Partner Perennials

As the weather warms up and perennials begin to sprout I find myself in the gardening mood! Whether filling in gaps in an existing garden bed or planting up a new area, knowing which plants will look best together can be a sort of guessing game. But a fun one! When I start getting too many ideas about what plants to pair up, I put pencil to sketch pad and doodle my ideas into reality.

There are countless unique, easy combinations for every situation that can incorporate natives, exotics and even our old garden favorites. Maybe you can use some of my recent sketches, maybe they will inspire you to draw up some of your own!

For the Shady Place

Try partnering bright colored blooms together and using leaf color that adds contrast. For example, using light greens behind darker greens can add depth and interest to an area that is only foliage. You can use striped hostas (Liberty, June Spirit, Brother Stephan) to liven up a dark area and use lowgrowing spreaders as ground cover between them (Ceratostigma plumbagnoides, Gallium odoratum) In my shade garden at home I already have some hostas planted, so I am thinking of filling in around them with some native Silene stellata (Starry Champion) and some non-native Epimedium rubrum (Barrenwort). Waldesteinia fragoides (Barren strawberry) might be the perfect ground cover to suppress weeds around it all. The purplish hue of the epimedium blooms will work well with the yellow of false strawberry since they are complementary colors (situated opposite each other on the color wheel).

If you have a shady spot, try planting fillers between hostas to add interest and texture.

 

Epimedium rubrum By Salicyna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons. Silene stellata at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Silene_stellata_flowers.jpg
Barren Strawberry by User:SB_Johnny (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

 Good pairings for part sun areas:

Solidago rigida (Rigid Goldenrod) + Anemone ‘Pink Kiss’ (Pink Snowdrops)
Heuchera ‘Fire Chief’ + Carex pennsylvannica (Pennsyvannia Sedge)
Asarum canadense (Wild Ginger) + Matteuchia struthiopteris (Ostrich Fern)

 

For the Hottest Hot Spot

What plants can partner together to beat the heat? A dry, hot spot is a perfect place for mixing native grasses and wildflowers that have evolved in the prairie sun. For a rock garden or sunny burm, try this combination of Eryngium yuccafolium (Rattlesnake Master) and Eryngium planum (‘Blue Glitter’ Globe Flower) that will complement each other’s whimsical, spherical blooms. Sporobolis heterolepis (Prairie Dropseed) and Delosperma (‘Firespinner’ Creeping Ice Plant) will fill in around the base of the taller plants. Not only are the Eryngiums major pollinator magnets, they are also long lasting cut flowers! The bright orange-red blooms of the ice plant will warm up the cool hues of the eryngiums.

A mixture of grass, upright specimen plants and crawling ground cover will create a nice balance

Other suggestions for full sun pairings:

Achillea ‘Moonshine’ (Yellow Yarrow) + Callirhoe involucrata (Poppy Mallow)
Rudbeckia missouriensis (Black Eyed Susan) + Helenium ‘Salsa’ (Sneezeweed) + Sedum ‘Lidakense’

If You Need Some Height…

Perhaps growing along a fence or forming a border between yards, tall plants provide structure for the garden. A columnar grass species like Panicum ‘Northwind’ (Switchgrass) or Miscanthus (Silvergrass) can be the eyecatching backdrop for other perennials. They also provide support to tall flowers that might otherwise flop over when they reach their mature heights. Planting Veronicastrum ‘Lavender Towers’ (Culver’s Root) or Eupatorium maculatum (Joe Pye Weed) between tall, strong stemmed grasses can keep them upright in a stiff prairie wind. The sketch below shows a shorter variety of Joe Pye called ‘Baby Joe’ situated between some Miscanthus grass with Scabiosa (or, just as well suited, Knautia) growing wispily in front.

For an area that can use some height, install some Miscanthus grass for a big effect in fall.

 

Eupatorium (right) by Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Blue Scabiosa by By Xemenendura (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Tall grass that will support tall flowers:

Andropogon gerardii (Big Bluestem) + Coreopsis tripteris (Tall Coreopsis)
Calamagrostis acutiflora (Karl Foerster Grass) + Salvia azurea ‘Grandiflora’ 

 

Partnering plants is the fun part of perennial gardening – let your imagination go wild! Use the color wheel to make the most of your pairings and pay close attention to foliage shape and texture to achieve a harmonious look. If you think some of the plants in this post will work well in your yard, come to our FloraKansas Plant Sale April 28th – May 1st!  This is our largest fundraiser of the year, and your purchase makes educational programming and the management of Arboretum grounds possible.

Growing Berries in the Backyard

Berries are my favorite addition to the production garden – they are the perfect topping for ice cream and yogurt and make delicious pies! But they can be expensive to source from the grocery store and certain types are nearly impossible to find. Why not grow your own? Many types of raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries and currants are adaptable to Kansas, flourishing under the right conditions. If you don’t have space to create a vegetable garden, no worries – berry plants can mix into the perennial borders and become a productive (and delicious!) part of your landscape for you and for the wildlife.

Raspberries

Rubus idaeus, red raspberries, got their initialized name from Mt. Ida in Turkey, where the citizens of ancient Troy dined on them. Since that time they have spread throughout the world because of their sweetness and adaptability. These delicious little morsels do not naturally flourish in the harsh Kansas climate, but with a little human attention they can produce a summer full of fruit for you.

Wild red raspberries. Photo by mako from Kangasala, Suomi (Finland) (wild raspberries) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Plant your canes in a spot with full sun (some shade acceptable during the hot hours) and good drainage. Protection from the hot south wind will ensure it doesn’t scorch in our blistering summer. ‘Heritage’ variety red raspberry has a reputation for bountiful crops and first year success. It is everbearing, meaning that it produces two crops – one in mid-July and another in September. ‘Fall Gold’ yellow raspberry also bears two harvests: in fall and then the following spring on the same canes. Gardeners love its unique color and light flavor. Some raspberries are self-supporting, but most benefit from some type of staking.

Currants and Gooseberries

Currants and gooseberries are part of the Ribes genus, some of which are native to Kansas. Ribes ordoratum (golden currant) is commonly found in thickets and near streams, bearing delicious wild fruit great for canning. These wild types can be grown in the landscape for their berries, wildlife appeal and ornamental value. I discovered cultivated red currants while traveling in France; they are a staple of a French breakfast table, irresistible in jams and sauces. ‘Red Lake’ is a type that grows well here in Kansas, with bountiful bunches of marble-sized red berries. Plant in neutral pH soil and don’t keep their feet wet for extended periods of time.

Red currants ripe for the piking! Photo by Idalia Skalska (http://idalia.pl/) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The greenish-pink gooseberries sport characteristic veins/stripes and a sour taste. Photo by Nadiatalent (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Gooseberries are very hardy, long-lived and have a bramble-type habit. Thorny and thick, they make a great border plant. The berries have light colored ‘veins’ showing through their translucent skin. With a tart, rubarb-esque flavor they go well as a crumble topping or baked into pies and meat sauces.

Strawberries

Everybody’s favorite mid-summer treat, strawberries, are easy to establish and spread via runners to increase yields year after year. A raised bed is a common way to grow strawberries, helping with weed management and containment. A layer of straw or mulch around new plants will aide in retaining soil moisture. If you have no room for a raised bed area, don’t fret! Strawberries are happy to live in the perennial garden and crawl around the bases of taller plants – they will behave as a ground cover (suppressing weeds!) and benefit from the light shade cast by the flowers above them. Some varieties are bred specifically to grow in a patio pot and produce vigorously. ‘Tristan’ and ‘Ruby Ann’ are examples of this type. They always provide me with a midday snack in the greenhouse!

Serviceberry (left) and Elderberry (right) in bloom. From https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sambucus_nigra-Busch.jpg and By peganum from Small Dole, England (Amelanchier x grandiflora Cole’s Select) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Elderberries, Chokeberries, Serviceberries

Lesser known or wild-type berries are just as nutritious, but require less maintenance. These berries all taste best after some type of processing (cooking, freezing, juicing, etc). All three of the following berry-producers bear stunning white blooms and produce fruit with high nutritional content for your table or for the birds to enjoy!

  • Consider planting elderberry (Sambucus) shrubs in a drainage area or part of the yard that always floods – they will absorb excess water and create a wall of blooms in late spring.  Raw elderberries are bitter, but perform well in jams, wines, and home remedies. ‘Adams’ and ‘York’ are two types of elderberry we recommend for heavy fruit production.
  • Chokeberry (Aronia melanocarpa) is a versatile and attractive shrub that bears high-antioxidant blackish berries in late summer. The berries have an astringent quality that makes the mouth pucker with that ‘dry wine’ feeling. Berries can be made into syrups and jams, or used in muffins. Five to six feet tall at maturity, they make a great screen or windbreak. Aronia ‘Viking’ is a nice variety that produces well and has high ornamental value. ‘Low Scape’ and ‘Hedger’ types for smaller spaces display blooms and attractive fall foliage but do not produce much fruit.
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier arborea) is native to the eastern-most regions of Kansas and can reach 20 feet tall in some locations. It makes an excellent specimen tree and produces fruit that taste much like blueberries. The berries ripen in mid-summer, earlier than most other berries. They can be eaten right off the tree, baked into pies or dried like raisins for preserving.

Growing berries can be fun and easy! Consider planting some edibles in your landscape as a part of your hedge or as a perennial ground cover. They will look great and taste even better. If you don’t have time to pick them for yourself, the wildlife will thank you for the extra sweet treat!

Six Native Groundcovers That Thrive in the Sun

As you think about your native landscape, taller plants are easier to plug into the design.  There are more choices from which you can add diversity, color, texture and habitat.  These taller layers are the backbone of any plan, while the edges or ground level are often overlooked.   In my opinion, the border plants are just as important because they define the edges.   The larger perennials typically overshadow these native groundcovers, but here are a few that stand out in the landscape.

Missouri Evening Primrose-Oenothera macrocarpa

In the wild, this low growing wildflower is found clinging to exposed hillsides.  If it can survive that environment, it will be a tough drought-tolerant plant for any sunny spot.  The large, showy, yellow flowers bloom from May through August, but the majority of the blooms come in April and May.  One plant can spread up to 24 inches while only reaching 6 to 12 inches tall.  Obviously, it likes it dry, so don’t over water them.  They look great along walkways or spilling over rock walls with their silver green leaves and reddish stems.

Purple Poppy Mallow-Callirhoe involucrata

Some like it hot, but these like it really hot.  The deep tap root of Purple Poppy Mallow sustains it during times of drought.  These roots are starchy and supposedly taste like a sweet potato.  (I don’t know if I am that hungry, but it may be worth a try.)  The magenta cup-like blooms appear throughout spring and into summer.  I like to interplant with low grasses or shorter perennials that bloom later in the season, such as blazing stars or goldenrods.  The stems hug the ground and ultimately spread 24-36 inches wide and 6-12 inches tall.

Blue Grama ‘Blonde Ambition’-Bouteloua gracilis

Unlike any other native grass, ‘Blonde Ambition’ will make an impact in your garden.  The eyelash-like seedheads dance with even the gentlest breeze atop the fine blue-green foliage from mid-summer into winter.  Selected for its unique habit and hardiness, it can be used in a variety of settings from clay to sandy soils.  It gets larger than most Blue Grama grass, maxing out at 24 inches.  Space them 18 to 24 inches apart for best display.  Regularly, Blue Grama is found growing with Buffalograss in the shortgrass prairie, making it an important native grass of the Great Plains.

Rose Verbena-Glandularia canadensis

This plant holds the record for most months in bloom.  I have seen it in bloom from March through December.  It is one of the first to bloom in the spring and if we get some beneficial rain in the fall, it will bloom again.  In the prairie, rose verbena can be found in open bluffs and rocky outcroppings.  It requires minimal rain and terrible soil for the best growth.  Sounds like a winner to me.  The vibrant pinkish-purple blooms will brighten any border.  Give it room to spread.  One drawback is that they are not very long lived, every few years, plants will completely die out or move.  I think that they bloom themselves to death.  Just replace with new plants and again enjoy this sun loving groundcover.

Rose Verbena-Photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

Stiff Coreopsis-Coreopsis palmata

Each spring, the golden yellow blooms of this prairie beauty burst open with an eruption of glorious sunshine.  The stems are lined with leaves that resemble little hands lifted skyward.  It is a favorite of pollinators as they flock to the nectar rich flowers from late spring to early summer.  I give it some room to roam since it slowly spreads to fill in an area when it is happy.  Eventually, spreading to 36 inches or more and growing 24 inches tall, this wildflower is a great alternative to its other coreopsis cousins.

Coreopsis palmata-By Frank Mayfield (Flickr: Coreopsis palmata PRAIRIE COREOPSIS) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Prairie Dropseed-Sporobolus heterolepis

At one time, this was one of the top selling grasses nationwide.  It is a favorite of mine because it is long-lived and tough.  It is so tough they are planted in mass in street medians.  The fine textured leaves and airy, fragrant panicles are a nice addition to any landscape.  Each clump can reach 12-18 inches wide and up to 24 inches tall.  The entire plant turns shades of orange and yellow in the fall providing multiple seasons of interest.  It is great in a border, as a groundcover, in an informal prairie setting or as an accent to other short or mid-range perennials.

 

Sporobolus heterolepis-By Krzysztof Ziarnek, Kenraiz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

The Bees’ Needs: Garden Tips for Creating Habitat

Last month the rusty patched bumble bee (Bombus affinis) was added to the endangered species list by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This bumble bee use to roam the vast grasslands of the Midwest, sipping on endless nectar supplies of prairie wildflowers. But the land has changed, and with it a way of life for this little critter.

There are many factors contributing to population decline of this bumble bee and many other native bees – healthy prairies are harder and harder to find, urbanization gobbles up grassland nesting sites, agriculture employs potentially harmful pesticides and land management practices, and pathogens/fungal disease prey on their already weakened populations. What a nightmare for our flying friends!

Though these problems sound insurmountable, there are many things gardeners can do to help save these important insects from extinction.

Rusty patched bumble bee queen (Bombus affinis) – who couldn’t love that face?  Photo By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The namesake of the bee, a distinctive dark, rusty ‘patch’ on the its back. Queens do not have this marking. By USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Lab from Beltsville, Maryland, USA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Flower Choice

When planning your garden, be sure to choose flowers that are useful and nutritious to bees. In this regard, all flowers are not equal and some are even deadly! Rhododendrons produce toxic nectar. Some exotic tropical plants (such as Heliconia, “false bird-of-paradise” or “lobster claw”) can be lethal to our North American bees as well.

Hybrid flowers can also pose a problem – they are bred for beauty and not nectar production, resulting in little usable nectar for visiting bees. If the flower has been so hybridized that its shape has been altered it may be impossible for a bee to reach the nectar. For example, ‘double flowers’ that do not occur naturally make it impossible for a bee’s tongue to reach past the inner petals. Be wary of using too many hybrids in your garden without doing some pollinator researching.

Click here for a list of native plants that are pollinator favorites. This link will allow you to choose your region and see native plants best for your area.

Plant for the Long Season

The rusty patched bumble bee is one of the first to break dormancy in spring and last to hibernate, which means we need to provide nectar sources for the sparse times. While there are many popular flowers blooming in mid-summer, the earliest parts of spring and latest parts of fall can be difficult times for bees to find nectar. Incorporating early blooming spring flowers as well as lingering fall bloomers will ensure the bees have food when they need it most.

Early Spring Bloomers: Baptisia australis, Dodecatheon meadia, Hammamelis virginica, Pulsatilla patens, Mertensia virginica, Lupinus perennis, Hellebores

Late Fall Bloomers: Salvia sp., Rudbeckia triloba, Echinacea, Aster novea-anglea, Aster oblongifolius, Solidago sp. 

To enhance the mid-summer buzz in your garden, consider Monarda fistulosa, Silphium perfoliatum, and Liatris spicata/Liatris punctata.

Many of these plants are available at our spring and fall FloraKansas native plant sales here at the Arboretum. If you don’t have a perennial garden, here is a list of popular annual plants that bees love!

Bumblebee (probably Bombus terrestris) collecting pollen from Senecio elegans flower. Wellington, New Zealand. I, Tony Wills [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Nesting Habitat

Bumble bees need safe places to nest and overwinter. Skip the fall raking and mowing in a part of the yard to provide protected area close to the ground. Leave your grasses and flower stems standing all winter to provide protected hollows and nooks for bees to hibernate in. Many types of bumble bee like to nest underground in abandoned rodent dens or other areas of undisturbed soil, so be sure to leave an area of the garden untilled.

The Midwest is no longer a giant grassland pollinator paradise, and the bees need our help to ensure that they get the food and shelter they need to carry on. Every garden counts!

Click here for more information from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about what you can do to help save the rusty patched bumble bee!

 

Are Native Plants Really Drought-Tolerant?

I love prairie plants and I encourage people to use them in their landscapes.  Native plants have so many excellent qualities.  I see their benefits in the plantings we have throughout the Arboretum. They attract pollinators and other wildlife and they are beautiful in flower and form.  Native plants have become all the rage now, and rightfully so. However, as their popularity continues to grow, some misunderstandings about them are being advanced.

Myth: Native plants are always drought-tolerant in the landscape.

Even I have touted this myth from time to time that native plants are always drought-tolerant, maybe even more drought-tolerant than similar exotic plants.  Our expectation that these plants will naturally grow on their own and survive under any circumstances is not true.  The reality is that there are a set of plants that are well-suited for our particular landscape.

New Jersey Tea

What is true? Native plants can be drought-tolerant in the right conditions.

We know about the extensive root systems these plants develop and assume that means they will never need watering in our contrived landscapes.  In their prairie homes, they are drought-tolerant.  They are perfectly matched to the prairie habitat they prefer.  They are content because all aspects they require to grow are being met, from soil, moisture and sun to even prairie companions.

Brown-eyed Susan

What is false? All native plants will grow happily in your landscape.

Often, our landscapes cannot perfectly match the preferred environments of these native plants.  Since they are not ideally situated, these plants will need some input from time to time to keep them happy and thriving.  This is the reason the selection process becomes the most important step in developing your native landscape.  It is vital that you match the right plant with the right place.  Just because a plant is native doesn’t mean it will happily grow in your landscape, will tolerate drought or require little care once established.

Embrace the process of learning about individual plants.

This kind of plant knowledge can be hard to learn.  I have mistreated my share of native plants trying to get them to fit into my box, my “planned” native garden. What I should have been doing was familiarizing myself with where these plants grow, learning about their native ecosystems and trying to match plants as closely as possible to their new home.  Some of the best learning experiences I had came at the expense of losing a few plants.  I quickly learned that not every native plant will be happy all of the time, especially if it is not properly situated.

Baptisia ‘Purple Smoke’

I like to use the example of a Missouri Evening Primrose and a swamp milkweed.  The primrose thrives in dry conditions while the swamp milkweed loves having its feet constantly wet.  The primrose will not be happy growing next to the pond with the swamp milkweed, just as the swamp milkweed will not be happy growing next to the primrose on a dry windswept hill.  Each is distinctly different, requiring unique conditions to prosper.  If these native wildflowers are not ideally located in the landscape, environmental conditions will need to be constantly manipulated to keep them growing.

Swamp Milkweed

Missouri Evening Primrose

I love native plants and will continue to promote their use.  Understanding this myth about native plants helps me be more selective in the plants I choose for my landscape.  With more knowledge comes a better understanding of what these native plants need.

Just like the diversity of the prairie, there are a host of plants that will fit into almost any landscape environment, including your corner of the world.  As you become more aware of plant types and match the right plant with your situation, you will be rewarded for your time and effort.

Interested in learning more about native plants and how to utilize them in your garden? The Arboretum will be offering landscaping classes this spring, one about landscaping for sunny areas and one for shady areas.

A Native Shade Garden

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

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

Native Columbine

Shade can be bad

Realize the challenges of a shady spot

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

 

Shade can be good

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

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

Soil and Sun Levels

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

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

The Arboretum woodland garden

Use Nature As Your Guide

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

Carex pensylvanica. Photo Courtesy Hoffman Nursery, Inc.

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

Native perennials for the Woodland Floor

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

Golden Ragwort

Small trees and shrubs

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

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

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

Finding Common Ground with Native Landscaping

In the gardening off season now, you have a chance to think about the big picture of what you want for your landscape. Consider a plan that resonates with the general public by finding common ground with native landscaping. I will offer some suggestions that help keep your native landscaping from looking like a “weed patch”.

Let’s start with some perspective. Landscaping in the United States has many different influences and varies greatly from formal to wild/ecological. You have a whole spectrum of styles to consider.

Formal Gardening

Many of us were taught to appreciate the formal landscapes and garden designs made famous in Europe and France centuries ago featuring rectilinear lines with meticulously-trimmed lawns and hedges. Much of our society today still prefers this landscaping style as is evident in city codes and homeowner association regulations that encourage and even mandate manicured vegetation. With this style, we value leaves over flowers, vegetation simplicity, order, control and tidiness. Intensive use of mowers, trimmers, water, fertilizer, herbicides, fungicides, and pesticides, help efficiently maintain this style of landscaping that symbolizes human domination of nature.

schlossvillandrygarten10deshadowed

Gardens of Château de Villandry, France. Photo by Peter Dutton.

Ecological Restoration

On the other end of the landscaping spectrum is ecological restoration. Plant communities native to a place are used as the blueprint to reconstruct a functioning ecosystem. Seeds of that plant community (i.e., prairie grasses and wildflowers in South Central Kansas) are planted and disturbance vectors (i.e., fire and grazing) that originally maintained that plant community are restored. While intensive preparation and planning go into reconstructing a prairie, this style of landscaping is eventually low maintenance, requires only implementing/simulating occasional disturbance, and mostly embodies working in sync with nature.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Reconstructed Prairie at Dyck Arboretum of the Plains.

Native landscaping advocates, promote many benefits of this latter landscaping style:

  • Colorful flowers and seed heads with varied shapes and textures
  • Diverse habitats with food and shelter that attract various forms of wildlife
  • Dynamic landscapes that provide year-round visual enjoyment
  • Long-term low input needs with regard to water, fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides
  • Adaptation to natural environmental conditions
  • A cultural connection to earlier inhabitants that used native vegetation for food, medicine, and ritual; building a “sense of place”

There are barriers, however, to landscaping this way in cities. Fires and grazing are not practical in urban areas. Annual mowing adequately simulates these activities, but dealing with that much biomass can still be cumbersome. Codes limiting vegetation height and social expectations driven by the formal garden mindset are hurdles for folks wanting to landscape with native plants. Native plantings are often seen as messy “weed patches”.

But you can still landscape with native plants in publicly palatable ways and enjoy many of the listed benefits. While my training and education are in ecological restoration and I used to be an advocate for restoring diverse prairies in urban areas, I realize that is not usually practical. I’ve moved towards the middle of the landscaping spectrum when it comes to recommendations on landscaping with native plants, to find common ground between formal and ecological styles.

With more than a decade of lessons learned from helping schools implement native plant gardens, I’d like to offer some of the following management practices to make native plant gardens more visually appealing to the general public.

Native Plant Garden Best Management Practices

  1. Define Garden Goals – Wildlife habitat in general? Single species habitat (e.g., monarch)? Rain garden? High profile or in backyard? Prairie or woodland?
  2. Start Small – Hand irrigation to establish plants in the first year is important as well as establishing a regular weeding routine takes time. Keep the workload manageable. You can always enlarge/add more gardens later.
  3. Prepare the Site – Eradicate existing perennials with a couple of Glyphosate treatments in summer, especially important for getting rid of weed enemy #1, Bermuda grass.
  4. Consider Height Proportions – Think about being able to see layers of plants. Island gardens are visually more appealing with shorter plants and there are many short to medium height native options to consider. Gardens against building walls do allow for taller vegetation in the back.

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    Be sure that plants are not too tall for the scale of small island plantings.

  5. Add Hardscaping – Include features such as bird baths, feeders, houses, artwork, and benches for human enjoyment.
  6. Get Edgy – Establish the boundary where weeding meets mowing. A flexible edge such as flat pieces of limestone is a favorite. A visible edge also conveys that this garden is purposeful.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

    Limestone edging helps define this garden.

  7. Clumping of Species – When a garden has high visibility for the public, choose fewer species and plant them in clumps or waves to convey that this garden is intentional. Too many species planted will appear random and thrown together over time.

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    Suggestions for planting in waves or clumps.

  8. Don’t Fertilize – Native plants will survive fine without fertilizer. Extra nutrients benefit weeds and only make native plants taller (and more wild looking).
  9. Mulch Is Your Friend – One or two applications (2”-4” deep) of free wood chip mulch from the municipal pile or delivered by a tree trimmer keeps the native garden looking good and helps control weeds. A layer or two of newspaper under the mulch also minimizes weeds.
  10. Signage Educates – Whether a wildlife certification sign or species identification labels, signage helps convey that this garden is intended to be there. Education leads to acceptance.
  11. Weeding Is Mandatory –Weeding regularly and often minimizes the need for a long backbreaking weeding session that will make you hate your garden. It is therapeutic and good exercise. Plus, a high frequency of visits to your garden will add to your appreciation and enjoyment.

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    Weeding can be fun!

Now, resume your planning and consider going native. Do so in a visually pleasing way and maybe your neighbors will follow suit.

Photo Credits

Six Elements of a Beautiful Fall Garden

I have said it before that fall is my favorite time of the year.  It means that the hottest days of summer will be replaced by autumn’s cool mornings and warm afternoons.  The landscape is transformed by subtle, incremental changes that are unique every year.  I have seen hints that these shifts are already happening, which is exciting.  As a gardener, I gain a deeper appreciation of autumn’s exquisite beauty each year.

Fall should be the crescendo of your garden.  The culmination of your time and effort with every element fitting harmoniously together.  So how do you set the stage to make a grand statement with your landscape in the fall?  Here some essential elements that I consider as I design a garden, especially if you want to create a show later in the season.

Textures and seedheads

When you look at a prairie in the fall, native grasses dominate the landscape.  They are in full bloom with interesting seedheads and colorful stems.  Grasses provide texture and movement in the garden, plus they are extremely hardy.  They move with the gentlest breeze and rustle as the north wind ushers in cooler weather.  I like to use grasses as backdrops for other perennials.  The dark brown coneflower seedheads really stand out in the slender red stems of little bluestem.  The red leaves of Penstemon ‘Dark Towers’ look great with Panicum ‘Northwind’ switchgrass.  Mix and match grasses with perennials both tall and short.  You really can’t go wrong by taking advantage of different types of leaves and including native grasses in your design.

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Little Bluestem and Coneflower Seedhead Photo by Emily Weaver

Layers of Plants

Layering plants is the best way to mimic nature.  It is critical to have the canopy of trees stair stepped down to understory trees and shrubs extended outward with native wildflowers and grasses.  Each of these layers can have a diverse selection of plant material that adds form, structure, and beautiful fall colors.  Everything that wildlife needs for survival can be included in these layers as well.  Place maples and oaks in the back with dogwoods, viburnums, serviceberries and crabapples in the middle layer, and a host of wildflowers, grasses, and shorter shrubs such as sumac spreading into the sunlight away from the shadow of the trees.

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October Skies Aromatic Aster, Purple Dome New England Aster and Little Bluestem

Interesting Lines

I develop eye-catching lines and curves either through the use of plants or edging.  Curves can lead you through the garden or take you gently around a corner to reveal a piece of art or focal point.  Rather than straight lines, try undulating your borders.  It gives the illusion of extra space while drawing your eye along the border.  Also, curves relieve the linearity of most gardens.  I use ‘October Skies’ aromatic aster or shorter grasses such as Bouteloua ‘Blonde Ambition’ or prairie dropseed along these borders for dramatic effect.

 

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Fall Color

You can enjoy a colorful fall garden through leaf color or blooms.  Maple trees like ‘John Pair’ or ‘Autumn Splendor’ develop beautiful fall color.  I love the blooms of Asters and goldenrods late in the season.  They extend the blooms well into September and October.  Native grasses are transformed from green to splendid shades of reds, oranges, and yellows.  Amsonia hubrichtii turns butter yellow and a large mass of them is quite stunning.  This is one of my favorite plants because it has multiple seasons of interest.

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Switchgrass and Rigid Goldenrod Photo by Emily Weaver

Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Amsonia hubrichtii Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Use of light

The lower angle of the autumn sun can transform a garden.  Take advantage of its glow with bright fall colors and interesting forms. The late evening light illuminates native grasses in exquisite ways.  ‘Tiger Eyes’ sumac with its chartreuse foliage that changes to oranges and yellows as the season progresses can brighten up a dark corner of your garden.

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Frame the Views

Look for areas in your garden worth highlighting such as an arbor, a bench or a piece of art.  You can leave a narrow swath of lawn with perennials and shrubs on either side that lead to this focal point.  Interesting lines and diverse plants will only add to the intrigue and beauty of this space.  It is another trick you can use to draw people into the garden.

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In fact, all these elements will draw you into the garden this fall.  They will help you transform your landscape into a beautiful and functional space.  By thinking about or adding just of few of these elements, you will be rewarded as your garden transitions from summer to fall.

Celebrating Silphiums

Late July to early August is a great time of the year to be celebrating Silphiums. Scott wrote a Silphium post last summer highlighting the four species we can grow well in south central Kansas. I noticed during a recent walk around the Arboretum how brilliantly all four of these species are flowering right now and felt that they were worth recognizing once again. Review Scott’s post at the link above to become familiar with the four species we have in the Arboretum. I’ll touch on a few additional features of this genus in more depth.

Leaf Orientation and Morphology

Compass plant gets its name because the leaves tend to orient north and south and take advantage of cooler morning and evening sunlight to photosynthesize. When the sun is directly overhead during hotter times of the day, compass plant leaves have less direct sun exposure to minimize heat buildup and moisture loss. Cup plant does the same thing. Go HERE for an article in the American Journal of Botany for more on this topic.

Leaf morphology (or shape and form) plays its part too. Deeply lobed compass plant leaves have greater surface area than cup plant, which may translate to a more efficient heat radiating capacity (think of the function of a car radiator with all its coils and fins to maximize cooling potential).

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Compass plant leaf

 

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Cup plant leaf

Of the four species that Scott highlights, cup plant is the only Silphium species that doesn’t have a native range in Kansas (even though it seems to grow well here). Its range is east and north of Kansas where average precipitation levels are higher and temperatures are lower. Compass plant extends into drier and warmer climates and so this difference in leaf morphology between the two species may be a plausible adaptation for dealing with climate variation. Dense white hairs on Silphium leaves also help reflect sunlight and reduce wind speeds at the leaf surface. Both can reduce moisture loss.

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White hairs on compass plant leaf

Comparison to Sunflowers

Even though Silphiums are in the sunflower family (Asteraceae), they differ physiologically in their seed formation. You probably know that typical sunflower family flowering heads have both disc and ray florets. The ray florets act as sterile pollinator attractors and the disc florets are the seed producers. Our state flower, annual sunflower (Helianthus annuus), is one good example. Silphiums are just the opposite in that the attractive ray florets are the seed producers. Botany geeks are fascinated by these kinds of things, but I’m sure the more casual observer will find this equally as riveting.

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Fertile ray florets blooming on compass plant

 

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Flat, dark seeds have formed from compass plant disc florets

Easy to Grow

When it comes to growing native plants in your landscape, few are easier to establish than Silphiums. That’s the positive way to look at it. If you ask anybody who has had experience growing Silphiums as an ornamental in their manicured landscape, they will probably cite that they are invasive and problematic. Some use more pointed, even colorful language. You won’t notice this for the first few years while they are establishing. But when they start flowering in year four or five and seeds start dropping, that is when the invasion begins. Because each Silphium plant grows to a sizeable diameter of three feet or more, and the plants grow to a substantial height, they can become downright bullies.

So, we still encourage people to enjoy Silphiums for all the apparent reasons…colorful flowers during the heat of the summer, interesting foliage, and a great attractor of all sorts of insects via flowers and vegetation. But plant them in an area such as a prairie restoration or a less ornamental landscaped area where you won’t be as concerned with its aggressiveness or be judicious with deadheading. Keep scale in mind too with regard to the 6-9 feet height of Silphiums and the size of your planting area, as taller plants fit better in bigger planting areas.

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Compass plant has spread and come to dominate this 15 year-old planted bed.

 

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Rosinweed in the foreground and compass plant in the back seem to thus far be balanced in a diversely-planted and highly competitive five year-old reconstructed prairie environment.

 

Finally, if you have identified the appropriate area and decide to add Silphiums to your landscape, you might as well add some complementary purple flowers like ironweed and gayfeather. They bloom at the same time and add visual enjoyment and pollinator sources. These species along with Silphiums will add great interest to your landscape.

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Western ironweed (Vernonia baldwinii)

 

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Kansas gayfeather (Liatris pycnostachya)

Native Plant Selection Made Easy

I have found that a beautiful native landscape doesn’t magically appear.  It starts with a plan.  By choosing the right plants that grow well together in your setting, you will avoid many of the challenges homeowners face after the plants are established.  Plant selection is the most important step in the process of developing a native landscape, but it can also be the most challenging.  How do you select the best plants for a particular setting?  What do you need to do to insure their success?  Here are the steps I use to choose the best plants for a site and design a landscape that is both functional and beautiful.

Analyze the Location

You know your garden better than anyone.  You know the soil type.  Does it stay wet or is it extremely dry or something in between?  You know how much sun your area receives during the day and throughout the year.  You know where the water flows.  Are there areas that you can utilize as a background or backdrop?  Is there something you are trying to screen?  Is there an area you are trying to develop?  These are important questions that ultimately affect the types of plants you will choose.

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Prepare the Site

Site preparation doesn’t have much to do with plant selection, but it is an important step to consider as you develop your native landscape.  You need to get perennial weeds such as bindweed and Bermuda grass eradicated before you plant your garden.  If these weeds are not eliminated, they will overrun and out compete anything you plant.  Trust me on this.  I am still fighting these weeds in certain areas in my yard because I didn’t complete this step.

It is also good to define the area with some kind of border.  I have used metal edging, brick, limestone or landscape stone.  Edging makes your native garden look intentional.  Develop an area you can manage and fits your lifestyle.   You can always expand, but a bed that is too large can quickly become overwhelming.

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Choose the Plants

Once you have gathered all this information about your site and all the initial work has been done, you are ready to decide which plants will grow well together.  The most important step in the selection process is matching plants to the site.  You need to become familiar with every aspect of the plants through investigation, research and experience.  I often start with one or two plants I know will grow in this location.  Once I have established them as the foundation, the other plant combinations come easier.

I design each landscape with the finished picture in mind.  I consider heights, bloom time, habit, forms and textures.  We often only think about these plants when they are in bloom, but don’t forget their other qualities, such as seed heads that provide visual interest in the winter months.  It provides you an opportunity to highlight these qualities with another perennials or native grasses (e.g. coneflower seed heads  against little bluestem).  I group plants together for visual affect and stagger blooms throughout the season.  You want something coming into bloom and going out of bloom from spring through fall.  I include grasses for texture and movement during the winter months.

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Why plant a garden if you can’t enjoy it?  I predict that your native landscape will be a hub of pollinator and butterfly activity.  It will be an important link to other gardens in your neighborhood.  It may even inspire you to establish other prairie gardens in your landscape.  Your success may influence others to follow your example.  A native plant garden should be cherished, because you are helping the natural world in so many far-reaching ways.  Believe it or not, your garden will have a positive impact. So get started! Let your imagination and creativity inspire your design.

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Bearer of the Ammonite by Paul Friesen-Photo Courtesy of Jen LeFevre

Photo Credit