Landscape Design Principles: Plant Placement, Proportions and Scale

Plant placement, proportions and scale – these three elements of a successful design are really straight forward, but often overlooked.  They hinge on a certain level of understanding regarding plant height and spread at maturity.  These design principles also require you to incorporate clusters, sweeps and groupings of plants that look natural together with a succession of bloom all through the year. 

Plant Placement

When I start a design, I think about where the bed is going to be viewed.  Is it from the street?  Is it from the living room?  Will I want to view it from different vantage points?  This helps me frame the landscape.  For instance, if you have a foundation planting, you would obviously put the taller plants in the back working down in layers to the smaller plants along the border/edge of the bed.  If you were designing an island planting that would be viewed from both sides, I would plant the taller plants in the center with shorter plants spaced around the central focal point.  It seems obvious, but we don’t always think about sight lines. 

Another element of effective plant placement is bloom time.  With native plants, you need to think about succession of bloom.  You want to have plants coming into bloom and going out of bloom throughout the year.  Don’t plant two spring blooming plants next to each other, but rather plant a spring blooming wildflower next to a grass or later season blooming wildflower.  By incorporating plants that have color at varying times, you have something interesting happening year-round. 

Proportion and Scale

I don’t always observe or think about proportion and scale until it is too late.  The beds you design and the plants you include should look appropriate with the size of your home or the size of the flower bed.  As a general rule, I include plants that are no larger than half the bed width.  For instance, if your area is eight feet wide, try to find plants that are no taller than four feet.  Sometimes, smaller beds are all we have to work with, such as the small area between a sidewalk and your home.  Maybe it is only three feet wide.  Don’t try to put plants that are four to five feet all in that space.  It will flop onto the sidewalk and look out of place. 

Compass Plant is a beautiful wildflower that gets eight feet tall. It is out of scale in a smaller space. Give it room to grow.

If you are starting from scratch, lay out a garden hose away from your foundation.  Take note of the gentle curve around your home.  I like to have at least four to six feet of width to work with.  That gives you so many more plants to choose and include in your design.   On the corners, I like to give myself a little more room of maybe up to 10-12 feet.  This allows larger plants to be combined to soften the corner.  You probably have a picture in your mind of what you want to frame the views and keep it simple.  A garden that is too busy and out of proportion detracts from your home rather than complementing it. 

Again, it is important to know how tall and wide each of the plants will grow.  I like to include plants that will fill in the spaces available to them.  Really think about the plants you want to have near sidewalks, windows, patios, and porches.  You don’t want to be continually cutting them back when they have outgrown the space. 

It sounds so simple, but these are the design principles I struggle with the most.  There is so much to consider with each design, from site analysis, plant habit and bloom times, textural elements, and so much more.  We can’t have it all, but a basic understanding of scale, proportions and plant placement will help you create a successful design.  Now is the time to get started.  If you need help, we will be happy to work with you during our remaining Native Plant School classes or at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival.

Landscape Design Principle: Lines

A native plant design is a highly subjective project.  The plants you like may not be the ones I would choose and vice versa.  Your garden area is unique to you.  Sun, soil, moisture conditions can vary as well.  The canvas you are painting on will look distinctly different than my artistic design.  As we strive to create a sense of place in our landscapes, our medium is the land.  Even though each garden is one-of-a-kind, there are a few design principles that we all should follow.  Over the coming weeks, we will discuss some of these design principles.

Today, we will be tackle lines within the garden. 

Lines should be used to draw people in and through the garden.  They appeal to the senses.  They lead you through the garden and help frame views we see or don’t want seen.

Straight lines

Long, straight rows of plants can be rather formal.  They are structural, often symmetrical and lead the eye directly to the focal point like the front door.  Straight lines can be boring if you don’t cluster plants and repeat patterns.  The strong straight line of a fence can be softened with a sweeping curved edge or accentuated with parallel plantings that run the length of the fence.

Vertical lines

These lines move you up and down in the landscape.  Taller trees, larger structural features such as an arbor should make your eyes go upward.  They make the space feel larger and help enclose the space. 

Horizontal lines

Just like vertical lines lead your eye skyward, horizontal lines lead your eye along the ground plane.  These low lines help define the space and work to tie everything together.  Rock walls, edging with plants or stone, hedges, or a clean line between turf and plants are examples that create these intentional low lines.

Curved lines

Curved lines look intentional and informal.  Gently bending lines can be used to lead people slowly around a corner to an architectural feature or element such as a bench, garden shed, arbor or vegetable garden, which adds mystery and intrigue to your garden space.  Curved lines can help dissolve rigid straight lines of a walkway, fence, house or other structural feature.  Curved lines fit better in a natural asymmetrical design using native plants.  I like to place a garden hose on the ground to help me visualize these meandering lines.  As you step back to look, you are able to move the hose to create the effect that is most appealing before you break ground on your new garden. 

Kansas Wildflower Exhibit

Be intentional in grouping plants.

No matter the lines you use in your landscape, plants obviously play a key role.  Formal and informal looks can be achieved with the use of certain plants grouped together or spread apart.  Cluster plants together for more visual appeal.  Repeat structural plants like native grasses and incorporate filler plants throughout the design that bloom at different times during the year to draw you into the garden and through the garden.  Plants that spill over onto the straight lines of a walkway soften the edge. The possibilities are endless because there are so many plants to choose.  How you use lines will distinguish your design from others.  Really think about this important design principle and what lines you want to use.        

Next time, we will talk about plant placement, proportions and scale.       

A Garden for the Dogs

As a horticulturist and a dog lover, life can be a little ‘ruff’. I dream of a beautiful, lush landscape of gorgeous plants and well-tended lawn, but we all know how dogs wreak havoc on our outdoor spaces. Even my sweet pooch, well behaved and trained to a T, inadvertently tramples my plants and upends my #gardengoals with every enthusiastic game of frisbee.

But there is light at the end of this long, muddy, paw-printed tunnel — with some careful planning, you can love your dog and your yard.

To save my small lawn from total destruction, Rosie and I sometimes take our game of fetch to the tennis courts or a park.

Safety First

This should be a no-brainer, but bears repeating: Keep harmful chemicals and pesticides out of a dog-friendly yard! Even if you think your dog doesn’t “go over there that often”, or you are pretty sure the treatment “will dry by the time she gets there”. Remember that your doggo is in direct paw-to-ground contact with the plants and soil they walk on – not to mention the digging, rolling, and rooting around that pups do on a daily basis. Some studies show a growing link between lawn-care products and cases of canine lymphoma. So, if you or your lawn care professionals are applying ANY pesticides or herbicides, do your research and call your vet to make sure you are making a safe choice for your canine friend.

We all love our dogs and smother them in love, and your yard is part of that! Commit a little time to providing a safe and fun space for them!

Do Your Homework

It is impossible to keep straight all the poisonous and non-poisonous plants out there. Even the most well intentioned garden center clerk might get it wrong, putting your pup at risk. Check before you buy at ASPCA.org’s Poisonous Plants database. Be aware that even the most benign plants can cause problems if ingested in large quantities or if your pup has other health issues.

On the whole, plants in the mint genus (Mentha) seem to be fairly safe for dogs, including peppermint and spearmint, (but excluding Mentha pulegium.) In fact, many common herbs are safe for dogs and keep their highly evolved noses stimulated. Look for lavender, basil, rosemary, and oregano to include in your garden. Not only will these herbs freshen your pet’s breath should they choose to take a nibble, but they also attract pollinators and have lovely foliage.

As much as I love milkweed, this plant DOES NOT belong in a pet-friendly garden. Milkweed has toxic sap with cardiac glycosides in it. Keep all milkweed species far away from your pup’s nibbling snout.

Dog-Friendly Perennials

As native plants go, it gets a little more difficult to pin down exactly what is safe and what is not. Most native plants only have a toxicity rating for livestock, but with completely different digestive systems, does that rating apply to dogs as well? There are lots of online sources for toxic plant information, so all I can provide here is a short list of native and adaptable plants that DO NOT appear on those toxic plant lists and DO appear at our spring sale.

Aquilegia spp. – columbine
Agastache spp. – hummingbird mint
Callirhoe involucrata – winecups
Coreopsis spp. – tickseed
Echinops spp. – globe thistle
Glandularia canadensis – prairie verbena
Heuchera spp. – coral bells
Monarda spp. – bee balm
Oenothera macrocarpa – evening primrose
Phlox divaricata – wild blue phlox
Phlox subulata – creeping phlox

Be sure to check with your veterinarian before assuming the safety of any plant, especially if your pet is prone to grazing.

Winecups (Callirhoe involucrata) make an excellent ground cover. They love hot sun and dry conditions.
Oenothera doesn’t show up on many toxic plant lists. Its large cheery blooms and drought tolerance make it perfect for xeric gardens.

Happy Tails, Happy Trails

If your dog spends unsupervised time in the yard, you have surely found narrow, hard-packed trails devoid of vegetation. These are a dog’s version of cattle trails — a safe and quick way to get from A to B. Dogs are creatures of habit, and this one may stem from their wolf ancestors. Pro tip: DO NOT try to change the trail. It is extremely unlikely you will change his walking pattern; this deeply ingrained behavior is stronger than your desire for a perfect lawn. If you plant anything in this path your pup will tromp over it or dig it out of the way. Instead, think about hardscaping problem areas with pavers, gravel, or a charming boardwalk. A friend of mine has four huge Labradors (yes, you read that correctly) and still manages a stunningly beautiful landscape. How? By planting and planning in accordance with their flow of traffic.

As a young pup Rosie often came to work with me. Here she is staying cozy in our trusty Arboretum work truck.

How to Stop the Digging

A once beautiful garden can turn into an ankle-twisting nightmare once your pooch gets the urge to dig. Punishment often won’t deter this behavior, as it is almost impossible to catch them in the act. In some cases, this is just a phase of puppyhood and the dog will grow out of it. In others, it signals she is bored and frustrated – time for us humans to get serious about fetch, walks, and training to placate their need for interaction. Lastly, if you notice the holes seem to only show up in summer, it means Fido is just trying to find a spot to stay cool. Dogs will dig in cool, moist areas of soil to create a comfortable spot to lounge. An easy fix for this comes from landscape designer Maureen Gilmer,

“…provide them with a pit of their own where it’s more damp and cool than the flower beds. Give them sand to lie in and it won’t make mud or stains, and easily falls away from their fur. Keep the area moist and your dog will prefer that spot over all else .”

THE DOG-SCAPED YARD: Creating a Backyard Retreat for You and Your Dog

With some careful planning, your backyard can be an oasis for dogs and people alike. If you are needing a little help planning out your garden space, please call us to set up a landscape consultation. If you would like to get Fido out of the yard for a while, visit the Arboretum grounds for a long walk in the prairie. Be sure to have your pup on a leash and to clean up after her! Our grounds are open dawn to dusk, 365 days per year.

The Imperfect Garden

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

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

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

Perfection can be a mess

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

Designing your imperfect garden

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

Maintenance of an imperfect garden

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

Giving the prairie a haircut in late winter

If you plant it, they will come.

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

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

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

Water Conservation in the Home Landscape

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

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

Tha Arboretum xeric bed in May.

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

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

The Arboretum buffalograss in the summer

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Brad Guhr

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

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

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

Regal Fritillary on yellow butterfly weed. Photo by Brad Guhr






Native Grasses in the Garden

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

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

Little Bluestem and Coneflower seedheads. Photo by Emily Weaver.

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

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

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

Indiangrass plumes. Photo by Brad Guhr.

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

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

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

Beautiful little bluestem in fall. Photo by Emily Weaver.

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

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

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

Switchgrass and big bluestem. Photo by Emily Weaver.






Pathways in Your Garden

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

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

Rock Paths

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

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

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

Mulch Paths

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

Straw Paths

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

Semi-permeable pavement

Permeable interlocking concrete pavers

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

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

Semi-permeable Pavement

 






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)

____________________

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.”






Can A Shade Garden Be Created In Kansas?

“I have shade in my yard, what can I grow?” We get this question every year at our FloraKansas Plant Festivals and I admit it is a challenge to come up with plants that will thrive in shade.  The difficulty with trying to grow shade plants in our area in not that we have shade, it’s that we have shade in an area that once grew sun loving deep rooted prairie plants.  Trees have been added to our landscapes out of necessity and the prairie has been pushed out due to lack of adequate sunlight.  The inconsistent rainfall and root competition of the trees are a real challenge to shade-loving perennials, shrubs and understory trees.

So what can we do to create a shade garden?

Start small

Choose drought tolerant shade loving plants. These new additions to your shade garden should be smaller and don’t require digging a deep hole and disturbing tree roots to get them in the ground.  Establish an area that can easily be managed and maintained the first couple of years.  Keep in mind that root competition and irregular rainfall will require consistent moisture from you the first year until the new plants can weave their roots through the tree roots and live in harmony together.

Be patient

This is not a quick fix. The roots of your shade plants develop slowly so you need to watch and wait to see what these plants need.  The first two years are vital to the success of your shade garden endeavor. You will need to water them regularly to encourage growth.  Work with the plants to create an environment in which they will thrive.  Your patience will be rewarded with new blooms several years into the future, but you have to start now to see this happen.

Forms and textures are important

Let face it, there are not as many showy flowering plants for the shade compared to the vast array of sun loving prairie plants.  So, we need to include plants with interesting forms and foliage.  A good example of this are the arching stems of Solomon’s seal. A group of these growing happily together are very striking. Incorporate plants that flower but don’t forget the architecture that give additional visual interest.  Great shade gardens have a balance of flowers and foliage.

Arching stems of Solomon’s Seal

Don’t fertilize

Leave the leaves as protection and organic matter.  As the leaves decompose, they will supply nutrients to the fledgling plants. The natural processes that make a woodland work effortlessly need to be replicated as closely as possible.  Woodland plant communities rely on the nutrients from the canopy and twigs that are slowly broken down and released back to the soil.  Too much fertilizer creates all kinds of problems, but the most obvious is too much growth with not enough sustainable roots.

CLICK HERE: For a list of shade loving perennials and shrubs.

Trees in Kansas are a blessing, not a curse.  We enjoy the shade, but often struggle to find the right plants for that barren shady spot under the trees.  Some properly chosen plants and some patience along with timely watering will make your woodland garden more natural and resilient over time.  The roots of the trees and roots of the shade plants co-mingle in our soil, sunlight and climate.  Even the most tranquil forest settings we have seen have complex processes and interactions taking place.  So, be patient and you will be rewarded with happy plants for years to come.

 






What is the Key to Native Plant Happiness?

One of the questions we get every year at the FloraKansas Native Plant Festival, is “why didn’t my ___ come back this year?” It is a great question. Every year at the Arboretum, we ask the same question with some of the plants we establish and want to grow. I wish there was a right answer for every situation and every scenario, but every landscape is unique. Here’s the hard truth that many gardeners don’t often want to hear: the key to native plant happiness lies in identifying this uniqueness and finding the right plants for your plot.

Coneflowers blooming in the lush prairie garden

Match Plants to Your Site

Your landscape is a micro-climate all its own. The soil, sun exposure, orientation to your house, root competition from trees, and many other factors make your garden special. Even your neighbor overwatering their lawn can impact what plants grow best in your scene.  There are hundreds of factors that relate to the happiness of your plants and whether or not they will thrive.

The most critical step when establishing your native plant garden is matching the plants with your site. Sometimes I want to try a certain plant in a certain spot that has no business being planted there. I have done it too many times to mention and the result is always the same. I am left holding the hand of a struggling plant that would be much happier someplace else. In the end, I either move it or lose it.

Summer blooms of Kansas gayfeather and gray-headed coneflower

Do Your Homework

If we are honest, I think we have all planted before preparing. The wilting plant in the flower bed is a constant reminder to me that I didn’t do my homework.  Look at your landscape.  Is it sunny or in the shade?  Is the soil clay or sand?

Become familiar with prairie plants that grow in similar situations and evaluate the elements that will impact their survival. Choose plants that will thrive in the micro-climate of your yard.  Sun-loving native plants need at least 6 hours of direct sunlight to grow happily. If your flower bed receives less than 6 hours of sun, look at more shade-loving natives.

A thriving landscape begins with matching plants to your one-of-a-kind area. For a lower-maintenance garden, choose plants that occur in the same or similar prairie climates.  Anytime you stray too far off, the plants don’t flourish and they require more effort to keep alive.  Planting a swamp milkweed on a dry hill or a Missouri evening primrose in a bog will never work.

Butterfly milkweed on a well-drained slope

Learn From Your Mistakes

Good gardeners have lost their share of plants over the years, but what makes them good gardeners is that they learn from their mistakes. With lots of trial and error under their belts, they/we should make better choices…in theory at least.

Other design elements such as succession of bloom, patterns, year round interest, heights, and visual elements become less important when your plant is unhappy in its current location. You must get the right plants in the right place and the other elements will come much easier. A healthy garden begins with a connection to your landscape personally. As you watch and learn  what your landscape needs and what it can sustain, you will be able to link the appropriate plants to the location. This important step in the design process allows you to spend more time enjoying and less time “working” in your garden.  We all want that from our gardens.

Just one more thing…

Sometimes plants, through no fault of our own, defy all of the above-mentioned rules and simply don’t return. Even in the prairie, plants are ephemeral and rely on self-seeding to continue to grow in an area.  As you become more familiar with native plants (and I’m still learning too), you will be able to identify these species.  It is their nature to be short lived. True native coneflowers have this characteristic.  They are worth planting, but may need to be supplemented with new plants from time to time to keep the area full.

Pale coneflower