view of the form

Lilac (Syringa) – blooms on last years wood, prune immediately after flowers have faded, before next years buds form.

Butterfly bush (Buddleia) – blooms on new wood, so prune/shape in early spring

Buttonbush (Cephalanthus) – blooms appear on new wood, prune in late winter/early spring

Hydrangeas – very tricky, as not all grow the same! Cut back H. paniculata and H. arborescens in late winter; they bloom on new wood. H. macrophylla and H. quercifolia bloom on last years wood and can only be trimmed immediately after their blooms fade.

**A great in-depth guide to evergreen pruning can be found HERE from Morton Arboretum. But if you just want the quick dirt…

Pines – early spring just as new growth begins, but not before.

Spruces, Firs – early spring before new growth begins

Juniper, Arborvitae, Yew – late winter or early spring before new growth begins

Europaeische Eibe European Yew rot red arillus fruit frucht Taxus Baccata

Yews (Taxus) can generate growth on new or old wood, so they can tolerate heavy pruning and shaping in the early spring, then again in June if needed. Photo By Philipp Guttmann (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Know Before You Cut

Surgeons go through years of rigorous schooling before they make a single cut, so why don’t we spend a few minutes learning about buds and shoots before the amputations begin, eh?
A bud is an embryonic shoot just above where the leaf will form, or at the tip of a stem. There are lots of different types of buds: Terminal buds (primary growth point at top of stem), lateral buds (on sides of stem that produce leaves or flowers), dormant buds (asleep and waiting for spring, shhh!), and many more.

Buds can be classified by looks or location.
By Mariana Ruiz Villarreal LadyofHats [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In light pruning, such as pinching or heading, cut just above the bud at a 45 degree angle. Lowes has a great guide on the 4 types of pruning, and a very helpful graphic seen below. A cut too far above or below the bud may result in die-back and withered stems.

This angle is optimal for encouraging grown and also hiding your cuts. Graphic from Lowes.com, https://www.lowes.com/projects/gardening-and-outdoor/prune-trees-and-shrubs/project

Cutting directly above the bud tells the plant to release hormones signalling the bud to break dormancy and sprout! Learning about the process of plant dormancy can ensure we aren’t wounding plants at vulnerable times, The Spruce has a great article on this here.

Research first, then cut carefully, friends!

End-of-the-Season Garden Checklist

It seems that fall has finally arrived.  Cooler north winds are blowing and the leaves are beginning to change on the trees. Things are winding down in the garden too, except the asters.  ‘Raydon’s Favorite’ aster, New England asters and ‘October Skies’ aster are fantastic this year. Pollinators are covering these nectar rich flowers during the warm afternoons. It is fun to watch so many happy pollinators in the garden. There is so much to love about the fall season.

Soon these flowers will fade and the growing season will officially come to an end. It will be time for the prairie to sleep. But before you put the tools away for the winter, there are a few things to take care of now to prepare your garden for next spring. Here is your Fall Garden Checklist.

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 garden and should be left standing. Coneflowers, blackeyed susans and coreopsis are important seed sources for birds. The dark seed heads and stems look great with a back drop 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.

Coneflower seedheads next to little bluestem

Containers

Even the best container plants start to fade this time of year. The annuals, vegetables or herbs that have been growing in them can be discarded into the compost pile. Ceramic pots need to be emptied of the soil and put away in the garage for the winter. Removing the soil now will prevent cracking the pot with frozen soil. The soil in plastic pots can be left in them, but I like to move them to a place out of the sun so they don’t fade. If the soil is tired, plan on refreshing it by mixing with some new potting soil with it or adding some compost or perlite. A little preparation this fall will have your pots ready when spring arrives.

Lawns

This 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.

Buffalograss

Buffalograss in spring after fall application of Broadleaf weed control

Leaves

I purposely 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.

Annuals

I learned something new on our field trip to Lenora Larson’s garden. She has chosen annual varieties that self-seed, but that pollinators love. She lets the plants stand through the winter and then composts them into the soil where they grew last year. These composted plants are a fantastic mulch and add nutrients back to the soil. The next season, she lightly thins the plants that germinate and the cycle is repeated the next year. Her plants are thriving and she has very few problems with disease or insects. Her approach to landscaping with pollinator-friendly wildflowers, annuals, grasses and shrubs was stunning. I have never seen so many pollinators in such a small area. Her home was an oasis for pollinators.

Painted Lady Butterfly on Zinnia

Native Dakota Gold Helen’s Flower

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 notes 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.

Bulbs

If you like the spring bulbs, now is the time to plant. I prefer bulbs that naturalize and come back year after year. Narcissus and species tulips are great spring bloomers. They require little or no care and reward us each year with bright blooms. These bulbs are the harbingers of spring. Now is also the time to put away tender bulbs such as cannas, dahlias, and gladioli. Allow them to dry for a few days before storing them in a cool, dry area away from sunlight.

Weeds

Remove weeds when they are young. Getting after them now and keeping your gardens and display beds free of winter annual weeds such a henbit will mean less weeding next spring. A little effort now will allow more time to enjoy your garden next spring.

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 do bed this fall so you can enjoy it more next year? It will be worth your time.