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

What Are The Benefits of Hedges?

As you design your landscape, one of the first questions to consider is the need for screens and hedges. Do you need to block an undesirable vista or define an area? Do you need to line a path or camouflage a utility?  Hedges help outline boundaries. Instead of a rigid wall or fence built with wood or brick, why not create a living wall or screen using a variety of plants?   A living fence will provide much needed wildlife habitat while slowing the wind, improving air and water quality and beautifying the landscape.

Here is a mixed planting with taller shrubs/trees in the background.

 

When I think of hedges, my mind automatically pictures shrubs neatly trimmed and closely spaced, but it can be so much more diverse. A non-traditional hedge can be created with many different types of plants. This approach creates layers of varying heights that naturally block the view or envelope the space. The key is matching the plants to your site and grouping plants in informal clusters rather than in predictable rows. Hedges can be an essential element in a sustainable landscape design.

Blackhaw viburnum and Dallas Blues Switchgrass

Diversity is the key to the longevity and success of any hedge. If you drive through the country, you see screens and windbreaks that were planted with only three to four species in rows, and have, over time, been devastated by decay and disease. Who knew that pine wilt or tip blight would kill so many pine trees 50 years ago? A diverse selection of evergreens, deciduous trees, understory trees, and shrubs, grouped together in irregular patterns, would allow the removal of a dead or dying plant without compromising the whole planting. This large scale example can be incorporated into a smaller back yard planting. By using a wide variety of plants, you will avoid this lack of diversity pitfall.

Buffer planting along a driveway.

Typically, hedges are made up of evergreens or shrubs, but even wildflowers and grasses can be mixed together to produce an attractive screen. Tall grasses such as switchgrass and big bluestem, along with wildflowers like New England aster and culvers root, become intertwined and dense, creating an informal hedge that provides valuable habitat and season-long interest. Intermingling shrubs with blooms and interesting foliage contributes additional food, nectar and shelter. The varying heights and undulating forms boosts the wildlife attraction and overall beauty of the planting. In instances where space is an issue, again, avoid planting in rows. Instead, plant in groups of three or five and add as many different plants as possible.

Prairie Dropseed, Giant Black-eyed Susan and yellow coneflower

Here are some examples of plants we recommend for hedges:

Evergreen choices

Eastern red cedar (Juniperis virginiana), ‘Caneartii’ or “Taylor’, Arizona Cypress, Southwestern White Pine, and Leatherleaf Viburnum

Native grass recommendations

Switchgrass-Panicum ‘Dallas Blues’, Panicum ‘Northwind’, Indiangrass-Sorghastrum nutans, Big Bluestem -Andropogon gerardii

Wildflower recommendations

New England aster, culvers root, penstemon, bluestar, bee balm, black-eyed susan, blazing star, beardtongue, coneflowers, goldenrod, and blue sage

In my own yard, I have a cedar fence to keep my dogs from escaping. However, I have softened the fence with an assortment of flowering shrubs and mixed prairie plantings in the front of it. These buffer areas are much more appealing than the stark vertical fence.  The benefits of a living screen or hedge in the landscape are many. These natural plantings provide privacy, protection against wind, reduce noise, enhance energy conservation, create wildlife habitat, increase species diversity in your neighborhood, beautify the landscape and screen unsightly elements.

Hedges can do so much to improve your landscape. Why not take a second look at some of these areas in your own yard?  A few additions could make a tremendous difference.

Additional resources

Recommended Trees of South Central Kansas

Native Shrub List

Native Plant Guide

Predator Gardens

Pollinator gardens are the current craze, and rightly so! Pollinators of all shapes and sizes are desperately in need of good quality habitat. But it’s not all beautiful butterflies and buzzing bees – there are predator insects on the loose, patrolling your flowerbed for their next meal. These helpful arthropods can reduce the weeds in your garden and put a stop to those leaf eating larvae. Inviting certain predator insects to your yard can benefit your flowers and keep your little slice of the ecosystem in balance. Following are a few ways to start a predator garden and how it can benefit the rest of your landscape.

Beetle Banks

Photo from http://www.projectnoah.org/spottings/995056020.
The Pennsylvania ground beetle (Harpalus pennsylcanica) is found all over North America. It feeds on the seeds of ragweed and giant foxtail as well as the larvae of Colorado potato borer. What more could you want?

A great way to start a predator garden is by creating ‘beetle banks’. We all love the aphid eating lady beetle, but there are thousands of less charismatic species to be thankful for as well. Ground dwelling beetles can be a gardeners best friend by eating weed seeds, preying on slugs, snails, mites, and much more. You might not see them in action since many species are nocturnal. Planting raised berms/mounds of clump and tuft forming grasses such as Panicum, Tripsacum, or Sprobolous, invites ground-dwelling beetles to stick around. The uncut grasses keep them cozy during winter and the raised area helps keep them dry. I learned all about this technique at a Xerxes Society training day for farmers interested in beneficial insects. Beetle banks are being tested on the agricultural scale, but it works on the small scale too.

While this Panicum virgatum planting is wild and natural looking, a few clumps of an upright variety in your garden can be beneficial and still look groomed. Wikicommons public domain image at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUSDA_switchgrass.jpg

Don’t Swat the Wasps

Your first instinct might be to knock down that wasp nest, but not so fast! Wasps are excellent predators who can rid your garden of hornworms, army worms, flies and crickets. Paper wasps and yellow jackets will package up the remains of these little pests and feed them to their young. Some wasps are so small they resemble a fly or mosquito, and these are likely a species of parasitoid wasp. These helpful friends lay their eggs inside tomato hornworms and aphids, immobilizing and eventually killing them. In fact, the University of Maryland extension called parasitoid wasps “the single most important biological control method gardeners have”. Adult wasps of all kinds mostly feed on nectar and can easily be attracted the same way as any other pollinator – by having season long nectar available in your native flower bed. Just be careful not to get too close to their nest, we all know how a wasp sting can smart!

Above, a paper wasp (Poliste fuscatus) feeds on horsetail milkweed nectar/pollen.

A Home For All Seasons

Depending on the size of garden/field you are trying to pest control, it can take years to establish a reliable predator population. Pollen/nectar producing flowers are the first part of attracting these helpers, but creating habitat is crucial to keeping them around. Along with beetle banks, blooming hedgerows or shrubby borders will provide summer nectar and winter shelter. Leaving your garden uncut through winter will make sure there are plenty of pithy stems where insects can overwinter. Reduce the amount of tilling every year to ensure that ground dwelling beetle populations aren’t decimated. And lastly, try to avoid the use of prophylactic pesticides such as treated seeds or broadcast/non-selective application. This will also kill the non-target species, such as the predator insects that might save you the cost of pesticide next season!

The Social Network for Plants

One of the landscaping trends for 2018 is the idea that plants are members of a complex social network. No, they are not on Facebook, Instagram or tweeting about the conditions on their side of the prairie, but they do grow best in a company of friends. I enjoy the idea that even though each plant is unique, they are part of interrelated communities. They complement each other and live in harmony, which makes them so much more resilient together than if they grow isolated and alone.

Plant communities in the wild

Nature is a great teacher. Look at wild plant communities. Whether a forest or a prairie, you will find plants growing harmoniously together. There aren’t any mulched areas between plants, but rather intertwining, interlocking and dense groups of plants growing side by side. A compass plant reaches up through tall grasses like big bluestem and indiangrass. The deep tap root punches through the fibrous roots of the grasses, and the tall grasses help prop up the compass plant’s long stems and keep them from flopping over.  If you plant compass plant in your landscape, plant it with these tall grasses. Plants grow in environments that suit their growth habit.

 

Butterfly weed is another great example. In the wild, it would get smothered and lost in five to six foot grasses, but you see it flourishing with shorter grasses like little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue gramma. Grasses of similar height is what they prefer. The beautiful orange blooms are at the same height as the grasses. These plants also have similar sun, soil and moisture requirements, too.

Know more about the plants you grow

An understanding of plant communities and the preferences of individual plants will help direct your landscape design. This approach to landscaping forces you to become familiar with each plant, but rewards you with a successful landscape that mimics the communities on the prairie. By adapting your gardens to include groups of plants that naturally occur together and that match your own landscape, you will have a functional, low maintenance landscape that is ecologically responsible and beautiful at the same time.

Urban prairie photo courtesy Craig Freeman

 

This style of landscaping has caused me to reevaluate how I design new plantings. For instance, switchgrass, which is one of my favorite grasses, is a solitary grass in the wild. It forms large colonies with other wildflowers growing on the edges of these colonies.  Richard Hansen and Friedrich Stahl, in their book “Perennials and their Garden Habitat”, arrange plants according to their sociability level.  Plants like switchgrass or coneflowers at lower levels (1 and 2) are set individually or in small clusters. Plants like prairie dropseed or blue grama at higher levels (3 to 5) are set in groups of 10 to 20-plus, arranged loosely around the others.

By observing the different levels of plant sociability, it guides how you incorporate plants into your landscape. It is an ecological way to garden that focuses less on aesthetics and more on relationships of plants. Of course height, bloom time, texture and flower color are important, but they are not the most important consideration when planting. The main emphasis now is grouping plants together that thrive in the wild together.

So what does this look like practically in your landscape?

It looks like 10-20 coneflowers (level 2 plants) propped up with little bluestem, prairie dropseed and blue grama (level 4 plants). In the wild, you never see just coneflowers growing in large solitary groups together, but mixed with other wildflowers and grasses. Blue sage (level 2 plant) has a tendency to flop, but when combined with other taller grasses and wildflowers, its blue flowers are held at eye level. The taller, more upright plants or solitary plants in levels 1 and 2 need the level 3 to 5 plants to grow and spread around them. This interlocking matrix of plants covers every square foot of your garden. Weeds are crowded out and maintenance is reduced over time as these plants squeeze out unwanted species. You can now manage your plant communities as a whole rather than taking care of each individual plant.

Native prairie photo courtesy of Craig Freeman

 

I believe this approach to designing a landscape has many benefits. Using this approach, we will become intimately acquainted with the plants we grow and the social communities in which they thrive. This connection to our plants forces us to learn about them and more importantly to see them as individual pieces of a much larger collection of associated plants. It is a radical shift in how we design a garden. Plants are pieces that nature weaves together in ecological combinations. Nature is a great teacher.

We will be expanding on this idea of social networks in future blogs and landscape plans.  This is an exciting concept that will change how we garden in the future. It connects us to the land in so many different ways.

 

How to Create a Rain Garden

During a typical rainstorm, water is removed from your roof through downspouts and drains. Then the water runs off your lawn, which may have been treated with pesticides and fertilizers.  This water and the oily street water are collected in the gutter.  All these pollutants in the water are carried into larger streams and rivers downstream.

Rain gardens address this problem at the source, your yard.  Though rain gardens are relatively new in the gardening world, they gained popularity after people began to realize the benefits of capturing and holding water on their property.  This water can be utilized and filtered by native plants, reducing the quantity of polluted water that ultimately reaches the drain.  Rain gardens work like a sponge, holding water, filtering the water and finally allowing it to slowly percolate down into the soil.

Here are the simple steps to create your own rain garden:

Choose a proper site

The most important step in creating a rain garden is determining where the water naturally flows.  You will also need to discover what type of soil you have, keeping in mind that sandy soils drain much faster than heavy clay soils.  You can create a smaller rain garden in sandy soil than if you have heavy clay soil.  A rain garden larger than 150 square feet will look intentional rather than plunked down in the middle of your yard. Make sure it is located at least 10 feet from the house foundation.

Determine the shape

After factoring in the existing landscape, choose a shape that adds aesthetic value to your property.  I like to lay out a garden hose to visually help me determine the proper shape.  It can be oval, long and narrow, kidney shaped or a combination.  Decide the shape of the rain garden that will fit your existing landscape.

Garden hose to determine shape of garden

Dig out the rain garden basin

Before digging, make sure you won’t encounter any utility lines. Contact (800) DIG-RITE so utility lines can be marked. A typical rain garden is four to 8 inches deep.  I like to create shallow drainage ditches from the downspouts to the rain garden to direct the water.

Rainwater diversion channels near the Prairie Pavilion

Choose appropriate native plants

A rain garden is comprised of three zones.  In the lowest zone, plant species should be selected that can tolerate short periods of standing water as well as fluctuating water levels and dry conditions.  Plants like sedges and swamp milkweed grow well in this zone. In the middle zone, vegetation will need to tolerate both wet and dry conditions.  And in the upper zone, along the outer edges of the berm, plants should be selected that prefer dryer conditions.  Plants like little bluestem, butterfly milkweed, and coneflowers will grow well along the edges. Once established, you will only need to water your rain garden during periods of extreme drought.

Swamp milkweed, Asclepias incarnata

Mulch the garden

I like to apply one to two inches of wood mulch along the edges of the rain garden to control weeds and conserve water.  I use pea gravel in the bottom and sides of the garden because the wood mulch will float away during larger rain events.

Rain gardens are not only about controlling stormwater runoff from your yard, but also creating a habitat that adds aesthetic value to your landscape.  Imagine the cumulative effect a series of rain gardens will have within a community on water quality.  Creating a rain garden in your yard is another simple way to have a positive impact on the environment.

Do Native Grasses Help Pollinators?

I love native grasses.  Grasses make dramatic focal points when mixed into garden beds or planted individually.  They pull the landscape design together and provide movement within the garden.

Over the past 10 years, there have been some tremendous advances in landscape quality native grasses.  ‘Northwind’ switchgrass is a perfect example.  It offers great form, a tidy columnar habit, texture and ease of care.  It is a reliable grass with consistent qualities that can be counted on year after year in any sunny landscape.  In my opinion, ornamental grasses should be included in all garden designs because they are easy to grow and provide three seasons of interest.

Indian grass Sorghastrum nutans

Obviously, grasses are gaining in popularity, but one of their most important roles they play in the garden is often overlooked.  Grasses help balance the ecosystem by providing food, shelter, and nesting sites for many different pollinators along with birds and small mammals.  Pollinators need protection from severe weather and from predators, as well as sites for nesting and roosting.  By incorporating different layers of flowering plants and grasses in the landscape, pollinators can find the food and shelter they need for survival.   Pollinators use corridors of plants to safely move through the landscape and be protected from predators.

Over 70 different butterflies and moths depend on native grasses as part of their life cycles.

 

Big Blustem

Cheyenne Sky Switchgrass with Rigid Goldenrod

These grasses are important for adults but they also serve as larval hosts for butterflies and moths.   Many different butterflies lay eggs amongst the native grasses which larvae then utilize during their development.  Some species of bees need open ground to burrow into the soil, so leave small exposed areas of soil between your plants.  Even a small garden containing native species can make a tremendous difference for insect conservation.

Here is a list of native grasses and the pollinators that use them:

Big bluestem-Andropogon gerardii

Larval host for many species of butterflies (Delaware Skipper, Ottoe, Dusted Skipper, Beard-Grass skippers and Common Wood Nymph).

Buffalograss- Bouteloua dactyloides

Butterfly larval host for green skipper butterfly.

Switchgrass- Panicum virgatum

Larval host for skipper butterflies.  Overwintering host for bees and other pollinators.

Little bluestem-Schizachyrium scoparium

Larval host for many species of butterflies and moths (Ottoe Skipper, Crossline Skipper, Dusted Skipper, Cobweb).

Twilight Zone Little Bluestem Photo courtesy Walters Gardens.

Indiangrass- Sorghastrum nutans

Larval host for skipper butterflies.

Prairie Dropseed- Sporobolus heterolepis

Prairie Dropseed is of special value as nesting sites for bees.  Native grasses are the larval food plants of the Leonard’s Skipper.

Prairie Dropseed

Native grasses are attractive, low-maintenance additions to the landscape.  Once established, they help minimize erosion and increase organic matter in the soil.  Native grasses are also vital in the life cycles of many bees, butterflies and other pollinators.  Grasses provide the habitat for overwintering eggs, caterpillars and pupae of butterflies.  The thatch at the base of the grass clumps is ideal for protection from predators and cold weather.

There is a direct correlation between the decline of native grasslands habitats and the decline of many species of butterflies, bees and moths.  Habitat loss is not the only reason for the decrease in pollinators, but it is certainly a factor.  By planting native species of wildflowers and grasses in agricultural, suburban and urban settings, we can help to reverse the population decline.  Even though grasses don’t provide nectar, they are just as important in pollinator gardens as beautiful wildflowers.  So as you plan your pollinator garden, don’t forget to include some native grasses.

How to Create a Beautiful and Sustainable Garden

With growing season and FloraKansas on the horizon, we have been asking a few questions of ourselves over the past few months about native plants. Certainly, we have seen the benefits of using native plants in the Arboretum and at our homes, but what would it take to convince someone to install them in their yard who has never tried them or is unfamiliar with them?  What would it take to begin to change their minds?

We keep coming back to this idea of beautiful AND good.  Aesthetics are important and we all want attractive landscapes, but so is this feeling that what we are doing is good for everyone and everything.

Beautiful orange flowers of Butterflyweed (Asclepias tuberosa)

It can be intimidating to change the way you garden or landscape.  Choosing plants just because they are visually appealing simply isn’t a good enough reason anymore.  Creating a habitat using plants that are adapted to your site is a far better approach to landscaping.  Designs that have attractive combinations of wildflowers, grasses, shrubs and trees may initially capture our imaginations, but more and more people are wanting these plants and their landscapes as a whole to provide additional benefits.   Our gardens must now not just look good, but also do double duty to provide for pollinators, attracts birds and other wildlife, develop habitat and positively impact the environment.

The evidence that making such a change will really make a difference in our lives and in our gardens begins with the first native plant.  I have seen it time and again – if you plant them, they will come to your garden.  If you plant milkweeds, the monarchs will find them; if you plant penstemons, the bumble bees will find them; and if you plant asters, a flock of pollinators will cover them in the fall.  It sounds so simple, but it is indeed true.  These plants need the pollinators and the pollinators need these plants.  The significance of planting your first wildflower can be both beautiful and good.

If you want to be part of the solution and do your part for nature by reducing water usage and eliminating chemicals, attracting countless forms of beneficial wildlife including butterflies, hummingbirds, and pollinators, cleaning storm water runoff, and having a beautiful landscape, start with a few native plants. Each of us CAN have a positive impact.  We are stewards of these ecological, environmental, and sustainable gardens. An aesthetically pleasing landscape can also be functional and serve a variety of purposes.

Steps to a beautiful and sustainable landscape

  1. Evaluate your landscape
  2. Plan, plan, and plan
  3. Define your edges
  4. Choose the right plants that match your site
  5. Establish plants correctly
  6. Observe Best Management Practices
  7. Enjoy!

 

Home landscapes can be transformed using native plants so that they are sustainable, easy to maintain, and beautiful.  To start planning your native plant garden, be sure to attend our FloraKansas Spring Plant Sale and look over our 2017 plant list.

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!