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

Design Essentials For Small Gardens

One of the takeaways from last Saturday’s Native Plant Symposium was that every garden is different. Each landscape takes on the unique vision of the owner. It is cared for with love or neglect and shaped into an oasis that reflects the passions of each gardener. Through plants, art, paths, benches and even ponds, they were, with a bit of effort, able to create their own little bit of heaven.

North Newton City Hall Prairie Planting

Some of the gardens were large, but many of them were smaller with challenges all their own. The tiniest landscapes tend to give gardeners the biggest headaches, but they can also give the most satisfaction if designed properly.  These small gardens provide opportunities to treasure and notice the beauty and details of the garden daily. Here are some design essentials for smaller spaces:

Know your space

How much area needs to be landscaped? Is it sunny or shady? What soil do you have and is it wet or dry? What are the boundaries made of (fence, trees, a house, a deck, or a stone wall)? What type of views do you have and do you like what you see?

What type of a garden are you trying to create?

Is it a wildlife sanctuary? Do you want a secluded place to sit and read a book? Is it a space to grow herbs and vegetables along with some beautiful plants? Will you be looking at your garden from within or outside the garden?

Soften the surroundings with plants

The borders of the garden are prominent features that can be enhanced with plants that grow vertically. Whether you have a fence or railing along the edge, plants help define the boundaries. These taller vertical layers will give your garden depth. They develop the illusion that your garden is larger. They also provide privacy and screen out bad views.

Leatherleaf Viburnum pruned as a hedge

Create garden rooms

Not every yard is large enough to create multiple outdoor rooms. If you have the space, however, paths leading to another more intimate area can really be fun. Vary your path, landscaping material and plants in each room so each garden area is unique. Only show a portion of the room to generate intrigue. Interesting lines of plants or edging leading you through the garden can direct you to that hidden sanctuary.

Landscape Layering

I think layering is the most important part of a landscape design. Layers of plants blend the garden together.  This will make the landscape feel cohesive and lush. Mix and match sizes and shapes of plants to create a tiered effect. Hopscotching down from largest in the back to shortest along the path edges with different textures, shapes, and repetition of forms that are in scale with your area will make the garden look full and larger than it really is. If you can pull this effect off, your small garden will be one of life’s simple pleasures.

I know this is not in Kansas but the principle is the same. Layering plants make an impact.

Choosing the right plant

Evergreen trees and shrubs provide structure and interest all year round. Perennials, shrubs and trees add seasonal interest from flowers, foliage, bark and berries. By varying plant types with different foliage such as grasses you add texture and movement in the garden. Scented plants near benches or close to the house waft fragrance through the garden with the gentlest breeze. Flowers that attract butterflies, bees and other pollinators can make a big difference. Trees and large shrubs such as Viburnums add height, privacy, interest from bark, foliage, fruit or flowers, as well as habitat for birds and insects.

Have a place where you can enjoy your creation.

What good is a garden that cannot be enjoyed? Include a bench, comfy chair, fire pit, stone wall or hammock to relax in your garden. Consider whether to build some seating into the plan using seat-height walls to contain flower beds with scented plants.

There is something special about a small garden done right. Landscapes take on the personality of the gardener, through special touches that make your garden special to you. Many people consider these small spaces difficult because they don’t have much to work with, but the key to success with intimate spaces is defining its purpose. That is the starting point. Inspiration is as wild and crazy as you want to be. Have fun with it and embrace the space.

Inspiring Landscapers

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

 

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

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

The Speakers

 

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

Kauffman Museum Prairie

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

Pipevine Swallowtail Caterpillar on Host Plant

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

Goddard Eisenhower High School Prairie Garden

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

Sand Creek Community Garden

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

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

A Clumped Planting at Dyck Arboretum.

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

Lenora Larson’s Garden

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

The Trade-off Plants Make to Survive

Gardening is a learning process.  I have been working at the Arboretum for nearly 25 years and I am still learning new things.

Wildflowers and grasses, as it turns out, live in communities. They grow best surrounded by plants that coexist well and rely on each other. My designs have focused on individual plants grouped together for dramatic effect, but they would be much happier bunched with native grasses like little bluestem.  It is a subtle change in design approach, but can make a tremendous difference in the overall success of the planting and give plantings a much richer sense of place.

Another epiphany has come with the realization of the trade-off that plants make in the landscape. We tend to automatically believe that just because we put a plant in the landscape it will be happy. I have killed my share of plants by making this assumption. We manipulate the soil and install irrigation with the hopes of keeping the plants chosen for the site alive and thriving. Instead, we should be searching for the right plants for the landscape that do not have to be coaxed to grow. Although there are thousands of plants available, only a select few will grow freely under these specific conditions.

This is the trade-off. Plants cannot move and are bound to where they are planted. They have to survive in the soil, light, nutrients, water, pH and temperature of that particular site. They have to tolerate these conditions to grow and reproduce. If any of these resources is lacking in any way, the plant will give up something to continue to grow. The leaves will curl, plant growth will be stunted, flowers will be smaller or if it needs more light, the stems will be elongated. The plant is not growing as it should because it lacks one or all of these important resources or conditions.

Our natural response as gardeners has been to supply these resources by changing the conditions, which keeps these plants on life support. I have come to realize there is an alternative. The importance of matching plants up with the site is vital to the success of the landscape design. There are plants that thrive in our gumbo clay soils here in Kansas without organic matter amendments. For centuries, plants with deep roots that can punch through the dense soil for extra moisture have prospered without supplemental help.

Think of the landscapes and gardens we love. They seem to thrive effortlessly. They have constraints and can be harsh, but they are lush and beautiful too. They create a sense of place and thrive regardless of the conditions.  Stress on plants helps define what will grow in a particular landscape. It makes us choose wisely the plants that we incorporate into our designs.

 

As you plan for spring and begin to choose plants, be conscious of the land. Ask yourself what plants will thrive in this garden? What plants were not happy last year? Make a concerted effort to understand the plants you specify for your landscape. As I have said time and again, match the plants up to your site. I just have to take my own advice. If you are looking for a few plants for your area, find them at the 2018 FloraKansas Plant Sale.

An Annual Dilemma

A recent September Dyck Arboretum trip to Kansas City and the home of Lenora Larson spurred for me a dilemma regarding landscaping with non-native annual plants. I have typically spurned the use of annuals for reasons I’ll elaborate on more later. But Lenora makes a very compelling case for using more annuals in the home landscape.

Front walkway to Lenora Larson’s home

“Best Butterfly Godmother Possible”

Lenora Larson is indeed a master gardener with a mastery of providing host and nectar plants for a great variety of insects. Her father was a botanist and her mother was a landscape designer, so she certainly has a lineage for creating interesting and beautiful gardens. She was a microbiologist before retiring; with a scientist’s curiosity, she keeps alive a keen interest in learning more about the natural world (especially plants and insects) around her. This passion was evident during her “Gardening for Butterflies” winter lecture talk at the Arboretum in March this year, and it was especially apparent as we toured the gardens around her home.

Lenora Larson giving a tour of her garden

Lenora hates planting and, therefore, smartly touts the use of long-lived perennials as well as self-sowing annuals. She is a hard-working gardener, and loves spending 6-8 hours per day weeding and mulching during the growing season. She breaks down by hand all the vegetation on site to keep around the seeds and insect eggs that will keep the cycles going next year. Lenora is an artist who has a genius eye for aesthetics, composition, texture and color. Not only are her gardens graced with “plant art”, but many permanent art installations of sculptures, trellises, paths, and walls are carefully and purposefully included as well. Her gardens are visually stunning.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

To an ecologist’s eye, Lenora’s gardens are fascinating. The numbers of butterflies, moths, bees, flies, beetles, and insects in general were incredible and so interesting. She could recognize and identify practically every insect we saw and her stories extended to amphibians, reptiles, birds, mammals and more. Lenora’s planting formula is generally to plant about 50% native perennial host plants for hungry insect larvae, and then as many flowering nectar plants as possible (annuals included) for the adult insects. Thanks to the annuals, Lenora’s gardens feature flowers from April through November. Lenora is willing to use glyphosate (e.g., Roundup) herbicide carefully to keep her paths looking clean when needed, but as you might imagine, she is staunchly against the use of insecticides.

Lenora Larson’s Garden

My Historical Context for the “Dilemma”

Allow me to give a bit of background on why landscaping with annuals even poses a dilemma for me.

I have been a bit of a snob in the past about planting only native perennial plants. With a fresh background in plant ecology and ecological restoration when I came to the Dyck Arboretum nearly 14 years ago, my focus was all about trying to mimic native plant communities while conducting prairie restorations, improving the ecology of my own back yard, and providing others with landscaping recommendations. This included not only the exclusive use of species with historic presence in south central Kansas, but trying to stick to local ecotype plants of those species as well whenever possible. Native annuals such as annual sunflower, and a couple of different ragweed species are important ecologically in their functions of holding soil and providing lots of seed food for wildlife. However, they generally aren’t appreciated in landscaping applications, because they are aggressive and/or aggravate allergies.

These “native only” ideas were fairly compatible with the mission and focus at Dyck Arboretum, which are firmly rooted in landscaping with native plants. In Central Kansas, that means using plants of the prairie. This approach is what sets us apart from other plant nurseries. It feeds our mission of education and stewardship, and it connects us to a sense of place by embracing historical plant communities important to our Kansas cultural and natural history.

But while this restrictive approach of “natives only” had its merits in designing, collecting seed, and planting our Prairie Window Project prairie restoration at the Arboretum, I quickly learned that this ivory tower mentality was not held by most other people. It also wasn’t a very sustainable approach for an organization engaging the general public on environmentally-responsible landscaping.

So, in addition to promoting use of native plants, our mission also embraces the use of adaptable perennials that may have originally grown elsewhere, but are still adapted to grow well in our soils and climate. Today, in a cosmopolitan world where information and biological organisms are shared easily around the globe, it seems impossible to take a natives only approach.

 

Using Annuals

One of the main reasons I’ve been biased against annuals for landscaping is their regular need for water. Annuals have shallow root systems compared to perennials. Dry, hot Kansas summers are not always conducive for growing annuals from places in the world with cooler and wetter climates.

Lenora Larson’s house sits next to a well-fed pond that she uses for her irrigation needs. Cosmos and zinnias have done well as part of our community garden vegetable plot, because we water them regularly. And we do enjoy the abundance of butterflies they attract throughout the summer. I’m just not sure if I want to commit the time and environmental/monetary costs to keeping annuals alive around my home too.

But in 2018, I have decided that I’m going to give this annuals approach a try to supplement my native perennial gardens. I plan to follow Lenora’s succinct 3-page guide, in which she summarizes her gardening approach and offers her favorite self-sowing annual plant species choices with descriptions of each. For many of these species she recommends, I’ve searched online and provided photos of the flowers below. Maybe you are already implementing many of Lenora’s annual species suggestions and seeing the rewards. If not, consider joining me!

Cosmos bipinnatus

Zinnia angustifolia – Profusion Orange

Nicotiana alata

Ricinus communis

Four O’Clock

Celosia cristata

Cleome spinosa

Impatiens balsamina

Tithonia rotundifolia

Verbena bonariensis

Lenora’s Self Sowing Annuals Guide

Photo Credits