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

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.